As an Arab filmmaker, I started my career at a very young age. As a young woman, or girl, back then it wasn’t very common to be accepted and respected in the industry if you wanted to be an actress. It was much harder than being behind the camera.
My first film was with a teenage director, who started as an editor as well, Moufida Tlatli. I think learning from a woman kind of shaped my vision and what I know of filmmaking; because I started with a woman, filmmaking to me got associated with very feminine energy that is nurturing, loving, caring, but also critical of its time and can convey emotions truthfully and authentically.
That feminine energy
But I was too young back then to know or to feel the difficulty that the director Moufida was encountering as a woman directing her first long feature. I can only imagine that today, now that I am an executive producer with over 25 years of acting experience. These years showed me how difficult the path is, but also how much we need more and more women in front of and behind the camera. Some emotions can only be conveyed in a certain way that women are more acquainted with, that way of seeing the world. There are emotions that make our gender differences, and I’m sure that some emotions are best conveyed by men; it’s not a comparison, and we just need to translate the diversity of our gender into the screen, whether it is within the movie industry or the TV industry.
The revolution that is happening now in the Arab world, when it comes to arts and entertainment, is, to me, very beneficial, because women do have this vantage point in the Arab world. We do have this kind of painful, yet extremely educational experience about gender inequality, about me as an actress being paid a quarter of what my male counterpart is being paid, or about my ideas and thoughts being dismissed. In the region, whether as actresses, as directors, or as writers, we are deeply acquainted with these feelings.
Taking the lead in KSA
We are seeing this all being played out in Saudi Arabia today, where a new generation of filmmakers is building the stepping-stones of a new storytelling industry. Coming in the wake of the many years, decades, centuries really, of women fighting for equality, Saudi filmmakers, writers, editors, and directors now find themselves in the vanguard of a new opportunity. And women are the ones leading this movement today in Saudi Arabia, whether it is Haifaa al-Mansour, Ahd Kamel, or Fatima Al Banawi. They are not waiting behind men nor waiting for men to lead: they are leading the entertainment industry on all fronts. This to me is extremely revolutionary and unique in the world. We don’t even see that in Hollywood!
The very novelty of Saudi industry explains this unusual shift in power dynamics, but I’ve also been noticing a similar phenomenon across other parts of the Gulf region too. As the first woman executive producer/actress for Netflix in the Middle East, I’m seeing for myself that the platforms are giving us more confidence in ourselves, and more credit. Today, a woman can walk up to a platform and say “I've got an idea,” and I think that she will get a better response and reception than if she went to mainstream studios, because of the very masculine culture of those production studios. Platforms don’t have that culture. They always come with a fresh opinion and fresh stand, and I believe they are not only saying, they are also doing, at least in my case and my experience with Netflix. Executive produced the series FINDING OLA for Netflix has been extremely empowering for me, and many other women too who see this as a new step toward women filmmakers doing and saying what they want without being censored or self-censoring themselves.
We should own our stories – and individuality
Diversity is the name of the game now. The Middle East has always been very diverse, much more diverse than we think, and this diversity is starting to finally show in our shows and movies. We think differently and are different from one another. There is no such thing as an Arab woman because we as Arab women are completely individual in our ways of thinking, in our convictions, in our principles, and in our thoughts.
And the more such differences are reflected in our entertainment industry, in our cinemas, and on our TV screens, the better people will appreciate the diversity in our region. You can’t create diversity without women being at the frontline of that industry hand in hand with men who also believe in diversity and equality. Together, we must totally kill this culture of tolerance of violence against women in our movies and TV shows. We need to stop portraying male characters who are criminals, beating their wives or any female characters, or even talking to them in a very dismissive manner. This starts with the writing, and before the writing, it starts with what the writer thinks. So, if the writer is a woman, she can tell her part of the story. It’s as simple as that. We have to start from the beginning and empower women at every step, but the first step, which is very important, is the storytelling, where we, women of this region, should own our stories, just like men. And, boy, do we have stories to tell!
About Hend Sabry:
A renowned Tunisian-Egyptian actress and producer, Hend Sabry became the first Arab actress to join the Official Competition’s Jury at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands, for its 45th edition in 2016. Three years later, she was part of the jury for debut films at the Venice Film Festival, where she also became the first Arab woman to win a Starlight Cinema Award. Hend is the executive producer for Netflix’s series FINDING OLA (2022), which she also stars in.