Visions of female power and creativity

The arts are starting to offer women a way of expressing themselves in male-dominated cultures.

John Carlin’s piece earlier this month in The Times magazine on Egypt’s Light and Hope Orchestra (£) celebrates women’s visibility and power. Ironically, it was entitled "Female. Arab. Poor. And Blind." The orchestra is composed of 34 blind Muslim women (all wearing hijabs) who can impeccably play "at least 45 pieces of classical music" without notes to read and a conductor to follow, but through their extraordinary memories.

Again, earlier this month Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadja, the first ever film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia (where cinema is illegal) was screened at the Venice Film Festival. The groundbreaking film tells the story of Wadja (played by Waad Mohammed), a rebellious 11-year-old girl, who enters a local Koran reading competition, planning to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle, in a culture where women are not encouraged to cycle.

Earlier this year Abeer Zeibak Haddad released her extremely powerful documentary, Duma, about women speaking out about their experiences of rape and sexual assault, generally regarded as the first ever film to shed light on violence against women in Palestine.

Power and creativity resonates within the music of the Light and Hope Orchestra; in the story of the making of Wadja, and in women’s articulation of their damaging experiences in Duma. Each of these examples of women’s work is significant in terms of women’s visibility within cultures and societies that remain male-dominated.

Critical debates around women and the gender politics in the Middle East are increasingly stimulating. In the context of film this is particularly due to the expanding interaction between writing by scholars, critics and filmmakers from Western perspectives and from within Middle Eastern countries.

The issue of representation is important in thinking about women, power and creativity – not only in political terms, but also in relation to the media’s representation of women. Who is representing and who is represented? Can, for instance, filmmakers or journalists represent accurately different people, including those who they are not? Can men represent women and vice versa? In the context of film, for instance, does it matter if there are not many women directors? This last question is especially pertinent if it is believed that only women can represent women, or that they do it generally better than men. It is from this perspective that the absence of women directors leads directly to absences from the films themselves.

Women filmmakers from the Middle East tend to focus on issues including virginity testing, so-called "honour" crimes, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and rape, which continue to be (at times religiously) practiced. Abortion is illegal or extremely restricted even in cases of rape in some countries. Making these issues more visible through the media is a complex task which may have different implications and reiterate differences between different cultures and societies. Yet, there is an urgent need for women to be more visible, more audible, more powerful. As Wadja’s director Al Mansour has commented in an interview:

"Women have to stick together and believe in themselves and push towards what makes them happy. We just need to push a little bit harder against tradition. We need to do things and make things and tell the stories that we want to tell. And I think the world is ready to listen."

The images in our minds about aspects of women’s issues and womanhood may predominantly come from the field of visual representation. To understand different types of womanhood from around the world more positive images of women are needed. Reality and representations of different realities have a strong connection. To create a positive change in the status of the real requires a parallel change in the media which seeks to represent the real.


The Light and Hope Orchestra in concert.
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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.