Why are there so few great women filmmakers?
Festival International du Film de Femmes de Salé 2013
I'm proud to have shot the first full-length feature ever filmed entirely inside the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia). I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will, reshape and redefine our nation.
- Haifaa Al Mansour -
Fatym Layachi as Zineb
The 7th edition of the Festival International du film de femmes de Salé recently ended. As usual, there were some excellent films in this year’s line-up. It bears repeating: film festivals in Morocco play a vital role in film exhibition, because of the dearth of film theatres in the kingdom. (Agadir, a city that includes with its outlying areas a population of nearly a million, currently has no film theatre.) Organized by the Bouregreg Association with several other organizations, under the expert direction of Abdellatif Laassadi, the FIFFS takes place, in the popular city of Salé, where screenings at the recently renovated Hollywood cinema were generally packed. Guy Désiré of Burkina Faso’s Fespaco was on hand to discuss a partnership with Laassadi to promote films by African women.
Abdellatif Laasadi with Guy Désiré of Fespaco
Outside the Hollywood Cinema in Salé
This year’s festival included twelve feature films from around the globe and for the first time, the FIFFS featured films only by women; past editions also included films by men, with a female protagonist. For nearly all of the filmmakers, this was their first feature. The doyenne of these directors was the Moroccan filmmaker, Farida Bourquia whose new film, Zineb: The Rose of Aghmat premiered on the opening night.
In a Moroccan film festival devoted to women, Farida Bourquia holds a special place: she is the first woman to have left the kingdom to continue her studies in dramatic arts. After studying at Moscow’s Institut Lounatcharksky between 1967 – 1972, she became, in 1976, the first woman hired as a filmmaker on Moroccan television. Her new feature, an historical film set in the 12th century, tells the story of Zineb Ennafzaouia, one of the most powerful women in Moroccan history, whose fourth husband, the Almoravid Sultan Youssef Ibn Tachfine, ruled over Marrakech. Zineb stars Fatym Layachi as Zineb and the recently deceased Mohamed Majd in one of his last roles.
Tijania Fartat Speaking with Moroccan filmmakers Saâd Chraïbi and Faouzi Bensaïd
During the festival, a conference entitled, “Le cinéma, la femme et le rêve d’un printemps arabe” was held on the topic of the Arab Spring and Women. Tijania Fartat, the former Director of the Rabat Academy, declared that it isn’t easy to organize a festival on women. But that the future of the country demands it, since there can be no Moroccan future without its female constituents. Attending this year’s festival was the President of the homologous and longtime pre-existing women’s film festival in Créteil, France, Ghaïss Jasser, who reminded us that the Arab Spring transpired because men and women alike in the Arab world, as elsewhere, are thirsty for freedom. In those revolutions, women in the streets alongside men have been a major force. Jasser added that women are like men: They want to make movies on everything, but unfortunately, they don’t have the same opportunities as men. A recent article in Le Monde entitled, “Parité: la farce de l’art” [Equality: the art world’s farce], points out the sad irony that despite largely outnumbering their male counterparts, female artists continue to have difficult in breaking through.
Ghaïss Jasser of Créteil
Founded in the 1970s in the wake of the women’s movement in France, the Women’s Film Festival of Créteil is surely the oldest film festival in the world devoted to women filmmakers. Créteil regularly receives around 1,200 films for a selection of fifty. While some may think that women have achieved perfect equality in the West, the fact remains that festivals like Créteil and Salé are critical for the promotion of female talents. Here’s a link to an article by Madeline Wickman on the top ten women’s film festivals in the world.  Some readers may think that in 2013 this is a non-issue, but I would remind them that, as recently as 2012, the organizers at the Cannes film festival revealed a list of in-competition films where. . . not one film was by a women. The selection, the organizers maintained, was made entirely on the individual merits of the submissions. . . . Still, out of around hundreds of submissions, it begs belief that not one film by a woman merited inclusion in the competition of the world’s premiere film festival. The Cannes incident prompted a satirical riposte, penned by Fanny Cottençon, Virginie Despentes, and Coline Serreau, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” (1729), that deserves to be widely read: “A Cannes, les femmes montrent leurs bobines, les hommes leurs films” [In Cannes, Women Show their Mugs, while Men Show their Films].  A new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, “Modernités plurielles” takes as its starting point that the hegemonic discourse that has dominated the contemporary post-WWII art history, and given a starring role to American artists, a fortiori male, was buttressed by Cold War political interests. Organized by Catherine Grenier, this groundbreaking exhibit looks at alternative, coterminous modernities that have often been relegated to a footnote, when included at all.
