Women and men sitting in an audience. In the centre of the image is a woman dressed in black, wearing glasses and a head covering, using her phone to film what she is watching.

Sisters in cinema: female filmmakers examine the industry

As a catalyst for social change, there are few mediums as consistently impactful as cinema. From documentaries to classic films, the sensitive, powerful or even traumatic depictions of social injustice have had the power to change the minds and perceptions – even the world. So, it makes absolute sense that behind-the-scenes things should be changing too, and today’s narrative in cinema is through the lens of a growing number of female creatives. But it’s still not an easy path.

So, how do female filmmakers find success? And what does the industry look like for women today? These were the topics in the spotlight when we invited a panel of three ceiling-shattering female filmmakers to the Women’s Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Nahla Al Fahad is as famed for her documentaries as her music videos and is CEO of Beyond Studios. Egypt’s Sara Shazli directed the critically acclaimed movie ‘Back Home’ and, from Nigeria, Chioma Ude is the Executive Director of Africa International Film Festival. Together they discussed the opportunities and challenges available to women in the film industry.

Under the microscope

A recent study found that 26% of independent Arab filmmakers are women. This is actually a significant increase that Nahla Al Fahad believes is because “there are many different governments, as well as private entities and NGOs, that are pushing the pedal forward in empowering women, not only in the film industry but in different sectors. This is truly a progressive period for UAE where platforms like the Women’s Pavilion and Expo 2020 are shedding light on the significance of women’s representation.” This applies to both filmmaking and female entrepreneurship in general, where Nahla also sees significantly more opportunities available.

Nigeria, on the other hand, is already well-known for being a hotbed of opportunities in the film industry, with UNESCO reporting that the region produces upwards of 2500 films every year. Chioma Ude reports that there are several female filmmakers who are leading the charge and a current ratio of 60:40 women to men working in the industry. “But this did not come easy,” she explains. “In the nineties, most women working in the industry were hired as actresses and there were only a handful that wanted to pursue filmmaking. There was also an issue regarding equal pay for women in the film industry back then.” However, a boom in the oil industry rapidly sucked men out of filmmaking, leaving space for entrepreneurial Nigerian women to swiftly fill the breach. “Women were quick to understand, assess and predict the greatness of the Nigerian film industry,” says Chioma. “It is for these reasons that we see the Nigerian film industry as a female-forward industry.”

However, Sara Al Shazli paints a different picture when talking about Egypt. “Even though Egypt has a large commercial film market, the share of opportunities for women is considerably smaller.” But it’s not all bad news. “Slowly but steadily, people are realising the importance of gender equality in Egypt and women are being given opportunities that would have been completely inaccessible in the past. This is, of course, a great start. I would encourage women to not be deterred by the past but to move forward, have faith in themselves, their scripts and their work and not to forget the power of networking. We can achieve great things if we come together to empower each other by sharing our knowledge and resources”

Two women sat to the left and right of a screen on a tastefully decorated cream stage. The screen shows three further participants.

Creativity in a covid world

While the global pandemic has had a profound effect on most industries worldwide, the creative spirit of all three panellists remains unbroken. Nahla Al Fahad describes 2020 as her most productive year, during which she directed her upcoming movie 218. Whereas Chioma Ude wrote several scripts that are now being turned into movies. Sara Al Shazli’s critically acclaimed documentary Back Home was shot each day of the lockdown and captures the effect of the pandemic on her daily life. And while Back Home is not overtly a feminist film, it tells an important tale through a female perspective. “I wanted to share the stories of what I was witnessing in my journey without really knowing that I was making a point about female empowerment,” she says. “But I think that is the beauty of it, to spark a conversation about change.”

It’s almost impossible to deny the role that social media has played in supporting connection and community during Covid 19 and Nahla cannot overstate what an important tool it continues to be for the aspiring filmmaker. “The power of social media should be leveraged by each and every filmmaker, whether you personally like it or not.” She cites the example of crowdfunding as an important, alternative and under-utilised way to benefit from social networks, “Film-makers should look at these innovative tools to promote their work.” And Chioma firmly agrees. “Nigeria is an extremely social-media driven country and filmmakers absolutely cannot risk ignoring this element in their marketing plans” she explains. “While this may seem challenging in the beginning, it actually does open a lot of doors for you.”

Stronger together

As a female filmmaker, there’s a keen awareness that you are not only creating work that you are proud of but laying a path for those who will come after you. All three women believe that this is the way to create change. “As a filmmaker, you are not always consciously doing things to make a point because, like everyone else, this is our job that we do,” says Chioma. “But by attending sessions such as this, not only are we made aware of the impact we can create as filmmakers but also the role we can play in empowering other women. I realise that as a filmmaker and director of a film festival, I have an immensely powerful responsibility on my shoulders to support the dreams of other women who want to pursue filmmaking. It is through such endeavours that we can come together to make a meaningful difference to the society.”

To see the panel discussion in full, including audience Q&A, head to the Canon Middle East website.

Written by Mai Youssef, Corporate Communications and Marketing Services Director – Africa, Middle East and Turkey