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Team of Twenty-Something Women Take on Muslim Film Deficit
by Doniphan Blair
One image from the Women's Voices Film Festival material captures the beauty, passion and landscape of their project. photo: WVMWSFF
Although she will probably hate me for saying this, if there ever was a matriarchal revolutionary, it is Catinca Tabacuru: 29, Romanian-Canadian but rather American, a graduate of Berkeley and Duke Law, an art dealer and human rights worker, and now a film festival director. Indeed, her
Women's Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival
is coming March 17-19 to the
Los Angeles Film School
The spot light is hard for Tabacuru. Articulate and outspoken, she is also modest and collaborative. Indeed, her small team has done an incredible job of networking with related organizations, launching the festival on a shoestring, and even negotiating a possible collaboration with the State Department—talk about walking into the patriarchal lion's den!
Moreover, matriarchal references are problematic. The very existence of pre-historical matriarchies is denied by most academics simply since they don't mirror patriarchies but with women on top. Similarly, excessive seduction or cooperation was rejected by most first and second wave feminists because they just wanted to be treated equally to men and didn't want to confuse that goal with alternate paradigms. But those women weren't dealing with revanchist patriarchs who, in reaction to Women's Lib and modernity, want to lock women into burkas and kitchens and resurrect a mediaeval Islam.
"If we are talking about a reformation of Islam," says Tabacuru, "That is going to take a while. I don't really want to wait for all of Islam to reform in order to make sure women can drive in every country."
Hence, Tabacuru's quest, beautifully summarized by her organization's name: Women's Voices Now! After returning from the Rwandan Genocide Project in Tanzania, Tabacuru started working at a law office but found herself unsatisfied. When a proposal for a film competition from LA-based philanthropist and art dealer Leslie Sachs crossed her desk, she leapt at the opportunity and started gathering her team.
Women's Voices Now (left to right): Miriam Wakim, Director of Development, 26, Lebanese-American; Cassandra Schaffa, Director of Festival Operations, 27, Czech-Puerto Rican; Catinca Tabacaru, Executive Director and General Counsel, 29, Romanian-Canadian; Oluchi Enemanna, Project Manager, 23, Nigerian; Betsy Laikin, Project Manager, 27, American; Mona Pajwani, Project Manager, 32, Indian. photo: Yura Liamin
Composed entirely of women in their twenties, the festival staff is talented and motley (meaning varied and colorful) and ranges in heritage from East Indian and African to Latino and Lebanese. Like Tabacuru herself, they are mostly non-Muslim but based out of New York City, home to half a million Muslims and many famous ones (Malcolm X, Feisal Abdul Rauf), they draw on that rich pool and have many Muslim women on their boards.
A larger point is also obvious: these issues are not proprietary. Some see humanity's most pressing problems as global warming or poverty but the communication deficit between men and women as well as Islam and the West is very dangerous as well. Recognizing this, these young woman have fashioned a solution in the simplest, most straightforward and least confrontational way conceivable—although many of the films do confront like crazy.
Take "Face:" in two startling minutes a performance artist clips completely away at her full burka and our preconceptions. Or the many Afghan films, the mere existence of which is a declaration of art war on the Taliban, anti-artists who destroyed the Bamiyon Buddhas, much of the Kabul Museum, books, paintings and camera equipment (although they do use cameras to make their own propaganda).
In fact, Afghanistan is enjoying a full blown artistic renaissance little known in the West. Art and music schools are opening in Kabul; televised singing contests are wildly popular; kids are forming rock bands; and there are hordes of filmmakers, mostly twenty-somethings and many women. Growing up post-Taliban on YouTube and Iranian movies, they are much like their counterparts elsewhere. Indeed, they are surprisingly adept at the tracking shots, explosions, close-ups, and great music they use to tell their unique and often heartbreaking stories.
By couching controversial and political issues in terms of human rights and artistic expression, Women's Voices Now makes them easier to understand for both western audiences and conservative Muslim ones. It is a brilliant strategy drawing on both the filmmaker as artist and hero, a patriarchal paradigm, and the matriarchal methodology of communicating horizontally and personally with minimal dialectics and aggression. Let artists say their piece; attract others to watch; let the audience decide—good advice for creating drama and democracy as well as matriarchal revolution.
