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Middle-Eastern film: women in focus

Rose Capp

Agheleh Rezaie, At Five in the Afternoon Agheleh Rezaie, At Five in the Afternoon
Some of the most compelling films to screen at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival were the features, documentaries and shorts in the Homelands: The Middle East in Focus program. Within Homelands, the New Women Filmmakers (Emergence) sub-section focused on the work of a new generation of female directors through 4 documentaries and a feature film. Although uneven in quality and execution, these 5 films represented a trenchant examination of the social, political, religious, and in particular sexual, constraints to which many women in contemporary Middle Eastern communities remain subject.

Of the 5 filmmakers, Iranian Samira Makhmalbaf was the most prominent. Arguably no longer an ‘emerging’ director given her international profile and a filmography including 3 accomplished features, the selection of Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon (2003) was perhaps justified by the accompanying ‘making-of’ documentary Joy of Madness, which detailed the film’s casting process. The documentary was directed by Samira’s younger sister Hana.

Set in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban, At Five in the Afternoon centres on Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie) who, against her extremist father’s wishes, surreptitiously recommences her secondary school studies. Despite her firm convictions about the possibilities for female empowerment in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Noqreh’s nascent leadership ambitions are thwarted by her family’s dire circumstances.

The theme of female autonomy through education is a consistent one in Makhmalbaf’s small but impressive oeuvre, and in this film is expressed in a deliberately didactic form. Discarding the burqa and donning white high heeled shoes when safe from the punitive male gaze, Rezaie makes Noqreh a convincing and outspoken heroine for latter day Afghanistan. But while the feminist sentiments are admirable, Makhmalbaf’s film flags at times. The family’s flight into the desolate countryside feels protracted, depending too heavily on the director’s trademark startling imagery for emotional resonance.

What really invigorates the film is the intriguing insight provided by Joy of Madness. Although only 14 when she wrote and directed the film, Hana’s lively take on Samira’s directorial approach arguably sheds as much light on the state of Afghani society as her sister’s feature film. Shot on DV and frequently in extreme close-up, Hana focuses on several key sequences in her sister’s process of casting non-professional performers.

Samira, whose personal style borders on the tyrannical, is met with suspicion and mistrust. Women are particularly reluctant to participate in her film, still fearful of the social and political repercussions. At one point, the crew reassures a family that contrary to rumour, involvement in the project will not result in the death of their child. Key pieces of dialogue in Samira’s film, including a speech about the role of women in politics, appear in embryonic form during the auditioning seen in Joy of Madness. While the film’s hand-held style and episodic structure lacks finesse, Hana’s interrogation of the filmmaking process (following the venerable example of father Mohsen and other contemporary Iranian filmmakers), and frank depiction of the social, political and economic uncertainty in Afghanistan, made Joy of Madness a fascinating work.

A frank approach to the subject matter was also a hallmark of the other Iranian contribution to the Emergence section. Mitra Farahani’s Zohre and Manouchehr (2003) is a curious mix of poesy and talking heads. Farahani combines excerpts from a well-known 19th century Iranian love poem with comments from interviewees of all ages about the nature of love and sexuality in 21st century Iran. While the dramatic recreations of Iraj Mirza’s poem had a slightly clunky quality at times, the unashamedly erotic 19th century sentiments provided a powerful counter-point to the restriction on expressions of sexuality, particularly female, endured by contemporary Iranians.

Israeli filmmakers also addressed the topic of female sexuality in the remaining 2 documentaries comprising the Emergence section. In Purity (2002), writer-director Ana Zuria used the birth of her fifth child to examine the strict Jewish laws that regulate women’s bodies. Underpinned by a conviction that the female body is impure during menstruation and childbirth, these ancient laws require women to undergo elaborate monthly purification rituals. Zuria explores issues around such subordination, not only from her own position, but also from 2 other, radically opposed perspectives. Natalie has rejected the oppressiveness of the purification rituals and has thus renounced marriage. Happily married Katy struggles with an unfortunate combination of menstrual dysfunction and religious orthodoxy that ensures she is almost continually forbidden physical contact with her husband. The thoughtful and articulate statements from these 2 women, in addition to the insights from a ‘purification agent’ and her defiant daughter, made this film an absorbing and extremely moving work.

Almost There (directors Sigal Yehuda and Joelle Alexis, 2003), offers an equally personal and telling statement about female sexual identity. Unwilling to continue living in strife torn Tel Aviv as an openly gay couple, Yehuda and Alexis turn the camera on themselves, recording their attempt to find a place where they can live peacefully. A no frills travel diary that documents some sublimely beautiful Greek locations, Almost There is a touchingly honest, if occasionally self-indulgent, testament to the peripatetic couple’s devoted relationship.

Issues around female identity also formed the basis of other films in the Homelands program. The heartfelt, if didactic, multi-strand Iranian narrative Bemani (director Dariush Mehrjui, 2002) detailed 3 stories of female oppression. Mahnaz Afzali’s delightfully unstructured Iranian documentary The Ladies (2003), provided a telling portrait of a diverse community of women who patronise a Tehran toilet block. Other documentaries explored the courage and tragedy of individual women’s lives, including 2 genuinely devastating works. In Arna’s Children (2003), Juliano Mer Khamis documented his Israeli mother’s crusade to improve Palestinian children’s lives in the war torn Jenin refugee camp, while the short Maryam’s Sin (director Paris Shehandeh, 2004) dealt in graphic and disturbing detail with the honour killing of a young Iranian girl.

The Homelands program was both a sobering experience and a steep cinematic learning curve, offering a diverse range of films from directors committed to tackling the intractable problems that beset the region. What distinguished all of the films discussed, particularly those in the Emergence category, was the resolute way in which they addressed the complexities of lived female experience. Predominantly low-budget, sometimes stylistically rudimentary, these films constituted a compelling, collective call to arms reminiscent of the forceful feminist polemic of Western female filmmakers in the 1970s and 80s. Not intended as patronising, I mean with this comparison to acknowledge the courage of Middle-Eastern women filmmakers who only now have access, albeit limited, to the resources and freedom of expression enabling them to craft such powerful cinematic statements.

Homelands: The Middle East in Focus, 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival, July 21-August 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 20

© Rose Capp; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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