Graduating filmmaker strives to tell authentic stories of Arab women

Growing up in Dubai with a father who worked at a TV station, Hanadi Elyan caught the filmmaking bug early.

“I had a lot of access to cameras and equipment,” recalled Elyan, who will graduate with a master’s in directing from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television June 14. “Sometimes he would shoot in the house, so I was around it my whole life. But when I graduated from high school he was completely against me going into film.”

Concerned that there was no future for his daughter in the industry, he enlisted several of his friends, who were film directors, to tell her about the challenges of the business and the lack of reputable film programs in Jordan where the family had moved when Elyan was a teenager.

“He actually staged an intervention.” Elyan said laughing. “And it worked.”

Fortunately for Elyan — and the people she hopes to inspire — her father’s intervention was only temporarily successful. After a brief detour working in information technology, she’s now about to graduate from one of the top film schools in the world. And this year she also earned a development award from the Jordan Film Fund as part of the Royal Film Commission for a script she is working on called “The Camp Beauty Queen.” This script was selected as one of only 10 scripts to be part of the annual Producers Guild of America Power of Diversity Workshop, which began June 3.

Her independent work, which is focused on Arab women, has also earned her inclusion in the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community, recognition from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and other honors, including the Delia Salvi Memorial Award, a George Burns and Gracie Allen Scholarship/Fellowship in Comedy and the UCLA 2018 Director’s Spotlight Award.

Opportunity of a lifetime

After her father shut down her filmmaker dreams, Elyan studied information technology in college and worked for a bank. It paid the bills, but didn’t offer much fulfilment. So she went to night school to learn digital filmmaking. After graduating, she made her first short film, “ Mariam’s Chance ,” which screened at festivals in France, Egypt, Sweden, Iraq and the Netherlands, and earned the special jury award at the Tangiers International Film Festival in Morocco in 2013. Although she was encouraged, her film career was not progressing, so Elyan pivoted to commercial work and doing TV news reports.

Once that took off, she quit the bank to become a full-time freelance producer/director. In 2014, she moved back to Dubai and started a production company, Reel Arab Productions, with her husband, Nathan Bennett. Soon after, Elyan learned about UCLA TFT’s Hani Farsi Endowed Graduate Scholarship , an award established in 2015 to give voice to Arab women filmmakers.

“An award like this is so essential because there are not many independent filmmakers in the Arab world,” she said. “We’re a tiny group that is fighting against the mainstream.”

Elyan applied and received one of the three scholarships and so the couple moved to Los Angeles.

“I dropped everything and came,” she said. “I was getting really tired of doing TV reports and commercial work. I was turning into a filmmaker that was different than what I wanted to be, but there weren’t any other opportunities.”

Becky Smith, professor of directing and screenwriting, runs the first-year graduate program in production, cinematography and directing at TFT. She led the review of the applications and the selection of the three inaugural scholarship recipients, all of whom will graduate this week. Smith said that Elyan has stood out.

“She exudes joy in making films, probably more than any other directing student I’ve ever met really,” Smith said. “Hanadi is one of those people who has a deep intrinsic understanding of drama. And no matter what she writes about and shoots, no matter what she explores, she understands fundamental things about drama that very few people do. At the core, she is a great storyteller. She could do very well in Hollywood.”

Elyan’s 2018 short “ Nadia’s Visa ,” an 18-minute drama about a woman separated from her husband and daughter who are living in a western country overseas, screened at film festivals in the United States, Germany and Tunisia and was part of the short film corner at Cannes.

She says her success has gone a long way in softening her father’s early anxiety.

“He’s now on board,” she said.

Elyan said the education she received at TFT has surpassed all expectations. She will graduate with the confidence to break barriers in what continues to be a male-dominated industry and the motivation to show the world that the Arab community and its stories are incredibly varied.

“Sometimes, unfortunately, even Arab filmmakers play with negative stereotypes because they think this is what the world wants to see of us,” Elyan said. “So they show them the worst of our society, which enrages me because these bad stereotypes are really the tiny minority. Breaking stereotypes is huge thing for me.

“Usually Arab women are portrayed as the victim or the terrorist and there is no in-between,” she continued. “What about the people who go to work, the moms and daughters, where are they? I think it hugely important for filmmakers from the Arab world to tell these stories because otherwise it’s going to be told by someone else and they won’t give us justice.”

A small film makes a big impact

Elyan’s thesis film, “Salma’s Home,” which was shot in Jordan, is the story of three women who are brought together after the death of their husband and father and must find a way to live together amicably in a home that was left partially to each of them. The two older women were both married to the man at the same time, although neither of them knew it. The third woman is the man’s daughter with his first wife. She moves in with her child after ending her marriage.

“It has an absurdist and fantastic plot to it,” Smith said. “They either have to live in this house together or sell it, and they can’t really afford to sell it.”

What began as a low-budget production, resulted in the Jordanian community coming together to help the young Bruin filmmaker. Drawn by a desire to see people like themselves on screen, the community provided film equipment, catering and transportation services.

“People are just eager to see a locally made movie produced — there are so few being made,” Elyan said. “I got A-list actors who worked for almost nothing, because they really wanted to do something different and to be on film.”

The film’s youngest actor was Elyan’s now 19-month-old son, Ali, who played the baby of the film’s youngest female character.

“He did really well,” Elyan said. “At times it was tough because we work for 13 hours a day. Of course he would only come for a couple of hours at a time, but the days were long and it was tough balancing filmmaking and motherhood.”

Elyan hopes the film will help spur women to go into filmmaking and studios to produce their projects.

According to the most recent UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report , there were just 21 women directors among the 167 English-language films from 2017’s top 200, or just 12.6 percent of the total. This figure was double that of previous years and is considered to be “a blip.” Elyan said it’s important to increase the pool of talented women in the field by supporting scholarships and opportunities such as the one that brought her to UCLA.

“I always knew I had something to say and that I had enough talent but when I got to UCLA I was able to say I am a director,” Elyan said. “Just being able to make that declaration allowed me to just go for it, and my work has gotten much better. I wouldn’t have done a feature film by now if I was on my own. UCLA has been amazing.”

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