TIFF Arab Women Filmmakers Retrospective: Desire, Sexuality and Freedom in Raja Amari’s “Red Satin”

By Elise Hassan

This year at Toronto International Film Festival a retrospective, Here and Now: Contemporary Arab Women Filmmakers was held, casting a spotlight on the largely under screened cinema of the Middle East and North Africa. Showcasing the likes of Saudi-Arabia’s Haifaa Al-Mansour, Lebabon’s Nadine Labaki, Syria’s Soudadi Kadaan as well as Tunisia’s Raja Amari.

The programme celebrates female filmmakers from within the MENA region which is rich with female-filmmakers and female-centred stories and which has been at the forefront of feminist filmmaking far longer and far more powerfully than the vast majority of Western cinema. To celebrate this retrospective I will be taking a closer look at feminist filmmaking within Tunisia through Raja Amari’s “Red Satin” (2002), examining her deeply empowering use of the female gaze when depicting desire, sexuality and freedom.

Coinciding with Tunisia’s independence from French rule in 1956, ground breaking strides in expanding gender legislations and women’s rights were made that put Tunisia at the forefront of the progression of women’s rights within the MENA region. Female filmmakers played a major role in post-independent Tunisian cinema as cinema was used as a tool in constructing a new national identity as well as a tool for critiquing issues of the patriarchy and freedom of expression (Sadigi & Ennaji: 2011).

Patricia Caillé writes that since 1978 Tunisian “women film-makers have sought to account for the oppression of women, for their struggle for freedom, including artistic freedom.” (2016: 50). Emerging from the mid-80s what would be called ‘New Tunisian Cinema’ would be the most daring of all MENA cinema in its exploration of gender and sexuality particularly in terms of its willingness to show the body which has come to be a hallmark of New Tunisian Cinema.

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Raja Amari’s “Red Satin” is a film that encapsulates themes of freedom, independence, desire and sexuality. The story follows Lilia, a lonely widowed woman and her daughter Selma. At the beginning of the film we see Lilia spending nearly all her time alone, relentlessly cleaning her house, eating dinner by herself and laughing and crying at soap operas on the television. Meanwhile her daughter goes out to dance lessons, sees her boyfriend and goes to parties.

However as the film develops her life begins to mirror her daughter’s when one night she heads to a cabaret where she suspects her daughter is dancing. Instead of finding her there she makes a new friend with one of the women who dances there and finds her life changed from that moment on. Her new friend, Folla, encourages her to dance too and Lilia finds herself wrapped up in the world of belly dancing and the newfound joy and freedom it allows her.

“Raja Amari’s “Red Satin” is a film that encapsulates themes of freedom, independence, desire and sexuality…. The portrayal of the naked body and sexuality is not a negative in “Red Satin” but a positive. It does not add to the objectification and eroticisation of women but allows women liberation in terms of sexual pleasure.”

In “Red Satin”, Raja Amari importantly focuses and uplifts Lilia as an individual, as her own person with her own wants, desires and needs. We watch her character evolve and transform as the narrative develops. Lilia, who was originally timid and shy, finds confidence in performing. We see her relationship with her daughter blossom and grow as they begin to bond over fashion. Lilia is not solely confined to the role of mother or wife and this is shown through the rejection of the nuclear family, primarily the father figure.

Tunisian filmmaker, Leyla Bouzid Discacciati writes that the representation of women in the 1960s and 70s was limited to that of mother and wife, appearing only ‘alongside’ the male character… our cinema is trying to destroy the edifice of the family and liberate the individual.” (Lang 2014: 37).

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The absence of the father and husband-figure allows an exploration and focus on the women of the film, primarily the mother who discovers a new lease of life, which, after the loss of her husband, her new circumstances have now allowed her. The film makes clear that her freedom has only emerged due to the absence of a dominant male figure.

