International Women's Day 2019: The female photographers and filmmakers taking over Dubai

We delve into Femmes Film Festival in Dubai, which is showcasing female creativity and stories pertinent to women everywhere

Mahsa Ahrabifard's Little Women. Couretsy Mahsa Ahrabifard

The opposing coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea have been the stage for several dramatic scenes in recent years. The so-called migration crisis in Europe has played out on this sea and its effects have infiltrated almost every aspect of society on all sides of the water.

Many films have focused on the subject of immigration over the past two decades. While most have followed the migrants and refugees, the fate of those left behind has rarely been considered. That is one of the reason's Sarra Abidi's film Benzine is so powerful. It follows the story of Salem and Halima, parents desperate for news of their son, whose illegal passage into Europe from the barren lands of a Tunisian village and his subsequent disappearance tears the family further apart with each passing day. First screened in the UAE at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2017, the film was made in response to the impact of the 2011 Tunisian revolution.

Benzine by Sarra Abidi. Courtesy Alliance Francaise

Anyone who missed it the first time around will have another chance to see it this month, at a film festival in Dubai dedicated to the craft of female directors. Femmes Film Festival is part of the Printemps Feminin or the Women's Spring, hosted by Alliance Francaise Dubai. It is a two-part celebration of women in culture, comprising a film festival showcasing movies from female directors and an international photography exhibition by women artists.

Femmes Film Festival

Christine Ishkinazi is the co-founder of Films Femmes Mediterranee, an organisation and film festival from Marseilles that is dedicated to supporting female filmmakers from across the Mediterranean. She is the curator of Femmes Film Festival, which is organised by Alliance Francaise Dubai in partnership with Femmes Film Mediterranee. Over the course of three weeks, six features and four shorts will be screened, with the opening night hosted at Dubai Opera, when Benzine will be shown.

Many women shun the idea of being grouped together by gender

It will be preceded by a panel discussion about gender equality. Ishkinazi will be on the panel alongside Dr Hayat Shamsuddin, the vice president of arts and culture, content and programming for Expo 2020; artist Sultana Farouk Kazim; Mariam Farag, the head of the CSR programme at MBC Group; and Ryan Mario, an art writer from Singapore.

"Many women shun the idea of being grouped together by their gender," says Ishkinazi. "They say, 'I am not a female filmmaker, I am just a filmmaker'. However, less than 20 per cent of films worldwide are directed by women, and they deserve to be given as much exposure as possible."

Also showing at the festival, which continues in the cinema room at Alliance Francaise in Dubai's Oud Metha area, is Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro) directed by Alice Rohrwacher, who won a Best Screenplay award for the film at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Bosnian director Aida Begic's Never Leave Methe story of three Syrian refugees who flee their orphanage to build a new life in Turkey – and Hearts for Dinner, a short film directed by Renee Koutoula about an immigrant to a small Greek village will also be screened.

Never Leave Me by Aida Begic. Courtesy Alliance Francaise

'A woman's touch'

One thing that links the films is the "women's touch", explains Ishkinazi. "Women appropriate the images they want to use in a different way from men. They often depict realities that are absent from mainstream cinema and even the way bodies are shown is different, they feel more like documents or portraits rather than romantic or dramatised versions of life," she says.

The topic of immigration crops up in several of the films, because it is something that still affects European society, Ishkinazi says. "Women have a special way of looking at it. It is important to see some films that address this problem with a tenderness and calm," she says.

Concurrent to the film festival, the in-house gallery will exhibit photos from 10 finalists and one laureate of the 2019 International Women Photographers Association photo competition, which promotes female photographers by giving them international exposure.

Alliance Francaise Dubai will host the inaugural exhibition of this year's competition before the show travels across in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Some of the works will examine issues pertinent to women and girls. Mahsa Ahrabi Fard's Little Women project focuses on child marriage in Iran, while Solmaz Daryani's In The Desert of Iran Wetlands sheds light on environmental concerns in the country. Maria Contreras Coll, a Spanish photographer, presents Journey to Impurity, a photo essay about girls in Nepal who are isolated in huts during menstruation.
This entire presentation of art and culture goes further than celebrating the talents and efforts of women, it highlights issues and topics through sensitive perception and with striking effects.

Printemps Feminin (Femmes Film Festival and IWPA 2019) is at Alliance ­Francaise Dubai, Oud Metha, from Saturday until March 30