Mapping Difficult Ground

By Sophie Mayer

This September, the first Golden Minbar for Muslim film will be awarded in Kazan, Tatarstan, to one of the 72 competing films from Muslim countries and the Muslim Diaspora. Several of the competing titles appear at the Toronto Arab Film Festival this summer, and will reappear at the second Muslim Film Festival in California next year. With the emergence of this circuit, as well as increasing film production in North Africa and South-East Asia, Dönmez - Colin’s book provides a timely historical consideration of one of the issues that most exercises Western viewers: the limitations that face women as film spectators, performers, and makers in the Muslim world.

The book offers a lucid and succinct political and social history of Islamic cinema that briskly observes the connections between religious legislation around women’s social behaviour, women as film viewers and women as cinematic objects. This proceeds chronologically through a series of case studies by film, demonstrating the relations between political and aesthetic histories. Dönmez-Colin narrates each film painstakingly in order to establish the treatment of female characters, giving a strong sense of each film’s place in a national or international canon, inciting the reader’s interest to see the more interesting films for herself.

It is, however, hard to contest many of the readings here, as they depend on knowledge of films that have limited (or no) distribution. Readers may feel on more certain territory when the author considers Kiarostami or the Makhmalbaf dynasty, but the book is peculiarly dissatisfying in its determination to focus on films that have barely grazed the festival circuit. Films from the Muslim Diaspora, from Muslim Africa, experimental films from the new Asian cinema and documentary cinema are not considered. Important figures – such as director Yamina Bachir-Chouikh of Algeria – are omitted, along with developments such as the emergence of a Muslim queer cinema, celebrated at the 2004 Al-Fatiha festival in Berkeley. While the decision to chronicle the history of Arab, Persian and Turkic cinema is laudable – and the book succeeds best when on this sure ground – as a critical work, it lacks a methodology that would explain these omission, and, ultimately, an argument.

Women’s roles as spectators, stars and, in the final chapter, directors (women working as writers, producers, and editors are not considered) are chronicled only as social history, as if feminist film theory had never moved beyond representation. Dönmez-Colin states at the end of the introduction that the book sets out to address misconceptions about Islam, and cinema often seems merely a vehicle for this polemical purpose. Grounding her study in narrative description, its chunks of history (often moving from country to country without a breath), and the occasional interview leave little opening for further discussion. As a travelogue through Islamic cinema, this pocket-sized study would be good company on the plane to Kazan; as a serious consideration of the historicized intersections of feminism and Islam in cinema, it merely guides readers to the start of the labyrinth.

Women, Islam and Cinema by Gönül Dönmez-Colin (Reaktion, 2004, £10)

Sophie Mayer teaches film and literary studies at the University of Toronto, and is an Eric Gregory Award-winning poet. Her creative and critical work has appeared in a number of publications, including Plan B, LiP, Toronto Star, HOW(2) and Masthead.