Since leaving Romania after the fall of the wall in 1990, Catinca Tabacaru has lived in Canada, gone to school in California and worked for human rights in Africa as well as become the executive director and general counsel for the Women's Voices Now Film Festival. photo: Yura Liamin
You are out of New York but you are organizing the festival in Los Angeles?
Correct. We were able to link up with the
Los Angeles Film School
which is donating a lot of the space and resources. That was a really good tie in for us because, as usual, funding was low.
Technically speaking, you are not a filmmaker and not Muslim.
CT: Not a filmmaker and not Muslim. Not particularly religious but raised Greek Orthodox—very loosely, Romania, communism, all those issues.
Not a filmmaker, no, [but] I curated art exhibits and before law school I dealt in Romanian glass art. My interest comes from the women's rights and human rights aspects of the project and to explore these elements through the creative lens. One of the biggest advantages of being a lawyer is my attention to detail and being fairly anal. [laugh] It takes a lot of organization to put something like this together.
Are [Muslim women filmmakers] comfortable with the fact you are not Muslim?
CT: We have had very good responses. We have Muslim women on our board of directors and our board of advisors. Our judges range from atheist women, Muslim women, Jewish women, Christian women [see
We worked very hard in the first six months to make sure we understood the world we were working with: the interaction between the East and the West; how women want to be portrayed; what they care about. We talked to probably fifty organizations that dealt with women's issues or the Muslim world. We made sure to have that education before we started our rhetoric and our packaging.
It worked. We achieved a very balanced take on the situation. We stayed away from extreme views. We focused on talking about women's rights without falling into the political or religious argument, which is the traditional blueprint for discussing these issues in the media. There are lot of political issues being explored in our film but only when they are directly effecting women's rights.
Does that mean your films are characterized by being artistic vignettes?
CT: No, many of the films dive quite deep. What is a good example? If you look at 'Half Valued Life,' one of our Afghan documentaries—a brilliant film by Alka Sadat—the main character, Marya Bashir, is a political figure, the head prosecutor in the province of Herat, the second biggest in Afghanistan. We watch her dealing with the cases like a child bride being burned by an older husband or a pregnant wife who is beaten by her husband. Bashir also deals with her house being bombed by extremists.
Here we see the interaction between cultural norms, legal norms, social norms and the whole time we are focused on what are women's rights in Afghanistan. Who are the heroines, the change makers? [How are] the powerful women interacting with the victims? What does it say that the filmmaker can and does make this film?
Sounds like an incredible film.
CT: [The filmmaker, Alka Sadat, is] in her late 20s and is coming to the film festival.
I guess you have heard of the Makhmalbaf sisters, from the famous Makhmalbaf film family [father made 'Kandahar,' 2001]?
CT: No but the funny thing is that Alka has a sister, Roya, and they are both in their late 20s. Roya made her first film when she was 23, apparently the first film made by a woman in Afghanistan. They have a production company [Roya Films] and make socially conscious films. It is interesting to see that there are two pairs of famous women filmmakers in Afghanistan. I'm sure there are even more.
In the whole war in Afghanistan, the arts are virtually never mentioned. But Afghanistan is a having an art renaissance, a lot going on?
'Face,' by an anonymous performance artist from Bosnia, sums up the entire situation in two tour de force minutes. photo: WVMWSFF
Out of quick curiosity would you show a film like Ayaan Hirsi Ali's 'Submission' [made with Theo Van Gogh, 2004].
CT: It is difficult to say with 20/20 hindsight—Ayaan Hirsi Ali's voice is certainly an important one—but no, probably not. It is very extreme. You are asking us an interesting question, something we would deal with if that [film] came in. We would look at it and talk about whether the political undertones slash propaganda outweigh the benefits to the women rights issues.
The trouble with that film is it criticizes Islam by claiming Islam is the same as its most radical interpretations. That is the problem I have with it personally. We have films that are just as violent, sexual, but their focus is on the woman.
