Cinematic representations of war have long been depicted by men and by the Western world, producing narratives that centre around male characters and give little to no voice to those on the other side of the conflict. We only need to consider the countless representations of war from the West, especially from America, that revolve around either soldiers going to war or attacks on their own country. Films such as Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Apocalypse Now and American Sniper to name a few are all heavily dominated by masculine narratives. Little to no representation is given to the countries and people that are under attack and if they are involved in the narrative they are only rendered as the “other” or the “enemy” to the point of dehumanisation. However when examining films specifically made by female filmmakers from in and around the Middle East, what can be found are representations and narratives that differ enormously. In Sophie Mayer’s book, Politcal Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, Mayer writes that ‘war films as a genre are used, appropriated and deconstructed by feminist filmmakers… rather than celebrating an orgy of violence, these filmmakers use the political immediacy of war zone to raise questions….’ This is exactly what films such as At Five in the Afternoon by Samira Makhmalbaf and the newly released documentary For Sama by Waad Al-Kateab achieve, producing new and vital perspectives of the war in Afghanistan and Syria that have been largely absent from our screens.
Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf asks “If the USA, on the pretext of the destruction of a building, can attack targets anywhere on earth to further American interests, why shouldn’t a filmmaker make movies for the people who are victims of expansionist policies, profiteering economics and fanatic culture?” (Marciniak et al, 2007). In her film At Five in the Afternoon, Makhmalbaf produces this very representation for the girls and women in Afghanistan who have no involvement in the politics of war and fundamentalism yet find themselves the most affected by it. The film follows the perspective of 20-year-old Nogreh, a sharp, intelligent and strong-willed young woman as she goes about her daily life in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Each day as soon as she is out of her father’s sight she removes her plain shoes and replaces them with pretty white high heels as she heads out to school with numerous other girls.
It is in the school grounds that the film delves into the lives of the girls and we hear their thoughts and feelings, their hopes and ambitions and ultimately their grief and heartbreak. In one of the most profound scenes of the film, the teacher asks the girls what they’d like to be when they grow up which prompts a debate amongst them, 12 year old Mena, who wants to become president of Afghanistan asks “Why can men be president but women can’t? I lost my father and brothers in a male-ruled regime, not in a women-ruled government! If I become president I’ll treat people kindly… Kabul has many problems… Girls weren’t allowed in school. Women had to stay home and couldn’t work. Afghan women were the most oppressed! Especially girls that couldn’t go to school.”
A woman’s voice, particularly that of a 12-year-old girl is never heard when it comes to politics and war. A bomb later targeted at their school heartbreakingly kills Mena. In a post-Taliban Afghanistan fewer than 1 in 4 girls aged 7 to 12 attended primary school, with only 9% continuing to secondary school. The literacy report was reported to be 43% for men and 14% for women with attacks continuously being made to girls’ schools specifically (Moghadam, 2007). Makhmalbaf puts a spotlight on this very matter, one rarely encountered in films revolving around war in Western cinema. The narrative of many mainstream war films feature numerous set pieces filled with explosions and destruction, which play into a more visual experience for entertainment purposes. At Five in the Afternoon however is slow, heart-breaking and poetic as it touches on what is left in the wake of war and destruction: from poverty, hunger and death to the constant need to migrate from one place to the next. Makhmalbaf does not reduce her characters to mere faceless victims with no voices of their own, as our protagonist Nogreh continues to carry the torch of her classmates, filled with hope and desire for change. As Makhmalbaf herself states “The first day I went to Afghanistan, I didn’t have any idea about Afghan women… I thought they were just victims. But then I started talking to them. They have big desires, they are full of hope… after one hour of talking, all of the class wanted to be president.” (Mayer, 2016).
For Sama, a documentary by Waad Al-Kateab casts an urgent spotlight onto the situation and people of Syria through a female perspective. Al-Kateab films every aspect of her life in Syria amidst catastrophic destruction and conflict, filming over 300 hours of footage which she then condensed down into a 95-minute feature along with co-director Ed Watts. We see Al-Kateab falling in love, getting married and giving birth to her baby daughter, Sama, for whom the film is dedicated to, all whilst bombs fall metres away from them.
The film plays as a lover letter to Sama through Al-Kateab’s intimate voice-over as she tells Sama and in turn the whole world why they chose to stay in Syria for as long as they did, to help her one day understand why they risked their lives to fight for freedom and to bear witness to the reality of what was taking place in Syria. The most staggeringly heart-breaking scenes come as she and her husband, Hamza, who is a doctor, set up one of the last remaining hospitals in Aleppo where Al-Kateab does not shy away from filming the true horror of the faces and bodies of young children who have been hit by missiles whilst playing outside.
What makes her film so powerful is the intimacy of her gaze and camera, as she films her life, from its most happiest; her wedding to Hamza in their home surrounded by their friends, seeing baby Sama smile for the first time to its truly horrifying moments; seeing two brothers covered in dust grieve over the dead body of their baby brother. Most importantly her film never feels exploitative as grieving mothers beg her to film so the world can see what is truly happening to them. The film humanises the lives lost in a way that news footage and reports fail to do. Al-Kateab gives the people who are reduced to headlines and death tolls a voice, a face and a family. For Sama is a personal first hand account of life and war in Syria and leaves the audience asking themselves hard questions about the state of politics and the world we live in. Films like For Sama have in turn produced enormous discourse and action surrounding the situation within Syria, something that society has as a whole become largely desensitised to.
In Surviving Images: Cinema, War and Cultural Memory in the Middle East, Kamran Rastegar links cultural memory to the cinematic text, specifically as it relates to periods of social trauma. He writes that social trauma results in the production of cinema, which is most commonly produced by the victors of war and colonial forces creating a distorted cultural memory of war and conflict. However, recently and most fundamentally it is being produced ‘by those who were their subjects and victims.’ He states that ‘cinema has even served to play a significant and unique role in opposing dominant appropriations of, or, conversely, cultural amnesia, toward, the memory of conflicts.’ (2015). At Five in the Afternoon and For Sama are key examples of films that are challenging dominant representations of war on screen and therefore changing our cultural memory of wars that have and are taking place. They are shifting the focus to the countries on the other side of the conflict and the people within them. Instead of a solely Western perspective of the war, we are given the viewpoint of women, civilians, and children, within Afghanistan and Syria, of those who are most affected by war and who are continuously rendered invisible and unheard.
by Elise Hassan
Elise Hassan is a Global Cinema and Screen Arts graduate about to pursue my masters in Film Programming and Curating in London. She loves to watch and write about feminist cinema from the Middle East and North Africa and some of her favourite films are Spirited Away, Mustang, 13 Going on 30 and Wadjda. You can find her on twitter @hassan_elise