“How painful for someone to not be able to read and write, being illiterate is a monster for anyone, and it broke my heart to see women still suffering from this.”
Illiteracy can be a major impediment to female empowerment. The illiteracy rate among Iraqi women (24%) is more than double that among Iraqi men (11%)1 – and girls’ low level of education inevitably has a negative impact on women’s participation in Iraq’s labour force. Across the country only 14% of all women are either working or actively seeking work2.
Achieving gender equality in education is integral to achieving women’s rights as well as economic and social development. Jordanian filmmaker Zain Duraie explores the difficulties faced by uneducated women in a patriarchal society where women are not encouraged to earn a living. In her highly-acclaimed short film Horizon, the main character, Faten, is a mother and housewife who cannot read or write, and is only occupied by her routine chores. In order to pay the bills, her husband takes his sons out of school to join him at work.
Faten, determined to keep her sons in education, sets out to prove that women have the skills and determination to provide for themselves and their families.
Nina spoke to Zain following the UK premiere of Horizon at BBC Arabic’s Aan Korb Festival. She told us why she wrote her film, and how she hopes her work will inspire changes in society.
First of all, could you tell me a bit about yourself, where you grew up and how you became a filmmaker?
“I grew up in Amman, Jordan. I’ve always known I wanted to do film, and in 9th grade I dropped my business class and focused on drama. My main inspiration comes from theatre and drama in high school, and I’ve always had a strong sense of visualisation, an interest in how a film is shot, and what goes on behind the scenes. I used to watch a lot of films when I was a child, and could always be found reading fictional stories and portraying their characters.”
How did you research Horizon and what inspired the story?
“I researched many success stories that, in combination inspired me to write. I have always been interested in women’s rights in general, but what inspired me for this film were the stories I read about women from the Amman branch of Microfund, a non-profit organisation based in Jordan helping women start their own business through loans. These are some very inspiring stories. The idea to use the swing chair came to me on a day it was raining outside. My parents have a swing chair outside on our balcony, and it kept swinging back and forth. As soon as I noticed it I started my laptop and wrote 18 pages straight from my heart. After that night I started to develop the story further with my mentor Annemarie Jacir [Palestinian filmmaker ] who also produced it. The swing chair reminded me of the routine, her choir of distress, and slowly the character started unfolding. In the back of my mind I the many stories about these women in this certain state – less fortunate – had already started to take shape. How painful it is for someone not to be able to read and write. Being illiterate is a monster for anyone, and it broke my heart to see women still suffering from this. Many of the women in the “tent scene” in my film were illiterate.”
Where has Horizon been shown and what feedback have you received?
“The film was very well received all over the world and has received great feedback. The best audience I had was in Europe and North America. The North African reaction was a bit difficult, specifically in Algeria. However, I expected this because they majorly suffer from this issue and they found the film provocative and sensitive.”
And what do you hope Horizon will achieve culturally e.g. attitude change to women in business?
“Well, the film has been shown in many places so far, but my main target as a filmmaker was to show this film in rural areas. First of all, I screened it with the presence of her highness Princess Basma Bint Talal when we opened the film last March during the UN Women′s Film Week in Amman. I also invited the woman who hosted me in her house to shoot there. After she saw the film she started crying and she said she wants to be like Faten. To me that was like winning a million dollar prize. Faten is played by an actress but she made such an impression on this women that she really believed in her and she promised me to change her life like my character did. In addition I screened the film at another event which included women that received micro loans and opened businesses, many of them illiterate. They came and saw the film, and their reactions were great. They felt very close to the reality of the story and to the character. Their reactions were very pleasant, and I got the feeling my film was becoming an educational one. In a good way, because it’s still cinematic and it’s still a story that I’m telling. I screened it for children and mothers in Zaatari [refugee] camp. The children loved it, and I could ask them so many questions about what they understood from the film and how they are planning their future. They loved the strength of the woman and it made me so happy to see the children smile at Faten’s success. The film was awarded Best of the Fest at the Palm Springs international film festival, and the audience choice award at the Franco Arab film festival. [It has been shown at] Montreal world film festival, Festival de Cannes short film corner, Alexandria film festival, BBC Aan Korb, Malmo Arab film festival, St Kilda’s film festival in Australia, FIFOG in Geneve, and many more.
My goal will always be to play this film in rural areas, governmental and private schools, universities. Basically anywhere it will increase awareness and education about this issue and to inspire others to continue supporting these women and to strive for change no matter what their circumstances are. ”
Why did you choose to look at the woman’s position in the Arab family?
“I chose to look at the woman’s position because she’s always vulnerable in our society, especially those women. They weaken themselves in front of their men because they are used to the propaganda of the ‘man of the house’ and raised to behave in a certain way. This is not the way they want to be, but the way society wants them to be and how their man wants them to be, and it sickens me. They also don’t know they have rights, and that they can ask for help. This is another vital message that I portray in the film.
Why did you feel it was important to show she could fulfil a more powerful role?
“Because she certainly can, and she should. Because a woman’s job isn’t to just sit at home. When she says she has “nothing”, she proves herself wrong, she defies the impossible and did something using her cooking skill which she thought was “nothing”. So it’s vital that people (women and men) know that it’s not impossible to do what you want to do and prove yourself in your own home. Her kids were at danger, she had to step up and be powerful.”
The film also focuses on the male attitude to women’s empowerment. Often the Arab male views the woman’s role as cooking and looking after the children – In your film, do you expect her husband to accept the change?
“I left the ending open because I like to leave space for the audience to think and analyse on their own. Her husband has to accept the change, because he is not a bad man. He had to take the children with him to save the family, and at the same time, to be able to make more money and pay the bills. He was forced to do so because of the economic situation and because he is also uneducated and can’t do much. The point was that he should also change his view of her, she’s not just an illiterate woman, she’s a superwoman, After all she managed to get over all these obstacles and proved herself.If anything, he should be grateful to her for saving the kids.”
What do you think needs to change (e.g. legally, politically or culturally) to encourage and support women’s economic empowerment?
“Women’s role in the society should increase so their employment rates get better and our GDP can also get better. Politically, more women should sign up for the elections even if they are sure they don’t have a chance. The mentality is the problem in the Arab world, taken aback by conservative thinking and religious beliefs, but anything on a small scale can be done, like cooking, etc. But [women] need to defy the man in a smart way and get out of their shell. Also, our law don’t really protect women, and corruption is always problematic in our governments and court houses.”
How do you think women are represented in Arab films generally?
“Better than before. Sometimes I feel Egyptian films always focus on the man, but we should try to get rid of the idea of “male dominance” slowly from the Arab world. Equality is the way to go, but films are getting better, especially from the Levant region.”
As a filmmaker, what do you hope to achieve?
“I hope to be able to tell all the stories I want to tell, Horizon is just one tiny step. I hope to be able to make my next one, which is a feature film. It portrays a different side of human rights, but I’ll always be fighting for my stories and beliefs through cinema, and send out my messages and try to change mentalities and inspire people. I want to thank my amazing hard working cast and crew, I couldn’t have done it without them. And a special thanks to my mentor and producer Annemarie Jacir who pushed me to make this film, and Ossama Bawardi who really worked hard and brought it to life. Also my actors, Dina Ra’ad-Yaghanm and Jamal Meri, who did a fabulous job. Finally, my thanks go to the UNWOMEN, PPC and SIGI for supporting it and believing in this film.”
Interviewed by Shams Al-Shakarchi
1World Food Program, CFSVA 2007
2Iraq Knowledge Network 2011