Happy Women’s History Month! For the entire month of March we are celebrating the contributions of women to history, culture and society at large. In honor of this important month, the team at the Arab Film and Media Institute has compiled a list of some of our favorite films by and/or about strong Arab women that we think you should check out!
As I Open My Eyes (2015, Tunisia)
Set in the summer of 2010, just before the Jasmine Revolution, this film tells the story of a teenage girl named Farah Kallel who is caught between the expectations of her traditional Tunisian family and the provocative political sentiments she expresses in her music. The film has been widely acclaimed and was the Tunisian submission to the 89th Academy Awards. A critic at IndieWire praised the film for being “the Best Fictional Film Yet About the Arab Spring”.
Leyla Bouzid is the writer and director of As I Open My Eyes. She was born and raised in Tunisia. She studied French literature at the University of Paris and film directing at La Fémis. This film is her first feature but she already had made a mark on the industry with her award-winning shorts. Soubresauts (2011) and Zakaria (2013) both won awards at the Festival Premiers Plans d’Angers.
Many women were involved with the production of this film. It stars actress Baya Medhaffer as Farah and Ghalia Benali as her mother, Hayet. It is co-written by Marie-Sophie Chambon, produced by Sandra de Fonseca and edited by Lilian Corbeille.
Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia)
Wadjda is a drama about a 10-year-old girl living in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Despite living in a conservative world, Wadjda is fun loving and pushes the boundaries of what she can get away with. She dreams of owning a green bicycle she sees in a store window, mostly so that she can beat her friend Abdullah in a race. She uses her entrepreneurial spirit to raise money for the bike, despite her mother’s reservations. She ends up signing up for her school’s Koran recitation competition as a way to meet her financial goal. This film was the first feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia and the first feature directed by a Saudi woman. The film has won many awards, including a nomination for Best Foreign Film a the 2014 BAFTA Awards, and was Saudi Arabia’s submission to the 86th Academy Awards.
The film is available on a number of digital platforms for purchase or rent including Amazon and iTunes. Check out the Sony Pictures Classics website for more information.
Haifaa al-Mansour is the writer and director of Wadjda. She is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia and one of the most significant cinematic figures in the country. She received her bachelor’s degree in Literature from the American University of Cairo and her Master’s degree in Directing and Film Studies from the University of Sydney. She has directed a number of award winning shorts and is known in the worlds of film, television and even print media for elevating the unheard voices of Saudi women.
The film stars actresses Waad Mohammed as Wadjda and Reem Abdullah as her mother.
Caramel (2007, Lebanon)
Caramel is a romantic comedy about the intersecting lives of five Lebanese women. Best friends Layale, Nisrine and Rima all work together at a beauty salon in Beirut. Each woman is struggling with their own romantic issues, all of which conflict with conservative norms perpetuated by their families and the country’s culture. Their regular customer and friend Jamale is an aspiring actress struggling with her age. There is also their neighbor Rose who is a tailor and has devoted her life to care for elder sister Lili. The film depicts everyday people in their everyday lives, rather than the common narratives about Lebanon based largely around the war. The film premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film festival and has received critical acclaim. It was Lebanon’s submission to the 80th Academy Awards.
The film is available to rent or own on a number of digital platforms such as Amazon, Google Play and iTunes.
Nadine Labaki is the director, writer, and star of Caramel. She is a highly acclaimed Lebanese filmmaker, known for breaking stereotypes and pulling issues such as religion and the role of women to the forefront of her narratives. She has a degree in audiovisual studies from Saint Joseph University in Beirut. She is currently set to star in an upcoming film about the Lebanese Civil War called 1982.
This film stars many notable actresses including Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad, Sihame Haddad, Aziza Semaan, Fadia Stella and Fatmeh Safa. The film was also produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint and edited by Laure Gardette.
In Between (2016, Israel/Palestine)
Lalia, Salma and Nur are three young women sharing an apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv. Laila is a criminal lawyer who loves to party in the underground club scene. Salma is a DJ and bartender. Nur is a late arrival to their apartment situation, she is the cousin of their former roommate who moves in to study at the university. Nur is a religious Muslim girl who is both intrigued and intimidated by her very liberal roommates. All three girls find themselves struggling between the modern lives they want to live and their conservative roots, forcing them to find a balance between tradition and modernity.
In Between is being distributed in the United States by Film Movement. It is currently in theaters. Visit their site for more screening details and future home video details.
This film will also be screening on 3/25 at 6:30 pm as part of the AFMI Community Night at the Olive Tree Restaurant in Anaheim. The screening is free but registration is required! More details are available here.
Maysaloun Hamoud is the writer and director of In Between. She is a Hungarian-born Palestinian-Israeli director. She studied Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She later studied film at the Minshar School of Art in Tel-Aviv. In 2017, she was awarded the Women in Motion Young Talents Award at the Cannes Film Festival from Isabelle Huppert.
