By Eman Bahrani
Lately, independent movies from MENA have been gaining popularity with screenings in several international festivals. Saudi Arabian films are being recognized globally for their exemplary standards and authentic representation. Following the success of Baraka Meets Baraka (2016) and Wadjda (2012), comes Lollipop (2018). They resonate with us because they shine light on strong women both behind and in front of the camera. Stories of love, resistance and youth evoke our emotions with their accurate depictions of the issues we struggle with in our societies. The messages linger with us for they reflect our daily lives in beautiful cinematography and admirable scripts. Editor Eman Bahrani speaks with the Director of Lollipop, Hanaa Saleh AlFassi to tell us more about the film and it's important message about sexual harrasment.
In Saudi Arabia, sexual harassment is combated by enforcing girls and women to dress 'modestly'- as is the case in most Muslim countries. To promote this, religious groups distributed a ‘creative’ pamphlet depicting covered women as wrapped lollipops who do not attract unwanted attention from flies, unlike non-hijabi women who invite the male gaze. In light of this and a discussion Hanna had with a friend about women coming of age in societies that constrain them, the idea for the film was born.
The correlation of attire with increased risks of sexual harassment is an omnipresent practice in most cultures. Expecting modesty to protect girls is an asinine notion that burdens their bodies with blame for men's lust. Women's choice to dress 'modestly' should not be a codependent initiative towards safety, but rather, a decision stemming from individualism. It is inherently misogynistic for society to influence or cajole women into presenting themselves differently as it is consequent from objectification and rids men of their responsibility to self-control. This redundantly problematic behaviour misdirects blame since assault happens to ‘covered’ and ‘uncovered’ women alike. "The issue is the way men are socialized to look at women. The covering only signifies to men that girls have become women and can now be sexualized," Hanna explains. As such, the film explores the relationship between covering and sexual harassment, specifically within Islamic context.
Once a girl’s body begins to mature, such notions are thrusted upon her in the name of protection. Hanna elaborates, “puberty isn’t just your body changing and how you feel about that. It’s also about how the world’s perception of you changes and how your interactions with other people change as well.” Labelling young girls with veils as soon as their bodies reach sexual maturity to prevent them from evoking men’s sexual desires is quite counterintuitive. It is marking them to be potential targets. More than that, it is sexualisation of minors. Conversations and once-normal relationships became polarized and highly sensitive, as well.
The contradiction of battling the male-gaze with modesty resonates in the direction of the film itself. “The visuals and camera movement are raw and handheld most of the time," attests Hanna. The technique allows for organic narration of scenes and a realistic delivery of the intensity of the gaze, both societal and masculine. Moreover, the protagonist often subversively wears a grey jacket to stand out from the black abayas and white thobes. The contrast signifies her fight to not blend in with the status quo. Lollipop defies taboos from confronting women’s sexualisation to publicly discussing menstruation. Female identity is reclaimed in a society that actively and forcefully molds girls.
Lollipop delineates a coming of age story in the perspective of a girl which is a rare portrayal in films. When asked about what she aspires to achieve through her movie, the director hoped that it starts conversations about womanhood and to depict a realistic teenage experience for girls in the Middle East. "I think women should talk more about all kinds of issues they face and express themselves in any way or form," Hanna said. Regardless of the recent developments of political change and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, Hanna reminds us that sexual harassment and loss of identity is a global issue. Approvals and announcements of policies does not guarantee absolute implementation. Advocacy through art and media, however, translates struggles into universal messages, building the awareness we direly need to ensure sustenance and help empower others who feel alone in similar situations.
“The theme of identity is the main thing,” Hanna insists. Society so often dedicates the majority of its effort to shelter men from the sexual desire women supposedly elicit. The extent of authority society possesses to eradicate harassment is not utilised to police the male gaze that is ubiquitous in our neighbourhoods and media. Instead, power is exercised to restrict women’s autonomy and thereby their self-expression too.
Consequently, the movie could not have been shot in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as planned, and instead was shot in Los Angeles. Finding a Saudi actress who is willing to portray a sensitive character was a definite challenge. After a series of auditions, the controversial roles were granted to two California-based young Saudi actresses, Malak Radwan and Sarah Alhazmi. Admittedly, it was a challenge for them to tell an incredibly bold story on screen and a very brave decision indeed.
The competition in the film industry is quite difficult and funds are very limited. The film is still in the post-production stage and in need of funds to cover the costs of editing, music, sound design, color correction, VFX, hardware and crowdfunding fees. To help support this movie and bring the story to the big screen, please visit Indiegogo for donations: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/lollipop--5#/
Hanaa Alfassi is a contributor to Banat Collective’s In The Middle Of It All which you can find out more about here: http://www.banatcollective.com/blog/2018/2/4/in-the-middle-of-it-all-announcement .
About The Director
Hanaa Saleh Alfassi’s culturally diverse background and her travels to different countries have granted her a unique, well-rounded perspective on life that is prevalent throughout many of her works as a film director, writer, and producer. Hanaa first learned filmmaking in 2003 at the Academy of Cinema Arts and Technology under the tutelage of the lauded Egyptian writer and director, Ra'afat Almihi. She received her B.A. in Mass Communication & Media Studies from Ain Shams University in Egypt and her M.A. in Film & Media Production from New York Film Academy, Los Angeles campus. Hanaa is alumni of Rawi Screenwriters Lab that ran in collaboration with the Sundance Institute for 11 years, her short films were official selections at numerous festivals, including her graduation dark comedy, “The Last Sohour,” which won two awards and was officially selected in over 20 festivals including the 36th VGIK International Student Festival in Moscow . Hanaa’s recent film is a coming of age drama, “Lollipop,” funded by ENJAAZ Dubai Film Market 2016 and is currently in post-production. Furthermore, two of her short films, “Haweya” and “Hadaf,” were aired on the renowned MBC TV and were watched by millions of viewers.
Lollipop is a diversity-rich short film with an important message about Sexual Harassment, by the Saudi director Hanaa Saleh Alfassi. "Lollipop" is about a Muslim girl who decides to hide her puberty from her family since she knows that ‘officially’ becoming a woman means having to wear the black Niqab, covering her face and thus making public that she’s already a woman. This young girl tries to keep her puberty in secret mainly because she fears the anticipated harassment by men. This project is sponsored by the reputable Non-Profit, From The Heart Productions and has been partly funded by Dubai Film Market.