Arab Woman’s Vision Gets the Cinematic Stage It Deserves

People laughed when Safaa Dabour said she would bring a movie theater to Nazareth to showcase Arab movies. She is now the subject of a touching documentary, screening next week at the Haifa Film Festival.

Nurit Jacobs Yinon

One day in the late 1990s, Safaa Dabour left her home in Nazareth and traveled to Tel Aviv. She had heard that one of the theaters was screening the film “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” by Nazareth-born Palestinian-Israeli director Elia Suleiman, and because she very much wanted to see it, she decided to head for the big city. To her surprise, she discovered that most of the spectators who had come to the showing were, like her, residents of Nazareth who had traveled to Tel Aviv in order to see the film.

“When the screening ended we sat and talked, and we wondered why in the entire Arab community there isn’t a single movie theater where films are shown,” she says. “Some of the people said that someone had to get up and start such a theater, and then I got up and said that I would do it, but everyone laughed.”

Dabour, who grew up in a well-to-do religious Muslim family in Nazareth, didn’t allow the laughter to suppress her enthusiasm. Since she had lost her husband a short time earlier, and her father had died too, she decided to approach her brother, who was the head of the family, and to share with him the new initiative that had excited her. But very soon she realized that she wouldn’t find a shoulder to lean on there either.

“He looked at me and said ‘You have a fever, let’s check that you don’t get drunk in the evenings,’ and the entire family laughed at me,” says Dabour. But the laughter didn’t stop her either. A week later she started looking for a hall in Nazareth where she could start her movie theater.

Eventually, Dabour succeeded in fulfilling her dream in 2003, when she started the first (and only) cinematheque in Israel’s Arab sector. Her quest is brought to life in the documentary film “Safaa: A Cinematic Portrait,” directed by Nurit Jacobs Yinon.

The film will be screened next Wednesday at the Haifa International Film Festival. It shows Dabour to be an amazingly courageous woman, unafraid to defy social norms and not hesitating to smash the glass ceiling that prevents so many women from daring, dreaming and lifting their heads in a conservative society that prefers to see them in their traditional roles in the family home.

At first, Dabour operated a “traveling movie theater.” She purchased films and screened them in community centers, at weddings and in back yards. The fact that she comes from a well-to-do family enabled her in the end to invest money in a hall she had found and to turn it into a movie theater — it was the hall in the Histadrut labor federation building in Nazareth, which singer Frank Sinatra donated to the city in 1970 as a sign of friendship and peace to the Arab and Jewish children of Nazareth. She rented the hall, installed rows of movie theater seats, built a screening room and purchased the necessary equipment for the high-quality screening of films.

Nurit Jacobs Yinon

The Egyptians refused

The beginning was not easy. Dabour was unable to find investors for her initiative, because businessmen in the Arab sector were not enthusiastic about the idea of a woman starting a movie theater. In addition, she had to deal with the negative feelings of city residents, who recalled the previous movie theater that operated there. “In those days there wasn’t a single movie theater in the entire Arab sector, because the theater that had operated in Nazareth for 30 years closed down.

“In its final days it deteriorated badly, showed mainly porno films, and was considered an unrespectable place,” she says. “That’s why everyone was surprised; they didn’t understand why a religious woman from a Muslim family would be involved in such a business. And then they started telling all kinds of stories about me, and it took time until I proved to everyone that the movie theater I had started was a respectable and proper place.”

Jacobs Yinon accompanied Dabour for 10 years in order to create the film, recording the innumerable battles she had to wage in order to operate the place.

“She’s a person in a very complex situation — a Muslim woman in Nazareth, an Arab woman in Israel and an Israeli woman in the eyes of Arab countries. And that has many implications,” says Jacobs Yinon. “For example, for bringing Arab films from Egypt to her cinematheque. As opposed to normal cinematheques the world over, where they send reels of 35 mm. film via a messenger service, and the money via a bank transfer, in this case the film distributors in Egypt refused to follow this procedure, due to the cultural boycott against Israel.”

So, while Dabour was able to show films from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Gulf states, she was forced to improvise a bypass route for films from Egypt. Jacobs Yinon accompanied her on some of her trips to Jordan, where the film distributor from whom she bought the Egyptian films was based.

