African Women in Cinema Blog Special Dossier:
Women in Cinema of the Arab World
Palestinian Women Make Images: interview with Alia Arasoughly, director of a Palestinian cinema NGO, by Patricia Caillé © 2015. Images courtesy of Patricia Caillé.
Alia Arasoughly is the current Director General of Shashat Women Cinema, an independent women’s cinema NGO she founded in 2005 in Palestine. She is curator of the annual Shashat Women Film Festival in Palestine. She works both as a film producer and a director. She has produced 76 short films, fiction and documentary, by young Palestinian women filmmakers, as well as 15 one-hour documentary TV programmes. Her directing credits include The Clothesline (14 mins., 2006), Ba`d As-Sama’ Al-Akhirah [After the Last Sky] (55 mins. 2007), Hay mish Eishi [This is not Living] (2001, shown in over 100 international film festivals and translated into 6 languages. Hayat Mumazzaqah [Torn Living], 23 mins. 1993. She is editor of Eye on Palestinian Women’s Cinema (2013) (Arabic) and of Screens of Life – Critical Film Writing from the Arab World (1996). Alia has received many awards for her work. In this interview, she describes the activities of Shashat, the training of women filmmakers, as well as the festival that showcases their films.
Patricia Caillé: There are a few cinemas in the West Bank that show mostly Hollywood and Egyptian genre films. There are no cinemas left in Gaza. There are a few festivals as well whose programmes depend largely on the international organisations supporting them. Apart from rare premieres, there are little opportunities for dissemination of Palestinian films to Palestinian audiences. Shashat stands out as the longest running and most extensive film festival in Palestine, touring for nearly three months. Can you describe the context when Shashat Film Festival was created and how it was created?
Alia Arasoughly: It was created by Shashat Women Cinema, an independent women’s cinema organisation. The festival is part of the “Films for All” Screening Programme, one of four programmes, which has a yearlong screening programme. It is not a traditional film festival, but a cultural community empowerment intervention which takes place in seven universities, seven refugee camps and seventeen cities in collaboration with twenty-three cultural and community organisations. It was important to have a specialized women’s cinema NGO whose mission was to have women become producers of Palestinian culture, more specifically cinema. Most of the projects that addressed women in media, women’s cinema or women’s audiovisual creativity were and are seasonal. One donor would sponsor an activity for six months one year, and then another donor will sponsor the same type of activity for six months another year, etc. These activities did not build on one another to provide continuity and sustainability to their objective and thus failed to result in the emergence of a new generation of young women filmmakers and failed to have a cumulative impact on culture.
The interest is invariably in numbers, and so the projects would train one group of women after another. The numbers were good… fifty women trained to be filmmakers, but a one-time training does not make a filmmaker. Sometimes, they would produce a series of short films (which mostly the trainers did, as sometimes these projects did result in films), but these were neither packaged nor disseminated. I think in all our history since we began training in 2007, we have trained 43 women filmmakers, as our concern is to give multi-level training (beginner and intermediate levels), and mentoring on production for the students who are advanced. Most of our filmmakers have a three-film portfolio. We would like to offer now small production grants and are looking for support for a small production fund.
These are the reasons why we decided to form a specialized NGO committed to focusing cumulatively and in-depth on providing a new generation of young Palestinian women filmmakers from outside the centre, with the skills and the opportunity to produce. We wanted to work with a strategic outlook. SIDA, the Swedish International Development Agency gave us the seed money to form Shashat and partially funded our first festival. Mama Cash also came in and UNESCO too, etc.
We also thought it was important to know if we will have audiences for women’s cinema in towns, villages and refugee camps as we wanted women’s cinema to be centre stage and grassroots, part of the fabric of Palestinian society, not marginalized and exclusively for the elite. People have preconceived ideas about these areas, thinking that they are backward and traditional and not receptive to new ideas or experiences. Our experience over the last ten-years shows otherwise. The first year we had our festival in only 3 cities, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus. The second year we decided we were going to start working in Gaza, and we would begin expanding outside the centre and that is what we did from then on.
