Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Parallel lives

Film festival highlights struggles and similarities among women who live a world apart


By JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Express Staff Writer

Most of the women on the basketball team at the American University of Iraq—Sulaimani had never played sports. None had ever been on a team with other women. They came from all corners of Iraq to attend this prestigious school, but many cannot tell family back home they go to an “American” university. See their story in the film “Salaam Dunk.” Courtesy photo

Can teenage girls in the valley have much in common with girls in the Middle East?

Think basketball. Wood River High School sent its girls basketball team to state championships two years in a row. In Iraq, two years ago, most of the women on the basketball team at the American University of Iraq had never been running before, and yet, a documentary film reveals how they pulled it together to become champions for their sex, and their sport.

And does it take long for actions in the Middle East to reach American soil?

Consider this: In the weeks before the Family of Woman Film Festival was to open in this seemingly isolated valley, Henia Dakkak, a keynote speaker who expected to appear to discuss the role of women in the Arab Spring on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Human Resource Division was dispatched at the last moment back to the field because of the recent flurry of unrest there.

The fifth annual Family of Woman Film Festival, presented in support of UNFPA, is scheduled for Friday, March 2, through Sunday, March 4, in Sun Valley, and it comes at one of the most profound times in the history of the Middle East conflict.

"The fact that our original speaker on the role of women in the Arab Spring had to cancel is indicative of the state of crisis in so many countries in the Middle East," said Peggy Goldwyn, founder of the festival and a member of the American board of the UNFPA, the U.N. agency charged with reproductive health and the rights of women.

Sherin Saadallah, regional desk advisor for Arab states for the U.N., is coming in Dakkak's place.

"She will be able to educate us about the special problems faced by women during times of turmoil," Goldwyn said.

Goldwyn notes that the media are paying more attention to women in the affected areas.

"This has been particularly true in the uprisings in several Middle Eastern countries," she said. "And by focusing on such issues as police violence against women in Cairo, the press has helped change attitudes and even laws."

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The purpose of the festival has been to bring attention to the lives of women in the countries where UNFPA works. Over the past year, Goldwyn has been following the Arab language film market, hoping to find dramas and documentaries that might shed some light on the lives of the women of the Arab Spring.

She was surprised to find how many films had sexual harassment as a theme.

"There are soap operas and TV talk shows devoted to the subject," she said. "Here is an instance where filmmakers and artists have been pressing for change even before Tahrir Square."

"Cairo 6.7.8.," the name of a bus route in that city, which will be shown Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Sun Valley Opera House, did not come to Goldwyn through an Arab film festival. Instead, it was her son, Peter, a motion picture producer and distributor, who brought back a much-copied DVD from the Cannes Film Festival and Market.

"That is how things often happen," Goldwyn explained. "After five years, there is a whole network of people keeping their eyes out for films about women."

But getting the rights to the film—and even a clean copy of it—was another matter. It is against the law to send a DVD out of Egypt. The producing film company had no contact information other than an address in Cairo. A copy was finally obtained from a distribution company in Amsterdam.

"It's the best of the many dramas on Egyptian sexual harassment I've seen. It's not only timely but it's also a rich story about three women who take charge of their lives," Goldwyn said. "And it's very funny at times, particularly when the men of Cairo become panicked at the thought that women vigilantes are taking revenge on their gropers on crowded buses."

Tunisian documentary "Boxing With Her," which will be shown Saturday at 3 p.m., did come through the website of an Arabic film festival. Several email introductions later, Goldwyn made contact with the male/female filmmaking team Salem Trabelsi and Latifa Robbana, who spoke French but not English. With the help of her friend and French teacher Calysta Phillips, Goldwyn Skyped and emailed and ultimately received the film from Trabelsi and Robbana, mailed from Tunis.

"The women in 'Boxing With Her' are far from the stereotype of a Muslim woman as being veiled and invisible," said festival co-chair Stephanie Freid-Perenchio, a humanitarian photographer. "They are training to be Olympic boxers, and they hold their own with men. I liked seeing how the viewpoints of the male coaches and boxers change from strong objection to growing respect and finally seeing nothing wrong in women being boxers."

Other films in the festival are "Saving Face," a 2012 Academy Award winning documentary presented by filmmaker Daniel Junge, and one of the subjects of the film, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, on Friday. "Salaam Dunk," a documentary from Iraq about a heroic bunch of girls who play basketball and the American University coach who inspires them, and "The Price of Sex," a documentary from Bulgaria on sex trafficking, both on Sunday.

"So many people have the impression that the situation for women and children in the developing world is hopeless," Freid-Perenchio said. "Progress is being made, and raising awareness through film and photography of what is truly happening on the ground in these countries will encourage small steps and individual success stories."

Festival tickets, films and events:

Buy: Chapter One Bookstore, Iconoclast Books or at the Sun Valley Opera House.

Tickets: $15 per film, $60 for festival pass.

Venue: Sun Valley Opera House.

Films: "Saving Face" (Pakistan) with filmmaker Daniel Junge and Dr. Mohammad Jawad, Friday, March 2, 7 p.m.

"Boxing with Her" (Tunisia), Saturday, March 3, at 3 p.m. and "Cairo 6.7.8." (Egypt), at 7 p.m., presented by Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA and undersecretary general to the United Nations.

"Salaam Dunk" (Iraq), Sunday, March 4, at 3 p.m. and "The Price of Sex" (Eastern Europe), 7 p.m.

Special event: Monday, March 5, at 6 p.m. at the Ketchum Community Library, "The Role of Women in the Arab Spring" by Sherin Saadallah, UNFPA regional advisor for Arab states, who will also answer questions about the films.

For more information: familyofwomenfilmfestival.org.




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