LET’S SMASH PATRIARCHY, ONE MOVIE AT A TIME
Reviews by Rabab Talal: “I have been passionate about movies since I was a kid and wanted to pursue my studies in cinematography before changing my mind. I believe that cinema is one of the strongest forms of art and a powerful tool for social change if it’s well used and expressed. The greatest potential of cinema is that it is one of the most effective mass media instrument. There is no doubt that it contributed to bring a change in society and societal trends. I strongly think that cinema can be very effective in educating society and promoting women and girls empowerment. We have noticed a real shift and change in the movie industry when it comes to female characters and the representation of women in the little and big screens these past years. Indeed, the more we see films with female leads and women in powerful roles in our screen, the bigger the impact. Thus, by including more women’s voices and embracing their creativity and reducing stereotypical portrayals of them, the more chances we have of influencing the next generation of girls and boys of having a more positive image of women’s empowerment.”
Movie Review #1: Papicha
Papicha is a 2019 internationally co-produced drama film directed by Mounia Meddour. Meddour recount the early days of the “black decade” that hit Algeria in the 90s through the character of a female university student, Nedjma majoring in French and whose dream is to become a stylist. The film’s setting comes into focus: it’s Algeria in the 1990s, afflicted by a bloody civil war between the government and Islamist fundamentalist groups. In 1991, an election debacle threatened to put Islamists in power. In order of preventing this, the state launched a coup, leading to the outbreak of civil war, with government forces fighting Islamic extremists. The violence was often brutal, and resulted in heavy civilian casualties. The war also resulted in Algeria’s relatively liberal social mores being eroded because of the continued threat of violence and a barrage of extreme religious propaganda.
The film Papicha opens with a scene full of poignant energy, where close-ups on femininity marked by glitter, are quickly restrained by a police control. Quickly, faces are covered, smiles are erased and terror creeps insidiously into the daily lives of all Algerian people.
The civilians are subject to the “Algerian civil war” where the rigorous leaflets are prolonged in terrorist acts. As posters promoting the veil proliferate in an anarchic fashion, Nedjma’s fashion designs are hammering away at female sartorial freedom. As the glittering boutique of polychrome fabrics morphs into a boutique that binds fashion to a unique definition, papichas define their lush dreams. Finally, while the bombs replace the leaflets and the patrols of women in hijabs, the seam replaces the designs with the diverse shapes of the papichas. A felt-tip pen, facing a weapon, a parade, and an oppression that has killed so much.
Few are the movies that reminds us or tells us the brutal 1995 Civil war in Algeria, nearly thirty years after French colonial rule officially ended. Moreover, the interesting and unique aspect of Papicha, is that it is written and directed by a woman and told from a woman’s point of view; which is very rare in Arab cinema. The main focus of the film is the relative freedom women had enjoyed prior to the 1995 Islamic insurgency, waged against an unstable and less-than-democratic government. The spirited performance of Lyna Khoudri is brilliant and remarkable as she plays the eponymous, rebellious university student, resisting religious extremism. An aspiring fashion designer, she envisions a fruitful career as a dressmaker; but not one who runs away from homeland to go abroad in order to study the craft. Unlike her friends, and most Algerian youth at that time who are eager to flee the country, Nedjma wants to stay in Algeria, and redefine “the Algerian dream” she often speaks critically of, and make a name for herself in her motherland, despite the harsh circumstances she is stuck in. One of the Nedjma friends calls Algeria “a big waiting room,” somewhere you bide your time in until you’re free to spread your wings and fly away to greener pastures. At a turning point in the film, Nedjma’s sister, a journalist, is shot point blank in front of their home, which inspires Nedjma to stage a fashion show at her university using the traditional Maghrebi garment, the haik, in defiance of new restrictions on women’s dress and behaviour.
Nedjma’s force of character, feminist conviction and rebellious spirit are marked in the plot through her inflammatory fashion show in which her friends and fellow-students will model outfits made out of a pile of old haïks, which, in the film, is doubly symbolic. The haïk, the typical outer garment worn by Algerian women, was a symbol of female resistance during the years of French colonial rule when women would hide weapons under them. The haïk’s colour, white, is a contrast to the black niqab worn in the Gulf countries.
