:On How to Sustain the Momentum of a Collective
A Conversation about Rawiyat
This conversation is part of the series Notes on Collectivity, funded by Mophradat
The following conversation was conducted in March 2022 via Zoom (from Beirut, Oslo, and Paris) with two of the founding members of the collective Rawiyat (storytellers in Arabic), filmmakers Miriam El Hajj and Danielle Davie. We discussed the different modes of communication and organization and the ways in which such an experience could be sustained over time and despite the distance.
Zoom caption from one of the monthly meetings of Rawiyat founding members:
Lina Soualem (France-Algeria-Palestine), Dina Naser (Palestine-Jordan), Kawthar Younis (Egypt),
Myriam El Hajj (Lebanon), Dorothée-Myriam Kellou (France-Algeria), Danielle Davie (Lebanon-France-GB),
Yasmine Chouikh (Algeria), Naziha Arebi (GB-Libya) and Erige Serihi (Tunisia).
Nour. Rawiyat has many founding members, “sisters in film” as you call yourselves. If I’m not mistaken, there are nine sisters and you all live in different countries. How often do you all meet in the same place? How do you communicate? How do you sustain the drive?
Myriam. Everything we say here will be said with a lot of benevolence because we are talking about the internal “cuisine”. When we founded this association, we were nine “sisters in film”. We were all filmmakers working on our first or second films. The idea was to support each other and also support other women filmmakers. It started with Sisters in Film Program, funded by UNESCO. The objective of the program was to create a network of women filmmakers (so-called women or non-binary people) from the MENA region. We met through this program and felt the need to create this association. We were getting along well together and had lots of things to share. Then, of course, we each went back home, and distance became an issue. We were all busy doing our different projects, surviving, and making a living. Most of the time, because you’re not making a living out of your films, you have to take on three, four, or five jobs. So even today, two or three of us couldn’t make it because they were still shooting. But every time two or three sisters are in the same place, we make it a point to meet and do the calls together. Later tonight, for example, I am meeting with three other members of Rawiyat. It’s very difficult to keep this association going from afar and online so it is important to meet physically whenever we can. The program allowed us to meet two or three times in the beginning. These were the foundational meetings. Now we are working on creating a “residency” for us to all meet and work. We wanted to do it two months ago but we couldn’t. The idea is to have a one-week residency for us to work together in the same place.
Danielle. The sisters have never actually all been together in one place. After the UNESCO event, the collective worked for six months and created the association. Since then, a lot has happened. Covid happened. So now the aim is to meet in Tunis, or maybe Algeria or Greece, we don’t know where or when yet.
Carine. You said there are things that you share and there are things that you want to do together. Can you be more specific? How do you define what you share? Do you make films in a similar process or are there similarities in your subjects?
Danielle. I wouldn’t say that we make films in similar ways, or that we think about cinema in the same way. We are quite different, and the reasons we are together are different for each one of us. Some want support, to create a network that could be a safe space to share stories, to speak about their struggle to make films, to try to find funds together, to share ideas around ways of telling stories, and to share experiences of shooting in difficult environments. Others would like to work on changing the industry, challenging its recurring patterns by creating alternative models of making films. For some, it’s about being connected, finding jobs, expanding their network, and finding ways to be more open to the world.
I can’t really say that we have an artistic manifesto, but rather that we are a group of women gathering and (re)thinking together… One of the most important things for Rawiyat is to be a space where we can think together. The past years were difficult. It is important for us to affirm that what we really need is TIME, time to reflect, time to create, and that we deserve to take this time. So in the next residency, we have decided we will take some time to rest as well, create moments where we can just be ourselves. Rawiyat is a very unique collective. Not in a bad way, but in the sense that the dynamics are not the same between all the members. There are also different affinities within the group. There are the francophones of the Maghreb and the anglophones of the Middle East. One of us is a journalist, the other has done political studies, and another one comes from a family of filmmakers. We are very different women.
(From left to right) Kawthar Younis, Dina Nasr, Dorothée-Myriam Kellou and Lina Soualem
during the launch of Rawiyat at Gouna Film Festival in Egypt in 2020.
Carine. So how do you practically implement all these different ideas?
Danielle. In 2021, we realized that we can’t all be working on one project. It was not functioning. So we created subgroups. Each one of us will work on her point of interest, taking charge of it. Each subgroup has to report to the rest of the collective once a month, during our general meeting. That was one idea of organization.
Carine. So does the subgroup take the approval of the rest of the collective to take a decision, or do they just report on what they decided to do?