People told us that we couldn’t, that people would attack us, and that nobody would come to our screenings… But it worked! We had so much interest from universities and community cultural centres who were calling us to request inclusion in the next edition of the festival that we have been unable even till now to accommodate all the requests which we receive. This shows that people were actually starved for cultural and social activities that had relevance and substance. In the isolation of communities in Palestine, culture can be the glue for a social fabric destroyed daily by the occupation’s apartheid policies separating Palestinians from one another. University screenings often draw hundreds of students who are very curious about Palestinian women filmmakers and about the kind of films they make. Also, these women are their peers, talking to them, young women who come from communities similar to theirs. We created a national film conversation through cinema especially between the two fragmented and polarized regions of the West Bank and Gaza. That is when we decided we had to shoot these discussions from these multiple sites and make them available to a wider national Palestinian public through TV programmes broadcast on Palestine Satellite Channel.
How did you decide to focus on women’s training?
We wondered why most Palestinian women filmmakers were women who have studied abroad, in Lebanon, Egypt, the United Kingdom, France or in the US, and came from middle-class backgrounds. We asked ourselves why there were no Palestinian women filmmakers emerging from the media departments at Palestinian universities, although these departments have well-established media and TV production programmes and have been in existence for decades. We decided to go into the universities to explore this issue first hand so we applied to IDFA’s Jan Vrijaman Fund for a “Documentary Film Day at Palestinian Universities.” We conducted a documentary film day at seven Palestinian universities whereby Palestinian women filmmakers showed their films and discussed their production and creative processes and talked to the students in the media departments. We wanted them to provide a model to the women media students and to de-mystify the women filmmaking community.
As we could not go into universities and ask questions about the departments, we developed a more extensive evaluation questionnaire that was not an evaluation of the session itself but expanded into an evaluation of their learning experience in order to better understand what the problems were.
A very clear picture came through. The division in the academic field at most universities is that students learn theory from a professor who has never made a film and knows nothing about production, while studio technicians teach production. Technicians are people who know the equipment inside out, but they, for the most part, do not have experience in the conceptual and creative realm. The technician is usually friends with the guys who hang around with him in the cafeteria or the gym, and who hover around him when he is explaining the operations of a camera, while the girls stand back, unable to see the equipment, let alone the buttons. They don’t want to touch the guys as most of the girls are veiled, nor do they want to push forward, as they don’t want to be aggressive. This is why the women don’t learn how to use the equipment or how it can fulfil their vision.
In production classes and in graduation projects women usually work in supportive production coordination roles. For their graduation films, students work usually in teams of three: director, cameraperson, and editor. Usually the guys take the camera and editing roles as they have these skills by then, and sometimes the directing role as well. The women do the production coordination. Even when they are credited as a director, it is an “empty credit” as the guys shoot what they want and edit what they want, while she does not have the DECISION MAKING ROLE of a director. She does not understand that to be a director she has to call the shots—she has to decide from what angle to shoot, how she wants the camera or lighting setup to be, etc. Or in terms of editing, that she is responsible for building the structure and choosing the shots. This made it clear to us why the young women graduating from media departments could not enter jobs in the private television stations as directors, or get grants as directors because first they don’t really have a portfolio, and second they don’t know what filmmaking is. This made us take the next step. We approached different universities and asked them to recommend the best two girl students in their graduating class; we interviewed them and chose one for our training programme. This is how our first training began.
Can you tell me more about Shashat’s training and production philosophy and methodology?
We began an intensive summer programme for three months in 2007 and had the films which were completed, packaged into the collection, “Confession.” From the beginning we told the trainees that we wanted to help them build a portfolio. This added to their self-esteem and professionalization. They felt, “I am a filmmaker, I have my film on a DVD, with a cover jacket, a title and my name on it.”
“Confession”, a 7-film collection produced in 2008, is about how girls love in this day and age, and the young women told of their own lives. They came from outside the centre—one was from Hebron, another from Tulkarem, a third from Jenin, a fourth from Hizma village, and a fifth from Nablus, etc. When we showed this collection in our 4th film festival, we were attacked by the press and on radio talk shows. We were accused of encouraging rebellion against parents and promoting loose morals, of not being responsible… and were asked what kind of women organisation were we?, etc.
When the collection began the university tour, students attended the screenings in the hundreds. In one screening, I think it was at Hebron University, there were around 600 students lining up to go into the auditorium to see the films. It was youth-to-youth cinema, they were curious about what girls in their age group were saying about love. One film describes love on the mobile (Love on the mobile, Zainab Al-Tibi, 2008). When the media saw the interest of youths in this collection, they changed their tune.
