How Netflix is empowering the next generation of female Arab storytellers

The platform's Because She Created initiative had a dedicated booth at the Red Sea International Film Festival

Netflix's booth at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Netflix
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Netflix is bolstering its Because She Created platform, working to empower the next generation of female storytellers in the Arab world.

The initiative was conceptualised in 2020 through a virtual panel discussion and has been active at regional film festivals since Covid-19-related restrictions began being lifted in the past year.

Because She Created hosted a fireside chat with Finding Ola actress Hend Sabry at the Cairo International Film Festival in November. And, more recently, it created a dedicated space at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to highlight the works of four of the most accomplished cinematic talents in the region — Tunisian directors Sabry and Kaouther Ben Hania, whose film The Man Who Sold His Skin was nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar last year, Jordanian director Tima Shomali (AlRawabi School for Girls) and Saudi filmmaker Hana Alomair, creator of Whispers, Netflix’s first thriller from the kingdom.

They each had a corner dedicated to highlighting milestones from their careers, their passion for filmmaking, the ups and downs they’ve faced and to offering advice to young women starting out in the industry. All four also made an appearance at the festival.

While the presence of Because She Created at the event has been pivotal for engaging with budding regional filmmakers, the project had already been having a particularly good year, in terms of its funding initiatives and writing programmes.

Netflix partnered with the Arab Fund for Culture and Arts in April to launch a $250,000 grant for female producers and directors in the region. In September, it launched the Because She Created writing programme, in partnership with Egyptian content creation company Sard, hosting 22 aspiring women from Al Said in Egypt.

Tima Shomali, director of AlRawabi School for Girls, appeared at the Red Sea International Film Festival in support of the Netflix initiative Because She Created. Photo: Netflix

In July, it launched a catalogue of 21 films by female filmmakers from across the Arab world. The works include Let’s Talk by Egyptian director Marianne Khoury, Stateless by Moroccan filmmaker Narjiss Nejjar and A Tale of Love and Desire by Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid.

However, this is only the beginning, said Nuha El Tayeb, Netflix's director of acquisitions for Mena and Turkey, with more in the pipeline to help bolster female up-and-coming talents from the Arab world.

“We want women to know there’s a platform here to help give them that opportunity,” she told The National on the sidelines of the Red Sea International Film Festival, which concluded its second year on Saturday.

While the prime focus of Because She Created is devoted to scriptwriters and directors, El Tayeb says the initiative is open to all creators and whoever can generate riveting works.

A scene from AlRawabi School for Girls. Photo: Netflix

“It’s anything surrounding the content,” she said. “It’s open to anyone coming with stories, whether in front of the screen or behind it. What’s important for us is to be a support system for them. We kicked off two years ago and see where we are now.”

Shomali said she was proud to be part of the initiative, especially because a lot of her works are concerned with bringing sidelined stories from women in the region to the screen.

“What I’ve always tried to do with my work is be an advocate for women, to write stories from a new perspective that we haven’t seen,” she said. “Being a part of an initiative like this means a lot to me.”

The director said she hopes the industry can reach a point of inclusivity where such initiatives aren't necessary any more, but for now it is paramount to support Arab women whose perspective has long been marginalised in cinema.

“We have to reach a place where having creative women in this industry is a normal thing,” she said. “For me, I feel it's also my responsibility as a filmmaker and producer. I worked my way up from the beginning and it wasn’t an easy ride, at all. Some people gave me a chance and gave me an opportunity. I would like to now do my part, as I am now in a position to do so.”

Considering how much Because She Created has done to support women in the industry, Shomali said she is sure the initiative will continue to grow and “only get bigger and bigger.”

“I do have a lot of faith in this initiative. Hopefully in the future, it will offer more roles for women on set, not only creators and writers and directors, but even gaffers, sound professionals and editors.”

El Tayeb said the impact Because She Created has been inspiring. She was, however, tight-lipped about what's in store for the initiative, but promised Netflix consumers would be hearing more about it soon.

“This is just the start,” she said. “There is much more coming.”

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Updated: December 14, 2022, 8:58 AM