It is almost the end of 2016 and I am very excited to do a roundup of women who were probably the first in their countries to have embraced filmmaking. Limiting myself to just twenty was extremely difficult, however, this list exemplifies the long and arduous universal struggle, with a lesson or two for all of us. These twenty women remind us about how far we have come, and yet, how much is left to cover. From Australia to Armenia, Saudi to Afghanistan, Palestine to Sub-Saharan Africa, despite the cultural, political and socioeconomic differences, these women have fought for the rights of millions and set a trailblazing precedent for the future generation to follow suit. These twenty women are probably not as popular as some of their contemporaries might have been, and some of them are still in business. But it is so important to take note of their achievements and carry forward the torch.
Here’s to more #WomenMakingFilms!
Elvira Notari – 1875, Italy
Italy’s earliest and most prolific female filmmaker, Elvira, has made over sixty feature films and about a hundred documentaries. Her feature films were based on Neapolitan forms of drama, such as the sceneggiata, and were allegedly shot on the streets of Naples using non-professional actors. Notari’s realist touch has been linked to the later neorealist movement.
Elvira is credited with contributing to the director, director of the acting school as well as that of a scriptwriter. She is also known to edit her own films. Elvira was very well read and let women’s literature consume her for developing ideas for her films and made sure that her female dramas were given apt perspectives. Back when it was not a norm to portray women as dark characters of femme fatale, Elvira pursued such characters for her films, women who had full control over their bodies and those who did not shy away from expressing their fantasies. In her works ‘Nfama! and A Piedigrotta the female leads are described as being the “unruly female figure” and the lives of these women amidst patriarchy and oppression.
The censor board, however, had different plans with ‘Dora films’, Elvira’s own production company. The films shined a light on aspects of Italian life that clearly disturbed the status quo and the general film viewing culture of Italy in the 1800s. The films often dealt with “crude language and had sexual undertones” that thoroughly upset the board. Censorship often asked for scenes to be edited or removed, and despite a good fight, Elvira had to oblige to the demands of the board. (Source)
Esfir Shub – 1894, Soviet
Esfir Shub was a pioneering Soviet filmmaker and editor in both the mainstream and documentary fields. She was one of few women to play a significant role behind the scenes in the Soviet film industry. She is best known for her trilogy of films, Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), The Great Road (1927), and The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928). Shub is credited as the creator of compilation film.
Back when there were logistical and political limitations on the kind of films that came into Soviet Russia, filmmakers would be assigned to reissue old titles but only after it was quality tested to fit communist ideological principles. Shub had completely reedited Carmen, Charlie Chaplin 1 both of which were cleared to be screened in Soviet Russia. After many such reedits, she then progressed to cutting new films, until she joined Sergei M. Eisenstein in writing the shooting script of Stachka/Strike (1925), and coediting the “July Uprising” episode in Oktiabr’/October (1928).
Above all the accomplishments of her time, Esfir’ Shub’s main legacy remains the establishment of documentary editing as principally creative in the effort to define the dramaturgy of the visual film form. Even though she became the prolific editor that she is, in the independent, Soviet avant-garde, the Soviet totalitarian system was not as welcoming. In her time, of all the scripts that she had written, some of it were not given due permissions to be made into a film, or it was handed to somebody else – so she gave up and continued to just edit and invest time of her memoir. One of the key things that she stressed on her memoir apart from her life’s journey are some techniques that worked wonders for her. This must have been very helpful for the next generation as she had consciously shared her wisdom to the world. During 1933/34, Shub allegedly wrote a script aptly titled Women, that examined historic roles of women, but it was never filmed. It is however known that this script reveals Shub’s unadulterated interest in feminism. Shub died on September 21, 1959, in Moscow.
Dorothy Arzner – 1897, America
It is tough finding your space as a woman in cinema, being a homosexual woman must have been a nightmare. Dorothy Arzner was an American film director whose career in feature films spanned from the silent era of the late 1920s into the early 1940s. She was one of the very few women who established a name for herself in the industry during this time. Her body of work remains to this day the largest by a woman director within the studio system.
In 1936, Arzner became the first woman to join the newly formed Directors Guild of America.
