Winner of Women in Motion’s Young Talent Award in 2016, Gaya Jiji is presenting her debut film, My Favorite Fabric in the Un Certain Regard category of the Festival de Cannes’ official selection. This is great visibility for the young Syrian filmmaker, who fled Damascus and the civil war in 2012.
As a woman, what challenges have you encountered in your career?
There have been so many! To begin with, I come from Syria, which has a virtually non-existent film industry with very little room for women. Even for male directors, getting funding and managing to work is a challenge, especially if they are not completely in line with the regime. It’s even harder for women.
When I started out, I did manage to work on some films as a script supervisor or assistant director, but everyone else on set was male. These experiences taught me a lot, particularly about how to make a film under difficult circumstances, while adapting and being creative.
I came up against a new challenge in France, after I left my country and the worsening civil war. Securing funding for your first full-length picture is a complex job for any filmmaker who is starting out. For a woman freshly arrived from Syria, it was really tough, especially since there was no financial security. To move your projects forward, you have to take on lots of side jobs, which requires an enormous amount of energy. That’s why winning Women in Motion’s Young Talent Award was so important, as it allowed me to concentrate on my project and raised the profile of my work. I’m sure I could have made My Favorite Fabric without the Award, but it would have been a much longer and harder struggle.
Stepping back two years, how did you feel when you received the Women in Motion’s Young Talent Award from Thierry Frémaux, Pierre Lescure and François-Henri Pinault?
It made a big impression on me, especially since I was the only one of the three winners not to have made a film yet. In fact, I was still writing the screenplay. The Award and the ceremony really encouraged me to keep going.
When you make a film, things rarely go in a straight line. There are real highs, but there are also plenty of roadblocks. I worked for six years on My Favorite Fabric. That’s a long stretch, and there were times when I came close to quitting. The Award gave me financial security, but it also gave me something priceless – hope.
On top of everything, the Award was presented to me by two incredible actresses: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, who is one of my idols. I haven’t had the opportunity to see them again since the ceremony, but I’d love to be able to tell them that they truly were godmothers to My Favorite Fabric! Coming back to Kering, the Group is doing an amazing job of changing the image of women in film. Putting actresses and female directors at the heart of the debate is a genuine source of inspiration, especially for women like me who are starting out.
Tell us about the filming of My Favorite Fabric
The circumstances were really unique. For obvious reasons, we couldn’t shoot in Damascus, so we filmed in Istanbul. It was a very cosmopolitan crew, with Arabic, Turkish, French and English spoken on set, but there were never any misunderstandings. I could feel that the whole team was behind my work and my vision.
More generally, film has been a male-dominated art form for a long time, and women are still under-represented. But that is starting to change. I can sense a greater willingness to back women’s projects – and I am a beneficiary of that trend. I have also been fortunate to work with a French producer, Laurent Lavolé of Gloria Films, who has taken risks and supported me throughout the project.
How do you think My Favorite Fabric will be received?
My film tells the story of a young Syrian woman who is trying to find her identity and affirm her emancipation, particularly her sexual emancipation, in a country in the throes of civil war. It talks about the condition of women in the Middle East, while also exploring very universal themes. It’s a complex film, politically and psychologically, which I began to write when I was still in Damascus at the beginning of the civil war. The daily violence that I witnessed heavily influenced the film, which is starkly different from most of the movies coming out of the Arab world today. It’s impossible to say how it might be received, whether at Cannes or around the world. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m extremely curious to see whether it starts a discussion. Just to be selected for the Un Certain Regard category is already an achievement for me: I’m the first Syrian woman to present a film at the Festival de Cannes! Not only am I fulfilling a childhood dream, but it’s very important to me that I am also representing my country, or at least what’s left of it. It shows the world that we are still standing and able to work. A number of Syrians, and not just filmmakers, have written to tell me how proud they are.
What inspired you to make movies?
I grew up in an artistic household. My dad was a stage director and often used to take me to the theatre. When I was little, I read voraciously and wanted to be a novelist. Everything changed during my teenage years when I saw Jane Campion’s film The Piano. It triggered something, and I began to visualize everything through images rather than words. Even when reading a book, I would project the images of the words on the page. I realized then that literature was not for me and that I had to make films.
What are your projects after Cannes?
I have just begun working on a new screenplay that explores the question of exile through the story of a Syrian who emigrates to Canada with his family. How will he structure and construct his memory in this new country without betraying himself? It will take time to put this project together, but in our industry, patience is a vital quality.