← Part of the Issue: Heiny Srour

Woman, Arab and... Filmmaker


This article was originally published as ‘Femme, Arabe et... cinéaste’ in the book Paroles... elles tournent! by the collective Des femmes de Musidora (Paris: Éditions des femmes, 1976). It was the first book in French to survey the experience of the first wave of women filmmakers that appeared in the seventies. This article was later reproduced in CinemArabe, 4–5 (1976). To fully understand this article today, it’s important to know that Marxism was very fashionable in the seventies because of the overwhelming victory of the Vietnamese over the US. Most anti-imperialists wanted to pose as Marxists, but many of them, in the Arab World even more so, wanted to censor the subversive side of Marxism: its audacious feminism. In the prevailing moral terror against women’s liberation in the Arab World, The People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf bravely practiced grassroots feminism, positive discrimination in favour of women, and liberated them without waiting for the final victory. The PFLOAG went against the tide: most liberation movements (Algeria, Palestine, etc.) publicized token women, postponed women’s liberation until victory, used their energy to reach power more quickly and denied women their rights once in the government.

Heiny Srour, 2020

Sa‘a al-tahrir daqqat, Barra ya isti‘mar [The Hour of Liberation] (Heiny Srour, 1974)

Woman, Arab and... filmmaker. A viable situation? If so, some questions: Is there even one Arab filmmaker who has provoked an explosion of scorn for asserting in front of Marxist militants – don’t laugh – his desire to become a filmmaker? Is there even one Arab filmmaker who was forced to hide from his family that he wanted to make films? Is there even one Arab filmmaker who was called mad by X number of producers for having dared to propose to go and film a guerrilla war? Is there even one Arab filmmaker who has been told from the cradle that he fundamentally wasn’t a “creative” being? To inspire the works of others, fair enough! To write novels dealing with “feminine” subjects is allowed, but barely so (and reluctantly, by the way). But to take the camera in order to talk about human dignity (especially when insisting on women’s liberation), about national dignity? Oh, no, lady! That’s men’s business.

Here are some sample reactions: A “Marxist” Egyptian poet: “What a strange girl! She’s neither a man nor a woman.” A young Algerian: “It’s impossible that she made this film. A woman can’t make films, especially political films” (in a quietly incredulous tone). A Yemeni diplomat: “Ah! So you are the filmmaker? I thought you were 45 years old” (with a gesture to say “fat” and a grimace to say “ugly”). A (disgusted) Iraqi filmmaker: “This sequence about the children is much too long” (shaking his head as if to say: when a woman gets involved in politics, that’s what happens). A female activist of the French women’s liberation movement Psychoanalysis and Politics: “It’s a man’s film; it’s full of guns.” Her comrade adding: “It’s not a coincidence that we talk about ‘liberation’ while women in the Third World talk about ‘emancipation’.”

I timidly point out that we always say taharrur (“liberation”) and never intilaq (“emancipation”). In vain. I’m an underdeveloped feminist!

A French Maoist: “Without this M.L.F. side [Mouvement de libération des femmes – the French Women’s Liberation Movement], the film would have been politically impeccable!” Underdeveloped once more! A Marxist-Leninist Latin American filmmaker (enthusiastically): “Now, that’s a film with balls!” And me: “No, with a uterus! Uteruses are very creative, they beget life.” X number of Arab activists: “You overemphasized women’s liberation. The enemy is imperialism, not men.” A Lebanese journalist: “Are you a real woman... I mean a normal woman? Have you ever loved a man, for example?” A Moroccan filmmaker: “Politically, it’s the ‘toughest’ film of Arab cinema. How could it come from a woman, not a man?”

The worst critics were sometimes those who I was politically the closest to in Arab film circles. Witnessing their animosity, a friend told me: “You’ve done everything to set them against you: you made a political film, which is their preserve; on top of that you are young, and you’re neither one-eyed nor a hunchback. Aren’t you leaving them anything to find consolation in?” All in all, well done for that nasty female aggressor. Enough playing the victim, they tell me. The film was well received by European critics and even better by Arab critics and audiences. I agree, but I also note that they mainly considered it an anti-imperialist film. In the Arab world in particular, they refused to dwell on its “subversive” aspects: the decolonization of women and children. In any case, it’s not the first time that women’s energy is accepted at a time when all of Society is in danger. When the burning house needs saving, the most conservative and misogynistic societies will allow some women to go beyond the limits of their traditional role. Token women often become compensating symbols of women’s daily reality. They do not necessarily change the condition of other women who are sent back to their veils or their pots and pans once the danger has passed. Quite often, in fact more often than not, the status quo is restored after a violent upheaval during which all of the values of society have been called into question.

Didn’t I tell you? some will gloat. She wants to divert from the anti-imperialist cause. She wants to convince women not to take part in the struggle because they won’t get anything out of it! Let us not mix up everything. Let us add that, while the participation of women in the anti-imperialist struggle is a necessity, it’s not sufficient for their liberation. Because they still need to organize themselves as an autonomous pressure group in order to obtain their rights, without waiting for the occupier to be kicked out. If they don’t organize themselves in anticipation of the post-war, post-independence period, when they will be less needed, their liberation will once again be postponed indefinitely. And that is not enough. The revolution’s political leadership must also be armed with a radical, clear and consistent political line. Because there has never been a long-lasting change in the situation of women without a long-lasting change in the situation of the other oppressed – the working class, landless peasants, national and religious minorities. The said political leadership must also commit itself to pushing women into positions of power and keeping them there. As long as not all of these conditions have been met, women will continue to be used, once more.

The recent history of many Arab countries is significant in this regard. Arab women haven taken up arms against a foreign occupier so often! Yet most of them still live in the shadow of the world’s most retrograde laws regarding their family and personal status. Worse still, those who have shed the most blood are among the most unfortunate. This is the case, for example, in that Arab country emerging from a long and painful war of liberation in which women played a heroic part.1 The medieval laws concerning them remain the same, but the worst is the daily hell they live through. Victims of the vengeful sadism of men, they are no longer even protected by traditional female solidarity, a very common protective structure for women in pre- and post-colonial Arab societies.

What to say about this other Arab country, where honour killings claim more victims than Israeli napalm, despite the relatively high percentage of women in left-wing parties?2 And what about this other Arab country where women have spectacularly climbed up the professional ladder, beyond the U.S.A. in terms of the percentage of female doctors and lawyers, while continuing to be victims of the worst laws and social practices, ranging from genital mutilation to unilateral repudiation on futile grounds?3 In short, neither the participation in the war of liberation nor the participation in the national economy has been sufficient to satisfactorily improve the condition of women across the Arab world. Without necessarily likening womanhood to class, we could say that their situation in the Third World – and elsewhere, too, no doubt – is very similar to that of the other oppressed (the working class, national minorities, etc.). Only a correct political vision could enable them to fight over reformist points in order to improve their daily lives, without losing sight of the fact that only a classless society will solve their problems as women, taken as a whole, as a disadvantaged social group. But I see our learned exegetists coming in: why is there no talk about the misogyny and anti-feminism of the King of Saudi Arabia or the CIA, for example? Why focus the attacks mainly on those who are on the right side?

Answer: because I don’t expect anything good from the CIA or the King of Saudi Arabia. But I do expect a lot from those who are fighting for a better world. Unlike bourgeois feminists, I don’t gloat when I see that a liberation movement or a left-wing party is not feminist. It saddens me, and it hurts me deeply. But not everything is on the same level for me. The privileged – imperialist, feudal or bourgeois – remain my main enemies, because class society, with its inevitable oppressor/oppressed tandem, happens to be the key component of women’s oppression. So, imperialism and a non-feminist national liberation movement, for example, are not the same to me. I denounce the first as an implacable enemy, and I criticize the latter as a comrade concerned with a healthy resolution of what is today called “the contradictions within the people”. My anti-imperialist vigilance, therefore, recommends me to crush the snake that has entered the house. Thus, I consider it my duty to point the finger at the feudal lord painted in red or in the colours of the national flag. Some are surprised at my ferocity against false Marxists. This is because they are much more dangerous than the fake anti-imperialists, of course! More than anyone else have they perverted the famous tactics/strategy dialectic in order to justify the filthiest things. I remember a Lebanese “communist” academic that justified honour killings as follows: “If I don’t kill my dishonoured sister, I won’t be able to do mass work in my village...” And the list is long.

For me, a feminist attitude follows naturally from a sympathy for the cause of the oppressed in general, and that is why it’s inconceivable for me to be anti-imperialist – not to mention Marxist – without being feminist: a fine barometer to test someone’s solidarity and political sincerity. Because as soon as people start compromising on this crucial issue, you may rightfully wonder where political opportunism will stop. And I do mean “crucial issue”. How can one still doubt this when it concerns half of society? Is it really only half of society? Is a purely female misfortune possible? For those who believe in the watertightness of female oppression, it suffices to recall that women are not only biological multipliers. Their misery negatively affects husbands and sons, not to mention daughters...

Is it the right time to raise this debate when napalm is raining down around the world? some would argue. Yes, a thousand times yes. Because it also implies the obligation to liberate the internal colonies: women and children, among others.4 On what grounds should internal colonies accept a double standard?

But it’s impossible to fight on all fronts at once! There are priorities, the red-draped feudal lords respond in unison, pretending to represent Marxism. Yet a man like Lenin even denied the status of democrat to anyone who wasn’t strongly committed to women’s liberation. He went even so far as to say that a true Bolshevik can be recognized by his position on women and ethnic minorities. Before him, Engels also said that women’s liberation is the barometer of a society.

I was delighted to see last year that more and more Arab women dared to dream aloud of becoming filmmakers. Some of them are already in film schools... What will happen? Will the horde of disheveled feminists I dream of, burst into Arab cinema? Or will there be just a few careerists representing women with the same misogynistic imagery as men in order to be accepted by their system? I will not forget the shock I experienced when I saw The Girls by Mai Zetterling. Her mastery of cinema language and her talent are infinitely more remarkable than those of Liliana Cavanni. But the first is clearly feminist whereas the second isn’t. That’s probably the reason why Mai Zetterling wasn’t fairly valued whereas Cavanni’s Night Porter had everything to conquer the misogynists, the conservatives and the sadistic sexists. What will the Arab World produce? The Liliana Cavannis or the Mai Zetterlings? Will there be many female directors in the first place? Would they be able to overcome the obstacles inherent to their dual status of Third-World filmmaker and woman filmmaker?

Looking back in disbelief, I often say to myself: “I had a lucky escape. Long may it last...”

What would have happened, for example, if I had been born into a family a little less well-off than mine? I still remember the Lebanese communist worker I interviewed when I was a journalist. In her tiny house, I met, to my surprise, one of our university classmates. The boy’s room was full of expensive books of impressionist painting. His very gifted sister had had to interrupt her studies after primary school to pay for her less gifted brother’s university studies. It would only have taken some financial difficulties for me to be ruthlessly sacrificed for my younger brother’s future.

What would have happened if I had been born, not in Beirut, but in the stifling atmosphere of the provincial cities? I often compare myself to this Lebanese woman writer who was born into a large provincial family and was terrorized from a distance by her older brother who had emigrated to a faraway Arab country.

What would have happened if I had simply been born in a more misogynistic country than Lebanon? One day, at a European festival with many Arab filmmakers, I realized the kind of atmosphere a Syrian or Algerian woman of my social class would have grown up in. I was about to cross the hotel lounge one evening to have a drink at the bar when the spectacle before my eyes immobilized me at the threshold. In the large lounge, Arab men, only men, were talking quietly. They were sitting as Arabs sit when there are no women around, tenderly leaning against one another, in an intimacy that doesn’t tolerate the presence of women. “Arabs are political homosexuals,” a Cuban filmmaker once laughed. I will add — seriously – “and mental homosexuals”, because serious conversations always fall silent when a woman appears. The intruder is punished by an embarrassing silence followed by gently paternalistic compliments or compliments of dubious taste, it depends. If she continues by some misfortune to initiate a political discussion or a serious debate, she will be called a bluestocking or a pedant. A woman’s presence should bring only decoration and entertainment to these tired warriors. That evening, I returned to my room, dying for a drink but blessing the heavens that I was born in Lebanon.

So, I was able, again by chance, to escape the terrible determinism hanging over the overwhelming majority of Arab women. On this island of relative diversity called Beirut, I was able to freely absorb the incredible mix of ideas taking place in the capital. And so, unlike most of my Arab sisters, I don’t owe my political or artistic convictions to an older brother, a father, a husband or a “boyfriend”. The obstacle of social conventions I encountered during my intellectual development are certainly enormous compared to Western women. But it is relatively minimal if I compare myself to the rest of the Arab women of my class. As for those who are from a less well-off class... they are quickly relegated to the margins of history. But besides the fact that I was born in the right place, I was also born at the right time. My grandmother was illiterate and veiled. My mother had to stop studying after primary school even though she was gifted and had well-to-do parents. She married my father at the age of sixteen without knowing him. Her exquisite taste in fashion often makes me think that, if she had been born just a little later, she could have used her talent for something other than her dresses and cakes. She was just unlucky.

My luck, on the other hand, continued. So, after three months of begging in vain, my father suddenly changed his mind and agreed to sign the authorization requested by the Lebanese authorities (the woman being a perpetual minor) to issue me a passport. And so, at the last moment, I was able to take advantage of a scholarship to study ethnology. Not film, because at the time no country granted film scholarships to women. Except for Czechoslovakia, if I remember correctly. But I was too afraid to go to a country where I didn’t know the language. This scholarship for a respectable PhD at the Sorbonne calmed the apprehension of my parents, who were terrified of letting me go alone to this den of iniquity that Paris is for Arab parents. (I was no less terrified I must say, at the idea of living alone.) And on the other hand, it allowed me to take cinema vérité lessons for two hours per week at the school founded by Jean Rouch at the Musée de l’Homme. The underfunding of the school meant that I couldn’t learn much there. But the illusion of learning something was more important.

Quite fundamentally in that period of my life, my studies in France removed the danger of “forced” marriage. It’s true that such things don’t happen so often anymore in the capital. But like any woman with professional ambitions in a class society, especially in an Arab society soaked in a feudal mentality, the worst things happen when you are of marriageable age. How to resist the sometimes threatening social and family pressure when you haven’t even proved your talents to others or to yourself? One of my talented Tunisian colleagues once told me that he had received his training as a filmmaker in a club of amateur filmmakers in Tunisia. “There were no girls there?” I asked. “Yes, one of them showed a lot of promise. But she got married.” In Lebanon, too, I saw the most gifted and talented girls fall one after the other into the trap of a hastily decided marriage, “to get rid of the parents”.

So, I was incredibly lucky to have “a room of my own”, to use Virginia Woolf ’s expression. During those Parisian years, I was able to think and reflect freely without paying too high a price for it. I was able to attend film festivals, watch a lot of films, which somehow compensated for the quasi non-existence of my film training, and build valuable contacts. I also had – and this was crucial for daring to film The Hour of Liberation – the opportunity to gradually chase away my fears and terrors. For example, I hitchhiked to the Netherlands with a Lebanese girlfriend. In Beirut, I had never dared to explore a neighbourhood or even a street outside the field of home-school-university-cinema.

Looking back at my personal history, I also realize that my successive political disappointments played a fundamental role in my choice of cinema as a means of expression. I could indeed have chosen painting or ballet, my two great old loves. Short-lived loves, given the contempt shown by my bourgeois milieu for this kind of thing that would lead to being “a cabaret dancer” – just like cinema, by the way – in the minds of my parents. Of course, cinema was the most complete means of expression, but I believe it was above all the most political. After the repression of my feminist demands during long years of political work, cinema was the only means at my disposal to shout what I wanted to say, without waiting for the political leaders to find it opportune or not. What a joy it is to freely decide on the subject of a film – a feminist revolution – without someone reminding you of “the main priority”. What a joy it is to decide, alone at the editing table, on the length of the women’s sequence without someone saying: “Comrade, this issue is not on the agenda.” The censor in question being most often one of those “Marxist” schizophrenics but “with a defect in women’s issues terms” who make up the majority of the leaders of the different left wing movements in our country.

That said, you realize only later that the male police is, actually, still in your brain. I realized that I was only at the beginning of my internal decolonization when I saw Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin. To show the achievements of socialism, this Soviet director devoted half of the film to the liberation of women. Shot forty years later by a long-time feminist woman, The Hour of Liberation was awfully behind, comparatively. Less than a quarter of my film was devoted to the problem of women. I had only indirectly dealt with the need of socializing the education of children to ensure women’s liberation, through a long sequence on the liberation of childhood. In short, I realized that my film was feminist in relation to Arab cinema only, but very much behind what I could have done.

