Beyrouth, ma ville / Beirut Madinati (Beirut, My City), 1982, Jocelyne Saab

Permissible Dreams
Women Pioneers of Arab Documentary Film

March 23 to April 29, 2023

Permissible Dreams is a series of historic non-fiction films made by Arab women, celebrating the diversity, innovation, and inspirational work by some of the earliest female Arab filmmakers. Often, when we think of women's or feminist filmmaking, our mind immediately goes to European and American feminist works from the 1970s. As great as that work is, as Europeans we can learn so much more about the world if we also engage with work from geographical areas we usually neglect. In this series, we aim to counter feminist film history's continued neglect of filmmakers from outside Europe and the US, by shedding more light on the role of women and their films from the Arab world as well as non-Arab women. The series also includes films by Jewish, Berber and other ethnic non-Arab filmmakers. This initiative is rooted in our desire to consider the diversity of political and feminist filmmaking from the geographical area variously known as the Middle East, the Arab world or South West Asia and North Africa. The series serves as a critique of the ongoing (Western) European dominance of funding as well as the infrastructures for preservation and restoration efforts (including our own).
In this series, we dedicate time to some of the most daring and engaging non-fiction films by Arab women, who began recording women's stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As such, the series deals with certain films that have been censored and neglected, and films that have been – accidentally or purposefully – ignored. There are films here that were banned, blacklisted or simply shelved and suppressed, ending up buried under other work in government-run archives. These archives have not (and still do not) receive the support or funding they need to safeguard their own film history. Likewise, the films' approaches and subjects often had to balance (self-)censorship and other forms of resistance, making them activist and political not only in terms of content, but formally as well. The series' title, Permissible Dreams, is meant to evoke this context: The films are the result of subtle forms of dissidence, negotiated by the filmmakers through explorations of the limits of permissibility. As Aziza, a woman interviewed by Ateyyat El Abnoudy, says in the film Permissible Dreams: "I never dream of things I cannot afford. [...] My dreams are permissible" – establishing the inspiration for Abnoudy's subtle approach to political dissent. The filmmakers included here combine a pragmatic stance on women's lives in their respective contexts with subtle but powerful dissidence expressed within the boundaries of their cultural heritage.
Some people may be surprised to learn that Arab women have been making films since the invention of film technology. Indeed, in the 1920s, Aziza Amir was already producing and starring in popular Egyptian films while Haydée Chikly from Tunisia wrote her own scripts and starred in her own films directed by her father. Due to different nationalist and neo-colonial government priorities and the development and availability of camera and recording equipment, as Arab women were picking up cameras, the world began to be swept up in revolutionary movements in the eras before and after decolonisation. The late 1960s were a time when artists and activists from the Global South began to revise their engagement with visual culture, and film became a tool in the emancipation of nations, communities and people. Women took up cameras more confidently than ever before and started to ensure their concerns and priorities were represented on screen as well.
Filmmaking in the Arab world is often a matter of idealism and activism, especially for women. In spite of many practical and ideological difficulties, women have found ways to introduce dissidence into their films flexibly and carefully. As a result, all films in this series – whether they are experimental, essayistic or poetic – are political in nature. We trace the histories of women making politically engaged films in the Arab world, and the inspirational political and cultural statements these pioneers made for their subjects, their audiences and the women filmmakers who followed in their footsteps.
In this series, we discuss a number of pioneering women filmmakers with films by Ateyyat El Abnoudy from Egypt, Jocelyne Saab and Heiny Srour from Lebanon, Selma Baccar from Tunisia, Assia Djebar from Algeria, the Palestinians Mai Masri, Layaly Badr and Khadijeh Habashneh, Izza Génini from Morocco, and Hala Alabdalla from Syria. We call these women "pioneers" for several reasons most effectively illustrated with concrete examples. For instance, while Izza Génini is not historically Morocco's first woman documentary filmmaker (Farida Bourquia was), she has a consistent style and thematic preoccupations as she looks at heritage, ethnic diversity and music in a filmography spanning more than twenty films. She has, moreover, made a considerable contribution to the global distribution of Moroccan documentaries. Sometimes these pioneers start making their own films very late in their lives, as we see with Hala Alabdalla, who only started to make films in 2006, after producing and co-directing films by the famous Omar Amiralay, among others. In other cases, they were the only woman to have made non-fiction films in their country until the 2000s, such as Assia Djebar of Algeria. Filmmaking tout court in Algeria is still a complex and dangerous undertaking, thus leading to the sometimes exilic and often transnational nature of the country's filmmaking. Likewise, in Palestine, it is hard to find resident women filmmakers, as the Palestinian people are so dispersed in exile and finding the means to make films inside the Occupied Territories is extremely difficult. Mai Masri, a Palestinian resident in Lebanon, was the first woman to start making films about Palestinians in refugee camps, initiating trends and tendencies followed by many later filmmakers both inside and outside of Palestine. Ateyyat El Abnoudy is also known as "the mother of Egyptian documentary," as she started in the early 1970s in a country mostly interested in its film history from the Golden Years of the 1940s and 1950s. Jocelyne Saab also worked as a journalist covering her country's national cinema, which was, at the time, growing fast and in parallel to Egypt's (where many Lebanese stars were active), but she committed herself to the less popular and usually controversial documentary form when the long Lebanese civil war began.
This series also reflects a growing global interest in the importance of archival work – including preservation and restoration. In curating this series and focusing on a particular cultural heritage, we have worked together with established institutes such as Arsenal in Berlin, the Cineteca di Bologna, the French CNC, INA, and Cinémathèque française, Arab Film Distribution in Seattle, Courtisane film festival in Belgium, the Africa in Motion film festival in Glasgow, and the Paris-based Association Jocelyne Saab. We also worked with individuals who have helped spur these initiatives by preserving and restoring the films in the series, and we thank Mathilde Rouxel, Azza El Hassan, Khadijah Habashneh, Layaly Badr, Izza Genini, Halla Alabdalla and Heiny Srour. As this list makes clear from this list, it is often the filmmaker herself who must lobby and apply to institutions to help safeguard her legacy.
What we aim to do with this film series is to show how these documentary women filmmakers developed their dissident filmmaking practices and ideals, their cultural and political dissent in places where censorship, conservative morals and a lack of investment made it prohibitively difficult to create or distribute documentaries, and how their interests and developments influenced the work of future filmmakers. (Stefanie Van de Peer, curator)
Stefanie Van de Peer is Reader in Film and Media at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her research focuses on the position of women in Arab and African cinema, and as a film historian she has a special interest in feminist film archives. Her publications include Negotiating Dissidence: The Pioneering Women of Arab Documentary (EUP, 2017) and Women in African Cinema: Beyond the Body Politic (Routledge, 2021). She is currently running a Royal Society of Edinburgh-funded project on Global Women's Film Heritage, in which participants investigate transnational networks of collaboration among feminist filmmakers. She has been curator and programmer for the Africa in Motion film festival in Scotland since 2007, for REEL film festivals, and guest curator for a number of other small film festivals, and has sat on the juries of diverse international film festivals.

With Heiny Srour in attendance on April 13, 2023
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