Manny Shirazi: How did you become a filmmaker?
Heiny Srour: As a child I was not allowed to dance, to play the piano or even to draw. I was sent to a French school, which punished me if I spoke Arabic, but I didn’t want to express myself in the coloniser’s language. Lebanon is a merchant society, a sectarian society. I was born in a Jewish community. Jews in Lebanon, being a minority without parliamentary representation, are obsessed with respectability. Being an artist wasn’t respectable. The model was Einstein. But my parents themselves unconsciously were good artists. My mother’s drawings are great, she dresses very elegantly, and has fantastic taste. My father is one of the best singers in the Jewish community, he would feel insulted if he was told he was a great artist. My grandfather was a great dancer and a singer.
A family of invisible artists.
Yes, and despite themselves, they helped me. Without that cultural background, I would not have been able to create those marriage scenes, songs and dances in the film.
How did that sectarian society hinder you as an artist?
I almost conformed and nearly became a chemist, but my teacher told me “Be a good artist, and not a bad chemist”. At the age of 18 in 1963, two films that were turning points for me were Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Cléo de 5 à 7 by a French woman, Agnès Varda. I told myself then that painting is not a big loss, dancing is not a loss, writing is not a loss: it is filmmaking that I must do. I felt cinema was the language that I wanted to express myself with.
I could understand that the cinema was the most powerful means, the most complete and the most total to express what you want. When I saw the Fellini film, I thought, “I am a woman, I can never be a filmmaker”. But when I saw the film by Agnès, first I thought, “I can make it”. Then I saw that Agnès was a European woman, I was an Arab woman, and there was no chance in hell that I could make it. Lack of models made me feel depressed too. Now I have two films behind me...
You see, Arab women historically have been silent; they haven’t expressed themselves. At that age, what encouraged me was the appearance in Lebanon of women writers, saying “I’m a woman”. For instance, Leila Balbaki wrote the book I Live in 1958 – it was like a shock to Lebanese society. For the first time, a woman was saying out loud, “I want to live my full life”, and she explains the obstacles in her love for an Iraqi communist.
But film is a very exclusive and visual medium, and you’re talking about Arab women being silenced throughout history. How can you break that with films?
Another example is May Ziadeh, a woman who expressed herself: I think it was in the 1920s. She was quite a gifted woman, and she ended up mad, and I find it very significant.
The same happened in Iran to a woman writer.
Examples like May Ziadeh show you the power of patriarchal fascism that hasn’t been challenged for something like seven thousand years, and it is so totalitarian that any woman who challenges it gets crushed. I’m so happy that I developed and started working at the time when the women’s movement started to develop and gain strength. Because that would have been my fate, being sent to a mental hospital. Until now, my father has never recognised that his daughter is a filmmaker, and you know I just received a letter from my mother in Australia telling me that “I hope that now you can behave and think of finding yourself another job”.
But you have to know that in the Arab world, the moral terror and the pressure on women is terrible. In the Carthage film festival (in Tunisia), my film was very well received, and I was really surprised because, before, an Algerian filmmaker, Assia Djebar, who is a very famous writer in Algeria, made a beautiful film about Algerian women called The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, and she was abused and insulted in a most horrible way.
Is your film going to be shown in Africa?
I hope so because it’s very much liked by Africans.
Shall we go back to Leila and the Wolves? Why did you want to show Arab history, women’s struggle through Arab history, and through Palestinian women?
And through Lebanese women, because part of the film is on Lebanon. Because I was born in Lebanon, where you have half a million Palestinians out of a population of about three million. During very crucial years of my life, I witnessed the development of the Arab/Israeli conflict and the war of June, the rise of the Palestinian resistance, and all Lebanon being split right through the middle about supporting or not supporting the Palestinians until the civil war broke out. So I mean the Palestinian presence at that time on Lebanese soil was a very big issue and I would say even in the Arab world, the Palestinian woman, the token Palestinian women, were made a cause celebre like Leila Khaled... These token women are used by political parties, institutions and states to hide the daily lives of the overwhelming majority of the women. These women are made to be symbols to compensate the reality. I respect them. They are brave, but I’m saying that these women are being used.
My film is precisely about silent unglamorous sacrifices of the women in Lebanon. I mean, during the civil war, each militia had its token woman. Incidentally, the Phalangists had more token women than the rest of them. If sectarianism is guiding the gun, women had better not use the gun. In the Palestinian part, it is a just war. Women should participate, but at this moment we’re not getting anything out of it. In the Lebanese part of the film I am saying that it is an absurd war; it is a power struggle between the Christian Maronites and Muslims, and women make enormous personal sacrifices.