The first time she arrives there, after a long and exhausting trip, Dabour discovers the distributor’s offices empty and deserted, and is forced to return empty handed. The second time she arrives in Jordan she encounters evasive answers and people who play for time and delay giving her the films. She is forced to rent a hotel room and to spend the night there, and only after a nerve-racking wait does she get the films the next morning, and has to carry them by herself — a suitcase full of very heavy reels of 35 mm. film.

Dabour’s problems stemmed not only from her being an Israeli, but also because she’s a woman. Her family wasn’t happy about the challenge she took upon herself, and the residents of Nazareth were suspicious of the woman who insisted on displaying independence and creativity. Some of them stayed away from her cinematheque for that reason.

Nurit Jacobs Yinon

“At first, after I financed and did everything by myself, and invested a lot of emotional baggage and a great deal of money, and encountered scorn and opposition on the part of my family and the society in which I live, I thought to myself: what do I need this for?” admits Dabour, when asked if there were moments when she broke down. “But I’m a stubborn woman. So even when I was afraid of failing, I still carried on.”

Jacobs Yinon tells about her part in the story: “I was very interested in observing Safaa as a woman in a man’s world, a woman who wants to do something that women don’t usually do. In her case, no man had done it before her either. In this film, I tell a very specific story about a specific woman who lives in a specific culture and a specific place, but of course there are women everywhere who want to make a breakthrough deal with similar conflicts. The same is true of the combination of a career and a family and the expectation of a woman not to be a trailblazer, unless men have been there first.”

20 percent Israeli films

Only after six years of activity did the Culture Ministry agree to support the Nazareth Cinematheque. Dabour made a great effort to meet all the criteria, as required, but this time the problem was the fact that she is an Arab. “The criterion [of the Culture Ministry] that requires the Cinematheque to screen at least 20 percent Israeli films was problematic for me, because in our Arab society I couldn’t show so many Israeli films. But because that was a minimum condition, I tried to comply with it anyway. But even then, when we already began to receive support from the Culture Ministry, it was a sum that wasn’t even enough to pay for leasing the hall.”

In the end did the place manage to pay for itself?

“Not really. We tried to raise donations here and there, to find advertisers, but that wasn’t enough. The price of a ticket was also low, not like in other movie theaters. A ticket cost between 10 and 20 shekels ($2.5-$5).

Did the attitude of Nazareth residents toward you change at some point?

“At first, during the first year, if 20-50 people came to a screening, I would tell myself that I had succeeded, because people didn’t want to come and many attacked me, some wanted to cause me to fail. But after two to three years the situation changed, and if fewer than 100-120 people came to a film I was depressed, I would feel I had failed, do some soul searching or get angry at my staff. I also made a plan to market the place, I brought schoolchildren, and in the end even the Islamic Movement cooperated with me on all kinds of screenings.”

What was the frequency of the screenings, and what films did you show?

“There were screenings every day — in the mornings for schoolchildren, non-profit organizations and organized groups, and in the afternoons and evenings for the general public. On Sundays the theater was closed, unless there was a festival. We showed high-quality films, documentaries and commercial Arab films, because we wanted the place to keep going financially.”

And did your family continue to oppose this initiative all the time?

“In the beginning they were angry, didn’t support me, but in the end, after the place began to succeed and after people started talking about it as a respectable place, then they got up and said, ‘Look, this is our daughter.’ My late brother Qassem, who was the head of the family, was the manager of the Ahi Nazareth soccer team, and that’s also a type of culture, like cinema, so there was a certain similarity between the things.”

In the film “Safaa: A Cinematic Portrait,” Dabour is seen as a courageous woman who is not willing to give up her dream or to surrender to the expectations of others. But the harsh Israeli reality refused to be impressed (here comes the spoiler, and anyone planning to see the film who hates spoilers, is invited to stop reading), and the endless chain of obstacles that it placed before the Nazareth Cinematheque reached a particularly cruel finale about two years ago.

Dabour’s debts kept piling up. An evacuation order forced her to evacuate the hall in the Histadrut building and her lifetime project was forced to close its doors. “It was as though they had killed my son before my eyes,” she says in a choked voice. “Exactly like that. A feeling as though someone has grabbed my son before my eyes and I can’t protect him. A feeling that they took my soul.”

When asked whether she sees a chance that she will revive her Cinematheque at some point she sighs. “Financially I lost everything I had, so I don’t know whether it’s possible, but the dream still exists. Because our society is entitled to something good. Despite everything that happened, I still have a little hope.”