Here in the movie, fashion is a symbol of defiance against the fundamentalists on another front, too. Staging a fashion show at the university flies in the face of the doctrine that women should not draw attention to their bodies, should not be educated and should not have their own businesses. Thus, PapiBetween the reveal of an unwanted pregnancy, a case of sexual assault, and a gunned showdown in the final act, Meddour illustrates brilliantly Muslim women’s fight for freedom and gaining control over their bodies through creativity and freedom of expression. Recounting the black decade that Algeria went through from a feminist’s point of view, shows the power of women and youth’ voice in the public space, and the important role they had in ending the islamist fundamentalist rule. Meddour puts forward a strong and poignant message, which is it is possible to be MUSLIM and FEMINIST.
Papicha touches the heart of the viewers with the main theme of the movie being women’s fight against the loss of freedom. Papicha is the first feature film by Algerian writer-director Mounia Meddour is a celebration of female empowerment. It becomes obvious early on in the film that the growing restrictions on freedom impact not only women but anyone who rejects the fundamentalist agenda.
Meddour, who has up until now been best known for her documentary film making, has picked a relatively unknown Algerian cast to tell her story of female friendships and defiance in the face of political repression and enforced social change. The film is inspired by real-life events, much of which Meddour herself experienced prior to resettling with her family in France when she was 20 due to political oppression in her homeland.
The film was selected as the Algerian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards, but it was not nominated and was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Movie Review #2: A Private War
A Private War is a 2018 American biographical drama film directed by Matthew Heineman and based on the true story of American journalist, Marie Colvin, and anchored by Rosamund Pike’s powerhouse lead performance.
Marie Colvin is a war/foreign affairs correspondent for the British newspaper, Sunday Times, visiting the most dangerous countries and documenting their civil wars. Jumping from one war zone to another, the movie recounts and celebrates the astonishing work of Marie Colvin, and the important events of her life. Both the movie A Private War, and Colvin’s journalistic work, share an important narrative in the role of female journalists in world conflicts.
Heineman’s film opens and closes in Homs, the in ruins Syrian city that Colvin memorably described as “a ghost town, echoing with the sound of shelling and the crack of sniper fire.”
The film then takes the viewer back in 2011, showing Colvin and her crew being ambushed by the Sri Lankan Army while trekking with the Tamil Tigers. An RPG fires in her direction, wounding her to the point that she loses her left eye, unalarmed, Colvin wears the black eye patch that would then become a symbol of defiance, and heads back into the battle.
She lives in London when not traveling the world. Colvin is constantly attracted to danger zones, putting her life on the line in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, while declaring that “fear comes later”.
Diagnosed with PTSD, Colvin is still determined to look for new stories, and argues with her boss, Sean Ryan, about conflicts she wants to cover, including Iraq, where she meets war photographer Paul Conroy. In February 2012, Conroy and Colvin decide to cover the conflict in the city of Homs, where they find 28,000 Syrian men, women, and children caught in the crossfire. After Conroy and Colvin send their story to Ryan, Colvin decides to appear on CNN to bring awareness to civilian casualties. As Marie, Paul, and another reporter, Rémi Ochlik, flee the building they had used as a media centre, the street is peppered with explosions. Paul, injured and shell-shocked, wakes to find Colvin and Ochlik killed from the explosions and subsequent pile up of rubble. We hear Colvin’s disembodied voice, contemplating upon her legacy, and concluding that “I cared enough to go to these places and write, in some way, something that would make someone else care as much about it as I did at the time.” The movie ends with imagery of the devastated city of Homs, followed by an interview of the real Marie Colvin, with the quote: “You’re never going to get to where you’re going if you acknowledge fear.”
Colvin repeated question throughout the movie is “Why is the world not here?” as she travels into the deadliest and often overlooked areas of conflict. The answer seems simple: where Colvin felt an unstoppable need to witness and report on “the truth”, others often feared to follow.
