Gendering the empowerment ecospace

Providing a nuanced and delectable “female” gaze into their women protagonists the ensemble auteur works of woman directors showcased at RSIFF were an eclectic ensemble coveting serious engagement with audiences.

S Viswanath

Immersive, engaging, eclectic and encapsulating. Provocative, prodding and perceptive. Each of the ensemble auteur works of woman directors showcased at the maiden Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) were these and much more.

Providing nuanced and delectable “female” gaze into their own ilk. The issues their fraternity confront, day in and day out, the world over. These multifarious cinemas drawn from woman directors across several countries including Saudi Arabia, the host nation, and its neighbouring regions, were an eye-opener. Truly epitomising what Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) stood for “Changing the Script.”

With empowerment and decisive engagement with their community the new normal among film festivals circuit world over. Gender parity, the done thing. It was pleasantly “surprising” being where RSIFF was being hosted.

Equally welcoming, in keeping with the changed times, were these ensemble creative works by women directors. Truly an absorbing adventure of its own for this critic who has been following creative works by women directors on women themes given their due space at the film festival.

Each showcasing how women are steadfastly and determinedly navigating the patriarchal hegemony, traditional shackles and stifling social strictures to come into their own. Some with triumphant success. Others constrained to bow to the larger filial expectations thrust upon them by circumstances.

Gender Evaluation

It will be pertinent here, as an aside, before I get into films that luminously lit up the RISFF screens, with their thematic concerns, delectable directorial delineations, to point out the latest Gender Evaluation 2021 exercise undertaken at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival to evaluate gender distribution in 2021 film selection reveals. Incidentally, according to the study, a comprehensive gender evaluation has been on, annually, since 2018.

Of the 132 films so evaluated from among submissions received, it was found that 45 films were made exclusively or predominantly by female directors that is 34.1 % (2020: 38.7 %). A slight dip may be vis-à-vis the previous, nevertheless, significant that the encapsulating effort was not just tokenism but in keeping the festival’s stated objective of ensuring representation.

In this regard, I believe that RSIFF too fared handsomely with this percentile in its representation of women, not only among directors, but the entire value chain of the film industry,

More importantly, across the operational and decision making hierarchy, witnessed especially, in projection rooms, where virtually every auditorium were “man”ned by professional woman technicians.

That programming and other sections of RSIFF too were happily and rightfully represented by majoritarian women, who did their assigned tasks with admirable aplomb, is another matter.

Likewise, as the study further notes, in the festival’s competition section, wherein a total of 17 people were involved in directing, the 15 films in the competition, five were female (29.4 %) and 12 male (70.6 %), besides five either directed or co-directed by women. Here again, RISFF presents a more primrose picture in women representational figures.

One other aspect about the Berlinale study is, in the course of the examination of gender distribution at Berlinale, and, in addition, to examining closely at Berlinale film selection, the festival also turned its attention and analysis to internal gender distribution for the board of directors, heads of festival, sections and initiatives.

It is heartening to note on all these parameters RSIFF simply far outweighs in decision making representations, not only vis-à-vis Berlin film festival but other Big Ticket film festivals as well, being held annually elsewhere.

Now, getting down to brass tracks, among the nine feature length films showcased at the film festival with women at helm were Farha by Jordanian director Darin J Sallam. The Indonesian fare Yuni by Kamila Andini, the proverbial French flick A Tale of Love & Desire (HISTOIRE D’AMOUR ET DE DESIR) by Leyla Bouzid, Danish film As in Heaven (DU SOM ER I HIMLEN) by Tea Lindeburg, Algerian film Sisters (SOEURS) by Yamina Benguigui, British movie The Colour Room by Claire McCarthy, You Resemble Me (TU ME RESSEMBLES) from Egypt by Dina Amer.

Of course, the homegrown promising prospects — the quintet of Sara Mesfer, Jawaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Hind Alfahhad, Fatima Al-Banawi with Becoming, and Quareer by another fiver comprising Ragheed Al Nahdi, Norah Almowald, Ruba Khafagy, Fatma Alhazmi, and Noor Alameer. This essay, however, has excluded shorts and souk sections from its purview of appraisal and examination consigning itself to the mainline feature section.

