Women as silent, broken dolls
A director sheds light on sexual abuse of women in Arab society
One of the interviewees in the film "Doma" sits in her house next to a window overlooking the sea. Only parts of her are reflected in the window pane. In quiet, almost whispered tones, the woman offers a heartbreaking tale of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle since she was five. When she tried to resist, he threatened to go after her sisters. Her grandmother witnessed what was going on under her nose one night, but chillingly chose to do nothing and say nothing.
"I couldn't scream because if anyone heard or found out about what he was doing, it would be a big mess," says the woman, explaining why she remained silent over the year. "Many times he would tell me that nobody could know, because if that happened, my parents would get divorced, my brothers would be sent to different places and the two families would fight, and my brothers and sisters wouldn't get married. I would bring shame on my family; I would cause damage and ruin my brothers' and sisters' future. Here ...you are responsible for the entire clan."
In her first film, director Abeer Zeibak Haddad chose to set off from her Jaffa home on a journey across Israel in order to shed some light on a subject that has been covered up for years in Arab society: sexual assault of girls, teenagers and women within and outside the family. "Doma" will be screened on Saturday (14.5 ) at 12:00 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as part of the DocAviv Festival which opens today.
The camera encourages the women to gently sift through dark pits with the goal of revealing the pain, giving voice to it and finally freeing them of the need to shoulder the terrible secret alone, providing them with some relief from the humiliation and loneliness they have been living with for years. Zeibak Haddad, an actress, director and educator, first got interested in the subject in 2000 when she came across an article on sexual abuse in children's literature.
She built an enrichment program on the subject as part of her work at the early childhood education center in Jaffa, and decided to also prepare a play.
Forced to write the play
In a recent meeting at a Jaffa cafe, she describes how she was forced to write the play herself. "I'm not a playwright and writing is not my thing, but ..when I saw that no one was cooperating with me and that no one was interested, I sat down and wrote a draft of the play myself," she says. Zeibak Haddad sent this draft to the writer and playwright Ronit Hakham, and together with the director Shir Freibach, they created the play, "Chocolate." The play, which uses actors, puppets and video installations tells of a girl who was sexually abused in a playground, believes that what happened to her is a secret that she is forbidden to reveal, and hides behind a wall of silence until a story she hears empowers her, enabling her to tell her secret to her parents. "Chocolate" premiered at the 2006 Haifa Children's Theater Festival where it won four prizes. Among others, the judges chose to award it an honorable mention for artistic courage thanks to "the brave decision to deal with an important subject that is deemed taboo." Despite the praise and prizes Zeibak Haddad found herself unable to stage the play in Arab schools and communities. "At that time, it was very hard to market the play," says Zeibak Haddad.
A hard sell
"When I saw how hard it was to sell it," she continues,"I decided to switch to a different medium. I thought about how I could bring the play to audiences in other ways, and decided to make a documentary at the heart of which would be the play. But when I started working and heard the stories of the women in the film, I realized that the play paled in comparison to their stories."
Zeibak Haddad attended a year-long seminar in Nazareth organized by the Second Channel Authority intended to encourage artists to create documentaries. She got advice from professionals in the field.
Zeibak Haddad set off in search of Arab women who would agree to speak before the camera about sexual assault they had suffered . "Reaching these women was a story in and of itself - a nightmare," she says. "Everyone I approached - nonprofit organizations, people in the field, social workers - everyone told me it's an impossible mission; they told me 'you won't find a single woman willing to talk.'"
Were you acquainted with women who had suffered sexual abuse? "No. When I did the play 'Chocolate' the director Shir Freibach told me that when she sits and talks with friends, or with women she knows, it turns out that every other woman experienced some kind of sexual harassment. In our society...it's all kept quiet. You don't talk about it."
So how did you get to the interviewees? "It was thanks to my persistence. Even though everyone said that no one would agree to talk, I didn't give up. There was one organization that helped me a lot, Asiwar, which provides support to victims of sexual assault in Haifa. They agreed to put me in touch with one young woman, so I had someone for the first day of filming...No other organization agreed to even talk to the women and ask them if they would agree to appear in the film. Then I already found other women, through friends."
Five women tell their stories of sexual abuse in "Doma." But only one of them agreed to be filmed without her face concealed. As a result, the director and cinematographer had to find creative solutions that would allow for aesthetic filming despite this limitation. The women speak about the assault and also the silence that ensued. "If I imagine myself telling my mother or father, I imagine how much I would hurt them," says one woman.
Emphasizing the silence
"Sexual assault is a universal phenomenon that is present in societies all over the world, everywhere. But the emphasis in my film is on the silence, on the fact that in our society, we don't talk about it," says Zeibak Haddad.
"This film is not just about sexual assault, but also about the importance of talking. I think it's a very important principle, in life and in the education of children: it doesn't matter what will happen to you and what you're going through, I will always accept you, will always love you, but it's very important to come forward, to tell, to talk openly about things. It's important and it helps."
Women as dolls
"Doma" is the Arabic word for dolls. "In my society, and in the world at large, the woman must be beautiful, like a doll in a showcase window," says the director. "In the traditional Arab education, the woman is expected to be beautiful, quiet and obedient, with all that that entails. Likewise, dolls need someone to move them - they don't move independently. But I want a strong young woman who holds her own, without anyone moving her, a woman who has sole responsibility for and control of her body."
Zeibak Haddad believes the film can effect change in Arab society and help women who have been victims of sexual abuse. She hopes it will encourage more of them to approach aid centers. "When I showed the film to one of the interviewees, she was very moved to see the other women and listen to their stories, and she said: 'Now I see that I'm not alone in this.'"