The Talking Point | DIFF 2015: Director's Cut

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Dec 9 2015 / 21:54 PM

As December celebrates the 12th Dubai International Film Festival, Bazaar meets the cinematic trailblazers front and centre of the region's thriving female film industry

The Talking Point | DIFF 2015: Director's Cut
The Talking Point | DIFF 2015: Director's Cut
Arab filmakers Layla Kaylif, Shahad Ameen and Manal Ali Bin Amro
The Talking Point | DIFF 2015: Director's Cut
Emirati director Manal Ali Bin Amro, whose film Smell of Bread will debut at DIFF as part of the Emirati Muhr Competition
The Talking Point | DIFF 2015: Director's Cut
Saudi Director Shahad Ameen's film Scales has been shortlisted for the IWC Filmmaker Award at DIFF this year.
Shahad wears: Jacket, Dhs7,060; Skirt, Dhs5,890, both Azzedine Alaïa at Etoile "La boutique"; Shoes, Dhs2,490, Christian Louboutin
The Talking Point | DIFF 2015: Director's Cut
The Letter Writer, by British/Emirati director Layla Kaylif, has also been shortlisted for the IWC Filmmaker Award.
Layla wears: Top, Dhs2,670, Antonio Marras; Trousers, Dhs3,930, Christopher Kane; Shoes, Dhs2,490, Christian Louboutin

To many, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), now in its 12th year, marks one of the most glamorous – and social – annual events in the region’s calendar. However, for the women fronting the festival – from filmmakers to storytellers to jury members – it is far more than simply a sartorial showcase, it is a platform from which those taking part can celebrate, promote and find finance for their cinematic projects. With DIFF’s modus operandi to provide a platform for Arab filmmakers, while offering support through various initiatives  to raise the visibility of the region’s filmmakers, and stimulate the growth of film production originating from the Arab world, what is most notable – and rewarding – is the advancement of female participation year-on-year. “This festival, we have 134 films from 60 countries; 36 of those films are made by females, 19 of whom are in competition,” says Shivani Pandya, managing director of DIFF. “We also have a strong contingency of females on our juries. We have seen an encouraging growth of female filmmakers since last year, including four in the Emirati competition and seven in the Muhr Feature competition [which selects films that reflect issues affecting the contemporary Arab landscape], making the region one of the most advanced for female filmmakers in the world.”

Something else that is notable year to year is the shift in focus of these filmmakers and the apparent dismantling of gender-based obstacles that have, in the past, limited the growth and career viability of women in the industry. Where once it could be said that these creatives strived for success in part to shift perception and help break down stereotypical, cultural barriers, especially those derived from working in a male-dominated industry in a Muslim country, these directorial doyennes are now putting gender differences aside, instead striving to be the best because, simply, they are.
Aspiring British/Emirati director Layla Kaylif, whose film The Letter Writer has been shortlisted for the prestigious IWC Filmmaker Award at DIFF this year, says, “I don’t like to think of myself in terms of a specific label. It doesn’t matter what gender you are. There are hurdles in this industry, such as backing and financing, but they affect everyone.” She references award-winning Emirati directors Nayla Al Khaja and Ali Mostafa, saying, “They seem to be the two most high profile filmmakers in this industry, yet I don’t think it’s about one or the other, male or female...”
“It’s encouraging that so many incredible films by female filmmakers are highly visible on the world stage” 