The Grand Prix of this year’s FIFFS went to Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda that, understandably, has been winning awards on the festival circuit since its debut in 2012. It represents many firsts for its country: the first film entirely shot in Saudia Arabia and the first feature made by a Saudi woman. And in 2014, for the first time, Saudia Arabia will compete for the best foreign film at the 86th annual Oscars with Wadjda. It would be hard to over-emphasize Al Mansour’s achievement, having succeeded in shooting a feature in a country where going to the movies itself is forbidden.
Wadjda tells the simple story of twelve-year old, Wadjda who lives in a Ryad suburb with her mother. Her mother can’t have any more children, so her father wants to re-marry to have a male heir. All narratives are plot driven and Wadjda is no exception. Wadjda wants a bicycle so she can race her best friend, Abdullah. In narrative construction, the protagonist must also be faced with obstacles: To a Western viewer, the hurdles facing Saudi females are so extensive as to appear exaggerated, requiring no less than the moxy of a Superwoman to overcome them: “The Islamic ideology combined with conservative local tradition has produced a society that infringes on women’s civil liberties.”  In Saudia Arabia, women must have the permission of a male family member to work, to travel, to attend school, and even to receive medical treatment. Even little girls are not exempt from these constraints: Wadjda’s mother tells her she can’t ride a bike, because it might make her infertile! In an interview, Al Mansour declared: “I'm proud to have shot the first full-length feature ever filmed entirely inside the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia),” adding, “I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will, reshape and redefine our nation.”  Al Mansour’s prediction seems promising, as we recently saw the status quo in Saudi Arabia upended when sixty women—in open defiance of the ban on driving similarly imposed on them—took to the streets of the kingdom behind the wheel. 
Another film I very much enjoyed this year was the French Canadian film by Chloé Robichaud, Sarah likes to Run. At twenty-five, Robichaud was the youngest filmmaker in the FIFFS competition, but she nevertheless has years of experience behind her, having begun making shorts at the age of seven. (Sarah Likes to Run was included in the 2013 edition of Cannes’ Un Certain regard.) It’s interesting to juxtapose this film with the Saudi film. In Wadjda, the problems facing women are tangible, while in the Canadian film, college-aged Sarah feels slightly out-of-step with the society around her, because she doesn’t adhere to traditional stereotypes of femininity. All she wants to do is run on the college track team; everything else literally just fades away from her mental view. She’s like a high-powered scientist with her monomaniacal focus. In order to pay for her studies in Montreal, Sarah accepts the marital proposition of Antoine whom she barely knows, in order to receive the government subsidy given to married students (a practice that apparently has become banal in Montreal in recent years, due to the escalating cost of higher education.) Interestingly, although it was his idea, the fact of living together quickly changes how he views Sarah. The film’s emotional high point comes, when despite himself, he breaks down in front of her and cries. He’s attracted to her, but he tells her he doesn’t know why since she is not particularly pretty or feminine. While another filmmaker would have made their arranged marriage her focus, Robichaud’s interest is elsewhere. Her film is particularly interesting for its exploration of gender difference. Canadian actress, Sophie Desmarais, gives a fine performance in the lead role and the film’s force comes from its understatement. Robichaud is currently at work on her new film about women and power.
