Sharine Atif’s short film, Jebel Banat, brings legend to life by telling the story of two Bedouin sisters (played by Sara Soumaya Abel and Jala Hesham) who climb a mountain on their journey to escape forced marriages.
Ahead of the film’s screening at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Sharine about Jebel Banat and the intense challenge of filming in the desert.
Q: There is a seemingly telling line in the trailer for ‘Jebel Banat’ that says: ‘It’s not ya to blame, it’s our elders.’ Can you talk about this line? What does it reveal about the themes of the film?
A: Regarding that quote, I had asked a nomad women to write me a song or melody for the sisters to sing. She knew what the film was about and created lyrics to match the theme. Basically “elders” is referring to the tradition that has been passed down over time through the elders. Men being men of their time and having to carry out tradition – even if it’s painful.
One of the daughters, Farhana, asks her father: “How can death be the best thing for her?” – referring to the goat he plans to slaughter. He replies: “Doing the right thing is always painful.” This, for me, is the main theme. Fathers do love their daughters and are not aware they are forcing them into marriage. They see it as following tradition, and can also find this painful.
Q: Why did you chose the backdrop of Saint Catherine Sinai, Egypt in the 1800s?
A: Sometime in late 2013, I started going once or twice a month to hike the mountains of Saint Catherine. One of the mountains there is called “Girls Mountain”, so when I asked my nomad guide about the name, he told me of the legend. It’s where the legend actually happened.
The setting is not really defined to 1800s… my story is set during late modernity sometime between (1900—1989).
The legend says: Two Bedouin sisters escape forced marriages. In defiant solidarity they braid their hair together tying their fates.
Q: The strength of the sister-sister relationship appears to be vital to the story. Can you talk about the importance of that relationship?
A: I did indeed choose to show the strength of the sister-sister relationship as something vital. They grew up their whole lives together. This was especially important for the younger sister, Farhana, as she had always found that her older sister, Gameela, was there for her. It is only strengthened by the fact their mother had died before Farhan could remember things or had a conscious mind.
We worked on this when building the characters and in rehearsals. Tying their hair into one braid meant they tied their fate together – this part of the legend inspired me to build the characters in that way.
Q: The visuals of the film look striking and poetic. What was it like filming out in the desert?
A: It was a nightmare, but also rewarding and adventurous. I would even say it was a life changing experience for me.
We climbed a 2,000+ meter high mountain with equipment only to not make it on time to shoot because the sun was gone. We were shooting with only available daylight. We had to re-shoot that mountain climb scene again at the end on one of the pick up days. Some of us had meltdowns on different days with different people for different reasons, but we were always reminded why we were all there and shared a passion to make this movie.
Both actresses had short hair. So I had to find the right colour [for extensions], which was a huge challenge as I did not want it to look fake. The hair cost me $800, and I had to be in charge of it because we did not have a budget to hire a hair stylist. The hair was important because the braided bun on top of the forehead meant the young women were still unmarried.
A $5K lens was damaged when filming in a very deep well. Thank god for insurance! I paid $1800 to fix it, but it was still a lot.
I wanted to capture the lost identity of Bedouin life before the 1980s when the influence of Saudi Arabia made all women start to wear black and give up the traditional dress. I also wanted to make it whimsical and light in a way to bring interest for some audiences who might avoid seeing a film about Arab women escaping forced marriage.
And so I had to find a way to make it visually appealing. I tried to make it as colourful as I could. I grew up watching Disney cartoons and studied at CalArts – which was founded by Walt Disney – so I guess this influenced my style in a way.
Thanks also to my DP Mostafa El Kashef, who is really talented and had studied in Paris. He was aware of the harshness of the desert.
Q: How did Sara Soumaya Abed and Jala Hesham deal with this challenging shoot?
A: Working with Sara was really challenging, but what good is an experience if there are no challenges. It’s getting through them and ending up with the result we got that makes it all worthwhile. Sara did not have any acting training but almost every critic thought she was a talent. Her expression just really brought the character to life and I will forever be thankful for her efforts.
Jala was enjoyable and very professional to work with. She took it seriously. I’d definitely would work with her again. I remember she was the last young woman I auditioned, and when she read the lines I got goosebumps and cried. She has a raw talent and I believe she will definitely grow as an actress with this attitude.
Overall, I would say they both really brought the lines I wrote on paper to life and this always makes me feel like how mothers feel when they give birth to a baby. I got a feeling I cannot express, one that makes me feel most present and alive.
Q: You’ve worked on the ‘A Way Out’ series to highlight sexual harassment and mistreatment of women in Arab world. Can you tell us more about what motivates you as a filmmaker?
A: I would rephrase your choice of words. The A Way Out video series was created to highlight strong women in Egypt who stand up for themselves. Empowered women with stories of defiance. One of the videos, called His Cucumber, is specifically about sexual harassment, but this is only one topic of many in the series.
I have a few others such as With The Shoe, which is about the aftermath of a woman who demands a divorce. And Perfect Wife, about a passionate singer who struggles when her future husband makes her choose between him and her career. She choses her career.
I do have a lot of video content – not all released yet – as the project has been on hold while I focus on other work. I was inspired by a movement called ‘The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’ at a very inspirational time in post-revolution Egypt where women started taking a stand. I did not want to show the poor victimized women in the Arab world… I wanted to show strong women in Egypt.
One thing I also kept in mind was to try to speak to all women. Not just women in Egypt or in the Arab world. On average, nearly 20 women per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States, and women worldwide represent 49% of the population, so it’s a worldwide issue not only for Arab and Muslim women.
I chose to highlight women in Egypt because it was where I was living at the time and I lived similar stories as an Egyptian women myself. Perhaps down the road I will focus on women issues or empowerment in the USA as well.
Q: How does living between Egypt and the US shape your outlook as a filmmaker?
A: I’d like to think I could be a bridge between both places and try to make this come out in my films.
Q: ‘Jebel Banat’ will screen at Tribeca Film Festival. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
A: I’d be thrilled if any of them find it relatable given the story is so foreign. If not, hopefully I can take them on a 15 minute journey and adventure into an unknown world to them.
Q: What is next for you?
A: My first feature film is now in development. It’s kind of a fictionalised autobiography that I will star in and maybe direct.
My film takes place in modern-day, and is about a displaced young American Egyptian woman torn between both cities – Cairo and New York. The death of her American mother, who lived in Egypt, leads to the reveal of a family secret from her past when she finds her parents’ love letters. Her Egyptian father living in New York gives her hints to the missing puzzle.