Middle East Film Festival

BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)–When the Lebanese government awarded director Randa Chahal-Sabbagh its highest honor, the Order of the Cedar, it recognized a determined and outspoken filmmaker whom it had once tried to censor.

The award, delivered in October, topped a stellar year for Chahal-Sabbagh, whose film “The Kite” about the challenges faced by a young girl in a village on the border between Lebanon and Israel won last August the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion.

Chahal-Sabbagh told Women’s eNews that she was very proud to have received the Order of the Cedar, an award given by the Lebanese president to people who have contributed something to Lebanon, whether in the cultural, social or political sphere. She also said she had put behind her the 1998 controversy over “Civilized,” her film about the Lebanese civil war.

That year, when state censors in Lebanon cut 47 of the film’s 90 minutes, she refused to show the film in her native country. The Surete General, the authority in charge of censorship, argued that the film contained foul language.

Chahal-Sabbagh, however, contends that authorities thought that the Lebanese were not yet ready to talk about the war. “I took a risk and I did a film that is excessively strong and politically tough about the Lebanese war . . . It was a movie telling the Lebanese people, ‘You are all responsible about your war. It wasn’t a war of the others on your land as you like to pretend, and you are all assassins.'”

Now Chahal-Sabbagh–born in Tripoli and living in Paris–says she is confident it will eventually play in Lebanon.

Film Festival Highlights Women

Currently the most renowned female director in Lebanon, Chahal-Sabbagh is, however, only one of many Middle Eastern women working in front of and behind the cameras. A fact made clear by the recent third annual Middle East Film Festival in Beirut with its theme of Middle Eastern women in cinema.

“People think that women in the Middle Eastern cinema have succeeded only as actresses,” festival director Colette Naufal told Women’s eNews, “but the truth is, some of them have done very well, as producers and directors. We thought that it would be good to shed some light on their works.”

In fact, it was a woman, Egyptian Aziza Amir, who in 1927 gave Arab cinema its first long feature film, “The Call of God,” which was later translated as “Laila.”

During the late 1920s, a galaxy of talented women, including Bahiga Hafez, Fatima Rushdi, and Assya Dagher, followed Amir in making major contributions to the industry and establishing Egypt as the film capital of the Middle East. The three women became famous as actresses first and later became directors. While comparative statistics on the number of women directors in the region are hard to find, it would be fair to say that while some have been very successful, such as Egyptians Inas el-Deghidi and Attyat el-Abnoudy and Tunisinan Moufida Tlati, they remain a minority when compared to the number of male filmmakers.

Of the 22 films screened during the festival, this year, three were directed by women and two others dealt with the problems and daily lives of women in this part of the world.

In her documentary, “To Have or Not to Have,” 32-year-old renowned Iranian actress and filmmaker Niki Karimi explores the challenges that face a couple unable to have children in a culture that encourages divorce when wives are infertile, but ignores the issue when the husband is infertile.

Karimi, who started her career as an actress when she was 10 and began directing films four years ago, told Women’s eNews that in her country, as in every other place, working in cinema is not easy. She said, however, that she never felt any particular disadvantage in being a woman. The big limitation, she said, was censorship in Iran, particularly when it came to films about the plight of women and democracy.

“In order to be able to produce a film, we need to get the approval of the Ministry of Culture, and in general they have very tough censorship that is not very open to social criticism,” she said.

Censors Are Major Obstacle

Iran is not the only country in the region that imposes heavy censorship. Egyptian film star Lebleba, the head of the jury of the festival, said censorship is an obstacle in her country too.

She gave the example of one of her movies, “The Ostrich and the Peacock,” which explores sexual difficulties among young couples and how such problems are behind many divorces in Egypt. In the movie, Lebleba plays the role of a psychologist who counsels a couple who are in love but who are dissatisfied sexually.

“The film is shedding the light on a very important problem in our society, that we refuse to talk about, mostly because of censorship,” she said.

Lebleba recalled that the famous Egyptian director Salah Abou Seif wrote the screenplay, which he called “Sex School” and presented it for approval to the censorship committee in Egypt 31 years ago. It was rejected.

Every time there was a change on the committee, Abou Seif would reapply for approval but it was turned down another five times. After Abou Seif’s death, his son Mohamed presented it to the committee and this time they accepted it, on condition that the name be changed. It was he that ended up directing the film.

“The movie caused a huge debate in Egypt, because it was dealing with a real problem, and there are so many problems that we need to deal with,” Lebleba said.

Alia Ibrahim is a senior political reporter at The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

For more information:

Middle East Film Festival–To Have or not to Have:

Middle East Film Festival–Afghanistan, the Lost Truth:

Middle East Film Festival–Silence Between Two Thoughts: