“I am lucky. Arab women, who in the past wanted to create, ended up in a mental hospital. Just one generation ago I would have been denied self-expression.”
Heiny Srour sits in the tea room of a plush London hotel. It’s a suitable setting for celebration. She’s just returned from a bout of festivals at which her film Leila and the Wolves has often been rapturously received. The film had already collected five major international awards, including the Grand Prix at Mannheim; Heiny Srour is to be special guest at a major African festival on the Ivory Coast; she is to appear at a symposium to be held in London at the Institute of Education on “Third World Images”. For now, however, the only thing that matters to the director is the position of Arab women in the Middle East: “I am very aware that I have been saved from the fate of an ancestral silence, from an imposed femininity and from men who are themselves victims of their manhood.”
Leila and the Wolves is the story of the collapse of Lebanon, told against the background of sectarian violence. Its focus is on an hitherto marginalised voice in the theatre of war: it’s a film which questions the gospel of the gun; its images flowing in search of woman’s political and historical identity in the Middle East. Leila has not been an easy film to make. Scenarios of civil war and sectarian violence very rarely allow feminist voices to rise above the debris of mayhem and mistrust. Staying alive is difficult enough.
Money for the film was raised in Britain, Belgium, Holland and Lebanon. Filming had to stop twice due to lack of funds; continual disputes with the British Film Institute took their toll and legal wranglings with Dutch bankers almost stopped production entirely. Throughout all this were the endless meeting to argue for the film’s relevance: “Why should we give British taxpayers’ money to an Arab filmmaker?”, Heiny was once asked at the BFI Production Board meeting.
For Leila Heiny Srour relies on traditions of style and observation more common in Middle Eastern art and Arabian epics. Leila weaves a rich tableau of history, folklore, myth and archive material. “Those of us from the third world have to reject the ideas of film narration based on the 19th-century bourgeois novels with its commitment to harmony. Our societies have been too lacerated and fractured by colonial power to fit into those neat scenarios. We have enormous gaps in our societies and film has to recognise this.”
Throughout the film an Arab woman wanders through real and imaginary landscapes of Lebanon and Palestine encountering hidden histories of struggle; unearthing voices from the peripheries of Middle-Eastern politics; uncovering submerged yearnings and testaments of Arab women’s resilience. In her wanderings she returns over and over again to Lebanon, the “jewel in the crown” of French colonial twilight states, a country in which crimes of honour took the lives of two women a week during the ’70s.
Yet, Leila is not an anthropological journey but a survey of mythic and symbolic protest. Through her “eye” comes a search for political character in a Lebanon now permanently stained by the massacre of Sabra and Chatila; caught in the throes of bitter civil war; Israel’s “backyard”. Leila prods these moments of loss and discovers ghosts of a very different life before the wolves.
Lebanon follows Biafra, Cyprus and Northern Ireland in a long line of “problem” countries in the mainstream media vocabulary. But Leila questions this scenario by asking us to look more closely at the participants in the dances of death, to discover other motives for this disorder. Its slow pace may irritate a number of cinemagoers. It is a cumbersome structure which doesn’t make for easy viewing and Heiny Srour’s sequence of events might be confusing for audiences not overly familiar with the four main decades under her scrutiny. But it’s a film which returns to scenes to constantly enrich them and you’re unlikely to hear a more articulate voice of Arab feminism this year. They certainly don’t grow on trees in England.
Originally published in City Limits (October 1983).