If you look at a film called 'Face,' for instance [anonymous, Bosnia and Herzegovina]. It is a two minute film, a performance piece—which is what Ali's 'Submission' is as well—of a woman cutting away the material surrounding her with a pair of scissor. She ends up nicking herself. We see her naked, and we see her bleeding. We decided that, based upon the freedom of expression, the symbolism of the cutting away of the veils, that is an important film.
Hirsi's film has caused an incredible amount of international debate. It would have caused a similar amount within our own circles. But to honestly answer that question, I would have to watch the film right now and pretend we had just received it.
I understand. I was just taking your temperature, as it were. I also have friends who feel she is too Islamophobic. On the other hand, I have a friend from Kenya, 26, who loves Hirsi.
CT: I would love to put her on a panel next to her opposite, to bring us a little more to the middle. [We have] nothing against the views of Ayaan Hirsi or Wafa Sultan [Syrian-born, LA-based, intellectual and Islam critic] or Irshad Manji [bestselling Canadian author, activist and queer—'bin Laden's worst nightmare']. They are all people we have spoken to and really respect as thinkers and activists. But they are very, very political and very generalist in their accusations.
The problem we are trying to solve is to make sure there is information that is more central, to make sure we are giving women of the Muslim world a voice. Those voices not heard are typically not the extreme voices.
If you talk to a woman in Afghanistan, or Iran, or Iraq, or Egypt, she is going to have a very complex view of Hirsi's work. These issues are so incredibly complicated. I think dumbing them down to 'Muslim men are bad' is over simplifying the situation. We all know there are good and bad men in the world. We all know that Muslim societies are more patriarchal and the woman is often not a complete equal. But the way to discuss these issues is to create complexity and nuance. Otherwise we will fall into the 'Hirshi hates what Islam is' [thing].
OK, fine, but then what happens to those 90% of Muslims who really love their religion? That is the problem with dissidents from Islam. They are not taking into consideration that if you put Islam and feminism in front of your typical Muslim woman that woman will always choose Islam, so you are giving yourself a brick wall. Christina Asquith [journalist and author of 'Sisters in War: Love, Survival and Family in the New Iraq'] taught me that.
Islam and feminism don't have to be mutually exclusive. If we are going to create a quick change in woman's rights, we are going to have to fit women's rights into an understanding of Islam that these women have. Otherwise, if we are talking about a reformation of Islam, that is going to take a while. I don't really want to wait for all of Islam to reform in order to make sure women can drive in every country.
To alienate everybody in an attempt to make the world better is counterproductive. Plus there is a lot of feminism in Islam, like Khadijah, Mohammed's wife and stuff in the Koran that puts men and women rights side by side, even though some of the rights are not equal.
CT: Whatever. Show me a 2000-year old document that is ideal on modern-day women's rights.
The way to truly bring about change is to focus on the heroines who are working to expand human rights. It is important to highlight the victims but emphasis must be put on the facts not the emotional responses. Women's Voices focuses on presenting images of both the victim and the heroine to show that the real changemakers are living in those societies.
Sometimes I think that for addressing complex issues, narrative is more important then documentaries. How are you doing on narratives?
The Women's Voices Now site features up-to-date
blogs and movies
. This March 2nd posting, from anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Yasmin Moll, is titled 'What Do Pictures Want? Imaging Women in the Egyptian Revolution' and blogs at length about the symbolism of women's bodies, the fear of representing them in Western and Middle Eastern media and other cutting-edge philosophical discourse. photo: Yasmin Moll
CT: We are doing really well—the best ones came out of Egypt, which is great publicity for us. It is hard to characterize these countries by the filmmakers we get—but why not, that is the medium we are working with! If you look at the Afghan films, the large majority are documentaries dealing with very explicit social issues: girls being able to attend Tae Kwan Doe lessons, women running for politics, poverty, opium—all social issues, right?
Then you turn to Egypt—which does have a far more advanced cinematic culture and history—the films we received, all but one, are fictional. They are all pieces that explore a less explicit, very much implicit idea of women. They explore love; they explore sex; they explore gender roles and homosexual relationships. Overall our fictional category is really strong.
But you know how I told you Afghanistan is mostly documentaries? Two of our top fictional films are also Afghan.
My god! I visited Afghanistan and am fascinated by the country.