We saw articles about how our ear was to the ground on what youth want, and that we were addressing Palestinian youths through Palestinian youths, that we were looking at Palestinian society from the inside, etc. Each summer after that, we had a different theme for the training production programmes. The young women filmmakers chose how they wanted to express that theme in substance and treatment. We have professional trainers—camera people, editors, and script developers who work with them to help them develop their ideas and express their vision cinematically. The young women filmmakers have the final say on their films and are responsible for them from beginning to end with mentoring and supervision from us.
What were the other themes?
“Jerusalem so near…so far,” is an 8-film collection done in 2009 on the occasion of Jerusalem being Arab Capital of Culture for that year. Access to Jerusalem is impossible for most Palestinians, and yet everyone is being told that Jerusalem is our future capital. The young women made films on the reality of Jerusalem to them, beyond the slogans and the rhetoric. Another theme was A day in Palestine (2009). What does a day in Palestine mean to them? For one girl who goes to university, it was the carob seller on the corner who makes her day (Sweet Carob, Liali Kilani, 2009). She finishes classes, goes down to take the group taxi home and she has that cold delicious sweet glass of carob.
We had another theme Masarat (2009) which means paths. One of the four short films was about rural women who go to Jerusalem clandestinely at great risk to sell their produce. One of the films was about incest, another about teenage love, and the fourth on an exemplary woman educator. Another theme was "Crossroads" (2010). It was part of a Swedish-Palestinian youth video exchange, funded by the Swedish Institute about young girls who are at crossroads in their lives. That was very popular and we still get requests for it, especially for Omaima Hamori’s The sister and her brother. We also focused on “Palestine Summer” in 2010 and produced seven films on what summer means for Palestinian girls. Girls and the Sea by Taghreed Al-Azza tells of how a group of girls want to go to the seaside, but after circumventing their parents, they are stopped by the Israeli army at a checkpoint. In defiance, they camp next to the checkpoint, soak their feet in a plastic basin and begin sunbathing while the soldiers are under the scorching sun.
And then we had the two-year theme: “I am a woman from Palestine” (2011-2012). This is when we began our Gaza training. Training in Gaza is very difficult because it is complicated to bring in equipment and trainers, and the trainees could not travel in and out. It is under siege, an open-air prison for nearly a decade now.
We brought in equipment through the EU, the major funder of the project, and we hired local trainers in Gaza, instead of internationals in order to help sustain the film community in Gaza and to integrate emerging young women filmmakers in existing networks. We worked on the films via Vimeo and Skype. We have now been doing training and production in Gaza since 2011, but the festival has been touring in Gaza since 2006. Films by Gaza women filmmakers are so different, so fresh and very courageous.
In Gaza you need permission to shoot on the street, and even so the girls with male crews get harassed by people or the police. In Gaza, we also need permission to screen films publicly, but this does not affect small community screenings. Two of our films were banned in Gaza, and two barely escaped banning.
Why were they banned?
We don’t know. We have no idea how the Culture Committee that gives permission works. We assumed that it might have been because of religion or religious institutions, or for being too daring in terms of women’s dress. But we saw that films about religion or very daring films in terms of women’s dress and women’s subjects weren’t banned. One of the films was about motherhood, and the other film had one line that was satirical about a fatwa, but the rest of the film was not.
There were two films under reservation, one about unemployment in Gaza and the other on the pollution of the sea. The filmmakers challenged this and explained that this information was readily available on the Internet, so it was not high-security information. We were able to talk it through, and the films were not banned.
We thank our stars…actually, that it is not so ‘methodical’ and hegemonic, and also that there is room for discussion. It depends on who sees the films I guess.
It is imperative for us to work in Gaza, to break the political, economic and social siege of Gaza through film.
Every year, you have had a group of women filmmakers making short films. How do you organize the screenings of their films?
As I mentioned earlier, we are not a traditional film festival. For the last ten years, we have had an ad hoc network of seven universities, seven refugee camps and about twenty-three participating community and cultural organisations that screen the films in the festival tour. The festival tours in seventeen cities, towns and villages, and if you add the universities and the refugee camps it is about twenty-three locations. In our 9th festival, we had 163 screenings, and in our year-long screening programme there is a Shashat film being shown every other day somewhere in Palestine, and this is our aim.