Danielle. The subgroups are completely independent. The one thing that we have to agree on unanimously is related to funding. If a member needs money and needs Rawiyat to contribute or to fundraise, we take a vote about that during the general meeting. There is also an important thing to know about Rawiyat. Officially, our mother association is registered in Paris. We want to create sister associations in Egypt and in Tunis among other places, but it has not happened yet as it is legally a bit complicated.
Nour. Why have different associations in different countries? Is it to access the funds?
Danielle. Yes. And because the sisters live there. One of us is based in Tunis, so if she has an association there, it can help us get more members from Tunis. We have registered the association in Paris and we have drafted rules and guidelines for an ideal way of functioning. But we are not really applying them by the book anymore. We wanted to work as an association, and then we discovered that being a collective, a more open structure, is easier for everyone than following all these rules.
Carine. It is always difficult to find the balance between organizing and allowing room for the unexpected. It is important to stay open to what each person brings into the collective even if sometimes, it messes up “the big plan”.
Myriam. These things take a lot of time, actually. We have been experiencing that for two years now. When Danielle talked about the subgroups, she did not mention that to get there, we had to try different things before. We tried working all together on one big project, but it was impossible.
Carine. What was that project?
Myriam. Well to answer your question, I have to go back to the original goal of the association. The aim at first was to challenge the industry. We came together to support each other, to support other women filmmakers, and to change something in this industry. One of our projects was called at the time the “trauma project”. Danielle, would you like to talk about it?
Danielle. A few sisters were at the Luxor Film Festival [in Egypt] and they invited Iman Boundaoui from the United States. She’s Algerian and American. She’s a somatic practitioner and facilitator that also works with journalists, filmmakers, etc. Sessions with Iman were organized in Luxor, during which she spoke to women filmmakers. Apparently, they said things that they usually would not say in the professional framework of a festival or an industry event. It was exciting for us to see all these young women talking together about their feelings and emotions; something that you don’t see nor are you allowed to share usually in the sector. It was interesting for the sisters to witness that.
Another project was with a Swedish fund, a project all of us worked together on. We had to write a large number of texts for the grant application. The idea behind the project was – as we talked about before – to take the time to think, and not always be productive to meet the deadline of festivals and funds, etc. In one of the exercises we did together, each member of Rawiyat had to draw her circles: friends, family, work colleagues, and lovers. Each had her own map, her network. We wanted to see how these circles intersect and intertwine. The purpose of the Swedish fund was to think of ways to be sustainable, but also to reflect on the different manners in which women can be together in this field. We didn’t get the funds, but what we did – and we’re very proud of this – is that we challenged the funders. In the application, we answered by questioning the very question. We wanted to question the words they use when it comes to financing projects from abroad and especially from non-European regions. We wanted to show them how their language is already biased. In the feedback they gave us after rejecting our project they said they really want to take into consideration our comments on language for their own work and the work of those they funded. As they said, this experience was unusual and unexpected but really very interesting for them.
Erige Sehiri on the left and Myriam El Hajj on the right in Tunis, during Sisters in Film Program.
Carine. How do you archive all these different experiences? When you were talking about the circles, I imagined visual material that could be produced from that. And when you’re applying for funds and are working together on the answers, is it important for you to keep records of the steps and layers of conversations?
Danielle. Everything is on a drive and we work by email threads. We have an email for the collective, so we CC everything to this email. I think it’s important to organize the work between us. Naturally, we are archiving. We have to do it for practical reasons. We know that we are still “creating” this collective. So to archive is important because this whole process of trying is also part of the collective. I am saying that because after the experience with the Swedish Institute, we understood that trying was already something…
Nour. Documenting your different gestures is a self-reflective tool but also a tool for others who are thinking of ways to work together. We often feel we are starting from scratch, as if our collective is the first collective to ever exist. [laughs] Then, when we start talking to other people, we realize that the things we’ve been trying for the last two or three years have already been tried and that questions we’ve been asking ourselves have already been asked or sometimes even answered.
Danielle. A PhD student has already asked us to be her case study, and another person also wanted us to be part of her master’s research.
Myriam. Actually, people are very interested in collective gestures these days. But the expectations are huge, actually, because everybody wants to see results. And you cannot have results before… well you need at least two or three years to start getting along, to be on the same wavelength, and to find a common ground. For example, talking about archiving, you need to find that person in the group who has the skills for it. Two or three members of Rawiyat have an interest in archiving, but it is not the case for all of us. We also need to be aware of the weaknesses and the strengths of each member, and then things will flow naturally. But all of this takes time.