In Between stars Mouna Hawa as Layla, Shaden Kanboura as Nour and Sana Jammelieh as Salma. The film was co-produced by Sandrine Brauer and co-edited by Nili Feller.
Amreeka (2009, United States)
Amreeka tells the story of a Palestinian-American family. It begins with their lives in the West Bank and later documents their lives in a Chicago suburb in a post 9/11 America. The film focuses on Muna, a divorced mother trying to raise her teenage son. She is awarded a green card through a lottery and, though she doesn’t want to leave Palestine, she decides it’s the best choice after she and her son are harassed at a checkpoint by Israeli soldiers. When they arrive in America, though, they find that there other struggles in store for them. Amreeka premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Cherien Dabis is the writer and director of Amreeka. She is a Palestinian-American director, producer and screenwriter. She received her B.A. with honors in creative writing and communications from the University of Cincinnati. She then continued her education at Columbia University School of the Arts where she received her M.F.A. in film in 2004. Dabis has said that she uses film as a tool to reach people affect change. In 2009 she was named one of Variety magazine’s “10 Directors to Watch”.
Amreeka stars actress Nisreen Faour as Muna. It also features actresses Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat and Miriam Smith. It was co-produced by Christina Piovesan and Zain Al Sabah.
Salt of this Sea (2008, Palestine)
Salt of this Sea is about a woman named Soraya who is an American-born Palestinian, the daughter of refugees. As an adult, she travels to Israel and Palestine to try to reclaim her family’s home and money that was taken from them during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The film was an Official Selection of the Cannes International Film Festival in 2008.
Salt of this Sea is distributed in North America by Kino Lorber. The film can be purchased from their website.
Annemarie Jacir is the writer and director of The Salt of This Sea. She is a Palestinian filmmaker and poet. She has directed and produced a number of award-winning films and her short film like twenty impossibles (2003) was the first Arab short film to ever be selected for Cannes and went on to win over 15 awards. She was also named one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Cinema”.
The film stars Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad as Soraya. Other women involved in the film include producer Marianne Dumoulin and editor Michèle Hubinon.
17 (2017, Jordan)
This film follows the Jordanian under-17 women’s soccer team as it prepares for the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup, hosted by Jordan in 2016. Coming from different backgrounds, each of the girls has faced a different set of challenges as a national team player. But now they come together to face their biggest challenge yet. Will Anoud make it in the final squad? Will Leen be ready to play in this world-class event with so little time to prepare? Will the odds finally start working for the team? 17 follows their stories while instigating a social exploration into the lives of young women who are passionate about a sport they have been told was only for men.
17 will be screening on March 15th at 6 pm as part of the Arab Film Series at Berkeley. All screenings in the series are free and open to the public! Find out more information here.
For additional information on viewing the film, please visit the film’s website.
Widad Shafakoj is the director of 17. She is a filmmaker and humanitarian activist from Jordan. She holds a B.A. in Interior Design and started her career in film working on sets as a designer. She eventually earned a scholarship diploma in filmmaking. Since graduating, she has made a number of films about Jordan, children and women.
Besides the women in the film, other women involved in this production include producer Muna Fityani.
Beauty and the Dogs (2018, Tunisia)
When Mariam, a young Tunisian woman, is raped by police officers after leaving a party, she is propelled into a harrowing night in which she must fight for her rights even though justice lies on the side of her tormentors. It’s a striking critique on a repressive society and a forcefully feminist rallying cry. Beauty and the Dogs was selected for the category of Un Certain Regard at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It won the Académie des Lumières for Best Francophone Film this year.
Beauty and the Dogs will open in theaters March 23rd in New York and Los Angeles. For a full list of screenings, check out the Oscilloscope Laboratories website.*
Kaouther Ben Hania is the writer and director of Beauty and the Dogs. She is a highly regarded Tunisian filmmaker whose films have won many awards. She holds a degree from the School of Arts and Cinema of Tunis where she directed several short films. She later studied at La Femis and then at the Sorbonne – Nouvelle University.
Other women who were involved in this film include actresses Mariam Al Ferjani as Mariam and Anissa Daoud as Faiza and editor Nadia Ben Rachid.
*Please note the author of this post works for Oscilloscope Laboratories
When Maryam Spoke Out (2001, Lebanon)
By Assad Fouladkar
This film is not by a female filmmaker but we felt that the subject matter was too important not to include in this list. When Maryam Spoke Out is a film about Ziad and Maryam, a Lebanese couple who lead a happy life and marriage. But after three years of marriage Maryam finds that she is unable to have a baby. Ziad is supportive and compassionate and still expresses his love for her but Maryam cannot escape the growing pressure from her family. Out of desperation, she fakes a pregnancy but everyone’s true feelings are revealed when they find out she’s not really expecting. The film is based on a true story.
The film stars actress Bernadette Hodib as Maryam as well as actresses Renée Dik, Umaya Lahoud and Randa Alam.
Do you have a favorite Arab film by or about women? Let us know in the comments!