When London's Birds Eye View festival was set up in 2005, the intention was to celebrate and encourage women filmmakers in an industry in which only 10 per cent of directors and 15 per cent of screenwriters are female. Since then, it's welcomed the likes of Gurinder Chadha, Jessica Hausner and Juanita Wilson to the UK to discuss and showcase their films. And slowly but surely, the lot of the female filmmaker has begun to change: in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. The film was at Birds Eye View earlier that year.
Job done? Not quite. Men still dominate the industry. But it is interesting that, this year, the festival relaunches with a specific focus for the first time: Arab women filmmakers. It is, says the festival's programmer Elhum Shakerifar, the culmination of a long-held desire to put together a selection of films inspired by the great work the organisers were seeing at Middle Eastern film festivals.
"There is this real sense that something fantastically exciting is emerging from Arab cinema," she says. "There's real talent. Look at Wadjda by the Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour. That's won top prizes in film festivals around the world. So it's nice to be able to celebrate success rather than have to suggest that these films made by women are being overlooked."
Indeed, Wadjda, which won awards at festivals as diverse as Venice, Dubai and Tallinn in the past six months, was the trailblazer film for Birds Eye View, screened as part of International Women's Day last month. And Shakerifar thinks that Al Mansour's film, set in Saudi Arabia, is emblematic of the way in which the Arab film industry has grown.
Wadjda first surfaced at a script workshop during the 2007 Gulf Film Festival and will open the 2013 event next Thursday in Dubai. Once filmed, post-production was financed by Dubai International Film Festival's Enjaaz programme, which exists to provide Arab or Arab-origin filmmakers "with the resources to create the atmosphere, look and feel they envisioned for their films".
"The Arab film festivals have been tremendously important and supportive in terms of funding film-makers from the region," Shakerifar says. "They've encouraged a lot more filmmaking. There's a lot more interest in the creative arts and, for a reason we can't quite put our finger on yet, they've had a particular impact on women."
Indeed, most of the films at Birds Eye View - Annemarie Jacir's refugee story When I Saw You, the Algerian music documentary El Gusto and the closing gala screening Habibi - have enjoyed some sort of funding award from the many schemes and competitions affiliated with the Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals and then had their premieres last year in the UAE.
"Actually, if you look at a film like Hala Lotfy's Coming Forth By Day, it was a complete labour of love," says Shakerifar. "The funding and mentoring from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in Lebanon and SANAD in Abu Dhabi didn't come until quite late on. But it's actually really good that way around because it means Lotfy had essentially made the film she wanted to rather than have what she wanted to say determined by money from outside the region at the start of the process."
Coming Forth By Day is just one element of a programme that, while obviously hoping to attract UK audiences who perhaps haven't been exposed to many films by Arab women, isn't prescriptively narrow in its focus or themes.
"Our first imperative was to find the great films," says Shakerifar. "I think we've done that but it was really important to underline that there isn't one type of filmmaking happening in the Arab world. There's often the assumption that festivals like ours will be packed with films made by women for women and about women's issues. But these films are very diverse. They are about men, children, relationships, societies ... and women."
Birds Eye View runs until April 10. Visit www.birds-eye-view.co.uk
Birds Eye View and the Emirates
The increasing influence of the UAE film industry is obvious from a cursory glance at the Birds Eye View programme. It's easier to mention the films that don't have an Emirates link than the ones that do. So it's apt that the opening night gala is the UK premiere of Annemarie Jacir's When I Saw You, the story of a refugee in 1960s Jordan searching for a way back to Palestine. It was partly funded by the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission.
On Saturday, Hala Lotfy's arty Coming Forth By Day is a fascinating look at two women taking care of a sick man in Egypt. The film won the SANAD production grant at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), as did Hala Alabdalla's documentary, which will be screened the following day, As If We Were Catching a Cobra. It follows Arab artists fighting for justice in Egypt and Syria.
The same afternoon, there's a screening of Safinez Bousbia's El Gusto, which is being hailed as an Algerian Buena Vista Social Club and was again funded in post-production by ADFF.
The documentary strand finishes on Monday with Nahed Awwad discussing Gaza Calling, her film about the reality of life for families on either side of the Israeli wall that was selected for the Muhr Arab awards at DIFF last year.
And finally, the closing gala on April 10 is Susan Youssef's Habibi, a multi-award winning contemporary romance set amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and once again funded by DIFF grants via its Enjaaz programme.
Follow us @LifeNationalUAE
Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.