‘Film for Freedom’ Review: Refugee Women Take Control of their Narratives

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Film For Freedom © Makani

Above its own Arab Hall, Leighton House screened four short films by Syrian refugee women living in Lebanon. Recorded on location in Beirut’s camps, they form part of Film for Freedom, a media education scheme and arts project run by the charity Makani, meaning ‘My Place’ in Arabic.

★★★★✰

They’re an exercise in self-representation. With close-ups of their own faces, these women’s experiences become the focus, not the afterthought or consequence, of war. Their diversity implicitly rejects a ‘woman’s perspective’ on war, instead showing the plurality of lived experiences. Both Jauhaina Fadel’s Journey and Mira’s Eyes by Mouria Fattati follow mothers, but the latter hones in on the conflict as felt by her young daughter, and the mother’s resilience as she runs into the horizon at its close. 

The films from younger women are the most harrowing. In Loujain, Reema Abed sleeps through her days in an effort to end them, until she finds solace in school and cricket. As both a girl and a refugee, she has been forced to mature too soon. It is horrifying to hear how aware she is of the difficulties her family face around integration, of the fact the country does not perceive her as a human being. 

For their differences, all of the films’ women experience a similar disappointment on arrival in Lebanon. “This is Beirut, the city I’ve been dreaming of. I wish it remained a dream,” says Fadel. Fattati’s film also traverses this chasm between expectation and reality, as she leaves behind war and bombardment in Syria only to be met by another hostile environment.

© Arab British Centre

Just as much attention is paid to the artists in attendance as the films on show. Waad Al-Kateab spent eight years in Aleppo making For Sama, her BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated film about the Syrian uprising. Like the women whose work was screened before her, she began with no plan or knowledge of how to make films. Over time, she realised that she could only achieve her intention of telling others’ stories by sharing her own, or how it was perceived through her own eyes. 

The Women’s Strike, Carmen Nasr’s reimagining of the Ancient Greek play Lysistrata, is another Makani project. Here Nasr introduces the cast of refugee and asylum-seeking women from Tajikistan to Ukraine, to consider how women might come together in a sex strike to stop their oppression in conflict. 

Sharing their personal stories, they delve deeper into this idea of plurality, remarking that they are neither ‘just’ refugees, nor victims, but active individuals and freedom (unfortunately there was no Q&A nor panel discussion with Nasr, only connections forged over vine leaves and baba ghanoush at the bar). A short reading from Sinéad Cusack highlights how war may be ‘the business of men’, but it’s transacted in women’s lives and liberty.

The Women’s Strike © Makani

It’s a vital fundraiser; we chew kibbeh, lovingly prepared by The Syrian Sunflower, as those with the means drop donations in a decorative jar. “It looks like it’s from Lebanon, but it’s from John Lewis,” one of Makani’s co-founders quips, bringing us back down to earth amidst the blue Damascene tiles of William De Morgan’s Syrian Palace and our privileged company. 

Tayma Barakaat’s film makes the strongest impression. Married aged sixteen, she navigates her new relationship with her husband with great nuance. Though loving, she wanted such love from her parents, not a partner, and to be a child herself. “A child has just given birth to another,” proclaimed her midwives, as she gave birth so soon after marriage. Above all, it is their childhood and youth that she promises to protect.

Such cases of young marriages and divorce are all too common currency in the camps of Beirut. But as Makani co-founder Itab Azzam rightly argues, the abuse of women’s rights is an international problem, whether in Lebanon or London.

Donate at Makani.

Words by Jelena Sofronijevic


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