I had allowed myself to be inhibited during the shoot by the all-male and misogynistic crew – although the Yemeni assistant was remarkably less misogynistic than the two Frenchmen. The bad mood in which the shots on women’s liberation were filmed – the exasperated sighs – hadn’t left me indifferent. When watching the rushes, I noticed in impotent rage that the military-training sequence had been sabotaged. Of the 300 recruits, 150 were women, and yet in the image only two of them were identifiable as such. The others, short-haired teenage girls, were lost among their male comrades in the wide shots. The French cameraman had simply not done the close-ups and the medium shots that could have revealed that they were girls. I had suspected as much during the shoot, but I didn’t dare to insist, so electric was the atmosphere. This sequence could have been a shock for the Arab world. These recruits were destined to become leaders in the Militia and the People’s Army, and no one would ever know that half of them were women. During the editing, the most politically aware students of the Gulf-Yemen-Palestine Committee of Great Britain also found the women’s sequence too long and feared it would be understood as being directed against men. Their excessive sighing was ineffective, all the more so because the workers of the Yemeni Workers Union of Great Britain found it “perfectly fine”. But in retrospect, I notice that I carefully measured the attacks against men in this sequence: “We are oppressed by three sultans, the father, the husband and the tribal chief.” And the one where the women say they are determined to fight “to the last drop of blood” to ward off possible attacks. Politically, it was correct. And, above all, it was a reflection of reality to show that the women in the liberated areas based their hardline attitude on their situation of “double oppression”. But I blame myself for fearing to present men as enemies. This is often the case. It’s hard to know which one of the little voices deep inside us we should listen to the most.

How to carry out my internal decolonization? The experience of the past years proves to me that, alas, it doesn’t depend on me only, but on a whole set of things. On what is called historical juncture. I remember a feminist group we founded thirteen years ago in Lebanon. It quickly died out because the best elements preferred to invest their energy into things considered more noble: working in a political party. I was the only one who voted against the dissolution of the group. Today, such groups are flourishing again in Lebanon. But during these thirteen years, I must admit that I felt extremely isolated and sometimes even doubted myself. Will the historical circumstances the Arab world is going through allow me and many others to carry out my internal decolonization?

I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, I feel threatened. “After all the success of The Hour of the Liberation!” a young, budding filmmaker exclaimed indignantly. Yes, even after that. One day, for example, I was told that three Lebanese women writers had been attacked in the most petty way in a “progressive” Lebanese magazine by one of the literary – and “progressive” – celebrities of the Arab world, who used the following kind of arguments: one is divorced, the second is not a virgin and all three had to sleep with the editor. Women write books as they menstruate, etc. One of the leaders of the Lebanese Writers’ Union, a notoriously “progressive” man, scorned them: “Why do you women need to publish books?” So how not to realize that it was the physical prowess of having walked 500 kilometres5 on foot, under the threat of British napalm that silenced the many tongues ready to “debase” any woman who proves she has a brain? It would have been difficult for the red feudal lords to attack a woman who made the first film about a guerrilla surrounded by a conspiracy of silence. The thousands of dollars in donations the film collected proved her social usefulness. But while I feel incapable of making films that aren’t political, I demand the right for women to make books or films without any directly utilitarian justification and without having to pay for it with pettiness. Yes, I feel threatened. One day a Tunisian colleague told me that his father had become blinded by grief as a result of the short film he had shot. (His father was a religious man, and the film showed a sequence in which a German tourist was raped in a mosque.) But that didn’t prevent him from viewing his future confidently: where to go in order to become a better filmmaker? To the Centro Sperimentale in Rome or The National Film School in London? Self-effacing, shy, hypersensitive, this young man was, nevertheless, born from his mother’s womb sure of his genius, at least of his talent. As for me, such an event would have inhibited forever, or at least for a long time, any attempt to continue along this path. I realized that day that I would never stop doubting myself. I also realized that most of my energy was lost in a battle against myself, against inhibitions, against a lack of self-confidence, of which my male colleagues were spared.

One day, I told a militant friend of mine about a very old project: a cinematographic and poetic anti-imperialist symphony, using poems I had just been reading to him. “Why don’t you? It’s a wonderful idea.” “Because it’s too ambitious.” “I prefer the brainless to the cowards,” I heard him reply. “If you’re 30% sure, take the plunge. We did the same when we started the revolution.” I do need more than 30% before taking the plunge. I’ve just received an Italian magazine in which a critic finds exemplary the fact of having prepared the expedition to Dhofar by two years of bibliographical research, and of having spent three months in the liberated areas. I’m sure he’s mistaking for revolutionary modesty what is ultimately the female fear of making a lousy film. He also praises – and I’m very grateful for that – the fact that I read X number of military and theoretical works on guerrilla warfare before I started editing. I’m sure he doesn’t suspect that the fear of hearing people call the film incoherent – because it was made by a woman – largely explains this revolutionary seriousness.