Chloé Robichaud (left) with French journalist, Catherine Ruelle
Philippe Jalladeau, one of the founders of the Festival des Trois Continents in Nantes and an advisor to the FIFFS, told me to be sure not miss the Georgian entry, entitled Eka & Natia. The film was made by the filmmaking couple, the Georgian Nana Ekvtimishvili and the German Simon Gross. Based on Ekvtimishvili’s souvenirs, the film is set in Tbilissi in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall in the early 1990s when criminality was rampant and where the men are “violent, alcoholic, absent, overbearing or in prison.”  It’s the story of two fourteen-year old girls, best friends who must take a stance on the culture of violence surrounding them.
The story is told from their pov, with superb cinematography by Oleg Mutu, well-known for his work with Cristian Mungiu and Sergei Loznitsa. One of the two girls is forced to marry a local thug. The film’s high point comes during the wedding scene where Eka salutes her now married best friend by performing a male dance. Interestingly, the extended scene is shot in a single take that almost never shows her feet. The audience in Salé was so won over by the young actress’s bravura performance that they soundly applauded her, during the movie, at the end of the scene. Eka & Natia was awarded Best Screenplay.
While most of the films in competition were by and about women, the protagonist of one film, Satellite Boy (shown in “Un Certain regard” at Cannes 2012), is an aboriginal boy in the Kimberley region of Northwestern Australian. It’s also a deeply personal film since its filmmaker, Catriona MacKenzie, is herself part aboriginal. It’s worth pointing out that there some 500 different aboriginal peoples in Australia, each with their own language. Although Satellite Boy is her first feature, MacKenzie has extensive experience working for the small screen in Australia. Before that, she studied for a time at NYU where she counted Martin Scorsese, among others, as one of her teachers.
In the film, a young boy named Pete and his granddad live in an abandoned drive-in cinema in the middle-of-nowhere. Pete’s mother has left him to go and continue her studies in the city. When a big construction company wants to take over their land, Pete sets off for the city with his best friend, Kalmain, to dissuade the owners from evicting them. Twenty minutes into the film, the story turns into a boys’ road movie and an excuse to show off Australia’s spectacular landscapes, particularly the Bungle Bungles range, today a world-heritage site.
Road trip films are invariably tales of initiation and Satellite Boy is no exception: in the outback, when the boys’ have no water and no food, Pete recalls his granddad’s many lessons and manages to start a fire. That fire is just one of many that feature within the film. Satellite Boy is not just about the land and who owns it, but about the four elements: land, air, water, and fire. At one point, the boys discover an enormous satellite dish into which they climb. Once inside it, Pete repeats his mantra-like phrase to Kalmain: “Country looking after us,” which is followed by one of the many shots in the film of the glorious Milky Way.
If Satellite Boy is an allegorical film about man’s relationship with nature, it is also about the meaning of home. At the outset of the narrative, Pete, rejects his elder’s advice; he doesn’t want to live under the Milky Way but in a regular house that he draws in the sand. He reminds me of another little boy, this one Moroccan: Boubkar, the disenfranchised, glue-sniffing street kid in Nabil Ayouch’s Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2001) who similarly draws the outline of an imaginary home. In the end, Pete realizes he doesn’t want to live in the city “in a nice home” with his materialistic mother. He accepts his place, a far larger home, with his granddad, under the Milky Way.
During the q and a with the filmmaker, MacKenzie reminded us that aboriginal peoples have a totally different worldview when it comes to the proprietorship of land. Until 1992, Australian law was dominated by the British-imposed concept ofterra nullius, whereby Australian land was regarded as empty, belonging to no one, and therefore could be appropriated by British immigrants.  Whereas Western philosophy from Socrates posits man rather than nature as the center of the universe, aborigines understand that they are just followers or satellites [from the Latin, satelles for follower] of something much bigger. In their worldview, the land owns them and not the other way around.
For MacKenzie, the Australian landscape was from the beginning a protagonist in her film. Initially, she wanted to film in Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia, and the location for one of the most popular Australia films of-all-time, Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Films buffs will recognize the grandfather as the prominent Australian, aboriginal actor, David Gulpilil, whose first film as a teenager, Walkabout (1971), brought him to fame. (In a nice mise-en-abyme,Satellite Bo even references the earlier film.) MacKenzie’s debut feature bodes well for the future of Australian film.
