The long fight for autonomy, independence and freedom against enemies canny and brutal, is one of the most popular subjects of movies.  Our forefathers battling imperial legions or underdogs in a cruel world coming out on top, men against men, make it to the big-screen as regular as daylight.  Missing from these stirring stories however is the longest struggle of the homo-sapiens era, women fighting men for these very same goals.  Movies such as Thelma and Louise or Nine to Five, or The Trouble with Angels (Ida Lupino) are outliers, celebrated for their uniqueness as much as for the story itself. It is quite remarkable, therefore, to find a small trove of such movies coming out of the Middle East and North Africa.

Ω

Movies Mustang PosterMustang (2015) set in north-central Turkey on the shores of the Black Sea, is currently making the rounds of  US theaters, at least those which look for Indie and non-Hollywood movies. Directed by  Deniz Gamze Ergüven the story is of five orphaned sisters, each, as the saying goes, more beautiful than the other, and not two years between any of them.  

School ends for the summer and a group of uniformed girls detours to the beach for an exuberant frolic, which includes boys their own age, which includes water fights, which puts girls on boys’ shoulders, which means — to prying eyes– modesty abandoned!  (Their intimate parts pushing against the boys’ necks!)  Thanks to a severe, covered, neighbor, the household is soon in an uproar, the grandmother who has raised them being somewhat more forgiving than her son, their uncle, who raises holy hell. Not without some reason it turns out.  The oldest girl, Sonay [Ilayda Akdogan] has been sneaking out the window to meet her boyfriend –with benefits, it is implied.

The girls are quickly restricted to the house and feminine education begun in earnest: sewing, cooking, dressing, walking and comporting themselves modestly.  They are paraded out “for lemonade” to the town square, under chaperon, to display their beauty to interested families.  When the first marriageable boy is brought to tea by his family, Sonay refuses to be introduced.  She will marry no one but her boyfriend.  Caught in an embarrassing situation, grandmother and uncle introduce the second daughter, Selma [Tugba Sunguroglu] instead.  Since, in the words of one of the women, “They didn’t seem to dislike each other” the contract is written. A double wedding is accomplished: Sonay happy with her own choice, Selma is visibly distressed.

Spunky Lale [Günes Sensoy]. at 12 or 13, sees where this is heading and sets about making sure it won’t happen to her, even as more and more bars go up with locks afixed to keep the house impregnable .  After meeting a long haired –therefore non-traditional– truck driver on a secret escape to watch a soccer game, she persuades him to give her driving lessons.  Sister number 3, Ece [Elit Iscan], refuses the arrangement made for her, with terrible finality.

The uncle, so obsessed with the girls’ purity, has a twin obsession, ugly and hidden which Lale discovers and which motivates her even more strongly, to get out of the prison-house and to Istanbul.  Her escape, along with daughter #4, Nur, [Doga Zeynep Doguslu] is not without drama, and with a few laughs.  Their welcome by a favorite teacher, herself just moved to the big city, is a nice relief to our worries about two wonderful kids.  Two out of five to freedom is something to cheer about. 

The film, as films tend to do, seems to many to make a much wider point about Turkish society than is intended.  Not a few Turkish males can be found complaining, here.  One Turkish female respondent, as well as the director herself — who based the movie on a story from her own family– respond that what it portrays is real enough, though is certainly not true of all Turks, or all villages.  The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s debut film, with which it is often associated, is not usually taken to be an indictment  of all Catholics, the entire United States or even Grosse Point, Michigan.

I do agree with some, that the canyon between the girls’ easy behavior and the town’s expectation of repressed, covered modesty, goes unexplained.  We don’t know how long since they were orphaned and so, how long under their grandmother’s care, nor where or how long they had lived previously.  The school, and uniform –knee high skirts and bloused– and images of other students, suggests something far more modern and tolerant than the society they proceed to be judged by.  It doesn’t particularly matter to the telling of a good story, but the gap is troubling to Turkish critics who say the girls seem like they’ve been dropped into this conservative country from outer space, or at least France or England.

For a nice interview with the director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, and her view of the “fairy tail” aspects of the movie, see here.

A nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the up-coming 88th Oscars Mustang is definitely a cultural and geographical trip for only the price of a movie ticket .

