Moving across languages, national borders and cinematic styles, the wide spectrum of feminist filmmaking by women from the Middle East and North Africa is largely unknown in the United States.
The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University is shining a light on this body of work with Liberating History: Arab Feminisms and Mediated Pasts, a free online cinema series running Oct. 8–30. The five-part series offers an extraordinary encounter with rare Arab cinema, spanning previously unavailable landmark features and shorts from the 1970s through contemporary media.
The films draw on archival material, Islamic visual culture and ethnographic practice to explore personal and political histories, challenging accounts that have omitted feminist and decolonial perspectives. The series includes path-breaking films such as Heiny Srour’s “Leila and the Wolves” (1984), which centers Arab women’s struggles in the region’s modern history, and Selma Baccar’s “Fatma 75” (1975), an essay film combining history and fantasy. Work such as Lebanese video artist Rania Stephan’s “The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni” (2011) explores the life of famed Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni by relying entirely on rare images and sound of her films between 1959 and 1991. Two shorts programs, Inherited Memory: Blood Runs Thicker Than Water and Present Futures: Sci-Fi and Social Ecology are co-curated by the Habibi Collective, a digital archive and curatorial platform for Middle Eastern and North African women’s filmmaking.
"Many of these films are essential cinema, radical in their aesthetics and prescient in their feminist and decolonial critiques of Arab history. Yet they have not been available to view outside of rare festival screenings, and English-language criticism about them is scarce. Our hope for this series, which is available to view worldwide, is that these films receive the audience and interest they deserve” says Simran Bhalla, Northwestern University Ph.D. in Screen Cultures and co-curator of the series.
The online format of the series will serve the goal of reaching a wider national and international audience, while also allowing the programmers to welcome an extraordinary global lineup of speakers. “By presenting this series online, we have the opportunity to engage major filmmakers in conversation, including filmmakers Heiny Srour and Rania Stephan, as well as special guests like the Habibi Collective and interdisciplinary scholars from Northwestern’s campus, the U.S. and abroad," notes Malia Haines-Stewart, Block Museum associate film programmer and co-curator of the program
Piloting an innovative format for an online presentation, each of the five events in the series will be available to registrants to watch for a 24-hour period. The series is co-presented by The Block Museum of Art with support from the Middle East and North African Studies Program and Cultural Services of the French Embassy.