Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 October 2003
Issue No. 660
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Three versions of woman

Hani Mustafa questions the agendas informing Middle East productions dealing with women's issues

The Fifth Reaction Of the programmes outside the official competition The Arab Woman Directors is perhaps the most important of these in that it exemplifies a theme prone to a variety of non- artistic production agendas. Gender issues inform many films outside the programme, especially those from the Middle East, however. Mahdi Charef's Tunisian-Algerian- French co-production Bent Kulthoum, for example, is being screened within the New Arab Cinema programme. Recounting the Bedouin girl Ralia's trip through the mountains to her grandparents' remote desert house, where she meets a mentally unbalanced aunt, the film seamlessly combines all those problems women face in the Bedouin social context. Yet it becomes clear from the first few scenes that Charef is pandering to a stereotypical view of Arab society. Ralia's bus stops in the middle of the desert so that the male passengers can pray in the shade of a lone tree, for example, but contrary to the normal proscriptions of Muslim prayer -- in an attempt to service his aesthetic sense of composition -- the director has the men standing apart.

Ralia, a perfectly Westernised resident of Switzerland, has the appearance and attitude of her Swiss peers, but during her stay in her grandfather's house she wears a headscarf -- much like a European tourist in a popular Arab district. As soon as she discovers that her mother is not arriving on Friday, as she has anticipated, she removes her headscarf and heads for the city where, she is told, her mother lives. And the second trip affords yet another opportunity to divulge the workings of backwardness and women's persecution. In one scene a man on horseback is holding the end of a rope, which enters the viewer's field of vision slowly and gradually -- until it becomes apparent that there trails behind him a woman tied to the rope by the hands -- the horseman's wife, as the viewer later finds out, hiding her shame and fear as she waits, tied to the horse, while Ralia watches her against her aunt's warning. The husband comes back out of the café, unties his wife and shoves a few coins in her hands, threatening her with a cane to prevent her from following him. At this point Ralia insists on entering the café, where she removes her headscarf and is chased out -- all three women are seen running and laughing, moving further and further away from the men's café.

Intent on showcasing the full range of persecution against women, Charef engineers a scene in which women are the victims of civil strife: the three women encounter a group of armed men, members of an extremist militant organisation, as they rest in a secluded area after dark. "Mahdi!" the woman who has left her husband cries out to one of them. "Everyone in the village thinks you are dead." In obvious panic, the young man moves away, motioning for her to follow him. The camera closes in on Ralia's face and she is heard screaming; only later does the viewer find out, from a police officer, that she was killed for identifying one of them. His aesthetic prowess notwithstanding, Charef seems to have copied his film script from published reports on human rights abuses, especially those pertaining to women's rights. Could it be that Charef's film is tailored to the agenda of some European producer more concerned with the persecution of Arab women than with quality filmmaking irrespective of topic?

Joint Arab-European productions, especially those involving French producers, are often proposed as a way round local production agendas endorsing simple commercial formulae. The procedure sadly often results in a degree of cowing in to some other (European) agenda, however, perpetuating superficial, stereotypical views of the topics at hand. Even co- productions by Humbert Balsan, which include Yusri Nassralla's La Ville and Randa Shahal's Kite are not entirely immune to this tendency. Screened in the programme honouring Balsan, the orientation of Kite is both humane and original in its treatment of the relationship between a boy and a girl in their late teens set in a Druze village divided by the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. Mutual admiration gives way to a range of obstacles, the first of which is that the girl lives in the unoccupied part of the village while the boy is a soldier in the pro-Israeli Southern Lebanese Army. At first the girl complies with plans to marry her to a relation who lives in the occupied part of the village in order to be close to the man she loves, but no sooner does she panic at the prospect, returning to the Lebanese part of the village. In the end she resorts to entering a mine field to free herself of worldly constraints. With amazing simplicity, within the scope of an hour and a half, Shahal manages to present a credible human situation that touches on persecution of women -- without so much as a hint of spoon- feeding or stereotying.

Iranian filmmaker Tahmin Milani's The Fifth Reaction -- another Middle East feature about women -- lies in the twilight zone separating Charef's overanxious approach from Shahal's subtlety. Milani deals with a single, distinct issue, presenting it in the most straightforward and concentrated manner. She employs a conventional narrative framework -- the crime-action formula -- to put forth the story of a recently widowed woman who must hand over custody of her children to their paternal grandfather as she is no longer, officially, family. Her father-in-law, the owner of a string of trucks, procures a verdict that she must either marry her husband's younger brother or return to her parents' house with her inheritance, seeing her children only on weekends. Milani shows her protagonist among other women submissively giving in to similarly unjust scenarios, and her refusal to submit to her father-in-law's verdict is thus made all the more prominent. The film follows her trip south as she attempts to escape with her children to Dubai. Caught by her father-in- law at the shore of the Gulf, it is the truck owner who revises his decision following a confrontation with his younger son. The viewer is never told what the new proposition is, but by the end Milani's remarkable skill in presenting an issue directly without resorting to stereotyping is apparent. The point has been made, but the art is in no way compromised.

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