Manal Ali Bin Amro
Emirati director Manal Ali Bin Amro, named Most Promising Filmmaker at DIFF 2009, and whose film Smell of Bread is competing in the Emirati Muhr Competition this year, agrees about the closing of the gender divide. “I have never been treated negatively as a female filmmaker. All the opportunities have been made available to me. I don’t have this obsession to prove that women work more or better than men. Opportunities are different nowadays, creating a fair society, which allows us to openly talk about an old problem such as equality, since we now believe in the role of everyone, both man and woman. This new confidence allows us to demonstrate our vast capabilities.”
What is also interesting, in terms of the programme at DIFF this year, is the growing number of women behind the lens, which, Shivani says, “means a different take on life in the region, tackling challenging topics, making the overall DIFF selection more varied in perspective. It’s also encouraging to see that many incredible films continue to be made by female filmmakers that are highly visible on the world stage. There is a new wave of filmmaking in the Arab world and women are at the front of it. Yes, there is stereotyping that female filmmakers face all over the world, and women here have to contend with Western media stereotypes of the Arab female, however the cultural landscape is changing. It isn’t a level playing field around the world, as we know, which is evident in the fact that Kathryn Bigelow was the first female director to win an Oscar in 2010, one hundred years after moving pictures were invented, but for DIFF, gender doesn’t come into it. We seem to be generating a lot more films by women than in the West, and we are now seeing many female filmmakers finding success and acclaim on an international stage, such as Nadine Labaki, Jehane Noujaim, Annemarie Jacir and Haifaa Al-Mansour. I like to think DIFF has as a small part to play in providing this platform.”
Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen, whose film Scales has also been shortlisted for the IWC Filmmaker Award (making the female to male ratio of nominees 2:1), supports festivals such as DIFF as a nurturing platform for filmmakers such as herself. “We don’t have cinemas in Saudi, so we don’t have the opportunity to show our work to the public unless it’s on YouTube. At the end of the day, it’s a dream to show our films on the big screen and at festivals.” Turning the gender divide on its head, Shahad says that being a female filmmaker can now often work in her favour. “A film directed by a woman gets attention, precisely because of that reason, but it’s not misguided attention, it’s where it’s supposed to be. And what’s interesting is these female filmmakers have unique voices because they’ve never been heard before, which then offers the world a very unique experience in return. I think female directors are producing very interesting work and that’s very encouraging. Even in Saudi, we have the first Bachelor of Arts Filmmaking programme that’s now being taught in a private school for girls in Jeddah. The boys don’t even have it, so... I think girls are getting there.”
With gender differences put aside as we move forwards as a progressive film industry in the Middle East, what is apparent is that it’s less about male-versus-female limitations constricting both creative and career growth in the region, it’s more cultural and political inhibitions (alongside long-standing funding problems), that handicap those in the film industry. Of the former, Layla says, “the Arab world is so politicised that any time you see a movie it’s got to have a political message, or it’s got to reinforce a negative stereotype about something to do with this culture. This is nothing new, it’s been going on for thousands of years. And because I’m half-English, half-Arab, I’m constantly having to deal with those issues.” 
Having made a name for herself as a singer, as well as being an aspiring filmmaker, Layla recalls a memory that cements her opinion on the above. “A few years ago I had some success with a record in the Middle East and so I went to the States with my mum and sat down with a record executive. He was looking through my press and turned to me and said, ‘I’d be careful with the Arab thing if I were you, you’re in America and we’re still at war with Iraq’. I always like to quote this, because it still shocks me, that unadulterated belief that it’s okay to be racist. It really lit a fire under my arse, as they say. So my whole thing is that it’s fine to stereotype as much as you want, but cinema is all about reimagining reality. It’s not about reinforcing that stereotype, it’s about being invested in culturally changing that image to present new heroes, create new people, new characters on the screen. Do people seriously not want to address this issue in the arts, or is there some desire to maintain the status quo? It’s a really important question that I think is very urgent.”
For Shahad, she is grateful to IWC, now in its fourth year of the IWC Filmmaker Award at DIFF, for its ability to look beyond politics. “What’s amazing about this initiative is that it really supports art for art’s sake. That’s what we need. As filmmakers in the Middle East, we are always questioned about what our message is to the community? What is our responsibility? Festivals such as DIFF and awards such as IWC’s bring attention to the sanctity of the story rather than the message behind it. They support the story, the work of art.” Shahad’s film, Scales, is a magical-realist film about a 13-year-old girl, Hayat, who is on a quest to fulfil her destiny as a hunted, yet free, mermaid. “It’s definitely very risky, as no one has ever done something like this in the region and I’m handling filmmaking in a very new and unique way, and IWC is taking a chance on that, which is great.” In a bid to cross cultural, and perhaps even political, divides, for Shahad it’s about creating a universal language that transcends geographical borders. “Cinema is an international language and everyone understands it, so it’s your job as a director to make your film travel abroad as well and have everyone understand it; for it have a global voice.”
"There’s one billion Muslims in the world, so you can’t kill them off because you don’t like them... I think things have gone too far"
Layla’s goal mirrors Shahad’s in that it’s about bridging cultures and making films that speak to all viewers, irrespective of demographic. “I’m very clear on that. My biggest driving force, that I’m really passionate about, is the crossover of Arab Middle Eastern themes, which is why I set up my UK-based film production company, Canopus Films. My dream is a film like The Letter Writer, that isn’t political, about a boy who could be any nationality, a story set in a traditional Arab culture, but that is accessible to a Western audience. It’s a kind of subtle shift in people’s attitudes because it’s like, ‘Oh, so you know I can relate to these people’. I want to engage, reimagine and write stories about Arab and Muslim culture in a way that creates a kind of new consciousness about this region. There’s one billion Muslims in the world, so you can’t kill them off because you don’t like them... I think things have gone too far, which has created a fear of Muslims. Where is all this going? So my thing as an artist is to reimagine where we are.”
Like Layla, Manal’s own mission is to “create a dialogue between several cultures,” and to truly embrace the “significant imprint in terms of tradition, diverse heritage and the arts through the portrait of Arab cinema. We are privileged for our Arabism, literature and history, so I look forward to immortalising this in the continued development of Arab cinema.” Rather than having a negative impact on her cinematic efforts, Manal sees political events, such as the Arab Spring of late 2010, as having a positive effect on the creative industry as a whole. “Political issues don’t only affect filmmaking, they have an effect on everything, but I believe they have a positive impact in terms of artistic production, as seen by the vast amount of films being created on this stage. The key to success is to understand ourselves, and then our society, and to try and gain access to the heart of it to communicate it effectively.”
One thing for certain is that there is no shortage of enthusiasm in the Middle Eastern film industry. “I think filmmaking in the region is unstoppable now,” says Layla. “If we want to take a Litmus test of the interest or desire to make films, we’ve perfected it. There are tons of short films being made. There might be a lack of skills or financing but there’s not a lack of enthusiasm, or a lack of storytelling. If you want to get into it culturally, storytelling is part of Arabic folklore, part of its history.”

Words: Emily Baxter. Photography: Richard Hall. Make-up by Revlon Middle EastRead the rest of this story in the December issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia