Out of the Ash Cloud: An Al Jazeera Festival Premiere
An American filmmaker reflects on screening her documentary on Muslim women religious leaders at the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Qatar.
In April 2010, I hopped on the Qatar Airways flight to Doha for the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival. I was screening my latest film, Veiled Voices, which profiles three Muslim women religious leaders in the Arab world. The film was well received in the United States. It was broadcast on public television, cable and satellite, and was seen as well in an extensive tour at festivals and universities. But, I still wondered about how it would be received at its mid-east premiere. Despite my confidence in the fair portrayals of Muslim women in the film, I was still nervous.
Another wrinkle was that ash from the volcano in Iceland was wreaking havoc, causing flights to cancel all over Europe. My plane had changed its flight plan, and we flew across the tip of North Africa before turning toward Qatar.
Despite criticism of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War in the United States, the network has established a strong reputation for fairness and accuracy in reporting in the Middle East. Most recently Al Jazeera launched a documentary channel as well as Al Jazeera English, which can now be seen on some cable and satellite channels in the United States. Its film festival shows prestigious and often culturally provocative work.
When I arrived after a very posh 14-hour flight, I was astonished by the diversity and beauty of what I saw. As the Al Jazeera driver shuttled another filmmaker and me to the Sheraton Hotel where the festival was being held, we passed a beautiful Corniche with people from all backgrounds and manner of clothing jogging and walking along the sea.
After the opening ceremony, I began speaking with Sahera Dirbas, a Palestinian filmmaker from East Jerusalem. Fluent in English, Italian, and Arabic, she carried herself with a sophisticated yet down to earth sensibility. At this, her third appearance at the Al Jazeera Festival, she was screening 138 Pounds in My Pocket, which profiles a Palestinian woman who started what is now the largest Palestinian orphanage. Sahera’s work in recent years has focused on the plight of Palestinian women, and this film showed how her subject managed to keep the orphanage open despite war, tension and poverty.
Sahera was ready to network and took me under her wing. When I thanked her for letting me tag along, she looked at me as if I was a little nutty and said, “it’s our responsibility to help one another [as women]” after all. I asked Sahera about challenges women filmmakers faced, and her answer wasn’t too different from what I’d expect to hear at a film festival in the United States. Essentially, you have to develop a vision that is your own, and prove yourself to your male counterparts. In watching her network, she definitely could control the dynamic and crowd.
Through her I was able to meet Malek Mawlawi, the young and energetic head of acquisitions for the entire Al Jazeera Network. He was affable, but refused to speak to me in English so that I may “practice [my] Arabic”—which left me admittedly intimidated and rather silent through our first meeting. Yet, Sahera opened the door for me and by the end of the festival, I got the guts up to hand off my film to him. Within a month he had contacted me with a distribution offer. Veiled Voices was one of six films selected for broadcast out of some 200 screened from the festival—no easy feat.
According to Malek, the number of women filmmakers was growing in the region. I asked him if the Al Jazeera Network did anything to promote them. He insisted that the Al Jazeera Network only accepted the highest quality work but that they were always looking for stories having to do with women and in particular with Islamic feminism—a growing international movement among both men and women. (The movement's many leaders include Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a co-founder of the planned Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan).
My film Veiled Voices, however, focuses on veiled women who work within their mainstream communities and carry diverse roles as religious leaders. None of their doctrine strays outside of moderate interpretations, and these women wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves feminists. However they are part of a growing trend of Muslim women and men who believe that Islam elevates the position of women and that contrasting interpretations have been tainted by culture and patriarchy. The film portrays leaders who face challenges as a divorcee or a widower or a mother who sends her daughter away to study abroad. The diversity in the film is both its strength and what always makes me anxious about how viewers will react. People may not agree with or like all three, but they are surprised by the power they are able to wield.
The film opens with the story of Ghina Hammoud, who admitted that her husband beat her and chose to leave him. For American audiences, I purposely front ended the controversial story to pick apart our stereotypes of Muslim women and reveal by the end of the film how powerful Ghina Hammoud and the two other woman can be in their communities. But would this be the right structure for an Arab audience? Would the audience be offended, jump to conclusions and walk out? I slunk down in my chair and waited, but no one left. Afterwards, a number of women of all ages approached me with arms open, thanking me for showing these women not only to American audiences, but also to them.
Amal Badr, a woman journalist at the Al Jazeera Network, worked with the festival from the beginning. “Our main goal,” she said, “is to promote high quality films without any differentiation. The festival will always promote good documentaries whether it is for women or for men.” Yet, she is first to point out that there needs to be more representation from women not just at the festival, but also in the film and broadcast industries throughout the Middle East.
With that said, this April, it was reported by the Gulf Times that 50 out of the approximately 200 films screened at the festival were made by women, which is a positive step no matter where a festival is located.
The sixth annual festival lacked the audience numbers that it had in the past, due to the ash cloud, yet it's clear that the festival’s prominence is growing, as is the number of women in attendance.
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