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Sophia Al-Maria's Film Turned Into Exhibition

Artist Sophia Al-Maria, who describes herself as ”Qatarican” – her father has a Bedouin background and her mother is American – got the world was at her feet. Her memoir, The Girl Who Fell to Earth (2012) had just been published to spectacular reviews praising her elegiac descriptions of a changing Gulf environment. Her essays and artworks looking at “Gulf Futurism” – a phrase she coined to express the importance of technology and consumerism to the area – had grabbed the attention of taste-making magazines around the world. And most intriguingly of all, the Girl with a Pearl Earring director Peter Webber was set to produce her directorial debut, a revenge action- thriller set in Cairo. Eighteen months later, however, and Al-Maria isn’t at the Venice International Film Festival discussing the snippets of the film she called Beretta. Instead, we’re in a gallery space at Manchester’s Cornerhouse arts venue and Beretta has metamorphosed into a sprawling art exhibition called Virgin with a Memory. There are video installations re-enacting proposed sequences from the film, adapted billboard posters used in the research, fragmented audition tapes, an Arabic translation of the script, imitation music videos and a short film made from the original rushes.
The piles of books by the entrance are revealed to be a novelised version of Beretta, the text of which is interspersed with diary entries from Al-Maria illuminating the filmmaking process. Even the gallery space looks like an unfinished film set. “As you might be able to tell, I love the DVD extras for films,” she says with a smile. “It’s just that these are for a film that never got made.” So what happened? “As with any feature film production, it became a bit of a saga,” says Al-Maria. “We’d got to the very last hurdle before production, but then hit a snag because someone had called Beretta ‘the Egyptian Ms. 45’.” Ms. 45 is Abel Ferrara’s cult exploitation film from 1981, exploring the various revenges of a mute woman who is raped twice in one day on her way home from work. “Lawyers got involved,” says Al-Maria, “and to cut a very boring story short, the financiers didn’t like the possibility that somewhere along the line, someone might say that Beretta was too similar and want compensation.” Al-Maria is perfectly happy to admit that Beretta’s similarities are not a coincidence – “it’s a genre film and genre films have things in common” – but it does seem a shame that we’re in a gallery rather than a cinema talking about it. Beretta wasn’t just another throwaway piece of casual, Tarantino-esque violence; it was meant to highlight a problem of which Al-Maria had first-hand experience: the everyday harassment of women in Egypt. Even Ferrara himself chipped in to the debate, saying: “Just let the chick make the film, man.” “Ah well,” says Al-Maria. “At least this exhibition is the consolation prize. I hope it lifts the lid on how hard it is to do even a low-budget film – and how, when contracts and lawyers are involved, the idea shifts so much from its original starting point that you end up in danger of making something completely different. It can be soul-crushing.” All of which might make this sound like a story of a failure – but Virgin with a Memory is a still a call to arms, a thoughtful document of one woman’s creative quest to make just “one man think twice” about his attitude towards women. And she hasn’t been put off filmmaking. Al-Maria is toying with rewriting Beretta again, setting it among domestic workers in the Arabian Gulf instead. She’s also finished a script for a costume drama set around the famous abolitionist painting The Raft of the Medusa by the 19th-century French artist ThĂ©odore GĂ©ricault. Peter Webber has agreed to direct and Raffaella De Laurentiis is interested in producing it. “I have high hopes for that one,” she says. “I just loved wrapping myself up in a historical story and it really gave me a perspective on what’s happening now in the world. It’s a very timely story, I think.” And if it doesn’t end up getting made, Virgin with a Memory proves Al-Maria has quite the backup option.

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