Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the feMENA night of the four-day London MENA Film Festival. According to the press release, the festival’s main objectives are to promote Arab films in London, encourage Arab/Western cross-cultural dialogue and to give filmmakers from the Arab world and the Diaspora a much-needed platform. The variety in the audience at the feMENA night, as well as the two very different screenings would suggest the success of the MENA film festival’s director, Yasmin El Derby, in achieving these objectives.
The first film, Henna Night, was directed by Sally El Hosaini, who is already known for her role as script-editor and specialist researcher for BAFTA and Emmy-winning House of Saddam and her short film, The Fifth Bowl, which won a regional BAFTA. The film, produced in 2009, deals with a lesbian relationship set against the backdrop of a henna party, and was officially selected for the BFI London Film Festival and Rotterdam Arab Film Festival, as well as shown at the BFI London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Henna Night is an impressive short. It is powerful, without being too obvious, addressing a relatively common theme without being clichéd. The opening scene of the film shows Nour, best friend of bride-to-be, Amina, in the kitchen, cooking up a Middle Eastern feast. She refers to an old recipe book whilst making a meal to ‘enchant the heart’. The scene is riddled with symbols of sensuality and traditional Middle Eastern metaphors for love. The camera zooms in on Nour as she brings pink roses up to her lips and nose, before throwing the petals into the pot. This is an endearing portrayal of a young girl helping her friend in one of life’s biggest transitions, an image made more effective when she is thanked by Amina’s mother proclaiming the old adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. However, Amina locks herself in the bathroom and refuses to come out. This is the first indication that something is wrong. Without giving away the core details, I will say that the film concludes very tragically, and while shocking, it seems perfectly fitting to Amina’s situation.
In Sally El Hosaini’s own words, “the ending signals the lack of hope for many gay Arabs in similar situations.” However, for me, the film went beyond just addressing the problems faced by gay people in the Arab community, and actually expressed the hopelessness of many different types of forbidden love and the restrictions that culture places on it. The concept of a union that is not favoured by family and society, for whatever reason, is one that holds meaning for many people, Arab or otherwise. We only have to look at the recent BBC programmes on mixed-race Britain for an example of forbidden love which is very close to home. The fact that El Hosaini chose to present this narrative within the context of an affluent, and seemingly modern, British-Arab family made it all the more poignant, and showed that restrictions on certain types of love is not limited to the usual stereotype of ‘backward’ families in places like the Middle East.
The second film, London in a Headscarf, a documentary, was the directorial debut and self-portrait of Mariam Al Sarkal, an Emirati national, currently studying in London for a BA in Film Studies. The film is a brave attempt to question the Emirati cultural status-quo. She interviews an impressive range of people, including Emirati women in Britain, Emirati men in Britain and back home, even putting her own brother on the spot (now that is dedication!), as well as her English friends.
The documentary explores the idea that it is traditionally frowned upon, and in many cases forbidden by families, for Emirati women to study abroad without a male chaperone. Mariam, who describes her own family as understanding and open-minded, argues that women from her culture should be trusted to behave responsibly and maturely, using herself as an example. Whilst she interviews Emirati women that have chosen to ‘de-scarf’ while in Britain and others who admit to the odd alcoholic beverage and party night, she uses herself as an example of someone who, despite being alone in the UK, has still chosen to respect her traditions. She therefore chooses not to drink and continues to wear the hijab, amongst other customs, thus discrediting the idea, purported mainly by UAE men, that Emirati women studying abroad become completely westernised and forget their own culture.
Mariam talks candidly about the negative effects that studying abroad will have on her marriage prospects back in her home state of Dubai and the double standards between Emirati men and women. She also talks about the problems of identity faced by Muslim/Emirati women in Britain and her own efforts to adapt.
Whilst I understand that this may be an important expression of her own experiences, I cannot help but feel that the documentary would have been stronger without the slightly confused links to Mariam’s issues of accommodating her own identity in Britain, with the focus on the lesser-explored theme of the Emirati mindset towards women studying abroad.
Additionally, whilst Mariam was careful not to make judgements towards anyone, whether it was the girls that chose not to wear hijab or English drinking culture, there seemed to be a need to reiterate, both in the Q&A session after the film and the documentary itself, her status as an observant, ‘good’ Muslim woman. While I understood why she felt the need to do this, I also felt it slightly missed the point of feMENA night, and rather fed into the notion that women have to give accounts to men and reassure them of their choices.
This justification towards the male audience is a key theme that both directors seem to attempt to question. And, as more female faces emerge from the Middle Eastern cinematic world, the battle goes on.
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