Daringly different

Each film, speaking of youth, today’s aspirational and ambitious generation, in transitory stage, seeking to break-free from the shackles stifling their soaring spirits, is an intimate, inventive and insightful tour-de-force.

Daringly different and departing from accepted and familiar conventions, mirroring and pitting women and their struggles, in a society, steeped in patriarchal hegemony. Mirroring to help us, audiences, assimilate and engage the challenges that these women confront and how they surmount them with Sisyphean determination.

A scene from the film Farha

Jordanian director Darrin Salla’s heart wrenching and mind numbing debutant Farha speaks of the tumultuous trails and trauma women undergo due to strife — civil, religious, political or otherwise.

Told through the eyes of its young titular rebellious protagonist, whose dreams of education and empowerment is sanctioned by her otherwise tradition bound mayor dad, is brutally crushed.

The film, which bespeaks of real-life tragic tale of Radiyyeh, a 14-year-old, whose village was destroyed during Al-Nakba (Catastrophe), is indeed true to life of several such Farhas.

The return of the Taliban, in Afghanistan, and their regressive dictates on how women should conduct (contrary to their own assurances and postures post US withdrawal) being detailed day in and day out as the whole world watches, a telling testimony that women still have a long way to go.

The film seems so apocryphal, in that, with the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan, the nation, and its women, who had progressed and seen freedom, during the unfettered time, being propelled back to dark days with no wherewithal to fight the Talibans and their tyrannical ways.

Similarly, caught in the strict Catholic traditions and faithful beliefs you have Danish director Tea Lindeburg in As In Heaven, spotlights on what filial and religious expectations and regimental beliefs can do to throttle the life of a young woman.

A scene from As In Heaven

Like Farha, in Tea’s As In Heaven, you have Lisa, who also harbours of better life and education outside of her pastoral home, in distant City, has her dreams bitterly crashed when her mother delivers the sixth child in the family and leaves it orphan.

The film shows how Lisa, in a society so steeply entrenched in superstition, and a tyrant of a father, stoically accepts her destiny, as if it was God willed and take on to the maternal role for her younger siblings and farm hold duties, even as her male neighbour and mate departs for a better morrow.

Thereby, the film, deftly deals with the cruel uncertainties a young woman has to contend with, and in turn, the limited, constricted rights she enjoys in a society bound in irrational beliefs and implicit faith in the external divinity and enjoins upon its womenfolk to follow the order.

Given the times we are living in, as a critic, while the film is indeed a searing study of a young woman’s struggle oscillating between adhering to traditional dictates and expectations and her own individual freedom and aspirations, one wished director Tea had provided a more positive outcome for her young protagonist than succumbing to the traditional one, which was a bit of a dampener.

By making her protagonist succumb more out of filial choice towards her kid siblings rather than referentially to the Divine Diktat rather than cast away any apprehensions she harbours in pursuing her own destiny of a promising future seems a tad disappointing to this critic at least.

The Colour Room

After all, a film’s and its maker’s, larger purpose is not only shine the beacon on social realities but also subtly offering avenues of hope as well for their intended audiences. However, when spoken to, the director, sought to differ.

At the other end of spectrum you had Claire McCarthy’s The Colour Room, where an impetuous, cocky and self-willed Phoebe Dynevor, simply thumbs snout at the established order to eventually achieve her life’s aspirations.

Based on the real life Clarice Cliff, a remarkable and determined pottery artist, of 1920s who introduced modern designs and colours — what would come to be known as Art Deco — to the traditional English pottery industry, the film bespeaks of how women with will and self-belief do achieve and scale summits despite all odds stacked against them.

In that, Claire McCarthy triumphs in her express attempts to spotlight on the women’s singular struggle to be recognised and heard for what they are if only they stood their ground firmly.

Like, The Colour Room, Egyptian-American journalist-director Dina Amer’s You Resemble Me, brings another real life saga of a young woman Hasna Ait Boulachen who was infamously incarcerated as Europe’s first female bomber in the wake of the bombing attacks of 2015 in Paris.