CT: They have a film festival in Kabul in June—very exciting to have a national event like that.
Of course, as we speak, we are witnessing a revolution that will probably go on for a couple years. What are you hearing from your friends in the Middle East, are they out shooting [film]? Are they hopeful, worried?
CT: It's funny. We asked our Egyptian filmmakers and people literally saying, 'I wanted to experience it so I didn't film but I will send you some shots from people who did.' We are about to blog some of our responses because they are brilliant. One women is just telling us, day by day, what she did during the revolution. There was so much energy everywhere, she didn't want to be stuck behind the camera.
I get scared of the political questions [laugh] but I really want to talk about them. I went to a panel four days ago at a gallery in New York, called something along the lines of: 'What will the revolution in Tunisia bring?' There were some very brilliant thinkers there, a lot of professors from Columbia [University]. But, of course, in two hours no one said a word about women. It was a panel of American men and the Tunisians, being projected on the wall through Skype, were also male. There was not one woman involved—except for the organizer!
What we know about Tunisia is that, for the lack of a better word, it is the most Westernized country. As described by the women themselves, they consider themselves very European. So, long story short, I asked about women's rights in the new Tunisia. Are they in the same dangers as the Iraqi women [who], when the new constitution was written, almost lost even the rights they had under Saddam. The professor's answer was: 'Well, you know, this is a democratic process and that's so amazing and Tunisia hasn't had this for however many years. What ever happens in the democratic process is what should happen.'
Which I was appalled with! I am sorry! That is not the way it really works. Democracy is not the end all and be all of rights. We in America struggle with making sure we protect our minorities. We have, what, a 200 year-old democracy, that fights everyday to make sure its women and minorities have rights. Here you have professors talking about Tunisia and saying that whatever democracy decides is great.
Well, no. There needs to be a system that ensures that the popular voice is not the only one that is heard. We make sure that rights are going to be protected, regardless of what the majority of people who show up at the polls want.
There is going to be some rough times, there were rough times in the American democracy. We have to brace ourselves but your absolutely correct. Minority rights should be staked out early. This is time of incredible change. Your festival is in March, you have one month, hopefully you will get updates from the front.
Afghan romanticism, which the patriarchs tried to erase through burkas, arranged marriages and outlawing art, is on full display here when an Afghan youth gives a blind beggar girl a flower in 'We Are Postmodern' by Alka Sadat. photo: WVMWSFF
CT: We keep getting them. We have been talking to our filmmakers and our filmmakers are coming . We have an Afghan filmmaker, a Lebanese, an Iranian, a Tunisian-American, an Iranian-American and a Bangaladeshi. A Qatarian just wrote us today that she is coming.
The nice thing about the festival is, by keeping it apolitical and by opening it up broadly, we got so many issues. We have programs like 'Love, Sex and Other Dangerous Pursuits,' 'Health Taboos,' 'Women Warrior.' We have 'Crossroads: The Intersection of Social and Religious Norms.' At the beginning we didn't know what we would receive. We were afraid that we'd get only two points of view [Islamism and Islamophobia]. We hoped that the world was a lot more nuanced and it was.
The fact that we were able to come up with a health program is incredible, films that deal with cancer, opium addiction and HIV/AIDS. Who knew that in Qatar they only accepted the existence of cancer a few years ago! That is really important information.
This is your first festival, how did you get the word out? It seems like you got a very good response.
CT: We did. One thing you should know about our festival is, generally, poorly funded. Our only major donor is Leslie Sacks, who is also our founder and chairman of our board. So we had to be creative. We just called and wrote everyone. We sent out 500 emails—maybe more—to anyone who was relevant and those included organizations focused on women's rights, Muslim issues or film. We made friends and got into partnerships. Our call for submissions in July [2010, they started in Jan 2010] went to 90 or so partner organization and they sent it out to their own constituents. We ended getting films from 40 countries.
That is fabulous. You were mentioning the Egyptians had stuff about romance. That is a traditional—if I might say—female interest. But in the Arab world, I am guessing, they have other stuff they have to worry about.
CT: I don't care how many times you tell me the Arabs have other stuff to worry about—because they are fighting for their social rights, going through revolutions— everyone just still cares about love and sex. [laugh]
[co-worker, interjects from background] All their songs!