Yes, I feel threatened. All around me, I see women writers, women painters and others on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I hear that such and such talented Arab poetess “looks wrecked” by her situation as a woman. I see another woman writer in our country, unbalanced in her social behaviour to the point of being ridiculous and pitiful. As for me, I am considered self-confident, if not brazen. I wish... The fact remains that the shadow of May Ziadeh hangs over us all. This Lebanese woman writer, born in the past century, was full of talent. She ended up crazy...6 She was born too early...

Did I grow up too soon? Will there be others? “You’re fighting too many battles at once,” an Italian critic once told me with sadness. His head-shaking was a clear sign that this would end badly. Maybe. In the meantime, my only option is to try to carry on. What if one day there’s a general setback in the Arab world on the issue of women, as on all problems?

What would happen? Will we return to the Middle Ages after having experienced a little freedom? Quite possibly. Nothing is ever acquired definitively. Because, on the other side of the barrier, losing privileges is inadmissible. I still remember that Iraqi woman who dreamily told me about her adolescence. That was in 1958, during the period of Abdel Karim Kassem, who witnessed the blossoming of a powerful communist party. The Iraqi women massively removed their veils under the impulse of the powerful Iraqi Women’s Friendship, a mass organization of the Iraqi Communist Party, the most militant party in the Arab world at the time. Under their pressure, Kassem issued the most daring and egalitarian laws in the Arab world to the benefit of women. The first ministerial post given to the Iraqi Communist Party went to a woman. The first woman minister in the Arab world. In the hierarchy of the powerful party, the women who had been veiled yesterday occupied very important positions. There was even a female theatre director, ten years before there was one in Lebanon. But what my interlocutor was evoking was, above all, the incredible atmosphere of freedom for women. In a small religious provincial town, her conservative family allowed a fifteen-year-old daughter to stand guard at night with men of the people’s militia. “Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” she repeated. Because, in today’s Iraq, that would be unthinkable. She paid particular attention to the gigantic demonstrations where thousands of women remained in the streets until midnight without ever being molested by men. This had been unthinkable before the overthrow of the monarchy, but it’s even more unthinkable today. Bourgeois and conventional today, this girl said herself that it was too good to be true. Indeed, in 1963, following a coup d’état, the Iraqi communists were savagely crushed by the Ba’athists. In the Arab world, a few voices were heard protesting against the rape and torture of dozens of female communist activists in Ba’athist prisons. Significantly fewer voices protested against the restoration of retrograde medieval laws against women – including the impunity for honour killings. The Ba’athists are still ruling with the same reactionary laws.

A young Iraqi writer, Abdel Sattar Nasser, summed up the situation of women in his country in an admirable short story; its publication cost him prison and torture (perhaps his life, as no one knows where he is): “We are a nation which has buried its women alive... and is waiting to die” (from Our Lord, the Caliph by Abdel Sattar Nasser). So, nothing is ever acquired definitively. Even if the Iraqi communists had seized power, there was the possibility of a setback for women as well as for the other oppressed – working class, national and religious minorities. But the opposite could have happened as well: permanent radicalization, a perpetual questioning aimed at uprooting the roots of class society. Who knows? Did complete setbacks happen? I don’t think so. Because, in this last example, the Ba’athists were unable to erase everything. Many things have remained: the access of women to the workplace and to university, for example.

Nevertheless, I feel threatened, because I often judge things on a human-life scale and not on a human-history scale, which would be the more scientific approach to the problem. Because it’s undeniably so that the last two centuries of human history have seen definite progress in the situation of women and other oppressed, despite all the setbacks.

Sometimes, I seem to feel a gravity rise from the depths of the ages throughout the world. In myself and in others, I notice a tendency to flee from new problems, to take refuge in churches or counter-churches, to rely on what has been achieved, to be complacent, to kneel before myths, to deliberately close eyes to injustice and stupidity.

Yes, I feel threatened, because I know that the oppression of women was the first to appear in human history. Therefore, it is the most deeply rooted. Among the people it is often said that imperialism has gone out the door and come back in through the window. This applies to all the oppressed... to women too.

  • 1This is a reference to Algeria.
  • 2This is a reference to Lebanon.
  • 3This is a reference to Egypt.
  • 4Practical consequence: When you’re faced with a politically advanced Arab film that everyone classifies as “Marxist”, and that film at the same time presents a feudal vision of women, it’s a matter of principle – not to mention of honesty – that it be called progressively feudal. To call it “Marxist with defects” would be a demonstration of political opportunism.

