Rights and wrongs

Amjad Al Rasheed on patriarchal structures and female empowerment in Inshallah A Boy

by Amber Wilkinson

Nawal (Mouna Hawa) and Nora (Seleena Rababah). Amjad Al Rasheed: 'I love casting. I love to choose the right actor for the right character'
Nawal (Mouna Hawa) and Nora (Seleena Rababah). Amjad Al Rasheed: 'I love casting. I love to choose the right actor for the right character'
Amjad Al Rasheed’s debut Inshallah A Boy follows mum Nawal (Mouna Hawa) as she find herself stripped of her rights after the sudden death of her husband. As she tries to stay strong for her young daughter Nora (Seleena Rababah), in the face of legal action from his family, she also becomes involved in helping a woman from the rich family where she works as a carer embark on a dangerous plan. The result is a social drama with a strong feminist streak that gradually ratchets up the tension. We caught up with Al Rasheed shortly after the film became the first Jordanian film to Cannes Film Festival to talk about its themes and the challenges of a first feature.

Can you start by telling me about the genesis of the project?

Amjad Al Rasheed: So first, it's a story that's very personal to me, because it’s inspired by a close relative of mine who was almost in the same situation as my main character Nawal. She was a woman who dedicated her life to the service of her family - three daughters and her husband - and when she bought the house with her own money, her husband asked, forced her actually, to transfer the house deeds into his name, because it's a shame for a man to live in a woman's house. And she did that. And when her husband died, the family of her husband told her, “You know, according to the law, we have a share in your house. But we will allow you to live in your house”. The sentence, “We will allow you”, raised many questions in my head. What if they don’t allow her? What if she said, “No, I want my house, I won't give you any share”? What are her options? And is it possible that we are still ruled by the rule that was created more than 1000 years ago? So all these questions fuelled the idea of Inshallah A Boy.

In the film you show that idea of being culturally conditioned from quite an early age. You show a woman telling a little girl that wearing a hijab is like a superpower. But elsewhere in the film we see a woman from the higher social class, and she says, with reference to her daughter, “She's not Superwoman”. Do you feel women are being sold certain things as an empowerment when maybe they aren’t?

Amjad Al Rasheed: 'It's a story that's very personal to me, because it’s inspired by a close relative of mine'
Amjad Al Rasheed: 'It's a story that's very personal to me, because it’s inspired by a close relative of mine'
AAR: Definitely. I believe around the world in general and in the Middle East, that there are many movements to empower women, but I believe that none of them are really aiming to empower women. It's just like, advertisement, or a public service announcement that goes nowhere. When in reality, the idea of empowering women should fit each society by itself, not to generalise it. Women’s empowerment in Europe should be quite different than in the Middle East because, you know, it's different needs, different circumstances. Although, this law that I'm tackling in my film, yes, it is a Middle Eastern law or in Islamic countries, but it equals different laws in the West, and in Europe, like a salary equality, for example.

In your film, it comes down to the personal rebellion of Nawal - is that how you feel, that individuals have to make their own rebellion?

AAR: Yes, I believe each one of us lives their own struggle. So it starts with each one of us first. As cheesy as it sounds, be that change that you want to see. I believe this is the key when I start and she starts and each person tries to solve their own problem, I think we will as a society at some point we might have a small change.

The way you approach social classes in the film is interesting. It’s not just about one echelon. What made you want to examine that?

AAR: While developing the film, I did some research and I had different cases from different social and economic backgrounds. While I was developing the film, as a freelance job I was doing corporate videos for NGOs, covering successful stories of women’s empowerment projects in Jordan, so I traveled in different areas in Jordan and I met different women from different classes. And you feel that there is something always in common between all these women. They are all fighters, they have very strong character, but they all feel that they are the weakest link. I still remember like, there's something very common about them, they feel that neither society is backing them or the law, so they are always kind of in a situation where they have to lose. So this is why I felt, okay, that's not about where you are from or what religion you believe in, its aobut gender and about a male-dominated society that is using the laws just to stay in control and economically stronger. And this was my close observation of these women.

Tell me about the casting process, because, obviously, casting adult actors is a very different thing to casting child actors. The role of Nawal’s daughter Nora is very important. How did you go about finding an adult and a child that would gel?

AAR: I love casting. I love to choose the right actor for the right character. And I took my time – two years. I've been doing casting for this much time because, for me, it's not only about the talent, it is also about the character, the personal character of each actor. We have lots of talent, of course, in the Arab world. And it's very important the range of emotions that I can get from each actor, especially for the main character. It's a very complex character. It needed a lot of subtleness to deliver everything in a simple way, like how we talk in daily life. Then I had long sessions with them talking about the stuff to understand their point of view and their lives. We agree, we disagree. It was also important for me to study their body language, how they look, how they speak, how they move, this small stuff helped me to find the keys to motivate them during the rehearsals and on set to give me the right beat, the right emotion at the right moment in the scene itself. Without understanding them as human beings and their body language, I feel it would be different.

Nawal (Mouna Hawa). Amjad Al Rasheed says she is 'a very complex character. It needed a lot of subtleness to deliver everything in a simple way, like how we talk in daily life'
Nawal (Mouna Hawa). Amjad Al Rasheed says she is 'a very complex character. It needed a lot of subtleness to deliver everything in a simple way, like how we talk in daily life'

Seleena Rebabah, the little girl, she is very smart, she knows what she's doing, she's a real talent. Yes, she was seven years old, but the way she thinks is more mature than that. So when I tell her something, she understands it. Plus she was very dedicated. Even at that young age, she's very dedicated and wants to be an actress and her parents are very supportive of that. So this is number one. Usually, with kids, I put them in the situation. For example, I say, “Imagine your father is telling you this, how would you react?” So I was creating a different situation for her that is similar to the situation of the film. So she processed it, and she delivered what I wanted, in the right emotion. So these were the techniques. What's funny is that I'm going to say that I'm 38 years old and now I feel like I want a child, I want to be a father. So there was like a father/daughter relationship on set.

This was your first feature, what did you learn from it or perhaps there was something you think you would take away from the experience and use next time?

AAR: Well, first of all, I learned how to be patient. During the first feature, even if you have your producers around you – and because it took so much time, six years, including two years of Covid – you're facing the mystery of the future. You don't know if you're going to do this film, you don't know if you're going to have all the financing. It was frustrating, because I was missing patience. I need to understand that it’s going to happen, you just need time, and it will be at the right moment. So this is something that now I understand more reflecting back on the whole experience. Other stuff that I would like to repeat is how I did the casting, how I developed the script. Directing actors is something that I really, really enjoy. And I tried some different techniques with them that I will also use again and develop. In general, it was a very good learning experience for me.

This is a very character-driven drama, is that something you’re looking to do more of in the future?

AAR: Definitely, as now I'm thinking about my next project. It's in the early stages of development now. And it's character-driven. We're following the journey of the character in society. It will be from the same feeling of a social thriller.

Do you think it'll be a female protagonist again? It’s quite interesting that you chose to have a central female character rather than a male one for your first film.

AAR: Yes, It will be a female character also. I feel more connected to a female character in general. I lived in a family that is full of women. And since I was young, I wasn't listening to their stories and their struggles with the male figures in their lives. These stories stayed in my mind because I have a very close relationship with my female family members, like my aunts, my cousins, my sister, my mother. They are very strong women, but I feel like they maybe they don't have a voice. And I'm trying to be their voice. I know, it's a big thing to say that. But when I see their reaction about the film, they feel like oh, now there's something about them in this sense.

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