Women’s Representation in the Arabic Cinema

in 23rd Carthage Film Festival

by Rita Bukauskaite

This 24th edition of CFF was very much awaited. After the revolutionary events, Tunisians, especially the young, not only rushed into the cinema theaters, into the producers’ press conferences, and cinema lessons, but were also eager to make the movies of their own. This burning enthusiasm is very encouraging for this young nation, and, I hope, will serve to develop the cultural life of Tunis.

The festival’s program was very rich and diverse: plenty of films in several sections: homage section, documentaries, short films, and competition and non-competition films. Africa is one continent, but the differences between the Arabic nations’ culture and Black African culture are enormous, and that’s what you can see in the films. Considering only the competition films, the Black African films were very different in their conception and their style in comparison with the Arabic countries’ films, which had something in common in their way of thinking cinema, reflecting people’s life, culture, religion and traditions, and their way of representing the woman.

It was quite surprising to see how much the Arabic cinema is influenced by their television series and melodramas. Although Perfumes of Algiers (by Rachid Benhadj), A Man Of Honor (by Jean-Claude Codsi), The Professor (by Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud) and After the Battle (by Yousry Nasrallah) are different in treating their subject, they all obey to the rules of a telenovella, insisting on the family values, woman’s or man’s duties. The figure of a dominating man is essential in this kind of cinema and is often filmed in a low angle shot. The woman, often filmed in a high angle shot, the head a bit down, is weak and has to stay at home, taking care of her family; and those women who want to be independent and free from family bonds have to revolt and are considered a bit out of the norm. One of the rebel women is Karima, who came back to attend the agony of the old patriarch, the principal character in Perfumes of Algiers, is played by beautiful Italian actress Monica Guerritore. She’s often filmed nearly naked, putting on or taking off her clothes, taking a shower… in contrast to the traditional women dressed from head to toe. While some might say that television melodrama is one of the main ways of communicating life nowadays, it gives quite a deformed and fusty image of a woman.

A woman doesn’t have very many alternatives in the Arabic world. As one of the characters of Sea Shadow by Nawaf Al-Janahi says, the man may work, study then look for a girl to marry, while a girl is waiting for her destiny. It seems that marriage is very important in a girl’s life. Many competitions films include the scenes from the marriage festivities. Sea Shadow depicts how traditional barriers increase the communicational difficulties between the young and the old generations. The poor boy Mansour is in love with Kalthoum, but he has to work more in order to offer her presents. Kalthoum is a young girl of the age to get married, but her father doesn’t see this. One day, when a family barber pays a visit to her father, he touches her hand. This event, which might appear quite trivial shocks Kalthoum, and she wants to commit suicide. Does a touch in Arabic culture means some kind of a rape? Earlier in the film we see how Kalthoum teaches her younger sister not to approach the men. It seems that the virginity in Arabic culture has to be sealed within seven locks, otherwise…

Otherwise one might think you’re a whore? Or a… liberated woman… Very strangely, these terms are closely linked in Arabic culture. Very often this slight distinction depends on the difference of the class: rich or poor. As in After the Battle, a woman from the middle class might allow herself an extramarital affair without being judged. While a hostess of a nightclub who’s trying to earn her and her boyfriend’s living is very badly considered, as in Death for Sale by Faouzi Bensaïdi. Malik, the main character is in love with Dounia, the hostess of a nightclub. He has some kind of ongoing sexual fantasy about her, accompanied each time by jazzy music, Dounia’s theme. A prostitute is a diabolical woman; one should never trust her, even if the spectator doesn’t have much evidence of her being evil. Whore is a key word for the film; it’s giving a metaphor of life because life is a slut, it says as a conclusion.

Another diabolical woman is Houda in The Professor by Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud. Although she’s not a prostitute, she’s presented as a young beautiful woman who has a love affair with the professor and apparently with two Italian journalists who came to investigate the strikes in the phosphate mines in Tunisia. For half of the films duration the professor Khalil, a married man with children, is looking for his student Houda, adding further mystery to her character. All the film’s intrigue is based on the dilemma: Is Houda politically involved with two Italian guys, has she slept with them? When the drama’s answer is “Yes”, the professor feels two times deceived, it becomes like a tragedy for him, even if it’s Houda who is having a bad time in prison. At the end, the professor becomes some kind of a hero, and Houda sends him a letter of apology from the prison confessing her eternal love. This film is a very nice example of a typical masculine imagination in the Oriental world.

Although the Western cinema is fairly far from the parity in cinema making, the Oriental cinema industry has only very few woman directors. Masculine imagination takes over the feminine creation. For example, Coming Forth by Day, by the Egyptian woman director Hala Lotfy, gives an absolutely different point of view of the Oriental society. That might be a beginning of a diversity, which helps to broaden the minds. When someone asked the Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid about his last film Hidden Beauties, how he could make films treating women’s problems, he answered: “Oh, you know, my dear, I’m a woman!”

Edited by Steven Yates