The Western-made image of Lebanon under the Christian rule was that is the only democratic country in the Middle East, The Land of Light, and The Eastern Swiss. Let me tell you about this democratic land, the same Islamic rules that have governed Saudi Arabia have governed Lebanon. The honour killing of women continues at the rate of two women being killed by their male relations in a week (these are only the recorded statistics) in a country of only 1 1/2 million women, and the killers go free. But there is a law that if the same man kills his neighbour’s dog, he will be imprisoned for three months.
When did you think of making the film?
Ideas came to me very early on. Since I was a kid, I heard my mother say, I am the only servant who is not paid and doesn’t have holidays, and she was from the upper classes, and had two servants to serve her. Such things were brewing in my head.
How long did it take you to make the film?
It took me six years of my life, from scriptwriting, fundraising, shooting and completing and doing nothing else. It finished in the summer and was then shown at the Edinburgh Festival.
Why did you have to include different historical periods?
Firstly, why shouldn’t women be ambitious? Because men only want women to exclusively deal with women’s issues like home, family and so on, they want to ghettoize us. I resent this. We should deal with the public affairs and political issues too. I brought in the History of Palestine since the Balfour Declaration in 1917 up to the massacre of the Deir Yassin in 1948 which was the turning point for Palestinians. As for the Lebanese part, I chose the Civil War. This enabled me to select examples, samples of history which show women; the spontaneous uprising of a town in Palestine in the 1920s; women in armed struggle in the countryside in Palestine in 1936-39; women in a massacre in Deir Yassin; women in the civil war in Lebanon.
The pattern of women’s lives in all the above situations are nearly the same. And in all these situations, if women don’t bargain for themselves from the beginning, they will be the ultimate losers, like in the French revolution, Russian revolution, Iranian revolution.
How do you feel as an anti-Israeli Jewish artist meeting other pro-Israeli Jewish artists like Chantal Akerman? Do you feel an outsider even among the women filmmakers?
When I saw her at the Thessaloniki festival ten years ago, she was speaking in defence of Israel, saying no matter what Israel must exist. Perhaps she has changed now. I heard that she didn’t like the Sabra and Chatila massacre, thank God. But I haven’t spoken to her since. I like some of her films, especially their forms. Je, tu, il, elle, I think is her best.
I loved that film too, especially the last 10 minutes of it.
But she doesn’t go far. I want women to invade men’s empire, their political, economical basis, not like Indira Ghandi or Golda Meir, but to change men’s laws, change the game of politics, and say to hell with your rules, games, we want to set different rules, and play different games. I want my films to express this intervention.
How has your film been received by the Jewish community?
I am a freak in the Jewish community. I think all the Jewish thinkers and artists became so when they make a decision to leave the Jewish community. Because the community is warm and supportive but stifling and self-destroying.
What is the difference for women?
There is a tradition of Jewish radicals being expelled from the community which I benefited from, but most of all I benefited from the cosmopolitan life in Beirut which before the Civil War was culturally and politically very fertile and exciting. And being Jewish was a hindrance because your family didn’t want you to mix with the gentile in case you married them. Once, after my first film, I was being interviewed by a journalist, a gentile, in a café, one of my relations saw me, if a look could kill or assassinate, I would have been dead...
Did you see a few articles in oob (off our backs, an American feminist periodical) last year on the oppression of Jewish community in the Arab countries? Can you tell us how Jewish women are specifically oppressed in Arab countries?
I don’t like the trend of thought among the Zionists that your Jewishness is your first identity. I feel I am first a woman, then an Arab, Lebanese and Jewish. I fight viciously against anti-Semitism and all types of racism. I hate Zionism and what Israel has done to the Jews as well as the Palestinians. I don’t think Jewish women in Lebanon are more oppressed than Arab women. I don’t think this is true of any Arab country that I know of. The Jews in the Arab world have suffered less than any other minorities, the Druze were butchered, Christians, Armenians and Kurds were massacred. And this is not because Arabs love Jews but because Jewish communities were smaller and they didn’t join the power struggle. At the time of my grandmother the Jews allied themselves with the Druze which were strong at the time, they sided with the Christian Maronite rulers and it will change, the rising power is now Islam and they will side with them. Also what the Arab Nationalists say about Jews and Arabs living together alright is wrong. I admit that the creation of Israel has damaged the harmonious relationship between the Jews and Arabs and Iraq is well-known case.
I am at odds with Western feminists because I am prepared to understand their special condition in their society, but they are rarely prepared to meet me halfway to understand my special condition in my society and my right to struggle for women’s liberation in my society the way I want to.
Originally published in Spare Rib, 152 (March 1985).