Filmmakers Mostafa Heravi, Alka Sadat and Laila Hotait Salas may hail from three different countries — Iran, Afghanistan and Lebanon — and represent a cross-section of vastly divergent backgrounds. But they speak a common language: filmmaking.
All three recently traveled to Los Angeles for "Women's Voices From the Muslim World," a screening of 63 shorts from 21 countries, last week at the Los Angeles Film School. The three-day event, however, was just the beginning: Films will remain viewable on the Web and the festival's parent organization, the nonprofit Women's Voices Now, plans a roster of screenings, panel discussions and other events throughout 2011 both domestically and abroad.
The festival has been in the works for about a year but is playing out against the backdrop of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, civil war in Libya and unrest across the Arab world, its theme of examining women's lives and rights in the Muslim world is especially timely. And, just as much of the recent uprising in the Middle East has been facilitated and powered by social media and the Internet, the festival is largely Web-based.
"I thought: How do we get the message out? Give voice back to the people? And I kept coming back to the Internet and movies. There is moderation, there is tolerance in the Muslim worlds, but it's being blocked by extremists," said Los Angeles gallery owner Leslie Sacks, who founded Women's Voices Now just over a year ago and is its chairman.
More than 200 submissions were uploaded to the festival website from 40 countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and Iran. The final 98 films that make up the online festival are being rated and commented on by viewers from all over the world. And users can post new videos and photos to add to the mix. "We're using social media to spread the message even further," said the organization's executive director, Catinca Tabacaru. "We're supporting a cultural movement and have created an artistic exchange."
The filmmakers represented in the festival reflect the difficulties of working creatively in the Muslim world. Some work only by living in exile. Others struggle with financing or official censorship in their home countries. Given the dangers often associated with speaking out for women's rights in the Muslim world, every participating filmmaker was offered anonymity, according to Sacks. "We gave everyone the opportunity to remain incognito if they wanted," he said. "But … [most everyone] had the courage to acknowledge what they did."
The films vary in style and tone, from gritty documentary shorts to Heravi's experimental short showing an Iranian woman, covered head to toe in black, dancing against a white background while holding an apple. "In Iran, [women] are not allowed to dance. I wanted to show if they are allowed to dance, it would look, to me, like this," said Heravi, 36, who has lived in Amsterdam since 2000 and keeps in touch with people at home via social media.
"There are risks associated with making these types of films, notes Tabacaru." We actually met a film critic who went into Kabul and brought out the films in a suitcase, literally, for us."
One of those films was Sadat's documentary "Half Value Life," about a female lawyer representing a woman who was abused by her husband. Sadat and her sister run a production company out of their home in Kabul, partly because it's cost effective not to rent office space and partly because it's safer to avoid commuting daily, as a working woman, in the city's streets. Sadat does work for a local TV company and puts her earnings toward personal projects that she shows only abroad.
"Sometimes, you can get money to do your work" she says, referring to her local TV work. "But sometimes it's dangerous. Most of my friends, people don't see [my personal projects]. It's not for television, it's not for website. This is first time I send them to online film festival."
Sadat's short won first place in the festival's documentary category, earning her a $5,000 prize. She's more excited, however, about the exposure for her film. "Most of the time, in another country, they show very bad face of woman in Afghanistan. They wear burka, don't go in the street. We do have this kind of woman. But we also do have active woman, who try to do something, they are helpful."
Laila Hotait Salas' fictional short "Absent Spaces" is deeply personal, drawing on her experience, at age 16, of being trapped alone in her house in southern Lebanon during a bombing. "It's a healing thing for me. It's a healing process. You put it out there and it helps you to get over it."
Half Lebanese and half Spanish, Hotait Salas is now based in Madrid and previously studied filmmaking at San Francisco State University. "Absent Spaces" was part of the festival's screening "Love, Sex and Other Dangerous Pursuits."
"I wanted to portray the frustration of the younger generations in the Arab world, especially in Lebanon, who are living under occupation. Your project of life is always hijacked," she says.