Jordanian film 'Daughters of Abdulrahman' wins the Audience Award at FEST Portugal

Fresh from his win at yet another film festival, garnering the Audience Award in Portugal, we spoke to Jordanian filmmaker Zaid Abu Hamdan about his inspiration, the Arab version of 'The Golden Girls' and how he felt when a critic called his film a bad word...
Jordanian film 'Daughters of Abdulrahman' wins the Audience Award at FEST Portugal

There is a review on Rotten Tomatoes which calls Daughters of Abdulrahman "homophobic" -- which of course couldn't be further from the truth. There, we got the elephant in the room taken care of right away so now we can move on to some movie loving business.

Zaid Abu Hamdan's beautiful, poignant, touching, funny and heart-tugging film is a feat of wonder, one of those rare films that manages to capture women's characters in all their complexities.

The film's premise is based on four sisters, each as different from the other as women are made in real life, who need to come together when their father mysteriously disappears. The idea is brilliant and Daughters of Abdulrahman benefits from one of the most stellar casting coup this side of the Atlantic. With Saba Mubarak, Hanan Hillo, Farah Bsaiso and Mariam Basha in the roles of the four sisters, as an audience member myself I was mesmerized.

There is another reason the film works so beautifully. As an experiment, particularly when films are about women in the Arab world, I tend to avoid finding out the gender of the filmmaker. I'm usually able to make out a male from a woman filmmaker in the first ten minutes -- sometimes even sooner. But Abu Hamdan (pictured above) wrote and directed his women so wonderfully complex that I was convinced this was a woman's work. I was wrong. And I really really love to be wrong especially when it comes to great films.

Daughters of Abdulrahman is fresh from yet another win at yet another film festival, and always garnering the Audience Award which means the most, seeing that film goers are voting with their taste and attendance for such a prize. Not critics, not the competition juries of peers or even film programmers, all of whom often have their own agendas.

As I congratulated Abu Hamdan I wanted to find out more about his dream project, how he began the journey of this film and what he felt when he saw that now infamous movie review when the film premiered at the 2021 Cairo International Film Festival.

How did you come up with this idea?

This idea came to my mind after I left Jordan and went to the U.S.. There I studied filmmaking, got my Masters in filmmaking, and got a few awards and accolades for the short films I made. I would share them with my mom and then realized that although she was happy for me, there was this feeling of regret and sadness on her part, as she never managed to accomplish her own dreams. My mom is a very driven woman and now she is still trying to capture her dream and make things happen. But there is always this remorse that happens when parents see their kids doing things they never did -- they are happy for them, but also reflect on their own journey. Because in some cases, they were not even able to try and go for those dreams.

That to me was very heartbreaking. So then I started to talk to people and remembering things and hearing things from mothers of my friends and some neighbors. I ended up sending out some 300 surveys to different women in Jordan, of different economic, religious and social backgrounds, from mixed educational backgrounds and realized that this is not just my mom -- it's like a virus that a lot of people are going through. And it's the reason why there is a stereotype about Jordanians that they are angry, don't smile and are not very happy and I personally believe this a big part of it, if not the whole reason. People, especially women, who then become mothers and become educators and take their place in society raising the new generations, sadly from the surveys I sent out, I realized that the majority as oppressed women, and men, can only teach that going forward. Once they haven't been allowed to follow their own dreams -- because of what is "haram," what religion doesn't like, or what culturally is not accepted -- people end up caring a lot about others and aren't able to even think of doing what they wish to do.

That idea was heartbreaking to me, and that's how I started to write these characters.

I try to learn as little about a film before watching it and when I watched yours I honestly thought the filmmaker was a woman. You got us so perfectly and without judgement. How did you connect so well to each of the characters?

A lot of people ask me this question and told me they were looking for the name of the writer as a woman. Or the lady who directed it and wrote it. This is beyond a compliment to me because I wrote this film from my heart and out of the love I feel for my mom and her three sisters. These are the women who raised me. They are crazy and wild and culturally they are considered too wild or too obnoxious and have to deal constantly with the judgement that society puts upon them. At the same time, these are the women who made me who I am today, they made me the filmmaker I am today and I made this film for them.