The film, vividly retelling the event, as to how the issue of identity and racial prejudices become dominant, and the hardship it brings upon people, especially woman, who are face an uphill task to fight for their rights, is a touching tour-de-force cinema that makes for meaningful watch.

Turmoil of desires

Conflicting Emotions: A Tale of Love & Desire

In Tale of Love and Desire director Leyla Bouzid cleverly and subtly explores the turmoils of self-censored desires due to one’s religious upbringing and expectations and the questionings of a young man.

Even as the young man navigates the troubled turmoils of his religious tenets have impinged upon him, you have director Bouzid also subtly and deftly bring to fore other social issues upfront that a liberated woman faces in such a stifling milieu.

Both Ahmed and Farah present a different spectrums of the immigrant experience and expectations. If Ahmed, despite being born in France, is as conservative as his community and beliefs expects him to be. Farah, a Tunisian, on the other hand, is less troubled with her sense of identity in an alien land, never really lost but accepting and assimilating her new milieu with the liberal disposition she bears. If Ahmed is like a bird in the cage, Farah, is the exact opposite, experiencing and exploring with that wanton waywardness, surprising Ahmed yet catalysing to reflect on his own inner demons.

Fractured past

Claire Fulton, in Sisters (Soeurs), spotlighting on three sisters, presents an engrossing fare of filial trauma and complex relationship dynamics even as these Algerian siblings combat the cobwebs of conflicting identity, life’s purpose and an aftermath past.

Looking into the past: Sisters

Transposed to distant France with their mother, following the Independence uprising in their own homeland Algeria, thanks to the patriarchal regime, when still kids, the trio sisters now take a nostalgic sojourn back on receiving the news of their father’s impending death, hoping for closure and in the process, bury the trauma that has tormented them all throughout their adult life and come to terms with it. The three miss their brother who abducted by their father has been hidden in Algeria itself these 30 years.

Despite its rather bit unengaging tale the film, which revolves around a sister trying to construct a play about their past, which roils the sisters, but provides a therapeutic touch, as it seeks to create and encourage discussion on issues such as identity, immigration, struggle for rights, heritage and history, freedom, safety and feminism.

Distant and distraught gaze: Sisters

The other films that also took a perspective and searing look into the ever changing modern society, as also issues of development, identity and life’s various foibles were Becoming, the Saudi Arabian feature bringing ensemble five set piece tales delectably dealt with five Saudi women directors.

As also Quareer another of Saudi Arabia’s offering with its similar five portmanteau pieces exploring and touching on the themes of abandonment, neglect, control, abuse and shame in a predominantly conservative society.

The women’s search and yen for individual identity, self-determination, emancipation and empowerment and spurt wings are all captured through the captivating portrayals of harsh reality, these girls and women risk everything to carve out their own spaces.

Indeed, in that sense, the first ever Red Sea International Film Festival, that hosted the privileged few like me to witness the society in transition through the multifarious films that was unspooled in the Historic District of Al Balad, in Jeddah, was really very revealing and surrealistic.

Promising prospects

Fed on news reports of a nation and society, especially its treatment of women, it was a revelation to see it in new light up, close, personal being at Ground Zero rather than making assumptions and presumptions from a distant far.

Truly, as, I have already noted, and said, in my previous dispatch, the multitude of female and women presence, the very many films on women oriented themes and helmed by women directors, the cross cultural influences being witnessed in the hoi polloi, the aspirations of the young women Saudis, are all real and certainly visible.

Surely, it would be a wondrous experience returning to the film festival as it progresses into its second edition, and thereafter, an itinerary, as a cinema curator, I hope will be in my calendar film festival listings, to embark on the journey taken by Saudi Arabia and understand and witness steady progress a nation is making in keep with the aspirations of its future generations, the brand ambassadors of a Saudi tomorrow.




S Viswanath is Freelance Film Critic. Chief Cinema Curator/Advisor for film festivals. He has been on Juries of several international film festivals.

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S Viswanath is Freelance Film Critic. Chief Cinema Curator/Advisor for film festivals. He has been on Juries of several international film festivals.

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