In A Nutshell: Five feminist films from the Middle East and North Africa with Habibi Collective’s Róisín Tapponi

The Irish-Iraqi Instagrammer on intermediality, MENA feminist film directors, and using social media as a tool for positive change

Whether she’s studying Comparative Literature at UCL, or producing visual art pieces for Yes & No magazine on the Iraqi diaspora in Hollywood, Irish-Iraqi creative Róisín Tapponi places intermediality at the heart of everything she does. “Operating in intermedial terms usually makes an artist more difficult to define or categorize,” says Tapponi, identifying Maya Deren as one of her inspirations. “She was not only a seminal filmmaker but also a voodoo priestess and a dancer.”

Freunde-von-Freunden-Habibi-Collective

Like Deren, Tapponi has her finger in many pies, but she is arguably best known for her meticulously curated Instagram feed, Habibi Collective. Launched in Summer 2018, Habibi Collective archives and celebrates feminist films produced in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), aiming to broaden the conversation of MENA filmmakers, and to give a new perspective on what she views as an extremely important, and underrepresented genre of cinema. “Female cinema from the Middle East is special because it showcases a unique intersection not only of cinema but of feminist filmmaking. It is this idiosyncratic visual and textual narrative that reframes the way in which we experience MENA film on the world cinema platform.”

While Habibi Collective now exists in an aesthetically pleasing online format created from the English capital, Tapponi’s interest in cinematic curation actually began during her rural upbringing in the Irish and English countryside. “My parents had no interest in films so my enthusiasm for international cinema came from devouring books and surfing the internet as a kid,” she explains. “I’d choose a director a night, and would work my way through the likes of Michael Powell, Lina Wertmüller, Ildikó Enyedi, and Sergei Parajanov. Then in June 2015 I started making a film log. I guess that was a sort of hypertextual precursor to the visual archive of Habibi Collective.”

“Operating in intermedial terms usually makes an artist more difficult to define or categorize.”

Social media is a controversial topic nowadays, but Tapponi thinks it would be foolish to argue against the positive impact it can have if used in the right way. “I grew up with the internet, so it is a pivotal part of my life,” she says. “Of course social media is anxiety-inducing, but it is also a new and completely valid form of communicating. I believe it is a tool for positive change, and if you manage to build up a safe, online community, it can be a great source of joy, affirmation, and inspiration.”

Alongside the community Habibi Collective has built of predominantly young female and female identifying women, they have also caught the eye of the University of Oxford, as Tapponi has been invited to chair and curate a panel discussing feminism in contemporary and multidisciplinary art at Trinity College, Oxford later this month. “I am very honored that they are interested in what I have to say. I was even allowed to choose the people to go on the panel with me, and the topic of discussion. It came about very organically, as I immediately knew three women who I wanted to enter into academic discussion with,” she says, identifying Daniella Shreir (founder and editor of feminist film journal Another Gaze), Zaiba Jabbar (founder of feminist digital encounters platform @hervisions_) and Lizzy Collier (founder of curation platform Gallery Girl) as her fellow panel members.

What with attracting the attention of high-profile academic institutions, the future looks bright for Tapponi and her mission of spreading feminist Middle-Eastern film to the masses. Currently, she is covering and co-curating some upcoming film festivals and is working on a conversation feature with Maryam Keshavarz: “a wonderful woman, filmmaker, and friend who was a pioneer of Iranian queer cinema and just shot a film with Susan Sarandon.” She’d also love to expand the team working on Habibi collective, as she’s beginning to feel the pressure of running it alone. “The account deals with people and their work. That deserves the utmost time and respect,” she says. On a lighter note, she one day dreams of hosting a Habibi funk night. “I’ll be plotting over the summer! But right now, I am extremely happy with the direction Habibi Collective is taking.”

Róisín Tapponi selects her current five favorite feminist films from the Middle East and North Africa

The House Is Black (1962), directed by Forough Farrokhzad.

“One of my favorite films, this is an Iranian short documenting life in a Baba Baghi leper colony. It is the only film Farrokhzad made, but is invaluable to MENA cinema as it is one of the first essay films and a precursor to the Iranian New Wave. Farrokhzad reads her own poetry over the black-and-white images, and the photography of the film is breathtaking. It is a very moving film, and apart from its obvious cinematic merit, it is validated in MENA cinema for the camera’s emotive subjectivity, which offers a new and visceral perspective on beauty and compassion.”

The Color of Love (2004), directed by Maryam Keshavarz. "I love the humor of The Color of Love. It was one of Maryam Keshavarz's first films, and as I have told her myself, it is my favorite movie she has ever made. It is quite New Wave in the closeness of the camera's subjectivity—Maryam with a shaky video recorder, documenting the changing face of love and politics in the ancient city of Shiraz, during the wild Ashura festival! She asks men and women of all generations to comment on the meaning of love, a profound question that is met with (especially from Maryam's sassy Aunt), confusion and mischief."

A Feeling Greater Than Love (2018), directed by Mary Jirmanus Saba.

“This is an extremely important film in terms of feminist, socialist, historical, revisionism. It is Saba’s first film, and is a documentary/archival/essay/feminist film about women in the Lebanese labor movement, and specifically the role of female tobacco workers on a union strike, attempting to stage a revolution on the brink of the Lebanese civil war. It is a very polarised moment in history and often forgotten, as are many female socialist movements in history. I love the use of archival footage in the film, and when Saba was talking about her film, I remember her saying “there is something quite political [about archiving], through the labor of repetition”. That stuck with me!”

A Moon For My Father (2018), directed by Mania Akbari and Douglas White. "I am a huge fan of Mania Akbari, and she is such an inspiring and dynamic presence who I love to listen to! Her film A Moon For My Father opens with her and Douglas White initially planning collaboration and correspondence, in the middle of the film they end up moving in together and at the end they miraculously have a child. The presentness of the process acts as a mediator between the past and the future, with the trauma of war and Mania's experience of cancer localizing memory and creativity on the body, shown through the very immanent materiality of the body in the film."

Measures of a Distance (1988), directed by Mona Hatoum.

“This is a landmark film in terms of haptic visuality. Like the other films on my list (there is a definitive theme emerging…), it is an essay documentary and is definitely the female MENA avant-garde film to most concurrently (re)appear in feminist film theory. The film is an intimate depiction of Hatoum’s relationship with her mother, who is showering behind the script of their letter correspondence. The script and haptic sensuality of the language of their correspondence entwines the viewer into their maternal relationship, portraying a beautiful visual intimacy focalizing the female gaze.”

Róisín Tapponi is the curator of Habibi Collective, an Instagram account archiving feminist films by directors from the Middle East and North Africa. Follow Habibi Collective on Instagram, or to find out more about Tapponi’s work, you can attend her talk about feminism in contemporary art at Trinity College, Oxford on May 17.

This profile of Róisín Tapponi was produced as part of our new series In a Nutshell. Head over to read more articles where creatives around the world talk us through objects that inspire their work.

Text: Emily May
Photography: Jakob Grant