BFI Southbank’s new season The Time Is New: Selections from Contemporary Arab Cinema showcases a wealth of new visions of the Arab world, far from the stereotypes normally depicted in the media. The season’s films cover a swathe of experiences, attitudes and cultures, many of which centre on the female Arab experience. This list of films seeks to replicate that spirit with 10 films from across the decades featuring portrayals of Arab women that are complex, subversive and exciting.
When Edward Said wrote Orientalism in 1978, before many of these films were made, he decried representations of the Middle East that were made to fit colonialist attitudes of superiority. Nowhere is that truer than in most cinematic depictions of Arab women, where they are limited to being hysterical background characters or unambitious victims subjugated by their faith. The films on this list subvert that oversimplification, giving the Arab women they depict a rich interiority. The women in these movies have vastly different lives, dreams and cultural identities; they are afforded a full range of humanity.
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The stories capture a range of contexts, from the political to the domestic, the immigrant to the native, and the tragic to the triumphant. What ties these women together as ‘Arab’ is abstracted almost to the point of meaninglessness – a reminder that the very concept of the Arab is itself a nebulous evolving construct. But the combined picture formed by these characters is one of complicated people navigating their way through a world that often underestimates and misunderstands them.
The Nightingale’s Prayer (1959)
Director: Henry Barakat
Henry Barakat’s revenge drama is quite restrained as classic-era Egyptian cinema goes, but still has some of the great roars of melodrama that the era is known and loved for. Based on a novel by Taha Hussein, it tells the story of Amna (Faten Hamamah), whose sister is killed by their uncle for “dishonouring” their family. Amna sets out to take revenge on the engineer (Ahmad Mazhar) who led her sister down this dishonourable path, which ultimately led to her execution. She gets a job in his home, only to find herself developing feelings for him.
While the gender politics may no longer seem so progressive, for Egypt in 1959 this centring of a woman and explicit criticism of patriarchal constructs was decades ahead of its time. Combined with beautifully realised set design, which is lit to enhance the by turns seductive or terrifying nature of each scene, The Nightingale’s Prayer and its steely protagonist have aged beautifully.
The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974)
Director: Heiny Srour
Lebanese director Heiny Srour’s documentary about the Dhofar uprising against the British-backed sultanate of Oman was the first film by an Arab woman to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival and to compete for the Palme d’Or. The film follows a guerrilla movement trying set up a democratic, liberated, feminist utopia, free from patriarchal and colonial oppression.
Decades later, Srour’s story still feels sadly relevant, with themes of feminist resistance resonant across the Arab world, where women have struggled for their rights against both occupying armies and societal misogyny. The women of The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived are able to do things that we have been long told are impossible: feed the poor, disrupt imperialism and treat each person with full human dignity. That dignity extends to Srour’s lens, which eschews a paternalistic outlook and makes these women the heroes of their own stories.
Fertile Memory (1981)
Director: Michel Khleifi
This is the earliest work of Michel Khleifi, best known for his radically humane depiction of the Palestinian / Israeli conflict in romantic drama Wedding in Galilee (1987). In his debut he shows the stifling effect of occupation on Palestinian women, and the space they create together to cope and to resist. The film’s dual protagonists are Roumia, an elderly widow living on the outskirts of Nazareth, and Sahar, a young writer in Ramallah.
Set on both sides of the ‘Green Line’ and blurring fiction with non-fiction, Fertile Memory tells a wider story of Palestine but gives space to the absorbing minutiae of these women’s lives. The film honours their contribution while acknowledging their lack of recognition both as Palestinians and as women.
Wanderers of the Desert (1984)
Director: Nacer Khemir
The first of Tunisian director Nacer Khemir’s ’desert trilogy’, which also includes The Dove’s Lost Necklace (1991) and Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (2005), Wanderers of the Desert is based on a Sufi poem. It’s the story of a teacher who takes a job in a remote Saharan village, where the locals are obsessed by a mysterious treasure. The children are cursed to wander the desert, singing and going in circles in a never-ending Sisyphean ritual.
Through the mesmerising presence of a girl (Soufiane Makni), the teacher is drawn into this magical desert landscape, the narrative all but unravelling over the course of the film, leaving us and the characters untethered from time and space. With an elegant, otherworldly performance from Makni at its heart, Khemir’s film is able to conjure the lyrical poeticism of the source material.