In 1972 the First International Festival of Women’s Films honored her by screening “The Wild Party”, and her oeuvre was given a full retrospective at the Second Festival in 1976. In 1975 the Director’s Guild of America honored her with “A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” During the tribute, a telegram from Katharine Hepburn was read: “Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career when you had no right to have a career at all?” Dorothy Arzner died in 1979. With 16 feature directing credits to her name—and several other films for which she went uncredited—she remains the most prolific female director that Hollywood has ever seen. Her body of work too, remains a topic of interest, intrigue and absolute fascination for filmmakers worldwide. (Source)
NOTE: It was in 1922 that the Black press named the filmmaker Tressie Souders the first African American woman director. Till date, there is not a single photograph of her available anywhere.
Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger 1899, Germany
Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger was a pioneer of silhouette animation. Reiniger made more than 40 films over her career, all using her brilliant invention. Lotte Reiniger is commonly acknowledged not only as the first significant female animator, but also as a foremost stop-motion animator.
Her best-known films are The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) – the oldest surviving feature-length animated film, preceding Walt Disney’s feature-length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) by over ten years – and Papageno (1935), featuring music by Mozart. Reiniger is also noted for devising a predecessor to the first multi-plane camera.
Reiniger was awarded the Filmband in Gold of the Deutscher Filmpreis in 1972; in 1979 she received the Great Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Reiniger died in Dettenhausen, Germany, on 19 June 1981, just after her 82nd birthday. The Stadtmuseum Tübingen holds much of her original materials and hosts a permanent exhibition, “The World in Light and Shadow: Silhouette, shadow theatre, silhouette film”. The Filmmuseum Düsseldorf also holds many materials of Lotte Reiniger’s work including her animation table and a part of the permanent exhibition is dedicated to Reiniger. Another large archive of her work is held by the BFI National Archive. (Source)
The McDonagh Sisters, 1899 Australia
Isabel, Phyllis, and Paulette McDonagh were sisters, business partners, and creative collaborators who made films in Australia, in the 1920s and 1930s. Isabel, the eldest, was the actress with the pseudonym Marie Lorraine. Phyllis was the art director, publicist, and producer. Paulette, the youngest of the three, was the writer and director of all their films. Their home was a hub of bohemia for the travelling theatrical and entertainment people visiting Sydney.
For personal reasons, they could not resume work together as they were no longer in the physical and mind space together. Their work disappeared entirely from public view even since they could not collaborate and rejected Hollywood offers to work away from Australia. Until the 1950s when two of their work were kept at a private collection. When ‘The Far Paradise’ and ‘The Cheaters’ (now held, like a fragment of Those Who Love and three of the McDonagh documentaries in the National Film and Sound Archive) were rescreened sometime in 1970s, their following eventually resumed and appreciated. In fact, in 1975, during the screening of ‘The Cheaters’ at the Sydney Film Festival, Paulette watched the film, breathing in a warm public response to the film. In August 1978, Phyllis received the Australian Film Institute’s Raymond Longford award on behalf of the sisters, in fitting acknowledgement of their significant contribution to Australian film-making. Today, Phyllis, Paulette and Isobel McDonagh are remembered for their talent, their originality and vision as ground-breaking early Australian film-makers.
Adela Sequeyro Haro – 1901, Mexico
Adela Sequeyro Haro was a Mexican journalist, actress, filmmaker and screenwriter. She was a pioneer both during the silent era and the talkies. The Mexican Revolution, which extended from 1910 to 1917, devastated the family fortune and compelled them to move to the town of Cuautitlán on the outskirts of Mexico City. Sequeyro studied at a French-English school in the capital and, at an unusually early age, began a career in cinema journalism in 1921.
The recent discovery (in the Agrasánchez Film Archives) of well-preserved 16mm copies of two films directed by Adela Sequeyro —Más allá de la muerte/Beyond Death (1935) and La mujer de nadie/Nobody’s Woman(1937)— sparked an overdue revaluation of Sequeyro’s importance in the history of Mexican cinema. Before the discovery of these two films, Sequeyro was known primarily for her acting roles in Mexican silent film melodramas and as a journalist whose work appeared in many Mexico City newspapers and periodicals. Gradually she became quite interested in the method and models of filmmaking. However, as a woman, she was not able to join the industry’s labor union. In response, she founded the film production cooperative Éxito with the support of the Banco de Credit Popular and was able to produce her first film Más Allá de la Muerte in 1935.
She lived out her declining years in very modest conditions under the care of her only child, Sandra, and died in Mexico City on December 24, 1992, at the age of ninety-one.
