March 25, 2011
The Doha Film Institute, dedicated to building a dynamic film industry in Qatar, featured several articles about the winning WVN filmmakers from Northwestern University Qatar during the course of the Festival.
“Going to the festival is definitely a great opportunity for my colleagues and I” says [WVN Filmmaker] Ola. “For me, taking part in a positive representation of Islam, when there are a lot of misconceptions about Muslim people, was the greatest thing. It was also great to meet filmmakers from around the world who aren’t necessarily Muslims but presented a positive image of the Muslim world that’s often viewed so negatively.
Most importantly, through the festival I realized that there’s a greater presence of women making films and in media. These women are not only addressing women’s issues, but also discussing issues about men and children in Muslim societies. I feel that ‘Women's Voices Now’ acts as a bridge between the Muslim world and the Western world, and that films and media are a great way to bring these worlds closer together. I’m proud that ‘The Unveiled’ helped, even if only a little, in building that bridge”.
‘Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival’, which took place from 17-19 March at the Los Angeles Film School, proved to be a pivotal step in the blossoming careers of four young journalism students from Northwestern University Qatar, as all four received prizes for their documentaries.
Class partners Ola Diab and Shereena Qazi won third place in the ‘Student’ category with their documentary ‘The Unveiled’. Says Ola: “The short documentary addresses the niqab, not just in Qatar but where ever wearing the neqab is prevalent. It is a dialogue between a Manaqabi (a woman who wears the neqab), a Mutahejabi (a woman who wears the hejab) and a young woman who wears neither”. Shereena explains why they chose this particular topic for their documentary: “Ola and I wanted to highlight the debate that continues about the veil: that some women wear it thinking it is obligatory in Islam, whereas other Islamic scholars say it isn’t obligatory”. Adds Ola: “As young female Muslims living in an age of ambiguity, we battle to understand what is truly a religious requirement against what is traditional or social. We’ve realized that the neqab has attracted a lot of attention and left many confused – not only in the Western world, but also in the Muslim – so we decided to explore the tradition”.
After showing their documentary and subsequently winning an award for it, Ola and Shereena received a lot of questions from people asking them about the conclusion to this debate but the pair have chosen not to provide an answer. “We actually got all the women together in the documentary to prove their individual points, including an Islamic scholar, so the viewers can decide what the conclusion is” says Shereena.
“Going to the festival is definitely a great opportunity for my colleagues and I” says Ola. “For me, taking part in a positive representation of Islam, when there are a lot of misconceptions about Muslim people, was the greatest thing. It was also great to meet filmmakers from around the world who aren’t necessarily Muslims but presented a positive image of the Muslim world that’s often viewed so negatively. Most importantly, through the festival I realized that there’s a greater presence of women making films and in media. These women are not only addressing women’s issues, but also discussing issues about men and children in Muslim societies. I feel that ‘Womens Voices Now’ acts as a bridge between the Muslim world and the Western world, and that films and media are a great ways to bring these worlds closer together. I’m proud that ‘The Unveiled’ helped, even if only a little, in building that bridge”.
Shereena agrees, saying: “The ‘Women’s Voices Now’ festival was not just a film festival for me, but it was also an eye-opening event that made me realize how women in all parts of the world deal with situations that are often thrust upon them, just because they are women. This festival allowed me to interact with filmmakers from all over the world, and helped me learn different techniques of conveying a message. This was a great experience for me, and I am overjoyed about our win in this competition, as I personally feel all the documentaries were amazing!”
Zainab Sultan and Thouria Mahmoud were also delighted with their ‘Honorable Mention’ Award for their documentary ‘Breast Cancer in Qatar: Overcoming Cultural Boundaries’. Thouria described the festival and their award: “The event was beyond our expectations. We were treated like famous filmmakers, and we loved it! We got an honorable mention for our film and a certificate – that, to me, was such a great accomplishment, given the amazing and intellectual judges that made the choices! Everything was perfect”.
Zainab added, “I think that Women Voices Now was a great learning experience for young film makers like us. Watching the films showcased you get to see a difference perspective of the Muslim world and the Muslim women where not everything is as dark and shady as it seems to be on the mainstream media. I had a great time meeting many other like minded women who would like to get their voice heard. I think problems exist in every society, what’s important is that we need to acknowledge this, and work on them, which is happening at forums like Women Voices Now. It was really exciting to receive an award and I would really like to thank everyone who featured in our documentary and everyone who helped us made it possible. I am thankful to them for sharing such moving personal stories that remind that of a very difficult time of their lives but hearing them does give you the hope and positivity to fight cancer.”
Cassandra N Schaffa, Director of Festival Operations for ‘Women’s Voices Now’ (WVN), explains how the not-for-profit organisation got started: “’Women’s Voices Now’ was founded in January 2010 by Leslie Sacks, and built by Catinca Tabacaru and a team of young professionals with expertise in human rights, film and the Middle East. Our mission is to empower women and give voice to the struggle for civil, economic and political rights. ‘Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival’ is WVN’s first project and it has thus far been a fantastic success. The Festival focuses on women of all faiths living in Muslim-majority countries and Muslim women around the world. We received over 200 submissions from 40 countries, which were then watched, rated and commented on in over 160 countries”.
