Film presents and represents women’s place in a society. Presences are noticeable, but most especially where the character or the actions presented are counter-intuitive. Where presences are in line with expectation and norms then they become, if not absences, at best inconspicuous. As such, they touch the viewer’s consciousness only at the outer edge of awareness. The notion of presentation is not limited to what actually appears, but also how it appears. Moreover, film asks us whether an absence is more or less noticeable than an expected presence.
Violence often recurs in the representation of issues around women or women’s experiences in patriarchal cultures. Indeed, films about and by women from the Middle East offer a response to the ways in which the female body is controlled in contemporary patriarchal society and discourse. The questions to ask then are: how do women represent violence if violence is brutal for women? Is explicit violence the same as suggested violence? Are depictions of male violence toward women ever condoned? What filmic strategies, then, are there that filmmakers can adopt to depict or critique the violence women experience in a way that does not add to existing aggression against women? How can women say what they cannot say within a certain space? How can they represent that which they are not supposed to film in a society ruled by a strong regime with powerful political and cultural control?
Censorship serves as another form of violence. Yosefa Loshitzky’s analysis of Yulie Cohen-Gerstel’s My Land Zion of 2004 focuses on what can be characterised as emotional violence experienced by the female protagonist at the level of identity and metaphor within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Europeanisation and Judaisation. Violence sometimes appears in the context of exile and dislocation; Syrian filmmaker Hala Alabdallah Yakoub’s 2006 film I am the one who Carries Flowers to her Grave depicts a return to the home country from Parisian exile. Yakoub is an experimental filmmaker, born in Syria, living in France, working between the two countries. In Yesim Ustaoglu’s 2003 Waiting for the Clouds we see both physical and emotional violence, as the focus is on the burdens placed upon women’s shoulders; both literally in carrying heavy loads as workers and metaphorically through the oppressive roles imposed upon them by the male in the private sphere. Other examples from Turkish cinema include Önder and Gülmez’s The International of 2006, Akın’s 2007 film The Edge of Heaven and Bastards by Saraçoğlu from 2008. The Edge of Heaven’s Yeter (the character’s name is chosen intentionally; “yeter” means “enough”) becomes a prostitute after the loss of her husband and she lives in exile. The International’s Gülendam suffers the loss of her boyfriend. In Bastards, Hatice is shot by her own fifteen year old son, who was assigned the role of restoring family honour.
Who is directing? Can they represent accurately different people, including those who they are not? Can men represent women and vice versa? Does it matter whether there are not many women directors? It does only if we adopt an existential view of representation rather than a principal agent view, that is, if it is believed that only women can represent women, or that they do it generally better than men. It is from this perspective that the absence of women directors leads directly to absences in the films themselves. These absences will not be those intended by a woman director who consciously and experimentally plays with norms and expectations, but will be the unintended and overlooked absences arising from a failure to understand the nature of what is being presented and represented. So it is an issue whether directors are women, not just because there should be equal opportunities for women directors, but because, if one adopts a certain view of what they are representing when they bring their work to the screen, something will be lost if there are no women directors to ensure the proper representation of women in film.
Contemporary Middle Eastern films indeed reveal powerful cross-currents producing complex and often contradictory effects, acting both to reinforce and to mitigate against the manifestations of male dominance in different narratives and contexts. However, despite these complexities, gender asymmetry in society is produced, represented and reproduced through filmic texts. Nevertheless, women’s attempts to film their concerns and represent their experiences from their own point-of-view are significant.
Some assume identity can only be experienced and understood by those holding the identity in question. As such, people can only be truly or properly represented by someone sharing that identity. Take a political analogy to consider a weaker version of this. One may feel that there should be a more representative sample of women in parliament because their presence makes a palpable difference to what would otherwise be a predominantly male enclave. Thus, it would be thought, the interests of women are not properly represented because they are not properly understood. Here, the very presence of women as women in such a context makes a difference. Likewise, while the strategies that different women filmmakers of the Middle East use may differ, they are connected by similar processes of revising and reconceptualising their work. It is important for them to devise strategies whereby they can make their voices heard about women’s issues and experiences. They offer distinctive intention in cinematic style, as well as stunning examples of experimentation.
Women directors of the Middle East engage in self-expression, even as they engage in expression of a more radical kind – expressions of political, social and cultural change.