The catharsis of authentic Arab filmmaking

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August 24, 2017 By Amal Awad

The Arab Film Festival Australia (AFFA) gains in significance every year, but it’s not simply great stories that draw in the crowds. As I observed the Sydney audience roar with laughter during the opening night film, Mahbas, a Lebanese romantic comedy, it occurred to me that there is a hunger for authentic, unapologetic storytelling among the diaspora. People who have either migrated here or were born in Australia to migrants find relief in the portrayal of lives they can relate to without having to dilute or apologise for the flaws of the protagonists.

It might the case that for some, an untangled portrayal of life is all that matters – flaws are part of the status quo of a society and there is easy acceptance of them. But I suspect that the truth for others, including myself, lies closer to the thirst for complex storytelling. It’s not about overlooking flaws, it’s about understanding that as humans, we all have them. And in Arab society, how do we unpack them? 

People who have either migrated here or were born in Australia to migrants find relief in the portrayal of lives they can relate to without having to dilute or apologise for the flaws of the protagonists.


Arguably, storytellers born here will struggle to achieve such authenticity because their audience is more likely to be as mixed as Australia’s population. There’s a challenge in that: taking the familiar, complex aspects of your life, your culture and your influences, and making them user friendly. Perhaps humorous without opening yourself up to mockery. Dramatic and honest without inviting in more criticism of the culture. How do I explore inequality without making that the point? How do we acknowledge the influence of outside forces, like war and occupation, without depriving our protagonists of heart and meaning and ordinary achievement, bravery in the pursuit of everyday life?

Not that AFFA’s audience is strictly Arab. The audiences are mixed, but they no doubt share something in common – a desire for good stories that speak to universal truths.

And this year’s festival was, to me, a great year for women in story, not only because two of the best films were directed by women, but because the stories – tragic and comical and hopeful – disarmed you as a witness to the complex lives of others.

Mahbas, for example, revolves around a woman who struggles to accept a Syrian groom for her daughter because a Syrian bomb killed her brother, a man so beloved she still speaks to him throughout her day as though he is alive but just out of reach.

Arguably, storytellers born here will struggle to achieve such authenticity because their audience is more likely to be as mixed as Australia’s population. 

In truth it’s a heartbreaking premise, but director Sophie Boutros delivers a colourful and humorous exploration of a tragic-comic life. It’s a world familiar to so many Arabs, who have at some point or another known war or occupation, or inherited the remnants of grief suffered by those before them. There is still love to be found, food to be shared, and laughter to be had. But the grief lingers.

Mahbas, for example, revolves around a woman who struggles to accept a Syrian groom for her daughter because a Syrian bomb killed her brother. (Photo: Arab Film Festival)

Co-writing with Nadia Eliewat, Boutros has free reign as an Arab herself to poke fun at the inanity of ritual politeness in a world gone mad. There is a serious undercurrent to how the young daughter deals with a jealous fiancé, unapologetically honest in the depiction of the burden of behavioural expectations of women. It’s the sort of truth you want to excavate in western storytelling as an Arab writer but might second-guess because you know it will become ammunition to critics, rather than a sensitive exploration of human frailty and flaws.

Elsewhere, AFFA challenged audiences by showing A Maid for Each, a controversial documentary that offers unvarnished coverage of the trading of domestic workers in Lebanon. In this disturbing film, we observe how casually women from other countries are traded like commodities to domestic masters in what some deem modern slavery.  

It’s the sort of truth you want to excavate in western storytelling as an Arab writer but might second-guess because you know it will become ammunition to critics, rather than a sensitive exploration of human frailty and flaws. 

But it was Rayhana Obermeyer’s thrilling tale, I Still Hide to Smoke, set in a hammam (bathhouse) in Algeria during the ‘black decade’ that really took me to another place. It’s a film that beats down on you with its grim portrayal of human brutality. Some audience members walked out, taken aback by the sheer honesty of a woman’s naked body being scrubbed down, a metaphor for what Rayhana calls a “cathartic stripping-off”). “In my society, the hamman is one of the few places where a woman can go without reprimands. Except for the Islamists, who suddenly decided that the hammam is also “Hram” (unclean), as a place of nudity: a woman should show her body only to her husband.”

This hammam is more than a setting – it’s a safe space. Despite the turmoil and conflicts filling these women’s lives, it’s a place where they can simply be women. It’s here they can joke about sex – the joy of it or the horror of being forced into marriage as a child. The bathhouse has no room for religion, though fanaticism and politics will force their way through, piercing the brief period of respite. 

It’s a reminder of why we watch stories. They are a universal point of connection and, free of the need to footnote the truths depicted, films pull us in to explore not simply what we know of ourselves, but what we can learn about others.

It’s a story about women, based on a play written by a woman in exile. No doubt Rayhana tells the story for herself and for the women who suffered Algeria’ strife first-hand. These are women she knows, she has said. But they’re also familiar to us, watching safely from a distance, no matter how unfamiliar the world they occupy. Her story is about personal freedom and self-determination, and the way society shapes then imprisons us into being what we’re told is right. Moreover, it indicates how frail human allegiance is – how we shift and adapt to survive, compromising what we truly believe.

It’s a reminder of why we watch stories. They are a universal point of connection and, free of the need to footnote the truths depicted, films pull us in to explore not simply what we know of ourselves, but what we can learn about others.

The Arab Film Festival Australia will have further screenings in Melbourne, Canberra and Perth. 


By Amal Awad

Written by

Amal Awad


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