Maybe I attempted this because I'm a strong believer that I don't have to be a woman to write about women. I don't have to be gay to write about gay people, or Black to write about Black culture. I just have to be a human being to write about cultures that are still not free of their past.

I'm very honored that women are seeing that in the film.

What is funny is that if I were to write about a Jordanian man who is my age, that would take me a while to finish. But if I have to write about women, that gets me excited. Women are allowed by culture to show more emotions and this is why I see more layers and more beauty and more power and more pain in women and I think I'll continue to write about women for the majority of my career.

"When I go anywhere in the West, particularly in certain areas like the U.S. and Europe, I feel there is this look from above at our culture, like "you guys don't have women's rights, you don't have gay rights, your religion is this and that," and there is a lot of prejudgement about us being Arabs."

There is a strange review out there which calls the film some unflattering things. How do you reply to someone who says the film is stereotypical in some depictions — without giving anything away from the plot?

There is indeed a strange review that came out when we premiered in the Cairo International Film Festival as the film was winning the Audience Award and acclaim from the audience in general. Even with the curse words and things done in the film which were not accepted, the audiences still loved the film. But there was this one opinion that didn't seem right and it's actually the exact opposite of what I am and what the movie represents -- 100 thousand percent.

Of course I did get hurt, even though I'm open to all kinds of feedback and criticism, we are artists, I expect my art to be criticized. People said a lot of things about the movie that are great, and some not the best things. But some people maybe judged the movie from their western perspective and this is something I realized is very unfair. This perspective, maybe subconsciously, tries to keep Arab stories and Arab cinema, and even Arab people, in a certain category.

One of the things I've been told is that if the women in my film all went home at the end of the story and got more abuse, the film would have been more likely to have been selected for a major film festival in Europe. I do see some truth in that, I mean look at the Oscars, literally every film that was ever nominated for the foreign category has been a big tragedy.

Seven or eight years ago I had a short film shortlisted at the Academy Awards and there was a lovely luncheon and I raised my hand and asked this person from the Academy about this. "Why are all the foreign films so drab and dark, it's really good cinema but why always so dark?" And the guy said "young man, that's how Hollywood likes to see the world."

I was profoundly shook back then, because it's true! When I go anywhere in the West, particularly in certain areas like the U.S. and Europe, I feel there is this look from above at our culture, like "you guys don't have women's rights, you don't have gay rights, your religion is this and that," and there is a lot of prejudgement about us being Arabs. This is proven in the news over and over again.

There are lots of examples on how we've viewed as "lesser than..." We have other stories, and they are of success and power, and that is discouraging. My film has won the Audience Award almost everywhere there was one, and it's sad that the film speaks so profoundly to people and Arabs who find themselves empowered by these women, while in the West it's not even considered...

I was bitter about it at first but now I'm not. The reason I made my movie was to liberate myself and I'm seeing it affecting people in the same way. That fills my heart with light and love and that's why I make movies. If my movies don't travel abroad and are even called "homophobic" at some point, then be it.

I know the truth.

What are your plans for the film? Have you had a release in the Arab world? And everywhere else?

I plan to release the film in the cinemas. We did a test release in Saudi Arabia for ten days, and it did well in both Saudi and Kuwait. By the beginning of August the film will be in the whole Arab region in cinemas. Shortly after that it will be on VOD and I'm really excited about that as this way it will reach the masses and what I'm trying to say will reach the most number of people.

I honestly didn't expect such a warm, passionate response from audiences, everywhere I went with the film, in the Middle East or abroad. Before I would look up at the sky and ask for very specific things. Now I look up and say "surprise me."

What is your dream project? And what are you working on next?

I've always said my dream project is to do The Golden Girls in the Middle East, because I'm just obsessed with that series. I would love make a female superhero movie, something that is super Arab based but very marketable also abroad.

All photos courtesy of the filmmaker, used with permission.

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