WVN curated their top films into collections addressing specific topics and themes, and coupled each of these screenings with an inspiring panel of experts and filmmakers. The Festival also supports the work of filmmakers working towards the expansion of women’s rights through WVN’s mentorship program – coupling American film industry executives with their filmmakers – which was also launched at the Awards Show on the final night.
But organising the festival is not all these women have achieved so far. Cassandra explains: “WVN ran a ‘Kickstarter’ fundraising campaign at the beginning of the year to bring our top filmmakers to Los Angeles for the Festival. We managed to raise enough money for Alka Sadat (Afghanistan), Mostafa Heravi (Iran/Netherlands) and Laila Hotait (Spain/Lebanon) to travel to Los Angeles for the week. During their time in LA and at the festival, they have been meeting one another and talking collaboration. These connections the filmmakers are making with one another are one of the long term goals of the festival: to connect women’s rights activists and creatives from around the world so they may unite in the global movement for gender equality”.
For a first year Festival, ‘Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival’ has managed to overcome many challenges, and has raised hope – and voices – from not only the Muslim world, but from people of different ages, nationalities and religions the world over.
Four junior Journalism students from Northwestern University in Qatar are in Los Angeles this week, showcasing their short films and documentaries at ‘Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short Film Festival’, which is taking place from 17-19 March at the Los Angeles Film School, Hollywood.
Class partners Shereena Qazi and Ola Diab entered their sophomore year project ‘The Unveiled’, a documentary about the controversy of wearing the veil in Muslim communities. “Some Muslims believe that women are required to wear it in Islam, whereas others believe that it is a choice and not a requirement” said Ola, describing her film on the festival website. “This ambiguity is a result of different interpretations of a Quran verse which is about women covering their bodies”.
Shereena Qazi, meanwhile, also produced her documentary ‘Women in a Refugee Camp in Pakistan’, about women living in a refugee camp named Jalozai Camp in Pakistan. “People from tribal regions of Pakistan came in to this camp due to the war in their homeland” she said. “My video focuses on women of tribal regions who don’t even know how to read and write, but with the help of foreign organizations they are learning many things related to health and hygiene.”
Thouria Mahmoud and Zainab Sultan entered ‘Breast Cancer In Qatar’, their sophomore year project. “We came across an article about the ‘Think Pink Campaign’, and the story was very appealing to us,” says Thouria. “We decided that people in Qatar should realise the seriousness of late treatment, and we treated this short documentary as an awareness video. We believe that every woman deserves a chance to live a happy healthy life, and accepting the idea of breast cancer and breaking through the taboo associated with it will help take Qatar a further step towards an open society”.
Ibrahim N. Abusharif, Assistant Professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar, believes his junior students have made amazing progress in their two and half years at the university. “In class they have researched assignments and learned not only print journalism, but also storytelling through images, stills and video,” he said. “Their experience has given them the temperament and acumen to look for and find interesting stories with broad appeal and meaning.”
Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival is being organised by Women’s Voices Now (WVN). Founded in January 2010, WVN’s mission is to empower women and give voice to the struggle for civil, economic, and political rights. They aim to create a catalyst for social change by providing the most widely accessible on-line outlet for emerging discussions on women’s rights issues, thereby educating, empowering and uniting those who participate, and contributing to the awareness, empowerment, and connectivity of women.
The Festival is a part of this initiative and, in partnership with numerous organisations focused on film, women’s rights and/or Muslim issues, it will provide a multimedia forum focused on giving a voice to women of all faiths living in Muslim-majority countries, as well as Muslim women living as minorities, around the globe. No other film project currently exists that is focused exclusively on women of the Muslim world, making this a unique forum from which to highlight pro-women voices from within the Muslim world and present an unfiltered and honest account of these women’s stories – the experiences that shape their lives, the challenges they must overcome and their struggle for freedom of expression and human rights.
Over 200 films were submitted from more than 40 countries, and of that 98 films were selected for the competition. With films currently being viewed, rated and commented upon in 139 countries, it would appear that WVN are achieving their goal of connecting thousands of people from around the world with these filmmakers and their subjects.
The Festival is both an opportunity for filmmakers to gain international recognition and exposure in the filmmaking industry, and for individuals to tell their stories that transcend the rules of traditional filmmaking. Filmmakers of any gender, nationality and religion are invited to submit films, but emphasis will be put on generating submissions from women living in Muslim-majority countries, with the added promise that confidentiality and anonymity requests will be fully honoured.
As well as being available online, the films, along with panels of speakers providing further insight and context, will be screened during an event at the Los Angeles Film School in March 2011 and in community screenings around the world. Categories – including Fiction, Documentary, Student Films and a new ‘Experimental’ subject – encourage submissions of silent films, animated films, mobile films and photo montages, as well as films where the content outweighs the technical tools and skills of the filmmaker.