Women in Arab countries create a distinct impression on westerners. To be blunt, their clothes instill a feeling within us Westerners of restriction, even of servitude to men. And it is true that the societies are patriarchal, but Western society is also patriarchal and we must remember it is less than 100 years since we Western Women got the vote. In fact, the French woman got the vote in 1944, in 1946, Greece in 1952, San Marino in 1959, Monaco in 1962, Andorra in 1970, Switzerland in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984. And look at how quickly we have moved into positions of responsibility — although we still have a ways to go toward parity.
That the Saudia Arabian woman just got the vote last year does not mean she is unaware of the world and the times in which we all are living. Additionally, she must contend with the current recent world reaction to the Saudi Arabian government’s execution of a Shiite cleric who was actively campaigning for religious equality between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and to their support of the Syrian government. Women also must hold families together in the face of men waging wars and forcing mass migrations. We Western Women are also dealing with the state the world is in though it seems as if we are dealing with it on other levels. Ahd, however, is handling both middle eastern and western issues on her own.
What strikes me when I ask Arab women in positions of authority what inspired them is that they often attribute their will to excel and to be independent to their mothers. In the U.S., when women are asked the same question, they usually credit their fathers for telling them they can achieve whatever they want.
During the Ayjal Youth Film Festival in Doha, headed by Fatma Al Remaihi, I met Ahd who was heading up the jury for the Made in Qatar selection of shorts. She is a Saudi Arabian actor, writer, director whose second short film in which she also acted, “Sanctity”/ “La sainteté”, financed by France’s CNC, won the 2012 Doha Tribeca Development Award, received a Golden Bear nomination at the Berlinale in 2013 and won the Golden Aleph in the Beirut International Film Festival in 2013.
Ahd also played an important role in the prize-winning film about a girl and her bike in the Match Factory and Sony Pictures Classics release “ Wadjda”, the first feature ever shot totally in Saudia Arabia. It was a critical darling, BAFTA nominee and Saudia Arabia’s first official submission for Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film last year. And it was the first feature-length film written and directed a female Saudi director, a film which touched the hearts of the world.
The fluent and articulate English-speaking, American-educated, multi-lingual Saudi Arabian native launched her film career in 2005 with a string of internationally successful short films; all three have won prestigious festival awards. She was presented with a Cloeween Connection Award from Spike Lee, by the Abu Dhabi Authority of Culture and Heritage as an emerging Arab filmmaker. She is also a certified 300 hour Jivamukti yoga teacher.
I’m impressed with what I see here in Doha: Al Jazeera, Doha Film Institute and Ajyal Youth Film Festival seem quite progressive.
Ahd: This festival is about the kids. They are planting the seeds for the future. Just to see them and hear the questions they ask opens your heart and gives you hope for the region.
In the Made in Qatar section, there is a variety of films, all by Qataris and Qatar residents. They are culled from an open competition. Some contestants are film students, some are involved with DFI. Doc filmmakers had a workshop last year. You can spot future filmmakers. There is a prize of US$5,000 for best documentary and a prize for best narrative and a jury prize. The deliberations were tough. The film must grab attention and the story must be well told.
What about cinema here?
Ahd: It is still very difficult to make movies in the region.
Shorts are the beginning here for filmmakers. For cinema to grow in the Arab states, the Arabs must rely on each other. There is money in the Gulf but it takes lots of passion, craft and discipline to finance films.
Do you think there will be major changes in this region?
Ahd: Yes, change is inevitable. My existence is proof that change in happening and I’m not the only one. We want to tell our stories, our full stories. Yes women are oppressed but that’s not the full picture. Women in the region are not victims; they are strong and capable.
Our mothers and grandmothers are our role models. My short “Sanctity” highlights female strength which is endurance. Women need to learn to work professionally and this must start at a very young age.
What are you working on now?
Ahd: Now I am financing my feature script, “My Driver and I”.
There is no government support in my home country of Saudi Arabia so I am looking at the available funds and at patrons of art in the larger MENA region. (Editor note: MENA is the Middle East and North African region, about 355 million people – almost 6% of the world population– with the vast majority of people living in 22 middle-income countries.)
“My Driver and I” is a heartfelt coming of age story set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia about the paternal relationship between a girl, Salma, and her family chauffeur, Gamar. My parents passed when I was a teenager. My father when I was 14 and my mother when I was 19. My driver played a huge part in my upbringing and ten years ago he died suddenly of an aneurysm. Up to that moment, I never reflected on the impact he had on my life: in a way, I realized I took him for granted. Growing up in a privileged Saudi home, I was lucky to have my own driver whom I had a particularly close relationship with – he was there when I was born and accompanied me through my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. He drove me everywhere and was privy to all my movements. Through the years, he had truly become my best friend. “My Driver and I” is inspired by the almost mystical and unusually intimate relationship I had with my driver. The film is ultimately a homage to him. He drove me in a car but ultimately he enabled me to take the wheel of my own life’s journey.
What motivates you to make a feature film?
Ahd: Love and fear are my two motivators. Writing was born out of my frustration about the lack of roles. To create my own opportunities, I had to have a good script. That takes lots of discipline.
How did you become who you are today?
Ahd: I have no idea.
I spoke English before I spoke Arabic because my nanny was from the Philippines. My father died when I was quite young and my mom relied on him in entirely. She did not want me to find myself in her position so she encouraged me to be financially independent. She believed in education and empowered me.
I graduated high school in Saudi Arabia and at 17 I moved to New York alone to attend Columbia University, planning to continue to Law School. I quickly realized I didn’t really want to do law. Looking back, I think I fell in love with court room dramas and performance, not law.
I dropped out of Columbia after one term and transferred to Parsons School of Design to study animation. By my senior year again I realized I didn’t want to do animation so for my senior thesis instead of making a five minute character animation film, I made a documentary with animation intervals and that was my first encounter with the camera. After graduation, to extend my time in the U.S., I applied to film school. While in film school, I fell in love with cinema and realized that’s what I wanted to do. The tradition of telling stories orally was there; my grandmother told stories so film felt like a perfect fit.
In school I acted for others and did a short with a Turkish director at NYU. I won awards and caught the acting bug so after I completed my diploma in film I went to the Esper Studio and did a two-year program in acting to pursue it further.
My short “Sanctity” played in Berlin and Doha and 22 festivals worldwide. Making films for me is a spiritual process.
You still have your connection of your roots?
Ahd: Four years ago I moved back to Saudi Arabia to do “Sanctity” then “Wadjda”. The region was moving with revolutions; an underground art scene was emerging.
I made my peace with Saudi Arabia and now I want to make my movie there and leave it. Like a tree, roots are in one place, the trunk is in another and who knows where the branches will be.
Children today are bolder than we were. Girls challenge more. I was born in 1980. The Gulf War was in 1990 and foreign influences came in with the American Army, CNN, satellite TV, American and British programming. I watched “90210” when I was 11 or 12 years old.
You can watch Ahd’s first film by clicking this link. Unfortunately, her second film, “Sanctity” is password protected and so you must contact her.