Human Rights Watch Film Festival London 2012 (21st - 30th March)

Arab Awakening's Mazen Zoabi peeks into the realities of life as a Middle Eastern woman. A review of two fascinating films screened at the HRW Film Festival.

Mazen Zoabi
21 March 2012



Is about the journey a group of young and very vibrant female students at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) embarked on when they joined the AUIS basketball team. Coached by a dedicated and caring teacher at the university, the students fell in love with the sport and with the unique freedom it gave them. Arab/Kurdish societies are harsh ones to live in if you are a female, and especially if you are a female playing sports. This documentary follows the team over a year during the national Iraqi tournament, showing the excitement and happiness it brought to the girls. The team is religiously diverse, with the sectarian discrimination looming in the background it is incredible how well they get along, united by this shared experience.

What I loved about the film is the truthfulness in it's depiction of an area in conflict. It is mainly set in the calmer environment of the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, some of the students come from Bagdad that has turned from being the place they loved the most to the one they despise. The harsh reality in south Iraq has been driving many families into the Kurdish part, a slightly more prosperous area. Throughout the film it becomes clear how passionate the girls are about Basketball. They develop a strong attachment to sport and I felt it made them tougher and more willing to succeed without being bogged down by all the negativity around. The director of the film is lucky as he managed to gain access to such a particular world, full of passion, sadness, joy, and adrenaline. He managed to to catch a few inspirational scenes, however, the one I will never forget is on the pitch when the girls played against Karbala university. It shows the cruelty women go through in that society, taking the hit and remaining silent. Salaam Dunk will be screened on Saturday the 24th of March at the Curzon Soho as well as on Sunday the 25th at the ICA. For more details visit the Human Rights Watch Film Festival page.



Is a modern day adaptation of the classical Arab love story 'Majnoun Layla' (Mad about Layla). The film is mostly set in Khan Younis, a town north of Gaza city. It is a love story between Qays and Layla. According to the tale Qays, Layla's cousin, falls madly in love with her writing numerous poems declaring his love to her. Layla's father alarmed by what the community might think of his daughter rejects Qays's marriage proposal to Layala and weds her with Ward, a nobel man. Habibi, with it's impressive cast, follows a similar story line intertwined with the bleak reality of life under occupation and in an Arab society.

Watching the film I could not help but feel so devastated with how Layla's life plays out. In one scene her family physically blocks her from exiting the house on her own because her name was written all over town; such ridicule. By that point I was so angry with Qays, how could he be so insensitive? It is clear as the film rolls with it's twists and turns that Qays is not the only one to blame for his and Layla's misery. I cannot even begin to fathom how it feels growing up restricted in your movement by society but also by checkpoints and guns. The devastating nature of life in the Gaza strip as a woman in an increasingly conservative environment under strict family rules is incredibly sad. In the film Layla portrays the life of a woman in a conservative Arab family so well, showing her deep frustration when the only protector against the occupation is family. The cinematography in the film is beautiful and very fitting. HABIBI won the best Arab feature award at the 8th Dubai International Film Festival. Screening times are: Sunday 25th March at Curzon Soho, with Q/A and Monday 26th March at the Ritzy. For more details visit the Human Rights Watch Film Festival page.

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