CT: Many Arab songs are about love and sex. The Egyptian films [were] focused on this but, in general, we got a ton of stuff. 'Again Life' is about an invalid women who is hassled by her husband [but] rebuilds her life and meets another man [Hassan Fazeli / Afghanistan, quite modern in image and score]. 'Absent Spaces' [Laila Hotait Salas / Lebanon] is about an artist who lost her husband and we see her reaction to that and to her city being bombed; 'Her Man' [Ayten Amin / Egypt] is about lesbian love; 'Jasmine' [Saeed Sourati / Iran] is about a woman who is in love with two men and wants to marry them both. Her reasoning for it being unfair in Iran is not because she has to cover her hair or could not be a judge—it is that she can't marry her two boyfriends.
There is such humor and beauty in these films. We could not be happier.
Sometimes it is assumed that the top filmmaking nation is Iran, is there another big filmmaking power we haven't heard about?
CT: Hold on, I am going to introduce you to Miriam because she jumped up at that question.
MK: Hi, nice to meet you. I just wanted to say that Egypt is the biggest film industry in the Arab world and most Arabs watch films from Egypt. Iran is a big producer but in the Arabic speaking world Egypt is definitely number one. Some Egyptian actors have been in, like, 105 films! We have more Iranian films; maybe the feminist community isn't as big as it is in Iran.
CT: The Iranian films are fantastic, they were the second biggest—we received around 26—but our pride and joy is the Afghan films [which had the most films submitted, 32]. The magical films came from Afghanistan and we've been asking ourselves why. It may be the industry is smaller, so there are more grass roots [filmmakers who were] attracted to us.
They are probably also working really, really hard. What is cooler then being a filmmaker in Afghanistan, at the forefront of the arts and political movement? I would say [that while] Iran is typically the star in women's films worldwide, now Afghanistan is the star.
Afghanistan is in the middle of a cultural renaissance and they have to get their voices out. If Afghans can bust out and tell new stories, as a so-called mediaeval society, that will be an inspiration to the Sudan, to Morocco... Any other strong powers?
CT: Pakistan and Bangladesh and India—the whole region loved us. Turkey we received three. They are very meaningful films. One is about a woman who speaks up in a factory, which leads to her getting fired, which leads to her saying 'F-you,' and creating a whole movement in Istanbul. She ends up being flown to the US to meet the head of the factory and gets her job back—an amazing journey. It is called a 'Like a Bird in a Cage,' [Guliz Saglam / Turkey]. The other, 'Saturday Mothers of Turkey' [Bijoyeta Das / Turkey] is a about a group of older women who go to the government building every Saturday for thirty years and protest the disappearance of the sons.
They sound like features.
CT: 30 minutes. Some are so important but are sometimes hard to sit through. Our longest film is 30 minutes except one that was 34 and ended up being too good to cut. Documentary and fiction categories are 30 minutes; student is ten; and experimental is five.
In another Afghan film, 'Again Life'
by Hassan Fazeli, a woman disabled by a landmine is divorced by her husband but finds new love and fulfilling work and even keeps her child, in contravention to Islamic patriarchal law—talk about romanticism! photo: WVMWSFF
Did you get much experimental?
CT: I loved the experimental films. Our biggest category by far was documentary but the next runner up was experimental—we ended up with a selection of 18, from silent films to animated, photo montages, to things I don't know how to describe.
Are they drawing from American experimental film or are inventing a new language?
CT: I haven't found a person in America who can explain to me what experimental film is. I can recognize clichés of experimental film but I tend to go with a combination of emotional reaction as well as whether they are achieving what the filmmakers are trying to do.
You were also an art dealer so I imagine you are coming from a fine art perspective. Was there one or two films that were your favorite?
CT: [Although] I am not allowed to pick favorites, yeah, there are. 'Half Value Life,' if you want to understand our organization—watch that film. We tried very hard to not have agenda but let's be honest, there is always some plan and we are not pretending we are immune to that. What we do make sure is we are not biased. ['Half Value Life'] is a voice we really want to encourage, it is what we are about. Taking the image of the woman as a victim and busting it open with a much more complex image of woman as a change maker and heroine. If we look at women as just victims, no one is going to see the value of supporting them, or supporting their work. We are going to be ignorant of the fact that the advancements that are being made in women's rights are being made by the women first and foremost.
