One of the tactics used by the policemen who try to silence Mariam is to tell her that if she risks tarnishing their reputation, she will weaken the police force, trigger civil unrest and even terrorism. According to Ben Hania, “[post 9/11] It’s the kind of blackmail we’re all familiar with, one that consists of pitting security against liberty, as if having both together were impossible.” She also refers to the cover-ups in hyper-competitive American universities, where female victims have not been granted justice by campus administrations seeking to protect their institutions’ reputations. So, although Beauty and the Dogs is set in Tunisia, it’s messages extend far beyond those borders.
Having set her film at a time after the coup that brought down dictator Ben Ali, she says, “This film couldn’t have been made in Tunisia before 2011. Though it doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of the guardians of law and order in Tunisia, the Ministry of Culture supports the film. For me, this is a powerful symbol. It’s a sign that things in the country are changing. Like the film’s main character, nothing can ever again be like before.”
Ella Manzheeva’s The Gulls is the first Kalmyk film in the last 30 years to be shot by a Kalmyk director in Kalmykia, a small region in the vastness of Russia, where the Kalmyks have their own unique culture, traditions, history and language (which is currently experiencing an active revival, having been on the verge of extinction as a consequence of Stalin's repressions). Manzheeva says that her story about Elsa, a fragile woman yearning to escape her marriage, is not trying to convey a particular message. “We often associate our troubles and failures with the people around us. By shifting the responsibility over to them, we justify our weakness, laziness, lack of willpower and thought. Happiness, however, lies within each one of us, and we alone bring ourselves to live and be happy; be daring and free or even unhappy. This film is about the energy of life. Stop. Listen. Hear yourself, and you will hear others around you. I would like viewers to trust themselves more through relying on their own unique experience and character, so that the film’s drama lives on in their minds, and everyone is able to establish their own finale, take from it their own subjective moral lessons. I simply ask a question. And everyone may answer it in their own way.”
No-one who has lived life and accrued a few lost loves along the way could fail to be moved by Iranian director Ida Panahandeh’s Israfil, the title of which refers to the archangel who brings the dead back to life on Resurrection day. Here it is love that is rekindled when Mahi, a widow mourning the death of her only son, is reunited with her teenage sweetheart, Behrooz, who emigrated to Canada as a young man following the scandal surrounding their engagement. Mahi learns that Behrooz is now engaged to a younger woman, Sara, who in turn has doubts when she learns of her fiancé’s old flame. On the horns of these entanglements all three must decide how they feel, whilst also making their own decisions about their future lives. Thus Israfil becomes a story about redefining love rather than giving in to traditional values.
Panahandeh has a woman’s place in modern society as her central theme and has focussed on women’s rights throughout her work, but of course not every film made by women need be focussed on women’s lives. Annemarie Jacir’s Wajib is an astute observation of a father-son relationship and the difference between being a Palestinian living at home versus a Palestinian abroad. Sonia Kronlund enters the all male world of the Afghan film industry in The Prince of Nothingwood, her portrait of Salim Shaheen, Afghanistan’s most prolific filmmaker. Zhanna Issabayeva’s Bopem (Kazakhstan) follows a teenage boy exacting revenge for his mother’s death. Whilst Valeska Grisebach’s Western has been described as “probably also the best film since Claire Denis's Beau Travail to be made by a woman about men”.
The final F-Rated film in the festival line-up is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which has a screenplay by Riko Sakaguchi, who was also one of the screenwriters on Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Produced by Studio Ponoc, with many ex-Ghibli staff, it’s been seen by some as a break with Studio Ghibli tradition. Even so, despite having a woman screen-writer, it’s a pity that the new studio has not been able to break with the tradition of not appointing women directors. Like Hollywood, the anime industry is male dominated, despite employing plenty of women in more junior roles as colourists and animators. It would be great to be able to programme an animated feature directed by a woman one day. Where Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon and Nora Twomey, director of The Breadwinner, have led the way, perhaps others will follow?
Perhaps also, the day will come when the F-Rating becomes defunct, when 50% F-Rated programmes become the norm and we can stop remarking upon such things? Until then we have a long way to go until we can say we’ve achieved true equality in film culture. The challenge for WOW in future years will be whether we can maintain or surpass 2018’s benchmark.