    You need to know that this is the case with most Arab political films, although no one in the film industry notes the “defects” concerning women. If an Arab political film demonstrated racism against blacks, for example, it would immediately lose its progressive qualification. One cannot be Marxist and racist, they will say indignantly. But they easily admit that one can be both Marxist and racist toward half the human race.

    In this charming atmosphere of anti-feminist moral terrorism, I once ventured into pointing out to one of my Arab colleagues the feudal vision of women permeating his film. Said colleague had kept on giving sensational, anti-revisionist statements to the press. An attack on Soviet social imperialism, a revolutionary ardour... Nothing was missing, yet it was visibly impossible for him to “swallow” or even understand such a remark. A silent animosity ensued. Another day, after a meeting with discussions about promoting anti-imperialist Arab cinema and the fight against Euro-American cultural imperialism, I incidentally spoke of the conservative and misogynist vision of so-called progressive Arab cinema.

    Do you know what happened? I was the one who got neutralized. Despite my competence – and the ignorance of many of my colleagues – with regard to issues of distribution, I was no longer invited to these meetings. That’s what happens to naughty little girls.

    I have very often found myself totally isolated politically for having – oh so diplomatically – criticized my colleagues on this issue. I never dared – call me a coward if you will – never dared to pronounce the word “progressive feudalism” to those who loudly wave the red flag in Arab cinema. That would be turning my most active colleagues into deadly enemies. The problem is that I want to bring together as many filmmakers as possible in a united front against Hollywood and its derivatives in the Arab world. Our battle against Euro-American cultural imperialism is already a very unequal fight.

    Let us add that between the desire of most Arab regimes to stifle all that is alive, creative and progressive, and the narrowly utilitarian interest displayed to us by most liberation movements or left-wing parties, our leeway as filmmakers is more than narrow. The wave of talent burgeoning after the June war is in danger of crashing or ending in sporadic individual attempts. And that’s without mentioning the huge problem of the distribution of Arab political films.

    In short, my problem is that of all women subjected to the necessities of historical emergencies. In addition, more than anywhere else, men are the masters of the realm of cinema. So they decide on Marxist or simply anti-imperialist political standards. Troublemakers like me, who criticize progressive feudalism, are quickly neutralized and reduced to political isolation and inefficiency.

    “If you judge them according to Engels’s criteria, there won’t even be five Marxists left in our country,” an important female leader of one of the most radical movements of the Arab left once told me, when talking about male leaders.

    My isolation is somehow much worse in “progressive” Arab cinema than it used to be in left-wing parties. Unlike this female leader and precisely because of the servitude to distribution and production problems, I would not be in permanent contact with the underprivileged. For, surprisingly, they are the most progressive on women’s issues as soon as the hope of social change appears on the horizon. I could only sporadically get into contact with men like those from the liberated areas of Dhofar, who in just a few years were able to change so radically their vision of women inherited from centuries of misogynistic tribalism. Only occasionally, at least if I want to continue making films, could I come into contact with men like those Yemeni workers who so easily accepted the existence of a woman filmmaker. They even went as far as to give part of their salaries to help complete the film. Yet their feudal upbringing had predisposed them to a much less cooperative attitude than the “Marxist” academics I kept coming up against. The problem is that the underprivileged are almost never the decision-makers. The leaders of political movements almost always come from the petty bourgeoisie or the bourgeoisie. These men lose all their class privileges during the Revolution and then cling to their privileges over women. The underprivileged, on the other hand, would gain a lot from any change and readily lose their privileges over women because the Revolution has much to offer them.

    The progressive Arab filmmakers will, no doubt, come from the wealthy classes for quite some time, and they will continue to have the defects of their privileged class.

    And so, I find myself condemned to this ultra-minority situation for the rest of my life... Unless...

  • 5In fact, we walked 800 kilometres to shoot the film. See page 84.
  • 6After researching a film project on May Ziadeh, I need to correct this information. At the summit of her glory, she experienced – understandably – a depression after the loss of both her parents. She was locked in a mental hospital and brutalized by the nurses, though certified totally sane by a French doctor. She finally came out, sane, but broken. Her life is emblematic of the fragile status of women artists in the Arab World of the time. (Heiny Srour, 2020)

Originally published as ‘Femme, Arabe et... cinéaste’ in the book Paroles... elles tournent! by the collective Des femmes de Musidora (Paris: Éditions des femmes, 1976).

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.