‘Scheherazade’s Diary’ reveals the shocking experiences of Lebanese women

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A woman stands in an overcrowded cell in Baabda prison. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

Published Thursday, November 20, 2014

”Scheherazade’s Diary” has received yet another award, which is to be added to the many accolades the film has been awarded in Arab festivals. On Monday, November 17, the film won the Salah Abou Seif Award for best Arab film in the Prospects of Arab Cinema (PAC) competition at the Cairo Film Festival. Lebanese director and actress Zeina Daccache takes us inside Baabda prison, where female prisoners take on the role of Scheherazade and tell their secrets in video segments taken from a play directed by Daccache as part of the Scheherazade Baabda project.

The director combines theater and the reality of women prisoners she has closely examined to paint a picture of these women – who were given the opportunity to express themselves for the first time – adopting an approach that can be best characterized as “intimate.”

Marriage, just like sex and motherhood that followed, were forced upon them, and they had no freedom of opinion or choice in this respect. Most often, their sole attempt against a life of subjugation leads these women to jail, as in the case of a prisoner whose husband used to constantly assault her and cheat on her. But when she cheated on him, she was accused of adultery and put in prison. Another prisoner is accused of killing her husband, who used to constantly physically assault her.

Due to the amity that developed between Daccache and the prisoners, the director inadvertently was able to bring them to tell [their secrets]. They opened up to her and revealed the most private details from their childhood, as well as their first experience with sex and motherhood. It is heart-wrenching to know that most of them have only experienced sex through marital rape. Motherhood was also imposed on them at an early age, and all they have known of maternal love was beatings and abuse. But in prison, where they grew up, they learned the meaning of motherhood along with other concepts.

Although the film tells the story of the female prisoners of Baabda, it offers an important and shocking record of the status of Lebanese women under a discriminatory law that is no less patriarchal than the society they live in. Instead of providing protection, this law punishes women if they rebel, to an extent that prisons have, unfortunately, become a refuge for women from the daily violence and oppression exercised against them by either their community, family, or spouse. Some even prefer not to leave for fear of the cruelty they may face outside, as in the case of a prisoner who says she has found a home and family in prison.

There is a lot of spontaneity in the movie, and it is shot in a documentary, reality TV-like style. The director gives special importance to dialogue and deep character analysis rather than to the aesthetic aspect and film narrative. This approach succeeds in highlighting the intimacy and spontaneity that characterize her relationship with the prisoners, and adds to the uniqueness of the movie, which offers a window to the private world of these prisoners, whose voices reach us freely, even though from behind bars.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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