Founder of Habibi Collective
We spoke to Roisin Tapponi, founder of Habibi Collective, an online resource to
You can watch the full conversation also featuring Naomi Bennet of Lesflicks here
How did Habibi Collective start?
R: I wanted to create an open access resource, because there was no database at
the time for MENA women’s filmmaking. I grew up watching a lot of films and I used
to keep a film log, and I realised looking at this film log that I wasn’t seeing a large
part of my heritage and my identity represented in what I was watching. So I started
actively seeking out films made by women in the region and sharing them. Then
everyone started asking - where can we see this? Where can we watch this? And
that’s how I started doing screenings. What’s great is that Habibi Collective is very
much consumed by the people it’s made for. Which is something that I’m really proud
of because a lot of the time, especially when you’re working with marginalised
identities, or underrepresented groups, it can get appropriated and commodified
super easily by these kinds of neoliberal organisations. Now I’m setting up the first
independent streaming service for Middle East and North African Cinema.
How do we make platforms like Habibi Collective and other independent platforms financially viable for the creators and collaborators?
I think in terms of money for the filmmakers that’s something that’s really important. Filmmakers don’t get paid screening fees a lot of the time and it’s quite a battle to get filmmakers paid. I always offer a flat fee for a filmmaker no matter if they are showing a feature or a short, whether they are famous or if nobody knows them. We’re trying to set filmmakers up from the beginning of their career to be like, look - you need to demand money because you’re valuable! Other people may be saying that you’re not worth something, but you are. I always tell filmmakers as well, especially in public programmes and big institutions, your presence as a marginalised person is to tick diversity boxes and for them to take more of the funding that you should be getting. It’s just letting filmmakers know that they are doing these institutions a service by being in their programme. You’re giving them more than they’re giving you to be honest.
What challenges have you faced setting up Habibi Collective?
Firstly I'll talk about geoblocking. I have a big problem with this. It's evil. Geoblocking is so evil! Recently I was screening Scales by Shahad Ameen and it was being screened in Abu Dhabi, and Abu Dhabi has problems with Qatar. So, those political problems are reflected in the films. Without telling me Abu Dhabi blocked Qatari people from watching the film, and this is very common, it's’ something that I deal with a lot.
I have quite a lot of problems with censorship. The censorship forced by distributors and censorship by the government. A lot of the films usually have two versions. They will have the European open version and an Arab version and the Arab version is - well, they cut out sex and any mention of queerness. It’s alright for me to be like ‘oh we shouldn’t censor’ but at the end of the day you’re actually putting these actors you’re dealing with real and violent situations. I do have to be mindful. I’m based in London right now and I'm in a very privileged space where I can say that. I did the queer festival (Queer MENA Online Festival) and that was completely independent - it had to be. I got a lot of great feedback from that and it was very grassroots. It was the first time that young queer people in the region could watch this. Just seeing two men or two women kissing on screen was a really big thing, and a really big thing for closested queers in the region.
What is next for your new streaming platform Shasha Films?
Hopefully I’ll be launching in December. I’m currently working with a team in the MENA region. I had the idea because obviously everything moved online with Covid, including all the screenings that I had planned. With online screenings - everyone can attend. I’ve never expected any requests for internships because free labour is the worst crime in the arts industry, I think. That’s why it was really important for me to do a crowdfunder so I could pay the team I’d be hiring and I could pay screening fees. The subscription fee will go back into that as well. I raised £5,000 in just over two weeks and it was just through Instagram to be honest! I created it, shared it a lot. It’s a super tight community. They are seeing themselves represented. So everyone pulled in and got involved. It’ll be a small subscription fee and I’m thinking there will be about 12 new releases from the region, in a really carefully curated programme, kind of like Mubi where one gets added and one goes. It’s really important that it is independent and that it’s grassroots because there’s so much politics around film in the region. Film doesn’t have to have political content, it is by nature political because of the production of it and just trying to get a film shown can be a huge ordeal. There's 22 countries in the region and there’s a lot of differences (between the film industries) so trying to draw attention to the differences between our own communities. The intersections between queer identities and also focusing more on the work of Black Arabs. Because of internalised racism even in the Middle East, you need to platform marginalised people within your marginalised community. There’s not a shortage of filmmakers, there’s a shortage of representation.