Arab Women Say What?! embodies the essence of living between two worlds: speaking and dreaming in different languages and lands.
Nermeen, a young and bold Egyptian Canadian, invites us to join her circle of friends, a group of eight outspoken, daring Arab women who found each other through their shared love of laughter, food and life. The women examine feminism in Arab society, tackling challenging and often taboo sociopolitical issues. Their conversations offer a glimpse into their personalities, revealing their unique perspectives and experiences while providing a complex understanding of what it means to “not be from here.” Arab Women Say What?! is a testament to the resilience of these women, who we may have met before but perhaps never had the chance to truly connect with.
Two Liner Synopsis
With unadulterated truth and complexity, Arab Women Say What?! paints an unparalleled portrait of Arab women living in Canada. The film offers a counter-mainstream narrative that embraces the unique experiences and perspectives of eight Arab women sharing their insights, cuisine and laughter. Amid the rhythm of poetry and music, they tackle issues of feminism, politics, exile and the yearning for a sense of belonging.
One liner Synopsis
This film is a radical contemplation on politics, identity and home, unfolding through the provocative conversations, hospitality and openness of a group of Arab women.
Arab Women Say What?!, by Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker Nisreen Baker, presents Arab women as we’ve never seen them before.
Nermeen, an Egyptian Canadian, flies to Egypt to help her ailing mother, returns to Edmonton, and shares with us her poem about feeling exiled. She introduces us to her friends from different Arab countries, who “love to laugh”: Nedra, Carmen, Aya, Sanaa, Tereza, Laylan and Hala. They are outspoken and daring Arab-Canadian women who don’t shy away from showing their strengths and vulnerabilities. And in this textured film, the women take agency in telling their stories by documenting their lives on cellphones during the pandemic.
Through a mosaic of eight windows, the women offer us a big window into their lives, revealing their unique perspectives, sharing personal experiences and claiming their narratives. Amid discussions, arguments and jokes, they deconstruct their patriarchal culture and grapple with challenging—and often taboo—issues, with Aya’s singing punctuating these conversations. Aya, a Syrian Canadian, tells us how she used her oud (Arab lute) “as a weapon” during the Syrian war.
When the women finally get together at Nedra’s house, emotions run high and the discussion becomes political. The politics later stops, but the jokes and jabs never do, as they share a mouth-watering feast for Ramadan Iftar, even though some of them are not Muslims. Over colourful desserts, however, the conversation turns into a search for identity and a place to belong.
Five years in the making, Arab Women Say What?! was inspired by discussions my friends and I typically have during our gatherings. Speaking with NFB executive producer David Christensen about those discussions, he remarked that this would make an interesting film. I sprung to work!
In their 19th-century writings, most orientalists portrayed Arab women as exotic, submissive and illiterate. Most films soon followed suit, and added “victims” to the list. Then mainstream media picked up that stereotype and continued to perpetuate it, cementing the notion that not only Arab women but the entire Arab community are “the Other.”
I believe that no person, or group of people, is unidimensional. So, the intention behind this film was to reveal the multidimensions of Arab women and to dismantle the stereotype of Arab women. I sought to show the grace those women have in addressing challenging issues, their sisterhood, and their resilience in dealing with cultural bereavement. I also wanted to create an open invitation to viewers to join us in our living rooms, at our kitchen tables, our homes, to see and understand us for who we really are, in order to build bridges between those of Arab descent and their fellow Canadians, North Americans and Europeans. It was for these reasons that I chose to film in a fly-on-the-wall, observational style.
The biggest obstacle I faced was that the Arab community tends to be very camera-shy, particularly women. To achieve the vision, I needed to select those among my friends who are outspoken and willing to speak their minds on camera. I also wanted to present the mosaic of cultures and perspectives within the Arab community. So, I selected women from different Arab countries and different religions. Once those ladies agreed to participate, David, producer Coty Savard and I started planning for production. And then COVID hit!
This was the biggest challenge the film faced. Pivoting, I aimed to document the times: lockdowns, masks and all. To their credit, David and Coty indulged me. This meant that we had to plan for unconventional production methods. There was a unique opportunity to give women the agency to show and tell us what they wanted; filming themselves, rather than a director and DOP pointing the camera at them. This also meant that I needed to train the women on light, shadows, camera angles and audio recording. All of which took place virtually. After two years of gathering all those personal stories and footage, the participants finally met in person after lockdowns were lifted.
In weaving the personal portraits and stories of the participants together with the array of challenging topics they tackled, it is my hope that the audience will see the diversity of perspectives within not only this group of women but within the Arab community at large—and that we can all engage in a dialogue to build those bridges of understanding.