Ω

Movies Cairo 678Cairo 678 (2010,) is a much grittier look at the lives of women in densely packed Cairo.   Mohamed Diab, known as a screen-writer for half a dozen films (one block-buster) makes his directorial debut with this, for which he wrote the screenplay also. The lead, Fayza,  a covered Muslim woman who is the target of groping hands on public transportation, is played by Bushra.  Her facial gestures alternating between desperate modesty and fierce retribution are a wonder to watch. As one commentator says:

“Faiza, the character that Bushra plays, like a sad yet powerful tune in a beautiful song, is an unprecedented character in Egyptian cinema; and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that Faiza may revolutionize Egyptian cinema, or be the spark of such a creative, artistic revolution, where the voice of the observant Muslim for the first time ever gets delivered honestly, neutrally, fairly, and in a balanced and beautiful way.”  More.

Seba [Nelly Karim] is the leader of a women’s meeting place who, after a rape and broken marriage because of it, advocates physical self-defense.  ‘The headscarf pin will do for starters.’ Fayza, wide-eyed but desperate puts her advice into practice. A police dragnet is launched after several “unmotivated attacks” on men. Nelly, the third protagonist, is an aspiring, and ground-breaking stand-up comic, with a very supportive comic boy-friend.  Her family however, wants her to drop a law-suit against an attacker.

The three stories play out well.  We get a sense of the women, as different yet regarded as the same ‘targets of opportunity. A very nice set of episodes has Faiza telling Nelly that her provocative dress is partially responsible for what has happened to her, to soon retract it, realizing that she, dressed completely as the moralizers demand, has not kept her free of groping hands.  Scenes on sardine-jammed rail cars, in public markets and with all male audiences give a visceral sense of Cairo and the danger to its women unlike anything seen in the 2009 Cairo Time, or The English Patient (1996) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or The Spy Who Loved Me (1977.)

Cairo 678 is one of many fine, socially aware films in the Gl0bal Film Initiative catalog.  Highly recommended. It and many others are available on Amazon streaming video.

Ω

Movies La GouletteA Summer in La Goulette is a sex-comedy with a certain French flavor, but set in Tunis of 1966-67 as the swinging ’60s hits the conservative somewhat Europeanized societies of North Africa.  The serious subject of men trying to keep their domination over women is treated with laughter and light mockery as the youngsters push right back.   Ferid Boughedir, the director (whose Halfouine: Boy of the Terraces I reviewed here) has a light touch with youngsters.

Three young women, a Muslim, a Catholic and a Jew, live with their families in a North African apartment compound and, being of an eligible age, decide to take their love destinies in their own hands.  At the wedding of one of their sisters they agree to meet three interested boys, of similar religious background, in a ‘young-person’s room,’ –“you know, away from the old folks.”  Offered glasses of spiked punch, the girls assert themselves and choose companions of differing faiths. Hanky-pank ensues and is interrupted by horrified fathers led on by a vigilant friend who has his aged eyes on one of the nubiles.  Dark humor spills out as the fathers, beating their daughters with belts, curse them for not at least choosing boys of their own faith, i.e. marriageable.

The father’s friendship hits a rough patch because after all, it was YOUR daughter who put MY daughter up to it.  Unabashed, the girls vow to try to lose their virginity together on August 15th (The Day of Assumption and a public holiday in 1966 Tunis).  Again interrupted before consummation the girls escape, to be found by their fathers, veiled and praying to holy candles.

Meanwhile, the father’s vigilant friend, also a land-lord, offers to stop evictions of the families if he can is given the object of his eye as his wife (guessing here,  30 year age difference.)  The response to his hypocritical behavior carried off by his young beloved, Muslim-covered in a very particular way, is a knock out ending, so to speak.

As the movie comes to an end, a local character runs through the scene with a radio on his shoulder, shouting, as he has before, that “the Middle East is in turmoil!  War is coming!”  He is laughed at, again. “The Middle East is always in turmoil!” This time it’s true: it is  June 4, 1967. The Six Day War is a day away.  In its wake, most of Tunisia’s Jews will leave.  The idyll of summer romance and inter-religious working through difficulties is over.

Among other things, I loved the patois of the characters, speaking mostly Arabic with healthy strings of French and blurted Italian — another measure of the relative ease of association between people of different cultures, living is the same housing, yelling in different tongues, trading meals, tips and worry for their children.  Until they didn’t.

Though A Summer in La Goulette is a bit of a romp, tolerant and with modernized views of youth and sex, it nevertheless tackles a history and a cultural face-off  in a way, I suspect, would no longer be possible, even in Tunisia,  as ultra conservative Islam, Judaism and Christianity have risen around the world.

Not currently in theaters, you can find it on-line.

Ω

Somewhat along the lines of these three movies is the Algerian film, Barakat (2005, — reviewed here).  Two women’s road-trip to find a kidnapped husband is the center of attention and propels the plot and emotions.  The danger of men, leering, demeaning and cat-calling is also present, as well as tough female responses to it.