Habibi Collective: Collating films made by Arab women

Habibi Collective: Collating films made by Arab women

6 min read
09 September, 2020
The New Arab speaks to Roisin Tapponi, the founder of the Habibi Collective project, about the digital archiving of films made by women from the Middle East.
Roisin Tapponi has spent years cataloguing films made by Arab women. [Roisin Tapponi]
The Arab world is filled with women filmmakers. As artists and creatives, their work presents a distinct voice often actively silenced, and their talent brings to the fore unique expressions of the issues faced by people living in the region and diaspora.

Yet, with Arab film continuing to be male-dominated from producers to leads, the prominence of female filmmakers from the past or present of the Arab world remains subdued.

Irish-Iraqi curator Roisin Tapponi seeks to change that. Over years spent searching for and cataloguing films made by Arab women, Roisin set up the Habibi Collective - a digital archive and curatorial platform dedicated to promoting female filmmaking in the Middle East. 

The film curator shared with The New Arab her experiences in searching for female voices on screen, the obstacles facing filmmakers from the region and the efforts required to support women in the industry.

'Doing the dirty work'

The Habibi Collective began as an Instagram account in July 2018, logging films made by women from the region with the mission of curating a collection to showcase the genre.

"[The Habibi Collective] began organically and it really developed into a community," Roisin says. "At the time there were no organisations doing what I was doing, and MENA women filmmakers weren't trendy like they are now. In retrospect, my aim was to create a comprehensive archive, a resource, for MENA women filmmaking."

Impetus for the collection came from Roisin's own experience growing up as an avid student of film, where the filmmaking voices of women of similar backgrounds seemed absent.

"I grew up in the countryside, so would usually watch about three films a day, or a director a night," Roisin tells The New Arab. "I realised that I was not seeing people like me represented on screen, so I actively started pursuing films made by women from the MENA region, in the diaspora and with mixed heritage."

In her quest to find more women directors from the Arab world, newly discovered filmmakers became critical. Roisin points especially to the films of Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian from Beirut, whose work explores the relationship between politics and the individual.

"Watching Mona Hatoum's 'Measures of Distance' was a really pivotal moment for me. I remember I was about 13 and sat on the floor by the radiator watching it on my laptop… It changed everything!

"Her film was the first I watched by an Arab woman. Hatoum made the film when she was at Slade in London. She is Palestinian but grew up in Lebanon and made the film in the diaspora," Roisin says.

"This was a nomadic identity that I could relate to and it was important for me in terms of representation to see women define what it meant to be Arab beyond national borders!"

The curation and cataloguing of films made by Arab women shows a rich history of filmmaking over the 20th century from women of diverse backgrounds, whose films often shared distinct thematic focuses that transcend national boundaries.

"As Habibi Collective grew, it became important for me to represent marginalised voices within our communities," Roisin says.

"It is important for me not just to show that there are Lebanese filmmakers (for example) but to show that there is a rich history of Lebanese women filmmakers and not only that, but they are making films about climate migration!

"This is why I curate films around themes rather than national identity, it is important for me to show the depth and breadth of our work and how it operates within intersections of class, sexuality, religion."

Read more: 'Telling our own stories': Inside Iraq's first independent film festival

With countries in the region often afflicted by authoritarian censorship, comprehensive archives collating the diverse output of female filmmakers seem a low priority. For Roisin, the graft involved with the collation of their films is a vital step in engendering a space to support their work.  

"I think there is a weak archive culture in the MENA region," she says. "In London we have the BFI, in NYC there is Anthology Film Archives, in India there was P.K. Nair and in France, Henri Langlois.

"Everyone wants to be a filmmaker or director but very few people are willing to do the dirty work and archive the history and create the space for these films to be made and distributed."

Everyone wants to be a filmmaker or director but very few people are willing to do the dirty work and archive the history and create the space for these films to be made and distributed

'There's something for everyone'

Over the past two years the Habibi Collective's work has evolved to organise film screenings, exhibitions and panel discussions in support of women filmmakers. For the curator, a particular incentive was the interest of followers when the films were first brought to their attention. 

"I started screening films in real-life because since first creating Habibi Collective as a digital archive, people have been asking 'where can I watch this?'" Roisin says. 

With a range of films showcased – from feature films, to shorts, documentaries and essay films – the wide range of output of female filmmakers from the Middle East becomes apparent. For Roisin, this diversity broadens the appeal to a wide range of audiences.

"My particular interest is in essay film and moving image, but obviously narrative-led independent films are those that circulate best on the international film circuit. I like to think there is something for everyone!"

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of numerous film festivals and the suspension of scheduled film releases globally.

The large-scale shift to the digital world that followed is now also reflected in many new film now being released online. For the curator, this trend has fostered the potential of having female-made films reach new audiences. 

"Now I really recognise the value of screening online because the films can reach more people," she says. "Obviously there isn't the same buzz as there is in a real-life event so the move online has been a major change in that aspect."

The new status quo has also led the Habibi Collective to fundraise a new project that would provide an independent streaming service for MENA films.

"We need a streaming service for people like us, made by people like us," Roisin says. "We also need a streaming service independent of interregional politics and institutional bureaucracy."

With funding and employment opportunities for independent voices in Middle Eastern cinema scarce at the best of times, one of the aims of the Habibi Collective is to provide help and support for emerging women film makers.

This has come to include redirecting filmmakers to specific funding opportunities, offering advice, connecting them with distributors or helping them to gain entry in film festivals.

For the project founder, however, a particularly important area is ensuring film makers are not exploited in a field where 'free labour' in return for 'exposure' has become a norm.

"It is important to me to show filmmakers even at the very beginning of their careers that they should expect payment for their work, free labour for 'exposure' is the worst crime in the art and film industry!"

You can follow Habibi Collective here and stay up-to-date with Roisin here.

Sarah Khalil is a journalist with The New Arab.

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