A Private War is a poignant movie as it gives powerful voice to the predicament of the innocent victims of conflict, such as the Syrian refugees, and whose stories are recounted with chilling, heartbreaking authenticity. But Heineman is also focused on Colvin’s inner struggles, raising age-old questions of risk-addiction while finding something deeper and more altruistic in his subject’s motives. The film is highlighting the experience of being a woman in journalism, along with its struggles, including the sacrifices, and ultimately, the important stories this kind of work reveals to the world. Motivated by a strong desire to bear witness and give voice to the voiceless, Colvin charges into danger, constantly testing the limits between bravery and boldness. She brought the human cost of such conflicts home to her readers. She was the willing witness to unearthed mass graves, starving civilians, and children torn apart by bombs. She lifted up the voices of those disenfranchised by war to the wider world.
Something interesting to take away, is that the extras used in the making of the film where actual refugees from places Colvin reported from. In A Private War, Colvin’s work is celebrated, while the personal costs for her psyche-shredding vocation are explored.
Colvin’s motto, “Simply: There’s no way to cover war properly without risk…” has also inspired and paved the way for other fearless women to step up and fight for the truth overseas. “Martha Gellhorn, Maggie O’Kane and Christiane Amanpour are all high-profile female journalists who have done important war-time work in the same vein of work Colvin has done.”
Thanks to fearless women like Colvin, and through their lives and careers, they were able to pave the way for other women to get involved and play a key role in a risky field. Thus, during a time where facts are being changed and personal interests are getting in the way of a just democracy, Colvin’s motto for journalism still rings true for people in her line of work: “Our mission is to speak the truth to power.” Colvin as an unshakeable warrior in her own right, whose weapon was her words and whose shield was her confidence. Heineman paints brilliantly a story of a woman who refused to let the world see her fall to pieces, which makes the moments when she does feel all the more shattering. Additionally, the film has an illuminating seriousness in educating its audience, not just about Colvin, but about the conditions in which war correspondents expose themselves to bring us the news. Yet at a time when news itself is under criticism, with journalists discredited and attacked by authoritarians determined on eradicating the very concept of truth, makes Colvin’s story more relevant than ever.
The film received generally positive reviews from critics, who praised Pike’s performance. At the 76th Golden Globe Awards, the film earned nominations for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama (Pike) and Best Original Song (“Requiem for A Private War”), while director Matthew Heineman received a nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First Time Feature Film Director from the Directors Guild of America.
Movie Review #3: The Stoning of Soraya M.
“Women’s voices are not heard in Iran” -Zahra, Sorya’s aunt
The movie can be perceived as a graphic description of atrocities committed to an innocent Iranian woman due to patriarchal norms, tribal misogynist traditions, Islamic fundamentalism.
The Stoning of Soraya M., co-written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh is based on real-life journalist Sahebjam’s internationally best-selling nonfiction book, which talks about a real incident that happened in Iran in 1986.
The movie director bases the film’s structure on the title event: Soraya will be stoned to death, and you will watch. Stoning, killing or burning women as witches are misogynist practises that were born to oppress, subjugate women and define them as inferior properties.
The stoning of Soraya is an Persian-language American drama film that talks about a crucial phenomenon that women face in many parts of the world, especially in Iran. Stoning is the act of making a person die under a rain of stones thrown by one or several people. It is considered as a punishment for adultery which is perceived as a capital crime in many countries. In Iran, women accused of adultery can be stoned to death. The penalty of stoning is included in the Iranian Criminal Code. According to this law, A woman who has committed an act of adultery will be buried up to her chest, more profound than a man would be, and the stones thrown at her will be big enough to hurt her but not big enough to kill her immediately. Even though we know that iniquitous laws and practices still apply in many parts of the world, it is as if horror in its purest form, were hitting us with a sledgehammer every time.
The film opens with french-Iranian Freidoune Sahebjam travelling to a remote Iranian village when his car’s radiator breaks. He stops to look if someone can repair it. That is when Hashem says that he will try to fix the broken radiator. After, a local woman called Zahra tried to speak to him in secrecy and asked him to record her haunting tale of what the village devils did to her niece Soraya. The story is then told in flashback.
The movie’s story is about a woman called Soraya, who was married to an immoral monster who was disrespecting and beating her. After 20 years of marriage, her husband Ali decides to wed a 14-year-old girl, and since he cannot afford two wives, he demands a divorce. Soraya refuses because she is not able to support her children alone.
