The growing tide of testimonies on social media from women who have experienced sexual assault was the spark for a documentary film that three female students of Egypt’s Misr International University produced as their graduation project.
The film is titled “Amena,” which in Arabic conveys a sense of being safe and can also be a woman’s name. The documentary gained fame among university students before it was premiered with other graduation projects in the university’s Department of Mass Communication.
The students’ first hurdle was in getting their project approved. University administrators had told students to steer clear of the taboo trinity of politics, gender and religion.
“We told university officials that we would not be involved in harassment as an act as much as focusing on the positive support that young women find these days from community institutions to support their access to safety,” said Mariam Solika, one of the filmmakers.
Solika and the documentary’s co-producers, Myriam Mikhail and Nayra Ashraf, were inspired by an Instagram campaign last year that led to criminal charges against a young man accused of multiple sexual assaults and contributed to a growing movement in Egypt to confront harassment. (See a related article, “Egyptian Universities Face Pressure to Better Protect Women From Harassment.”)
“We told university officials that we would not be involved in harassment as an act as much as focusing on the positive support that young women find these days from community institutions to support their access to safety.”Mariam Solika
One of the filmmakers
“For the first time, we felt there was a new societal movement, especially on social media, backed by the judicial support for the rights of women,” Solika said.
An Artistic Overture
The film opens with a tranquil scene of a young girl sitting in a garden, building a house with Lego bricks. Moments later, this world dissipates as a boy deliberately kicks a ball into the home she was building.
This symbolic scene forms an introduction from which the filmmakers cross into narrated sections of the documentary, voiced by activists and experts whom they interviewed.
“We have many dialogue scenes,” said Solika. “However, we thought an ‘overture’ would give the film an artistic dimension, through a short story that would also highlight our skills in photography and imagination.”
The film’s narration takes a faster pace as the speakers talk about how women’s testimonies about being harassed are breaking a long silence that resulted from a fear of social consequences.
The film focuses on the role of social media in particular in creating a broad community dialogue on this issue. (See a related article, “The Fight Against Sexual Harassment on Arab Campuses.”)
The Making of ‘Amena’
Speakers include the social media activist Zeina Amr Al-Dessoky, who founded Catcalls of Cairo, an Instagram platform that collects women’s testimonies of sexual harassment, and Malak Boghdady, who advocates for the right of women to live their lives without fear. Both talked of how social media platforms encourage women to overcome fear and speak out about the assaults they experienced, provided that such platforms protect the women’s privacy.
Other speakers in the film include Azza Soliman, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, and Hala Essam, who spoke about harassment’s psychological dimension and the long-term consequences of assault on women. (See a related article, “Survey Finds Frequent Sexual Harassment on Jordan’s Campuses.”)
Compressed Into 15 Minutes
Solika says she and her colleagues conducted hours of interviews with the guest speakers. The challenge was to condense these dialogues and integrate them into a 15-minute-video, to meet the terms of the graduation project. “We re-listened to the interviews, and came out with scenes that seemed to form a single connected story,” she said. “The quick editing played a vital role at this point.”
The film included references to real cases of harassment, such as a well-publicized assault case in Mit Ghamr, a city north of Cairo, and a video of a woman crying out after being harassed at the airport. It also used clips from plays and movies that portrayed the harassment of women as an expression of masculinity, such as the scene of high school students harassing their teacher in the 1973 film “Madrast Al-Mushaghebeen” (“The School of Mischief”).
“During this period, we are seeking to screen the film on online platforms, and to participate in documentary film festivals.”Mariam Solika
In its construction, the film starts from the depths of the crisis, passes through a discussion of society’s cultural changes, and ends up with a glimmer of hope for changing the reality of harassment.
In a parallel track, the script follows the girl in the opening scene. She is seen again in the middle of the documentary in a state of peace after the aggressive attitude of the boy who changed, and he protects her from aggression by others.
A Special Screening
After the academic year came to an end, the filmmakers organized a special screening of “Amena” and invited media outlets to interview the film’s guest speakers.
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“During this period, we are seeking to screen the film on online platforms, and to participate in documentary film festivals,” said Solika, who recently obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism along with her colleagues.
Inspired by their experience with “Amena,” the filmmakers launched an Instagram page to display clips from the film and introduce its speakers, besides launching “podcast” episodes in English, to discuss a new life view that aims at empowering girls and women.