Jennah, a short film by filmmaker Meryem Benm’Barek, explores the struggles of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. The film was shot in Brussels for her thesis project at INSAS (Institut national supérieur des arts du spectacle et des techniques de diffusion), a film school in Belgium.
“The idea of Jennah crossed my mind about questions that come up to women naturally,” Meryem said. The film follows a girl as she reaches, “that that in-between moment” when she transitions from childhood to womanhood. It is in this time that Jennah faces her concept of femininity as shaped by her mother and when faced with an absent father figure. “Jennah is in that age where she is realizing the complexity of what it means to face the world as a young woman,” Meryem told me.
The dynamic of seeking validation with men caused by a lack of a fatherly connection during this pivotal time in a girl’s life is familiar to Meryem, who herself had experienced some challenges in the absence of her own father as a young woman. In Jennah she explores the actions and connections that create lasting change in larger ways when sorting out what exactly it means to be a woman. “I do not pretend to universalize that thought,” Meryem said, “or to generalize it because each life story is different… but having myself grown up in an almost similar pattern I wanted to explore these aspects of a teenager’s life.”
As with any film of similar circumstances, Meryem encountered occasional problems or issues, but the end result was a window into a moment of change in this young woman’s life that has gained significant attention and praise. “I think we always choose to tell the stories that look like us,” Meryem said of her motivation to take on this coming of age story.
“Being on the set is always my favorite part in a movie’s creation,” Meryem told me. It’s when the cameras are on and the team is working together that she feels the most in her element as a filmmaker. Her voice rings the loudest and truest when expressed through cameras, lights, and sound. “I completely feel myself because I am more comfortable with that tools than with words,” she said. The production itself was low-budget, filmed with a crew of loyal and resourceful individuals who were all committed to the final outcome of the project.
On Saturday, March 28, Meryem won an award for Jennah as part of the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival. The film was selected and shown during the New Mavericks shorts block at the Plaza Theater. New Mavericks is a new series of hand-selected films that feature strong female protagonists and are filmed by female directors. Meryem was presented with an award made by R. Land for the festival and was honored during the Awards Brunch at the Highland Ballroom.
“It’s a great experience for me who comes from Europe to have that opportunity to show my work in Atlanta,” Meryem said of the Fest. Participating in the festival offered her an opportunity to show her work to a large international audience and to network with like-minded filmmakers. The New Mavericks program in particular has been a welcoming experience for Meryem, who said “there is no competition here, just people who create and share their own voices with some other artists.”
I asked Meryem what is next for her, and she told me that she is currently working on her first feature length film, set to be shot in France, Morocco and Spain. She described the plot as “a kind of contemporary and very realistic fairy tale, a love story on the road.” Meryem also wants to film a story about a brother and sister based in Morocco, aiming “to show the underground part of that country in order to break some existing prejudices that are often shown about Arabic countries.” Additionally she hopes to work on a project based in America, potentially based in New York City. It’s clear that she is an incredibly motivated and passionate artist, and I doubt we have seen the last of Meryem and her films.