Once Ali sees that his wife will not cooperate, he obliged her to work for a widower neighbour, Hashem, and then accuses her of adultery, by using witnesses, including Hashem himself. However, their evidence is incredibly ridiculous; “Soraya napped in Hashem’s bed when he was at work”. With this so-called evidence, the village decides that Soraya must be stoned to death, despite knowing her husband’s vile motives.If this is not pure cruelty and oppression, I do not know what it is. Against the village’s villains stands a strong voice, that of Soraya’s aunt, Zahra. She shouts at these human blood dealers and promises that Soraya’s death will not be unnoticed.
Hashem betrayed Soraya because Ali threatened him, and he was scared for his life. This behaviour shows that we are not innocent and not at fault if we do not pull the trigger or launch the missile. Our silence and passivity can also condemn us if evil is not fully resisted. Silence makes us accomplice in these crimes. We should stand up against injustices and denounce them.
The stoning sequence is heartbreaking and unbearable to watch. The sorrow that flows from this scene is unbelievable. Soraya is buried in the ground from the waist down with her hands bound. The camera shows every murderous detail of her torture. Her father and her two sons were the first ones casting stones and calling her with filthy names. The rest of the village males continued their barbaric practice until rocks and blood surrounded Soraya’s lifeless body. The scene of Soraya’s pitiful death will be engraved in viewers’ minds for the rest of their lives. The time allocated to this scene, approximately 20 minutes, has allowed visualizing the brutality of such practice. You feel every second of it in your bones. This prominent screen time enables this story to carry weight and make moviegoers take notice.
I personally consider this movie one of the most brutal and moving films ever made. The filmmakers declare that it was crucial to call attention to the horror of stoning, which still occurs in many Muslim countries, including Iran, according to several human rights organizations. The movie has a value as a call to action. From the press perspective, it is crystal clear that the film’s producers aim to raise awareness of gender-based violence and encourage activism against it.
Movie Review #4: Desert Flower
Desert Flower is a German biographical film directed by Sherry Hormann and released in 2009, based on the international best-selling novel of the same name by Waris Dirie, which tells Dirie’s inspirational story.
The film recounts the life of Waris Diarie, from the deserts of Somalia to the catwalks of the world and becoming one of the world’s most famous supermodels appearing on the covers of top fashion magazines across the globe, and subsequently being appointed a United Nations spokesperson for the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.
The opening scene of the film shows Waris escaping at age of 13 from an arranged marriage her parents’ orchestrated, with an important senior in the community to become his fourth wife. Waris left her family and crossed the desert barefoot to reach Mogadishu where her relatives sent her to work as a maid to the Somali Embassy in London during her teenage years, unable to read or write. Then, when the armed conflict in Somalia started, instead of fleeing back, she preferred to wander the streets of London. The film cuts between her experiences as a young girl in Somalia and what happened in London, where she ran away, lived on the streets, where she then became friends with Marilyn, an independent woman with strong character, with who she becomes roommate. Marylin found a job to Waris in a fast food restaurant mopping floors, and that’s where she was “discovered” by the fashion photographer Terry Donaldson. Through him and a mercenary modeling agent named Lucinda she rises not without challenges to the top ranks of modeling.
The makeover scene, which strangely comes after Waris and Marilyn compare vaginas and Waris realizes not all women are physically mutilated, is infectious and intense to watch.
We discover that, as a child, Waris was circumcised as it is the custom in many African countries. Eventually, writer-director Sherry Horman stages the expected genital-mutilation scene; though not explicit, it is heartbreaking nonetheless. Waris ultimately denounces genital mutilation before the United Nations and becomes its spokeswoman against the practice. Thus, the main theme of the film is focused on the archaic and ancient deep-rooted tradition of female genital mutilation. A tradition that has been practiced in at least 28 African countries, many Southeast Asian countries, and on migrants in Europe, North America and Australia that come from African countries.
The contrasting upshot of going from photo-shoot glamour to documentary-esque flashbacks of a three-year-old getting her vagina sewed up might be part of the film’s point, but it can be paralyzing for an audience. Indeed, the film jumps from one scene concentrating on the “superficial” world of modeling to poignant and disturbing scenes showing the suffering and struggles of what young girls have to face in certain parts of the world. There is also something contrary and perverse about having Estee Lauder supermodels, in fiction and in real life, cast as an antidote for ordinary women’s everyday horror in Africa.
