Tuesday, November 12, 2019

‘No Means No’ takes centre stage at Palestine Cinema Days


By Yehudit Tzfat - October 07, 2019
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Against a bright red banner reading “Women in Film Industry”, five women from five different countries sat on the stage of the Municipal Theatre in Ramallah.  


“Only one-third of the speaking parts of the top 100 films were women. Our voices are only being heard one-third of the time,” Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director of the New York non-profit Women Make Movies, said to the audience. 


This roundtable discussion was part of a day-long panel on No Means No, this year’s theme for Palestine Cinema Days, which runs from 2 - 9 October. The sixth edition of the annual film festival took on No Means No as a subprogram, an initiative at film festivals across the world which seeks to raise awareness about gender-based violence. No Means No first launched last year at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia.  


Khulood Badawi, the spokesperson for Palestine Cinema Days, believes that the onus isn’t just on civil rights organisations to end violence against women. 


“Filmmakers should take responsibility not only to tackle gender-based violence but also use the cinema in order to put an end to it,” Badawi said. “There is no doubt that cinema is an important tool to change [the] mentality and to highlight issues. It’s a tool that we should use to make a change in the community.”


The No Means No programme at Palestine Cinema Days featured four documentaries from female filmmakers on the subject of gendered violence and women’s rights along with panel discussions between international filmmakers, activists and lawmakers on women’s representation and their role in media. 


A Thousand Girls Like Me and Violently in Love addressed domestic violence in their films. Freedom Fields highlighted the challenges women face in post-revolution Libya. And The Feeling of Being Watched followed journalist Assia Boundaoui as she investigated FBI surveillance in the Arab-American neighbourhood she grew up in. 


Boundaoui’s documentary was backed by an all-women team, which was crucial for her filmmaking. 


“It was a group of women who understood what it was like to be 'otherised’, whether it was their sexuality or their racial identity or the country that they came from before,” Boundaoui explained. 


“I felt like for folks outside of the community, outside of this 'otherised’ perspective, their question was, 'Were you guys, terrorists?’...And that was never the question I was interested in asking.”


While the theme of No Means No was not readily apparent in The Feeling of Being Watched, Boundaoui argues it does fit in this category. 


“We are not just talking about gender-based violence that is interpersonal,” Boundaoui said. “We are talking about state violence and how that plays out with women.”


She cited the FBI’s “gendered tactics” of attempting to recruit widows in her community as an example of state violence’s effect on women.


During the No Means No panel, Zimmerman acknowledged that in her 35 years of filmmaking experience, not much has changed regarding women’s representation in the industry. Men still make up the majority of directors and faces on screen. But she remains hopeful given the recent activism on women’s rights. 


“In almost every place there’s a panel like this, there’s conversations happening,” Zimmerman said. “No Means No is really having an impact, particularly on younger women who I think are seeing many more role models of women as creators of their own image.”


Badawi explained how the image of woman as docile and sexualised has dominated Arab cinema throughout its existence. 


“She has no role, she has no leadership, she has no voice. She’s always someone who belongs to her man,” Badawi said. “You don’t see a woman who is making decisions or has an independent life or character.”


And this patriarchal image of the Arab woman doesn’t just reside in the Middle East. 


Palestinian writer and director, Najwa Najjar, described how the Western world also takes a misogynistic view of Arab women, and Palestinian women in particular. 


“In Western movies, we are seen as veiled women with [a] hijab that live with horrible men,” Najjar said, stating that this stereotypical narrative needs to be challenged. 


“When companies read your script which doesn’t have a victimised woman or a father that is beating his daughter, then it’s not 'Palestinian enough’,” Najjar said. “Are you serious? What is Palestinian to you?”


The No Means No campaign comes at a pertinent time for women’s rights in Palestine. The murder of Israa Ghrayeb, a Palestinian makeup artist in September has sparked a wave of protests against femicide. Ghrayeb is one of 28 Palestinian women who have been killed this year alone. 


Palestine Cinema Days attendees recognised the profound impact culture can have on society. 


“Media raises awareness and can sometimes affect change,” Lama Hourani, Palestine Program Manager at International Media Support, an NGO promoting press freedom and a Palestine Cinema Days sponsor, said. 


She mentioned how Violently in Love helped change legislation in Denmark to include psychological violence as part of domestic violence. “Activists can use cinema to advocate and lobby for changing the legislation,” Hourani said.


But beyond activists fighting for change, Najjar believes that the goal of women’s empowerment cannot solely rest on women. 


“It is the responsibility of both men and women,” Najjar said. “I think that what women go through, it’s not our problem. It’s a man’s problem. If they rape or kill, it’s a man’s problem so they have to be involved.”


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