There are a lot of amazing male feminists out there and I respect and love them but they don't have to fight against this image of themselves as victims. We want to make sure the world understands [that] this is what these women tell us. They are changing their societies; they are changing their interpretation of their religion; they are doing the work. What we foreigners need to be doing is not introducing them to all these great American things. No. If we go to Iran, it needs to be to support liberals and change makers in those societies.
As far as experimental goes, I really love 'It Is Written,' [Mostafa Heravi, Netherlands, a short of a woman ballet dancing in a chador holding a pomergranate]. It really touches me. I really like 'Post Violence' [Afrooz Nasersharif / Iran, about a woman being sheared bald intercut with news reports of violence against women].
Our student category was killer. I don't think we even needed it but I like to have it to honor students. 'Land of Dragons' [Salam Babina Devi / India] is a very hard little film about India and the abuses that happen.
I personally love 'Jazbaa,' [Rama Barhat / India]. It is the cutest little film. We received several emails about it from around the world from women who saw that film and were inspired to start their own businesses. Strong will is what 'jazbaa' means. It is a really cool way of seeing a woman dealing with the limitations: she finds ways to step over them or to go around them. Her husband hurt himself so she decided to become a taxi driver, which is unheard of—she is the only female taxi driver. Because she can't go into the train station to solicit clients—it is just not safe, not something a woman can do. So her friends, taxi drivers, her community, they go into the station for her.
It is a very men loving film, as well—which I really like. We always need to remember that men are just as much a part of the struggle because women's right do effect everyone. And because she is a woman, she turns out to be a much more trustworthy. Every morning she has a number of families that hired her to drive their kids to school. So we see her getting past the limitation and [showing] what woman can provide and men can't. Well, that is not fair to say—I love men—it is just a generalized comment.
Following up on the 'loving man' thing, love is not an easy, as we know. Many songs are about love and sex—naturally, since you need a new song to create love everyday, every year. Is there a film that reinvents love in the Islamic vernacular?
CT: Ummm, the most love-like film is called 'Spring 89' [Ayten Amin / Egypt] about two teenage girls falling in love with the same guy. Reinterpreting love: 'Again Life.' At the end of the film, we see the woman walk into the horizon with her new man and holding the hand of her child, which we know is the child of her ex-husband. In most conservative Muslim majority countries, a women, if she remarries, can not keep her children, they pass to the husband or his family. Here we have a film in Afghanistan, which is not a particularly liberal society, a film made by a man [Hassan Fazeli] who is 23 years old and should be part of that society. Yet he makes a film that ends [that way].
Any plans or hopes to take the film festival to Kabul or a next level after LA?
CT: The festival in LA should be considered a kickoff to a global year-long festival. In May, we have the Paley Center for Media and the Rubin Museum doing a joint mini-festival in New York. We have this proposal open with the State Department—they've listened to it, they like it. We would tour Muslim majority countries [and] do focused screenings , followed by panel discussions.
Especially with what is happening now—we'd love to see us going to Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq. The concept of the [State Department] program is to take the films from that country and create a program around the issues explored in those films. Then add in films from other similarly situated countries—that deal with those issues— to create bridges within the Muslim world between the filmmakers and activists. It is really important for people here to see this but it is even more important for people in Muslim majority countries to see this—the actual people who will be inspired to make changes in their own countries.
We were in talks with the Cairo Opera House to do a concurrent festival there but then the revolution happened and there is no more Ministry of Culture. Maybe they will get back in touch with us. The two other projects we want to focus on 2011 are a mentorship program and a scholarship program.
We got the idea of bridging gaps and developing these filmmakers skills by giving them higher-ups in the American film industry as mentors. And we are talking to several universities in America but to get a scholarship started we need an endowment of $25,000. Once we find that funding, we have Duke and USC and potentially NYU [interested], we will create a scholarship program.
Posted on Feb 26, 2011 - 04:25 PM