Carine. Where do you think the need to call ourselves “collectives” comes from? Why is it so important?
Danielle. I think that even within Rawiyat, the importance of the collective in relation to our daily life or to our life in general is very fluctuating. We didn’t come together because, like The Camelia Committee, we already worked together and wanted to give credit to that collaboration. If I understand correctly, you are also friends. It’s different for us because we come from different countries and we have never worked together. We did not even know each other. There was this program that created a bond, that both might or might not, could or could not continue. What is also interesting is that Rawiyat members belong to very different social classes.
Myriam. Class is not only about money, it’s also about access. It’s also about growing up in this circle or not, because then, you either already have the tools, or you have to learn them.
Danielle. So for a year, we had to learn to be friends and trust each other. We did that by trying things, trying to work together. The year after, we became closer. Then we discovered that if we wanted to be an association, we had to fill out applications, to answer questions such as: What do you do? So we had to define clearly what we do (we wrote a manifesto) and we had to have outcomes. Then we realized that we were not actually doing what was on the to-do list. That’s when we created the sub-groups, where each of us could focus on what they wanted to do, and we could then see more clearly how these different desires crossed paths.
Carine. So would you say that you got together by desire or need?
Danielle. For me, it’s by desire.
Myriam. Me too. But at the same time, we didn’t know each other. So I would say it is by desire for a common objective, for a common cause. To me, the fact that we didn’t know each other well was a big challenge.
Carine. Friendship I think, like every human relationship, fluctuates. You have to work on it. And even if you know the other person very well it’s still a lot of work. So this idea that you can work better together if you’re friends is not as obvious as it seems.
Danielle. When I say friendship, I mean “to trust each other as friends do”. In the beginning, we thought that we needed a sort of coordinator. I was the coordinator. And bit by bit, I started to get to know the sisters. But it was becoming too personal. So I decided I did not want to be the coordinator and we all agreed that we might need someone from outside to help.
Nour. Maybe it is actually about learning to let go. It is something that the three of us have talked about recently, to trust that if you don’t do something yourself, it will be done, to accept that it’s going to be done differently, and to still be able to have this collective feeling of shared ownership about something someone else did.
Danielle. It took us time to understand how to let go. The issue was to learn how to better organize, especially when unexpected things happen and we are not all there to make the decisions about how to handle the situation together. It’s all about communication really, the ability to let go, to trust the other, knowing that they are doing their thing. It is all about finding better ways of communicating about what was done.
Carine. Did you ever think about the possibility of using the term “produced by Rawiyat” in your films?
Myriam. We talked about it last week, yes.
Danielle. One of us suggested either using “produced by” or putting a Rawiyat label.
Carine. This would signify that the time any member of Rawiyat gave to the project is as worthy as the money the filmmaker was granted to make the film. This is how we feel. If I am produced by The Camellia Committee, it is because The Committee allowed me to get to places I would have never gotten to on my own.
Nour. What does it mean to you to be part of Rawiyat?
Myriam. I feel that I’m less lonely in this industry. I am showing the other members my work, sometimes I take advice from one or more members. Also, we consult each other over contracts and one day, we hope to be able to pay a consultant or a lawyer who can do that for all women filmmakers from the region. For me, it is also about being able to change what we don’t like in this industry, and challenge how things are being done by funders and production houses. If you are alone, you cannot change them. When you’re part of a group, and you are talking about this as a group, you become more solid. We can come up with a real proposal to challenge things. You know, it’s like a revolution. [Laughs]
Danielle. I won’t say I am feeling less lonely because, unlike the others, I’m halfway in the film industry. [Danielle also teaches at Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts in Lebanon.] Personally, I like to be part of groups. I have always felt that “the more the merrier”, that together it’s better. Let’s put it this way: I feel I can do things in this group. Maybe it does not always work, but sometimes it does. I have many ideas of what I would like to do in the framework of this collective. I don’t know if it will work, but at least I’m thinking about it and this is really good. To me, it’s also about saying that maybe we can “make films” instead of “telling stories”, maybe we can create new cinematic languages in the region instead of telling new stories from the region. If we try to do that then maybe we’re already changing something.
Myriam. Well, I will have to leave on that note! I have to go down and open the door for two of the sisters! They have been working on a shoot since 8 am and they will probably be very hungry!
Transcribed and edited by The Camelia Committee