Tazuko Sakane – 1904, Japan
Sakane became Japan’s first and only female film director in the prewar period. It helped that her family belonged to a wealthy background for her to leave a bad marriage. Her father had to pay the man to make him leave Tazuko alone. Until much later, in the 1980s, the hierarchical corporate structure of the major studios was a major deterrent for women entering the industry in a creative capacity, with the scant handful of those who did direct hailing from an acting background, barring the freak exception of Tazuko who made 1936’s “Hatsu Sugata”. Unfortunately, no prints of the film exist.
One of the major problems that she confronted upon working in the set was her clothing. Instead of the traditional women’s clothes, the kimono, she had to instruct a tailor to create a pair of pants, which were absolutely new as women’s clothes those days, though necessary for her as they would allow her mobility in film shooting. She also cut short her conventionally long hair. Her appearance might have been seen as resembling the 1930s metropolitan fashion of the modern girl, which consisted of westernized clothing and short bobbed hair and was associated with feminine sexual deviancy. However, Sakane did not fit within this image of excessive femininity because of her pants. In fact, with her combination of pants and short hair, she was often referred to as a cross-dresser (danso; literally, male-clothing). Her appearance and working style (traveling and working irregular hours as the only woman among crews, when filmmaking was already regarded as a sordid profession) caused a sense of gender nonconformity.
When appearing in the media in 1930s and the early 1940s, she was treated as an exceptional case of a “woman director” and was always requested to speak about her “feminine” sensitivity or her “difference” from a male director. Her presence as a director, her works, and her private life was reduced to the question of whether she had insufficient or excessive femininity.
Edith Carlmar – 1911, Norway
“Today Edith’s legacy suggests a nearly clear split between flinty, ice-cold film noirs – often evincing a rare female perspective – and romantic comedies that’ll make your jaw drop even today with their sexual candor. She was in particular a master of eroticized close-ups and devastating quiet moments, never flinching from emotions (pleasurable or painful) most American directors wouldn’t touch with a fork.”
She introduced the great actress Liv Ullman to audiences around the world with The Wayward Girl (1960). All of her films were box-office hits, which means she is one of the most successful directors in Norwegian history. Carlmar directed ten films in ten years, making the 1950s the most productive decade of her cinema career.
She is known for films such as Fjols til fjells (1957), Aldri annet enn bråk (1954), and Ung flukt (1959). The last film she directed, Ung Flukt, introduced Liv Ullmann, Norway’s most famous actor internationally, to the silver screen. Edith passed away on May 17, when she was 91 years old.
Kay Mander – 1905, Britain
Kay Mander – Documentary maker who battled sexism in the film industry of post-war Britain and went on to work in continuity. ” Once told by the head of Ealing Studios that a woman director wouldn’t be able to control a male crew, the late Kay Mander blazed a trail as one of the British documentary movement’s fiercest, most passionate voices.”
She was a member of the British documentary movement and did most of her work during the second world war, making training films and social documentaries for the Ministry of Information. In 1944, through Basic Films, and like many of her male contemporaries, she too attempted to break into feature films after the war.
It became clear to her that it will be a while before she got behind a camera; so she found herself in publicity, finance and continuity roles, sneaking into the studio whenever possible to learn what she could about film-making. She joined the Communist party and in 1937 the industry union ACT (now Bectu). Not only was she their first woman member, but in 1940 she was elected to the union’s general council.
Advised that there were more opportunities for directing in the documentary movement due to wartime personnel shortages, Mander began going to its unofficial recruiting office – the Nellie Dean pub in Soho. There, in 1940, she met the producer Arthur Elton, who offered her a position at the Shell Film Unit. And in just a matter of months, Mander was directing her first film, How to File (1941), for aircraft industry workers, regarded as an exemplary training tool. Her insistence that tracking shots be used to illustrate filing techniques was ahead of its time.
Park Nom Ok – 1923, Korea
The Widow received the industry’s attention when it was shown in the 1st Women’s Film Festival in Seoul. Even for that one film, Park Nam-ok had to overcome extreme hardships than her male counterparts to make the film. She began shooting with a 16mm camera and with some help from her older sister, set up ‘Sister Productions.’ She could not afford to hire a nanny and had to carry her daughter on her back while working and she had to cook for her filming crew when her funds ran low.
