Gulf film-makers challenge conservative norms
Dubai film festival uncovers daring female directors
In the Gulf, known for its conservative Muslim beliefs, young film-makers are stirring up debate on such issues as forced marriage and wearing the veil with an art form largely confined to the shadows until now.
The fruit of their work and of others—more than 100 films from Gulf countries and from Iraq—were presented in the third edition of the Dubai Film Festival, which took place this past week.
"The films have addressed important and bold topics and, despite some weaknesses, these experiments foreshadow a promising future for Gulf cinema," said Yemen's first woman film-maker and member of the jury, Khadija al-Salami.
Iraq—with a longer tradition of cinematography than its neighbors—won nine of the 13 prizes awarded at the festival, including first prize in the feature film category awarded to Shawkat Amin Korki for "Kick Off."
His film portrays the lives of Kurdish families taking refuge in a shanty town in Iraqi Kurdistan. Korki highlights the painful plight of refugees in the war-ravaged country, with his story centered on a boy who organizes a football game in an effort to make life less miserable.
Runner-up in the feature category was "City Of Life" by Emirati director Ali Mustafa.
It tells how the paths of an Emirati man, a European woman, and an Indian taxi driver cross in Dubai -- emphasizing the different strands of society and how they affect each other in the cosmopolitan city state.
In "Haneen" (Longing), Hussein al-Hulaybi becomes Bahrain's first director to address relations between Sunnis and Shiites -- a sensitive subject in the only Gulf country with a Shiite majority and a Sunni monarchy.
The films have addressed important and bold topics and, despite some weaknesses, these experiments foreshadow a promising future for Gulf cinema
Yemeni film-maker Khadija al-Salami
Daring female film-makers
The Dubai festival also uncovered a generation of daring female directors, who with their cameras, creativity and determination are starting to question some long-standing taboos.
One particularly bold step was taken by Saudi amateur Reem al-Bayyat, who addresses forced marriage in her short film "Doll."
"It is a common practice in the region. The girl is treated like a doll, lacking the freedom to choose," said producer Samar al-Bayyat, who is the director's sister.
The film was made with the assistance of several Bayyat family members, in a country where public cinemas are banned. The Saudi authorities recently cancelled a film festival being organized there.
"I hope one day we can see our films projected in Saudi Arabia and open up a debate," Samar al-Bayaat said.
Omani director Muzna al-Musafir meanwhile confronted the question of the veil in her film "Niqab," which tells the story of a veiled woman who is haunted by doubts as she prepares for a rendezvous.
Niqab, named after the veil that some ultra-conservative Muslim women wear to conceal their faces, was presented in the student film category.
"Some women are forced to wear the niqab. We should not have prejudice towards them, as a fully veiled woman also has her own personality and positions," said Musafir, 22, whose wears her hair in a short bob.
Two Emirati students, Maitha Hamdan and Maryam ben Ali, chose to evoke another problem facing their societies: the exaggerated dowries families demand for their daughters' hand in marriage.
"The film contains a series of interviews in which many young men said they prefer to marry foreigners to escape paying the dowry. It is a real problem," Maitha Hamdan said.
Other students like Moza al-Sharif, also from the UAE, prefer to make lighter films such as "The Second Wife" -- a documentary on the way men in the Gulf can be more affectionate towards their cars than towards their wives.
"This is a cinema still in its infancy, but there is much hope," Moroccan film-maker and chairman of the jury Jillali Ferhati told AFP.
It is a common practice in the region. The girl is treated like a doll, lacking the freedom to choose
Film producer Samar al-Bayyat