Rarely have the cultural stereotypes assigned to Arab women been contested as much as they have in their own films. The topics tackled by the female filmmakers of the Middle East are packed with purpose, steering away from political clichés, the subject matter is diverse and daring, from child abuse and female genital mutilation to flights into sci-fi fantasy. In this three-part series we speak to the Emirati female filmmakers that have helped to shape the silver screen.
In Egypt, there are 27.2 million women affected by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – Omnia Ibrahim is one of them. An intimate matter, which is still regarded as taboo by some, Amna Al Nowais’s documentary, Omnia (2015), lifts the veil on her story.
“I visited several psychotherapists in search of a story,” shares Al Nowais. “I found one that used creative therapy for her patients and in Omnia’s case, she said she would really like to express herself.” Bringing light to a topic often imagined as far-removed, the young Abu Dhabi-based receptionist reveals the psychological and physical trauma she endured after undergoing FGM as a child in Egypt. “I didn’t want to make a film about an Arab woman as a victim,” she says. “So, much about film relates to empathy, and that can lead to conflict resolution.”
documentaries are a channel of communication, opening discourse around the subjects they detail; film as a medium can act as a catalyst for change
For some, film is synonymous with escapism and switching off, a form of entertainment and, at times, an education. Like all good documentaries, Omnia educates, but films like Al Nowais’s also play a greater role within society. By bringing a human face to FGM, Al Nowais plays a part in questioning the structures that allow this heinous practice to take place.
“The way we experience stories is through the same neurological pathways that experience emotions, so films can lead to greater understanding, ” says Al Nowais. From both sides, documentaries are a channel of communication, opening discourse around the subjects they detail; film as a medium can act as a catalyst for change. Emotionally charged, Omnia offers an insight into an area often shrouded in secrecy and shame, but if her story resonates and motivates, then it is a film that creates awareness.
So much about film relates to empathy and that can lead to conflict resolution
Amna Al Nowais
A student of Hebrew and Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, the 28-year-old has always been drawn to concepts surrounding conflict resolution, but fell into film quite by accident. By the time Al Nowais returned to Abu Dhabi post- graduation, the film scene in her home city had transformed, flush with opportunities that had not previously been there. “They were really trying to grow the industry with a strong emphasis on training,” she recalls. Supported by local platforms like Image Nation and the Arab Film Studio, Al Nowais maintains that as a female, she felt nothing but supported in her entrance into film. Omnia’s story has a global reach; a matter of grave concern for the UN, there are 200 million women in 30 countries that have endured the same, harrowing experience as Omnia. Al Nowais’s film was selected for 21 film festivals, including Hot Docs, Toronto, Melbourne International Film Festival, and Dubai International Film Festival, as well as winning five prestigious awards including the ‘Best Muhr Emirati Short’ at the Dubai International Film Festival.
But, despite the international success of Omnia, Al Nowais’s next venture will, in fact, step away from reality in favour of fiction. “With fiction everybody is in on the lie, but with documentaries it’s difficult to tell how much you’re manipulating the situation,” she reflects. “When you make a cut, you’re imposing an idea.”