The last scene of the movie has been lost, yet, The Widow is a realistic and acute rendering of women’s desires before and after the war, setting it apart from the work of other male directors. It clearly attempts to tell the story from the perspective of women in the ‘50s. The heroine ‘Shin,’ who is a single mother raising her daughter by herself after losing her husband, rejects the subtle approach of her husband’s friend but openly asks for his help in moving together with her younger boyfriend. She is torn apart between love and motherly instincts and suffers from internal conflict but chooses her own love instead. Considering the era in which the film was made, one can only speculate the effect it would have had on people, more so the debates that must have ensued.
The actor of her film is shockingly honest about her own desires in the standards of her time. Unfortunately, the movie failed to appeal to audiences and Park Nam-ok had to give her career up as a director right after.
Mai Zetterling – 1925, Sweden
Zetterling appeared in film and television productions spanning six glorious decades starting from the 1940s. Her crucial break came in the 1944 film ;Torment’ written by Ingmar Bergman, in which she played a controversial role of a tormented shopgirl.
Despite being in the industry, she began directing in the early 1960s, starting with political documentaries and a short film called The War Game (1962), which was nominated for a BAFTA award and won a Silver Lion at Venice. Her first feature film Älskande par (1964, “Loving Couples”), based on the novels of Agnes von Krusenstjerna, was banned at the Cannes Film Festival for its sexual explicitness and nudity. Kenneth Tynan of ‘The Observer’ later called it “one of the most ambitious debuts since Citizen Kane.” She went on to make more films that would stir up controversy for its frank sexuality. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, she was one of the few women who found regular work as a director.
When critics reviewed her debut feature they said “Mai Zetterling directs like a man.”(!) She began to explore feminist themes more explicitly in her work progressively. ‘The Girls’, which had an all-star Swedish cast including Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson, discussed women’s liberation (or lack thereof) in a society controlled by men. As the protagonists compare their lives to characters in the play Lysistrata, she showed that things have not progressed very much for women since ancient times. Mai Zetterling, the actress who went on to a career as one of Europe’s busiest female film directors, died in 1994. Even a year before her death, Ms. Zetterling was directing the film “The Woman Who Cleaned the World,” a film that she had written.
Sarah Maldoror – 1938, Africa
“First, for me, African cinema does not exist. African cinema will exist when it is seen first in Africa.
When Africans go to see African films, it can be said that an African cinema exists. For the moment, we are making films for others. That is the drama of African cinema. African women must be everywhere. They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems.
I came to cinema during the years of African independence. Before independence there was not an African cinema, and even now that there are African films, what do you really call an African cinema? Before there is a cinema that can be called African, there must first be a national cinema. And for there to be a national cinema, there must be cinema houses, there must be a sufficient number of African films. African films must be seen by Africans. They must go see their own films with their faults or whatever. There must first be an African public!”
Her 1968 debut film Monangambee was selected for the Quinzaine des réalisateurs/Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1971 representing the country Angola. In 1972 she made her emblematic oeuvre, Sambizanga, which relates a woman’s experience during the Angola liberation struggle. The film shared the prestigious Tanit d’Or prize at the Carthage Film Festival that same year. A documentary on the life of Sarah: “Sarah Maldoror ou la nostalgie de l’utopie” was made by Anne Laure Folly, France /Togo, in 1998.
Suprabha Devi – 1938, India
A lyricist of repute and a lover of good Assamese folk music, Suprabha Devi worked with late Nirmalprabha Bordoloi, late D’bon Baruah and Ramen Baruah to improve the typical Bihu tunes and lyrics for songs in her films, churning out many evergreen songs. Later on, on an experimental basis and with strong determination, she touched upon the simplicity of Assamese folk tales and selected the most popular Assamese folktale — Sarabjaan, written by Rasaraaj Lakhshminath Bezbaruah — and produced-directed a full-length feature film, Sarabjan, in 1986. late Hiren Choudhary of Tezpur jointly directed the film.
Suprabha Devi’s contribution to Assamese films as a producer-director is unparalleled. A good entertainer with record box office success, her simple thematic stories enthralled cine-goers. “With her demise, a chapter in the Assamese film comes to an end,” said film director Pulok Gogoi. Off screen, her straightforwardness and simplicity towards artists and technicians was loved by one and all. (Source)
Huang Shuqin – 1939, China
The film is also considered the first feminist Chinese film. Born and raised in Shanghai, Huang is the daughter of Huang Zuolin, a well-known film and stage director. Although her film career didn’t take off until she was well into her forties, she is regarded as one of China’s most talented female directors. Some of her films, including Woman, Demon, Human, have won awards and/or recognition at various film festivals. She is also known for two mega-hit TV series, Fortress Besieged (1990, based on Qian Zhongshu’s eponymous novel) and Sinful Debt (1995).
