New Arab Women’s Film Collective, Rawiyat – Sisters in Film, Launched at El Gouna Film Festival

Filmmaker and journalist Dorothée-Myriam Kellou has announced the creation of a new collective, Rawiyat – Sisters in Film, at the El Gouna Film Festival.

Speaking on the “Women’s Empowerment Through Film” panel at the festival, Kellou said: “The English name is Sisters in Film, and the Arabic name, Rawiyat, is the feminine term for storytellers. There are nine of us who are co-founders of the collective. We had all recently gone through the emotionally wrought and financially draining experience of making our first film. And we realized that it would be very hard to do a second film, without more emotional and financial support.”

The group, which will be headquarters in Paris and Tunis, was founded by Naziha Arebi (Libya/U.K.), Yasmina Chouikh (Algeria), Danielle Davie (Lebanon), Myriam El Hage (Lebanon), Kellou (Algeria/France), Dina Naser (Jordan), Erige Sehiri (Tunisia), Lina Soualem (Palestine/Algeria/France) and Kawthar Younis (Egypt).

They have created a manifesto, published on www.rawiyat.com. This states: “We aim to foster a supportive and egalitarian market to shape a fair, healthy, sustainable and transparent film industry, accessible across gender, generations, class, ethnicity and borders. We advocate for a non-competitive, anti-capitalist approach by creating a network and solidarity among filmmakers from the Middle East, North Africa, its diaspora and refugee communities.”

In addition to Kellou, the “Women’s Empowerment Through Film” panel featured Egyptian actress Menna Shalaby, Indian actress Richa Chadha, Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Najwa Najjar (“Between Heaven and Earth”), and documentarian Jihan El-Tahri. Last year, the French-Egyptian El-Tahri was appointed director of DOX BOX, the Berlin-based organization devoted to supporting the development of a sustainable documentary scene across the Arab world. DOX BOX will be helping Rawiyat – Sisters in Film establish a database that will act as a resource that will help service the needs to try and improve access for Arab women to the film industry.

In a wide-ranging discussion, El-Tahri talked about a recent DOX BOX report about filmmaking in the Arab region, revealing, “An amazing rise in the number of films directed by women, but for everything around film production, female participation barely exists. There are very few camera-women, and producers, so while the visibility of women is much greater, their ability to make vital decisions remains out of their hands.”

Najjar added that the lack of female gatekeepers means that stories in films from the region remain centered around traditional gender stereotypes. “There is a need for female characters in Arab movies to have more well-rounded stories,” she said. “What I’m finding since the #MeToo movement is that it’s changed a bit, but not enough.”

The panelists lamented that female protagonists were better represented before the 1960s than for decades after, across the world. Giving the example of India, Chadha said, “Women were at the forefront of stories in the 50s and 60s. That went away in the 70s, 80s and 90s.”

There has been some light in recent times. “Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a big change,” says Chadha. “It’s a delayed response to globalization and with the advent of global streaming platforms, people are not so beholden to the first-weekend box-office, which is making storytelling more dramatic. In the independent film sector, it has improved a lot.”

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