This film is emotionally powerful with memorable scenes that are extremely moving. The character development of Waris is brilliant. The back story in Africa is also compelling in getting a glimpse of the complexity of issues and various injustices a young refugee girl like Waris deals with. Although Desert Flower’s final message is represented as “Let us try to change what it means: To be a woman,” this change seems to be imperative for the non-white women of elsewhere, as to redefine the standards of beauty within the fashionable and modeling world of London and the Western world in general as the definition of womanhood goes unquestioned. Additionally, no recommendation is made as to whether the Western woman herself isn’t sewed up in her own way and her own context.
All in all, the film “Desert Flower” reminds us that there are countless stories from Somalia that need to be told and, on the screen, to bring awareness to this part of the world, that is often overlooked or forgotten.
Movie Review #5: Official Secrets
Official Secrets is a 2019 British thriller based on the true case of whistleblower Katharine Gun, who leaked a classified memo exposing an illegal spying operation by American and British intelligence services to influence and potentially blackmail United Nations diplomats in charge of voting on a resolution concerning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Directed by Gavin Hood, the film recounts the story of Gun, a female translator working for the British security services at the GCHQ surveillance unit. In 2003, she was surprised to receive an email making it clear she was expected to find out incriminating personal details in the lives of UN representatives from small countries so that they could be blackmailed into voting for the war in Iraq. The language of the email and its blackmail aims are an indisputable violation of global diplomacy. For those reasons, Gun printed out the email, and passed it to an anti-war friend, and it eventually formed the basis of an astonishing front-page scoop in the newspaper The Observer. Throughout the movie, we can feel Gun’s drive and eagerness to prevent the war from occurring, despite her fear of getting caught; in particular in one of the scenes where she makes a powerful statement “Just because you are the prime minister, doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts” referring to Tony Blair.
Although, her efforts did not stop the war, as Gun dreamed of doing, it played an important part in turning press and public opinion. Naturally, Gun had to face the consequences of her actions as she was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act of 1989. To further complicate matters and exert pressure on her, the British authorities attempt to deport Gun’s Muslim husband Yasar, a Turkish Kurd immigrant.
Gun becomes a cause célèbre and is defended by Ben Emmerson, a human rights attorney who has experience working within the labyrinthine British government. On the day of the trial, the Crown prosecutor drops all charges against Katharine on the grounds that prosecuting her would have shown that the Blair’s government led the UK into war on false pretenses. The film then mentions the human toll of the Iraq War and that the illegality of the Iraq War was made public in 2010.
Keira Knightley performance, is powerful as she represents the access point of today’s audiences, and demonstrating a remarkable strength as her attitude shows an ahead-of-her-time passion. She openly critiques the news and is determined in her opposition to governmental threats. Knightley gives a focused, credible and pleasant performance as Gun, and the film shows that she is in many ways the classic whistleblower. She has an idealism, work ethic and professionalism that made her an excellent intelligence operative initially, and yet it is exactly these traits that made her rebel. Additionally, she is young, which reminds the viewers of cases such as the ones of Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning, as they associate her with them.
Gun story is inspiring as it is one of an ordinary woman whose moral backbone gave her the courage to act in a potentially disastrous way. The film is successful because not only it recounts a true story, that some of us has followed on the news when it actually happened, but it also continues to resonate with today’s context as governments are still getting mixed up in international conflicts for the wrong reasons and with unrealistic predictions. The elevated death toll on both sides speaks for itself. It also reminds us the unfortunate reality of Iraq today, and the terrible consequences that the invasion brought to the country. Indeed, the failure ever to find conclusive evidence of weapons of mass destruction or of ties between former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, demonstrated the true motives behind governments such as the UK and USA in invading Iraq.
All in all, the press is considered the “fourth estate,” the cinema is arguably the “fifth estate.” In fact, by merging mass entertainment, drama, and first-rate acting with a true story of an ordinary woman who stood up to the powers of the world. Official Secrets denounces former leaders such as Blair, Bush, and other mass murderers in the court of public opinion. This is another movie that shows women’ incredible charisma, leadership, courage and sacrifice in complex and patriarchal environments, in which their fight to denounce political manipulation and war crimes knows no limit, to the point of sacrificing their own freedom or lives.