We have an important youth audience at universities, which is why we value this partnership the most. It has been a successful partnership for both parties as we provide the universities with high quality cultural activities that encourage critical thinking, debate and tolerance of difference. And the universities have state-of-the-art auditoriums that they use three or four times a year for dignitaries or keynote lectures. The rest of the time they are closed. We use these auditoriums for our university screenings.
And we also show films in community centres and refugee camps that have an LCD projectors and a screen. We make films available to the community on a social-communal basis. In most of these areas there is no cultural activity at all. Cultural organisations don’t usually outreach to refugee camps, to towns and villages outside the centre. These are not glamorous. In these communities it is a social event to go to one of our film screenings. People get dressed up, and we have refreshments, coffee, and tea and cakes for the discussions. They see our films, sit around, talk about them, and discuss the issues. It is a very dignified experience in a daily life full of the indignity of being an occupied person. We create a momentary exit through a cultural movie experience with the aim of discussing women’s cinema. It is important that communities be empowered, that people talk and communicate within them and with other communities rather than re-enforce the isolation the occupation has imposed on them through checkpoints and the Wall.
Everybody is consumed and depleted by the survival effort, for survival is so harsh outside the centre that venues for discussion, debates are seen as a luxury. A film screening is a way to affirm the humanity of people, and their need to feel and think outside of the survival track. It is our way of affirming that culture is a human right like food and shelter.
For the last several years our festival has focused on films made by our women filmmakers because we think that these films are very relevant to people’s experiences. These girls come from these communities; they represent so to speak diverse Palestinian voices from the different governorates. The audience comes to see these films and interacts with them. These are not films parachuting in and parachuting out from the outside. They are part of the Palestinian landscape and texture.
In its three-month tour, the festival practically covers the whole of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even after the festival is over, we have requests throughout the year from organisations that are not part of the festival, asking to screen the films in their communities. We don’t ourselves organise the screenings in all these places. It is very important that these community organisations, universities, and refugee camp centres are the ones who organise the screenings. They know their constituency, and they know how to outreach to them and we want to empower them. We want these organisations to be stronger, and we want them to be linked to their communities.
You are the Director General of the organisation. How do you get funding?
We apply to donors. We have been funded since 2008 mainly by the European Union for the festival and the productions. But funding has been severely cut back here, as Palestine is not a priority issue on the international agenda. Our economy is dependent on donor aid because it lacks viability due to the occupation.
We are now trying to raise money for our tenth Women Film Festival, as “Ten Years of Women’s Cinema in Palestine’ which should have taken place last year, in 2014. But that year was the war on Gaza. Half the festival tour is in Gaza and half our filmmakers are from Gaza. Some filmmakers lost their homes, others lost family members, or family members were wounded. To respect that we decided not to have a festival in the West Bank only, so we cancelled the festival. We were going to have our tenth festival this year but could not raise the money because of funding cutbacks. We are now raising money for a celebration of “Ten Years of Women’s Cinema” in 2016.
Do you need specific equipment?
Through the funding we get, we buy equipment to do training. After the project is over, the equipment is turned over to us. This is how we have built our equipment base.
For the screenings, all the organisations have LCD projectors that they use for their educational purposes. We pay the organisations for the hall rentals, and we pay for the discussants and the hospitality. They can use the money towards buying the equipment, repairing the ones they have, or buying blackout curtains, etc. It is their option.
What can you say about Shashat film festival audiences? You talk about a lot of young people attending the screenings.
Our primary audience are students in universities and youths in refugee camps, and we reach a large general audience of over seven thousand people face-to-face through the screenings and discussions. We also shoot the film discussions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and produce TV programmes of them that are broadcast on Palestine Satellite channel. We are able to reach a national audience in the hundreds of thousands through the TV broadcasts. We were told by PSC that they actually received calls from Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates from people who commented on the programmes. It means they are watched by Palestinians in the diaspora.