This is displayed when her husband’s brother comes to visit. He represents wider society, the neo-patriarchy and the expectations and rules that are placed upon women. He criticises her high heels and the fact she was watching a soap opera in which two people kiss. His presence also stops her from going to the cabaret to dance. She goes to the window and balcony, yearning to leave, mirroring something she did in the beginning of the film before she found the cabaret. Lilia clearly yearned to escape the confines of her home, to experience the world what it had to offer.

“The portrayal of nudity and sexuality under a female filmmaker provides a female gaze. The female gaze can be understood to be the opposite of what Laura Mulvey theorised as the male gaze in her piece ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’…The male voyeuristic gaze is completely rejected in “Red Satin”. “

Lilia also finds romance and sexual pleasure within the film and the way in which Amari handles this is pivotal. In ‘Constructions of Sexuality in Recent Maghrebi Films by Women Filmmakers’ Patricia Caillé writes that “from the perspective of women filmmakers, showing sex on screen runs the risk of reproducing gendered relationships of power, detrimental to women, as women have traditionally been cast as the erotic and vulnerable object of a male voyeuristic gaze… focusing on sexuality in films by women filmmakers with Maghrebi funding requires a shift in perspective.” (2016: 44).

The image of the body, particularly the naked body and sexuality is a taboo theme across the MENA region, which is why its portrayal makes it a hallmark of Tunisian cinema. Its absence in MENA cinemas is also why there should be a new perspective of how the body is viewed on screen. The portrayal of the naked body and sexuality is not a negative in “Red Satin” but a positive. It does not add to the objectification and eroticisation of women but allows women liberation in terms of sexual pleasure.

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The portrayal of nudity and sexuality under a female filmmaker provides a female gaze. The female gaze can be understood to be the opposite of what Laura Mulvey theorised as the male gaze in her piece ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Mulvey theorised that what we see is determined by the gaze of the camera behind of which is a male.

The camera is also aligned with that of the male protagonist whose gaze we are made to identify with through point-of-view shots. Mulvey argues that the sign of ‘woman’ in film is one constructed by and for a patriarchal culture, enabling man to “live out his fantasies and obsessions… by imparting them on the silent image of woman… women are objects, not subjects, of the gaze, their bodies eroticised and often fragmented.” (1975: 54).

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In this case the man is the object of Lilia’s desire. She is the one to initiate something with him when at first she rejects his attempts. When she decides she is ready she flirts with him. In a reversal of cinematic norms in terms of the male gaze, when presenting a scene of passionate sexual intercourse the male is naked and Lilia is clothed. Using an extreme close-up, the camera, focuses on Lilia’s face, which is smiling. Her pleasure is the primary focus instead of his.

The body is not seen as a sexual object but a site of freedom. The woman is not a passive object in which sexual desire is presented upon her but she is the active agent with sexual desires of her own. Additionally the audience at the cabaret does not solely consist of men but also women who enjoy watching Lilia dance. The male voyeuristic gaze is completely rejected in “Red Satin”.

Sexual freedom and the female body is reclaimed and used as a tool of empowerment. It is the woman’s point of view that the spectator is aligned with and this is achieved through the appropriation of the male gaze. The female body is at the forefront of the film as the narrative revolves around Lilia belly dancing in clothing that reveals her body.

However, the way in which Raja Amari handles the gaze through the camera allows the body to not be eroticised and objectified. Mulvey writes of conceiving a new cinematic language of desire: “the alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without simply rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, and daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire.” (Thornham 1999: 60).

The first time we see Lilia dance she is watching herself through a mirror with her back towards the camera. The role of the mirror disjoints the gaze of the spectator so the spectator cannot fully objectify or eroticise her body. What is reinforced here is that her character dances for herself and her enjoyment only. Historically, women have been presented as passive sexualised objects of the male gaze but for the female filmmakers of Tunisia like Raja Amari, the gaze has been re-appropriated as a tool of empowerment and freedom.

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