(L-R) Thouria Mahmoud, Zainab Sultan, Cassandra N Schaffa (Director of Festival Operations for ‘Women’s Voices Now’), Ola Diab and Shereena Qazi
‘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.
The Festival trailer:
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”.
Overview of films at the festival:
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.
For those interested in submitting work to the next ‘Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival’, 2012 Festival submissions will open on 1st July, 2011. To see the complete festival schedule from this year, click here