We bridge the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through cinema. We counter the tense and divisive political discourse through discussions of the same film filmed in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip so that there is a communication between them culturally through cinema. The spirit needs to think, feel, and reflect. Cultural activities give people the opportunity to get outside the parameters and the constraints of a very rough daily life of dangerous mobility, economic crises, and the pressures of daily survival. It is also very important that youth be exposed and sensitized to women’s perspectives, and that youth engage with one another so that they don’t become close-minded and afraid of differences as we are seeing in so many parts of the Arab world.
In the discussion in the universities, students grab the microphone, talk and differ with one another. The TV programmes show very robust and vivid discussions among the students and among them and the facilitator. This provides a framework for a very open, critical and exciting time. We want to create this kind of atmosphere in which people can talk freely, say what they think, and differ with another in an open and tolerant manner. All of it feels safe because it is a discussion of a film. I don’t think that people would feel the same kind of safety in any other setting, or the same kind of willingness to speak comfortably and so openly. But anybody can have an opinion about a film.
How do you monitor and evaluate the impact of your work?
We do three evaluations. The first is a two-page audience survey with quantitative and qualitative sections: What did you get from the film? What struck you? Was the activity well organized? What do you recommend for follow-up activities?, etc.
The second monitoring is a report from the facilitator, the person who discusses the films with the audience. At universities, it is usually a university professor, in community screenings a local community leader or activist.
The third is an evaluation from the site itself, either the community centre or the university: What do you think this activity added to your student body or community? Is screening films a good way to communicate with your community and why? Can you build on the same themes in your other activities? Are you doing other cultural activities?
This is how we can reflect on our own work and learn from it.
During the screenings, do you have mostly women?
It depends on where the screening takes place. If it is in a women’s centre, it is mostly women. If it is a community centre, it is mixed in terms of gender, also age and social background. You will find the mayor, the municipal worker, housewives, and the local teacher… If it is a university, it is mixed gender.
We don’t desegregate the data based on gender. When I see the programs, at universities, it is usually half and half. But we will from now on.
Have you shown Shashat films regularly beyond the West Bank and Gaza?
Recently, we have had major requests from 1948 Palestinian organisations (in Israel). They are usually women’s groups working on gender-based violence, personal status law, in communities or with school children. The figures are outstanding: 2500 students see the films and discuss them. So we are now providing our films to organisations in Ramle, Nazareth, Haifa, Akka. Lod, etc. This is a recent phenomenon that started two years ago. The Arab schools inside Israel can show films while it is very hard for us here to enter schools. We tried but the Ministry of Education wanted to see the films, and wanted this sentence or that one cut, or said this image was not appropriate. We have school screenings only during the festival, but only one of our partners, the YWCA in Jericho, shows our films in schools.
What other issues do you face in the screening programmes?
There is no copyright law, although a bill passed its second reading in the Palestine Legislative Council, which has been paralyzed for years now, and so it did not become law. We sometimes read in the newspapers that a public event about some issue screened one of our films, without mentioning that it was produced by Shashat, or asking us for permission beforehand— which we would have given, and this disturbs us. We usually know nothing about it except after the fact from the press. Somebody may have copied the film, or some organisation that had it passed it to another organisation or a discussant passed it on. There is very little public consciousness about “intellectual property rights.” We explain to organisations that we want to be informed how our films are used, also we want to keep documentation of our screenings, and there should be respect to us as copyright holders. It is also important for the filmmakers to know where and how their films are screened and received.
We like to inform the filmmaker so that she can go if she wants to and can interact with the audience. The audiences love it when a filmmaker is present. But because there is no copyright law, people feel they can do whatever they want with the films. We try our best to keep track, but we are not 100% successful.
Have you shown Shashat films outside the Arab world?
We have shown our films in many small international short film festivals as well as in Arab and European NGOs. One of our short films was shown in The Short Film Corner in Cannes in 2014, and another one now has won the third prize in the Arab Women Training & Research Centre’s film prize for a film on a woman. Eight films recently toured seven cities in Spain. We recently had films in CinemaAmbiente in Italy, “Palestine: Filmer c’est exister” in Switzerland, Aegean Docs in Greece, Committed Cinema Film Festival in Algeria, Hakaya Film Festival in Jordan, Human Rights Film Festival in Italy, Boston Palestine Film Festival, London Palestine Film Festival, etc. Sometimes the festivals invite the filmmakers. The West Bank filmmakers can go, but the Gazan filmmakers have not been able to participate in most of the festivals to which they are invited. It is too difficult to leave Gaza, as Rafah Crossing opens randomly and it is next to impossible to get permits to leave through Erez Checkpoint. One of our Gazan women filmmakers, Reham Gazali, was stuck in Egypt for a month waiting for Rafah Crossing to open so that she could go back home after returning, ironically, from the Naples Human Rights Film Festival.
