Five female Arab filmmakers you need to know
In this article, we’ll shine a spotlight on five trailblazing Arab female filmmakers whose innovative storytelling and artistic prowess have left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape.
From thought-provoking narratives that challenge societal norms to heart-warming tales that resonate with universal emotions, these women have carved out a space for themselves in an industry historically dominated by men. Join us as we delve into the lives, works, and contributions of these exceptional Arab filmmakers, each of whom has added a unique and essential voice to the ever-evolving cinematic tapestry.
Mai Masri (مي المصري)
Mai Masri is a Palestinian filmmaker, director and producer. She has released a wealth of films that have won over 90 international awards and is hailed as a pioneer in the Middle Eastern film industry. Her films are primarily documentaries centred around the real-life struggles of the women and children living in the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon.
In 1981, Masri returned to Beirut having finished her degree in San Francisco, this year also marked the beginning of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Along with her husband Lebanese filmmaker Jean Chamoun, they shot footage that they would go onto use in the film Wild Flowers: Women of South Lebanon, with a focus on the women who played a crucial role in fighting the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. She had her big break when the BBC commissioned War Generation (1989): an enchanting and acclaimed documentary delving into the life journeys of three successive generations of youths, navigating the challenges of existence in the war-ravaged capital city of Lebanon. The movie also meticulously traces the historical roots and genesis of Lebanon’s Civil War.
Masri is also esteemed for 3000 Nights, a fictional film telling the story of a pregnant Palestinian woman in a high security Israeli prison. Equally, her latest documentary Beirut: Eye of the Storm, is a fascinating exploration of life in Beirut during the COVID-19 pandemic with flashbacks to the 17 October Revolution. The film also touches on the devasting explosion that ravaged Beirut’s port just 10 months after the footage you see was recorded.
Maryam Touzani (مريم التوزاني)
Maryam Touzani is a Moroccan filmmaker and actress. In 2008 she wrote and directed a documentary for the first National Woman’s Day in Morocco. This was followed by “When They Slept” (2012) which was her first short fiction film, winning a total of seventeen awards.
She is most renowned as the director of the highly praised movie «Adam» (2019). The story revolves around Samia, a young unmarried expectant mother, who embarks on a job hunt and finds refuge with Abla, a widowed baker. This film was motivated by a personal experience of Touzani’s, where her parents provided shelter to a heavily pregnant woman in Tangier for several days during a period when being an unwed mother was against the law in Morocco. «Adam» represented Morocco in the 92nd Academy Awards for the Best International Feature Film category. Additionally, she directed «The Blue Caftan» (2022), which portrays a woman and her husband, who is secretly gay, managing a caftan shop in Salé’s medina, Morocco. This movie was also Morocco’s submission for the 95th Academy Awards in the same category.
Nadine Labaki (نادين لبكي)
Nadine Labaki, a Lebanese actress, director, and activist, initially gained prominence as an actress during the early 2000s. Her journey into filmmaking commenced in 2007 with the release of her inaugural movie, «Caramel,» which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that same year. The narrative centres on the lives of five Lebanese women grappling with themes like forbidden love, ingrained traditions, suppressed sexuality, the acceptance of aging, and the interplay between duty and desire. Labaki’s film stands out for its portrayal of a welcoming and inviting setting rather than a war-torn Beirut, showcasing individuals dealing with universally relatable issues.
Labaki has earned recognition for depicting the everyday facets of Lebanese existence and addressing a spectrum of political concerns including war, poverty, and feminism. A groundbreaking achievement, she holds the distinction of being the first female Arab director nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. This nomination came for her work on «Capernaum» (2018), a tale that revolves around a 12-year-old boy navigating the slums of Beirut and his bond with an Ethiopian migrant named Rahil.
Labaki’s cinematic style employs established techniques such as evocative lighting, atmospheric settings, and moments of silence to effectively convey the essence of her films. Despite the often precarious political climate, Labaki persistently crafts stories that steer clear of concentrating solely on conflict.
Mounia Meddour (مونيا مدور)
A Franco-Algerian film director, Meddour has directed several documentaries including Particules élémentaires and in 2011, Cinéma algérien, un nouveau souffle : a documentary on the new generation of Algerian directors who persevere to make names for themselves despite a dearth in funding. That same year, she directed and released Edwige, an exposition on solitude.
In 2019, her first feature film Papicha was released. Taking place in the 1990s amidst the backdrop of the Algerian Civil War, «Papicha» narrates the journey of Nedjma, an 18-year-old student with a passion for fashion and socializing with her friends. However, her way of life faces opposition due to an escalating movement advocating for the adoption of the burqa among women. A pivotal moment occurs when a violent incident shakes her existence, compelling Nedjma to embark on a path of defiance by orchestrating a fashion show, intended to symbolize her resistance against the changing tides.
At the Césars, the national film award of France, the film won two awards for Best Feature Film and Most Promising Actress.
Najwa Najjar (نجوى نجار)
Najwa Najjar, a film writer and director, hails from a mixed Jordanian-Palestinian heritage. Currently residing in Palestine, she has successfully directed both documentary and fictional films. Her remarkable debut work, ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh,’ premiered in 2009 to widespread acclaim. This cinematic piece is a poignant romance, often referred to as ‘Love in the time of razor wire’ by Variety Magazine. Set against the backdrop of the enduring Israeli occupation of Palestine, the film transcends mere political analysis, choosing to illuminate the immediate human repercussions experienced by the inhabitants of Ramallah.
The film masterfully intertwines the themes of love and political turmoil through the protagonist’s internal struggle. As she shapes her path, torn between the realms of contemporary and traditional dance, the overarching conflict between affection and political upheaval becomes apparent. This artistic confrontation mirrors the movie’s political complexities and its amorous predicament, a testament to Najjar’s prowess as a skillful screenwriter and storyteller.
In 1999, Najjar released the eponymous “Naim and Wadee’a”, a documentary comprised of an oral history; a couple forced to leave their home in Yaffa during the events of 1948. The film highlights the challenges they faced and the repercussions of their forced displacement. Najjar gained recognition for its poignant depiction of conflict at the 2000 Hamptons International Film Festival where her film earned the prestigious Award for Films of Conflict and Resolution.