After the end of the Cultural Revolution, she assisted director Xie Jin on the films The Cradle (1979) and The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (1980). Her debut film, Contemporary People (also translated as The Modern Generation) garnered widespread attention through its critical acclaim. That attention would only continue to grow as she directed more films, the most famous of which is Woman, Demon, Human. (Source)
NOTE: Wang Ping (September 2, 1916 – December 1, 1990) was a Chinese film director and actress. She is considered to be the first female director in the People’s Republic of China. There is no photo of her that is available either.
Safi Faye – 1943, Sub-Saharan Africa (Senegal)
Safi Faye is a Senegalese film director and ethnologist. She is the first Sub-Saharan African woman to direct a commercially distributed feature film. She has directed several documentary and fiction films focusing on rural life in Senegal.
Faye’s first film, which she also acted in, was a 1972 short called La Passante (The Passerby), drawn from her experiences as a foreign woman in Paris. It follows a woman (Faye) walking down a street and noticing the reactions of men nearby. Faye’s first feature film was Kaddu Beykat which means The Voice of the Peasant in Wolof and was known internationally as Letter from My Village or News from My Village. She obtained financial backing for Kaddu Beykat from the French Ministry of Cooperation. Released in 1975, it was the first feature film to be made by a Sub-Saharan African woman to be commercially distributed and gained international recognition for Faye. On its release it was banned in Senegal. In 1976 it won the FIPRESCI Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics (tied with Chhatrabhang) and the OCIC Award. The film is a critique of colonial farming practices and government policies which have encouraged single-crop farming of cash crops for export, in some cases leading villages further into poverty.
Faye’s 1983 documentary film Selbé: One Among Many follows a 39-year-old woman called Sélbe who works to support her eight children since her husband has left their village to look for work. Selbé regularly converses with Faye, who remains off-screen, and describes her relationship with her husband and daily life in the village
Faye’s films are better known in Europe than in her native Africa as a result of them rarely being shown in Africa.
Katinka Heyns – 1947, South Africa
Heynes’ films are popular for its feminist perspectives, juxtaposed with the South African political and cultural backdrop. Her work includes the film Paljas and it was South Africa’s official entry to the Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Language Film – a FIRST for a S.A. feature film. In an industry dominated by male filmmakers Heyns consistently creates films that focus on female empowerment, and specifically female experiences.
Starting out as an actress, her role in Jans Rautenbach’s Katrina (1969) gained her national recognition. She subsequently went on to star in many television series. She then, in conjunction with her husband Afrikanns novelist and critic Chris Barnard, went on to create Sonneblom Films. This production company primarily makes movies for television such as Major sommer, De Dood van Elmien Alder (1945). The production company Sonneblom Films was founded in 1974 by Heyns. It was through this company she was able to create feature films unique to her particular style. Her feature films include Fiela se Kind (1987), Die Storie van Klara Viljee (1991), Paljas (1997), and Die Wonderwerker (2012). Heyns also made several documentaries surrounding various literary individuals. Heyn’s son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which influenced the making of her movie Living with Bipolar Disorder made in 2009 in order to outline the personal struggle of having to deal with mental illness. In fact, all of Heyns’ pieces evoke themes of relationships, love, and struggle, while simultaneously questioning gender representations in South African culture. Through her films, Heyns tries to bring lesser known issues and ideas into the global conversation, such as mental illness and female empowerment, while consistently doing so in the context of South African culture.
Suzanne Khardalian – 1956, Armenia
A lot of her work reflects the horrors of Armenian genocide under the Ottoman regime’s until it fell in 1923. She has taken great pains in portraying the plight of citizens who were decimated compulsorily before the WWI. The irony of Khardalian’s efforts to document the Armenian genocide is that she didn’t realize until quite recently, close to home, her own grandmother was one of the genocide’s personal victims.
“In mapping a subject that has been taboo among many Armenian families, Khardalian’s documentary, “Grandma’s Tattoos,” turns the camera on herself, her extended family and her late grandmother whose face and fingers were marked with mysterious blue Turkish tattoos.” Likewise, Khardalian’s 1988 documentary “Back to Ararat” was the first feature length documentary on the subject. Several subsequent films have peered into the lives of survivors in Gaza.