How many films has Shashat produced? How many filmmakers have you trained?
We have produced 78 short films, 15 one-hour satellite TV programmes, and one book, Eye on Palestinian Women Cinema which is in Arabic, and a second book is in preparation. We have worked with most women filmmakers by either showing their films or having them participate in the consultancies and workshops, which we hold for the whole filmmaking sector. But the direct intensive training and production has involved 43 young women filmmakers. As we don’t do one-year training, each filmmaker has got to go through at least two years or more. Many of them are now working in the profession as filmmakers or trainers, getting production grants or scholarships to continue their education. As one of them said, “it is very hard to have someone believe in you when you are starting.” Shashat provided this crucial step in their development; it opened the doors for them professionally and personally.
“Nobody believes in you, but then Shashat comes in and believes in you. That is why Shashat stays with you forever” says Omaima Hamouri, a Shashat filmmaker now teaching editing at SAE in Jordan and working with the Royal Film Commission.
You have more difficulties finding funding for Shashat. This is related to budget cuts.
Cutbacks are affecting all sectors, but most severely culture. We have suffered as a result. The EU and Europe are more concerned with the refugee crisis on their borders and with the issue of terrorism. Palestine has refugees, but not the ones Europe is trying to deal with now. Palestine is not a hotspot that affects Europe and there is a political stalemate: nothing is moving here, so it is not such a priority issue anymore. Also in the present international economic context, funding has been cut back in all sectors and in all places. There is a global economic crisis that affects us here on the periphery but it also affects the populations in Europe much more.
If you have the possibility, how do you imagine developing Shashat in the future?
Now that we have given these filmmakers a portfolio and the skills and they know how to make films, we would like to start a small production fund because it is so hard to get a grant. When they apply to the Arab granting sources, they are competing with the entire Arab world and with established filmmakers. These young women filmmakers do not stand a chance. The local money pool is very small. The Palestinian Ministry of Culture has a Culture Fund for all areas of culture funded by the Norwegians, and the share of cinema every two or three years is about 150,000 USD, which cannot do much to revitalize the film sector. If young women filmmakers have a specific production fund targeting them they will learn the whole process of preparing a proposal, getting funding and producing on their own. This is the next logical step in our work.
Have you thought about crowdfunding?
We haven’t done it, but maybe we should. A lot of women filmmakers are doing crowdfunding so we feel we would be competing with them maybe, I don’t know. But that’s something to explore.
I was thinking in relation maybe to international women’s organisations?
Many international women’s organisations are in a traditional mode regarding issues of women’s empowerment. This morning, I got two emails from international organisations to which we had applied. They wrote back saying this is not women’s empowerment, this is women’s cinema. I sent them information about the impact of our work as well as links to films we did on violence against women, the rights of handicapped or elderly women. They are in the traditional mode of holding workshops on CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Discrimination against Women) or doing microfinance.
Times have changed. Youth in general are visually oriented and do not like to be ‘taught.’ They want to be engaged and be treated as peers. The social-cultural-political landscape in the region is quite scary regarding women’s status. I think we have to be very creative in presenting alternative ways of reaching youth on women’s issues.
We had a partnership with one of the largest women’s organisations in Palestine for two years on the “I am a woman in Palestine” project. They said that we are reaching areas and sectors of the population they cannot reach through workshops. They were farsighted. I think women’s issues are now the frontline of the contest for identity in the region, and we have to be there with all the resources that we can muster.
The alternatives are very dismal.
(1) See: http://www.shashat.org/new/
(2) Besides the festival, the other programmes are Young Women Filmmakers Incubator, Support to Palestinian Filmmaking Sector, and Cinema Culture Education.
Palestinian women make images: interview with Alia Arasoughly, director of a Palestinian cinema NGO, by Patricia Caillé © 2015. Images courtesy of Patricia Caillé.