Are you the only female commercials director in Egypt?
“Yes I am.”
“I have no idea,” says Mariam Abou Ouf.
Her bluntness and honesty are refreshing. “Maybe this article will make agencies think about female directors,”adds the woman (pictured below) behind J.Walter Thompson Cairo’s ‘Abla Fahita’ show and Vodafone’s ‘Fakka’ campaign. “Because when it comes to directors from the region, agencies and production houses do not make enough effort to find new talent. They just choose from the pool of directors that are already working. And most of the new directors in the field are ex-agency. Either they give themselves their first directing job or a creative director friend gives it to them.”
Separately, and without encouragement, Lebanese director Caroline Labaki hits on the same theme. “It’s not about men or women,” she says on the phone from Los Angeles. “It’s about agencies not being open to new things. They know a director, they’ll keep pushing work their way. It’s habit. It’s easy. They know how that director works, they’re going to do exactly what they want, there’s not going to be any hassle. This is how they work.
“But I feel there is a bigger problem in advertising. It’s not about women, although it is related. It’s the fact that most of the creatives; all they want is to direct. You feel it. You hear it. A lot of creative directors become directors. I don’t know if it’s out of frustration because other directors do not shoot their vision correctly, or because they’ve always wanted to direct but never got a chance to do so and ended up in agencies, but this is what is happening.”
Whichever way you look at it, the number of women directing commercials in the Middle East and North Africa is ridiculously low. You could probably count them all on one hand. And although there are bigger numbers working in film and television, advertising remains strangely devoid of women. The story is the same across the region. In Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and the United Arab Emirates. The field is dominated by men.
It is, however, a global issue, even if regional statistics paint the bleakest picture. In 2009, for example, a survey in Sweden revealed that only six out of 130 commercials directors in the country were women. By 2014, not much had changed, leading to the introduction of an initiative designed to provide more equality. That initiative stated that for each pitch between an advertising agency and production companies, at least one in three directors should be a woman.
In the United States and the United Kingdom the situation is similar, even if to a lesser extent. Kim Gehrig, the director of Sport England’s highly acclaimed ‘This Girl Can’, has previously stated that she believes it is only her unisex name that helped her get a foot in the door with agencies who assumed she was a man. “This project was the first time in which I actually admitted to being a female director,” she said last year. Yet it was the Australian director’s barnstorming year – she also helmed John Lewis’ Christmas ad ‘Man on the moon’ – that led Somesuch to be named Campaign UK’s production company of the year.
“I still walk into meetings where people are shocked I am a woman,” Gehrig told Advertising Age. “Agencies are fine but crews can be really intimidating. There is a very blokey culture around the technical side of filmmaking, although that is now changing with younger directors of photography.”
The blokey, geeky nature of production has previously been cited as a reason for the exclusion of women. There is also a lack of female role models, a macho culture among agencies and crews, and a belief that women are only capable of working on certain kinds of advertising.
“There is a lot of geeking out that has to be done when one wants to direct,” says the Dubai-based director Hind Shoufani. “You have to be fascinated by cameras and editing software and observe patterns of light, as well as having some knowledge of lenses, how the mind views objects, the correct pace to tell a story. It’s endless. You must also love dealing with people in intimate ways. Maybe it’s the cold and often stressful nature of advertising that keeps women away. It’s a lot of money for a very short clip that is obsessively fussed over by the agency, the client, the production company and others. It is exhausting. Perhaps that is why many of the talented women in the field prefer the more creative and easy-going world of documentaries, or TV work, or even fiction film.
“And I do have to admit in the end that perhaps there is a certain lack of trust from clients. That they have been so accustomed to dealing with certain men – men with big names, big egos, big showreels of fancy ads – that they won’t take the risk on a relatively unknown woman who might want to steer their concept in a different direction.”
Labaki agrees. “The advertising world is very macho,” says the director of commercials for brands such as Johnnie Walker and Pantene. “It’s business. It’s about doing deals and how well you can sell yourself and I don’t think I ever had the right personality for that. Sometimes talent is not enough. You have to own it, you have to push yourself, you have to be ballsy in advertising.
“It’s also a close-knit community. It’s like a club sometimes. I see a lot of male friends who are directors; they go out with creative directors, they hang out together, they give each other work, they keep things within their group. Even though I never had problems getting a job because I was a woman – it was always about the work, it was always about your talent and how good you were – the work that is available to women is sometimes limited because of this club.”
“I refused to see it for years, but I can see now that there is a truth in the ‘boys club’ stereotype,” adds Shoufani. “I see it in the relationships between my male friends in the industry. I am very grateful to various excellent producers here who have trusted me with their projects, but the reality for many female filmmakers in the commercial realm can be a bit stifling.
“Funnily enough, most producers I know are women. There is no lack of good women producers in the field – sharp, tough, organised women who can budget, manage and hire and fire. For some reason, a lot of them have not crossed over into the director’s seat. But if I were to warrant a guess, I would say it was because directing requires a certain bossy personality – a director needs to be in control of a set usually full of men, answer a lot of technical information, have no problem projecting themselves to be heard, put their foot down when bullied by clients or producers, deal with stress, late nights, no weekends, work long hours, travel for projects and exude an aura of toughness, creativity and sensitivity to the cast and knowledge of software, cameras and lots of heavy hardcore film gear.
“Our societies in the Arab world may have not been developed enough yet to encourage women to be this outspoken or tough, at least in the age range of late 30s onwards. Directing requires fighting for your work, being competitive, asserting yourself, and so on. I am sure the younger generation will have lots of women who will seriously change the face of this game.”
Main photograph: Hind Shoufani