“Grandma Khanoum,” as the family called her, was a grim woman whose only pleasure in life was listening to the 1940s Arab pop star and music celebrity Farid al-Atrash, as he sang his romantic songs on the radio. Her husband, Grandma Khanoum had married in her attempt in part to escape exploitation by Turkish men, hated her infatuation with the singer. “We never understood that this was grandma’s way of looking for love and affection,” Khardalian realizes as she begins to wonder about her grandmother’s past.
The story of Grandma Khanoum and her haunting tattoos raises another important question: Why is it that the stories of female victims are so often the ones that are revealed last? Particularly when, as Khardalian points out well, the women are the ones who “had to carry the heaviest burden of all. They had to regenerate life.”
“I wanted to show that people are not willing to talk about this. But yet I think we have to talk about it,” she said.
Annemarie Jacir – 1974, Palestine
There is an inordinate amount of strength and resilience that get radiated by people like Annemarie Jacir which make all the effort put in by filmmakers worthwhile. Although she has clearly taken a stand against the marque ‘female’ before filmmaker, it is impossible to not draw the enchanting passion for cinema and social justice while watching her talk.
She has been working in independent cinema since 1998 and has written, directed and produced a number of award-winning films including Until When, A Few Crumbs for the Birds, and a Post Oslo History. She was named one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Cinema. Her short film, like twenty impossibles was the first Arab short film to ever be an official selection of the Cannes International Film Festival and went on to be a Student Academy Awards Finalist, winning more than 15 awards at International festivals including Best Film at the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films, Chicago International Film Festival, Institute Du Monde Arabe Biennale, Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival, and IFP/New York. like twenty impossibles was named one of the ten best films of 2003 by Gavin Smith of Film Comment Magazine (Editors Choice) is a fiction film which wryly questions artistic responsibility as a Palestinian film crew navigates various obstacles of the Israeli military occupation.
In 2007, Jacir shot the first feature film by a Palestinian woman director, Salt of this Sea, the story of an American woman whose parents were Palestinian refugees, making her first visit to her family’s homeland. The film, released in 2008, was Palestine’s submission to the 81st Academy Awards for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and received many other awards and nominations including winning the Muhr Arab Award for Best Screenplay at the Dubai International Film Festival, a Cinema in Motion award at the 55th San Sebastian International Film Festival and a FIPRESCI award.
Haifaa Al Mansour – 1974, Saudi Arabia
Making a movie as a woman in a country like Saudi Arabia was not without considerable difficulties. Because Saudi is so segregated, and men and women are not allowed to be seen working together in public, Al Mansour was forced to direct over the phone.
“There is a serious lack of women directors in the industry, and this leads to a very serious lack of women’s perspective in all forms of entertainment. We need to continue to encourage women to pursue directing and to encourage producers, actors and other industry professionals to support women directors.”
However, she also told Al Jazeera that being a woman allows her certain access to women’s stories in Saudi Arabia that she wouldn’t have were she male: “I really didn’t want people to say ‘Because she’s a woman, she’s only talking about woman’s issues.’ But when I did my documentary and it was about women, I was amazed about how it touched lots of women…It’s like an area that people don’t have a chance to get into, especially in Saudi Arabia. It’s difficult for a male filmmaker to break into this secluded world and have the same opportunities I had.”
Saba Sahar – 1975, Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s first female director, risks death to go to work each day – shooting a film in Kabul is a brave act of defiance. She talks passionately about women’s equality and her fear that the return of the Taliban could kill Afghan cinema forever.
Saba Sahar has worked 20 years as a police officer before she launched her own film production company in 2004. Every morning before Saba Sahar leaves for work, she loads her pistol, says her prayers and kisses her family goodbye, knowing she might never see them again. As Afghanistan’s first female film director and one of its best-known actresses, Sahar is on the front line of the cultural battle for her country’s future. She’s prepared to risk her life so that Afghans can have home-grown entertainment.
“I want to show the conservatives who lock their daughters and wives at home that they should let them out to get an education, earn some money and help rebuild Afghanistan.” She’s determined that her two sons and two daughters will grow up in a country where everyone is equal.
There’s now a huge appetite for Afghan films, shot in the local language, telling stories that Afghans can relate to. Inspired by Bollywood and Hollywood action movies, they’re outselling foreign imports in Kabul’s DVD bazaars. And though she balances her job in law and order, she is able to take time off, with the consent of the department because they see value in such films, as they focus mainly on building trust between the police and civilians, women and the state of affairs in Afghanistan.