Leïla Kilani’s On the Edge
In closing, a few more statistics. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first American woman to win Best Oscar for Director, while the New Zealand-born Jane Campion remains the first and still only woman to have won the Cannes Palme d’Or withThe Piano in 1993. Statistically at least, women filmmakers in Morocco have fared better: three times, they have won the top award at the National Film Festival, which exists since 1982 and has had only 14 editions to date: Laïla Kilani’s On the Edgein 2012; Yasmine Kassari’s The Sleeping Child in 2005; Fatima Jebil Ouazzani’s In My Father’s House in 1998. If in recent years, women have made strides around the world, they still have—in terms of filmmaking—a long way to go. The proverbial glass ceiling remains very much in place, particularly for women in film, where the financial stakes are often very high. Perhaps somewhat embarrassed by their abysmal record, the organizers of the 2013 Cannes film festival honored Campion with a special Carosse d’Or award for her life achievement in film. Her take on the situation—to paraphrase Linda Nochlin’s famous essay on women artists, “Why are there so few great women filmmakers?”  —is worth quoting at length:
"I’ve gotten used to it. It’s a question that is both tiresome and annoying. As with all the world’s problems, we need someone of the caliber of Abraham Lincoln to make an amendment that would require as many men as women to make movies. I’m not kidding. Such a measure would really make a difference. But if were a young woman today, passionate about filmmaking, I wouldn’t wait. I would never utter the “f” word: [she says “f” for” femme” in French]. I would roll up my sleeves and I would put all my energy, all my intelligence, all my ambition into making the best film I could. And then, I’d give it even more. Afterwards, I would think about the double achievement of Kathryn Bigelow with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and I’d say to myself that there is nothing that a man can do that a woman can’t too. Not even a war film. And there, my sisters, we can brag a bit, because she didn’t just make a war film. With The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow made the best film of 2009. "
Campion whose 2009 film, Bright Star firmly places her in the pantheon of great filmmakers, is right to stay positive, but the dismal truth is the barriers facing women are widespread, and not just in Saudi Arabia. A headline from today’s New York Times reads: “Why Female Chefs Get Overlooked.” 
For more about this year’s FIFFS, please consult its website at: FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL DU FILM DE FEMMES DE SALÉ
(SEPTEMBER 23 – 28, 2013)
Since her arrival in Morocco in 2010, Sally Shafto has been regularly covering Moroccan and Maghrebin film. She is the author of theZanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968 (2007) and numerous articles on the French New Wave. She teaches at the Faculté Polydisciplinaire de Ouarzazate.
 Cannes 2012: Saudi Arabia's First Female Director Brings 'Wadjda' to Fest, Hollywood Reporter, 15 May 2012. HTTP://WWW.HOLLYWOODREPORTER.COM/NEWS/SAUDI-ARABIA-WADJDA-CANNES-324596?
 Marie Zawisza, “L’art est un bastion sexiste; parité: la farce de l’art,” Le Monde, Culture & idées, Cahier n° 21366, 28 September 2013: 1, 3.
 Madeline Wickman, “Top Women’s Film Festivals,” HTTP://WWW.RAINDANCE.ORG/TOP-WOMENS-FILM-FESTIVALS/
 Fanny Cottençon, Virginie Despentes, and Coline Serreau, “A Cannes, les femmes montrent leurs bobines, les hommes leurs films,” Le Monde, 12 May 2012.
 Cannes 2012: Saudi Arabia's First Female Director Brings 'Wadjda' to Fest, Hollywood Reporter, 15 May 2012.
 Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Women Rise Up, Quietly, and Slide into the Driver’s Seat,” New York Times, 26 October 2013.
 See “Aboriginal People,” http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/aboriginals
 Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” ARTNews, January 1971: 22-39; 67-71.
 “Jane Campion, une reine en Carrosse,” Le Monde, 16 May 2013 : 15. My translation.
 “Why Do Female Chefs Get Overlooked?” New York Times, 12 November 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/11/11/why-do-female-chefs-get-overlooked