The Silences of the Palace (1994)
Director: Moufida Tlatli
An intersectional feminist film long before the term existed, The Silences of the Palace examines its protagonists’ stories through the lens of class, religion, gender and sexuality. After the death of a prince, the film follows Alia (Hend Sabri, whose illustrious acting career was launched by this film) to a cavernous palace where her mother, Khedija (Amel Hedhili), worked for the prince as a housemaid. Alia, now a nightclub singer, reminisces on her childhood, and the film flashes back to her mother’s life of economic and sexual oppression under Tunisian aristocracy.
Layered with Alia’s own questions of identity, the story mirrors the broader Tunisian struggle after emerging from French rule. Director Moufida Tlatli provides us with no simple explanations, but her expert direction make this cross-generational tale cohesive and fascinating.
Director: Nadine Labaki
Named after the hair-removal process rather than the confectionary, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s dramedy follows five women in Beirut whose lives revolve around a beauty salon. It’s a resolutely apolitical look at contemporary life in Lebanon, which makes rich drama out of its female protagonists and their interpersonal dilemmas. Unapologetically feminine, it foregrounds the solidarity of womanhood and the strength of friendship’s bond, striking a balance between the specificities of life in Beirut and the universal truths of female companionship.
Labaki’s debut was the first of a series of extraordinary films, including Where Do We Go Now? (2011) and Capernaum (2018), where even with far heavier subject matters she brings rare empathy and an eye for a stunning composition.
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
This debut feature by director Haifaa Al-Mansour was the first film made entirely in Saudi Arabia. It was distributed and acclaimed around the world. Its title character is a lively tomboy whose Converse peek out from under her long black hem. She lives in Riyadh, with her loving but complicated family, and dreams of owning a bicycle, which are generally considered improper for young girls. In order to buy the bike herself, she decides to try to win a Koran recitation competition, much to the surprise of her conservative teachers.
Al-Mansour, who has since gone on to make the period piece Mary Shelley (2017) and the ballot-box drama The Perfect Candidate (2019), is able to package criticism of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its girls with a warm love of its people and culture. Despite heavy subject matter at times, Wadjda is packed with small victories, youthful exuberance and optimism for our young protagonist and Saudi Arabia’s future.
You Will Die at Twenty (2019)
Director: Amjad Abu Alala
Sakina (Islam Mubarak), the Arab mother in You Will Die at Twenty, isn’t the main protagonist of Amjad Abu Alala’s film, yet her story arc is just as compelling as that of her son, Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata). After Sakina takes Muzamil to a Sufi mystic, who predicts he will die aged 20, the film follows an unusual rites of passage, with Muzamil’s approaching 20th birthday hanging like an albatross around his neck. Similarly, the prophecy curses Sakina to a life of self-pity and pre-emptive martyrdom. Her marriage crumbles, but her faith is fortified, while she is woefully, perhaps even purposefully, inadequate as a mother to her despairing son.
One of only a handful of feature films to come from Sudan, You Will Die at Twenty was the country’s first submission to the Academy Awards, and it won the Venice Film Festival’s ‘Lion of the Future’ prize. It’s a small ‘coming of death’ story that speaks to the larger national problem of existing when people on the outside consider you doomed.
An Easy Girl (2019)
Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
The easy girl in question is Sofia (French-Algerian tabloid sensation Zahia Dehar), who arrives from Paris to spend a hedonistic summer with her young cousin, Naïma (Mina Farid), in the south of France.
This French comedy could have easily ended up a tale of youth corrupted, or have judged the more conservative characters as puritanical killjoys. Yet director Rebecca Zlotowski humanises everyone with a breezy, feather-light touch. While this does mean never truly digging into the characters’ heritage and religion, or France’s class structures, An Easy Girl makes a striking contrast to most of the other films on this list, providing a stark reminder that such social constructs can, occasionally, be entirely ignored.
Director: Ayten Amin
Ayten Amin’s superb drama focuses on two teenage sisters from Zagazig, a town on the Nile Delta. Their background may be religiously conservative, but 19-year-old Souad (Bassant Ahmed) is as enamoured by social media and boys as many a girl her age. Much of the critical response to Amin’s film has focused on the clash between these two seemingly incompatible approaches. But Arab women, like most human beings, contain multitudes that may not always seem outwardly coherent.
Souad is striking in that it refuses to flatten its protagonist’s motivations or regard her with inhuman absurdity. The neorealist lens through which Amin views her heroine only heightens her complexity, but her personal crisis of identity – enforced upon her by society – speaks to something universal: who among us can label ourselves as a single thing, or conform to a single set of ideals? That pressure to simplify ourselves, to fit in a single box, can have devastating consequences, and Souad explores that conflict with great sensitivity and nuance.