Resistance on Multiple Planes: On “Leila and the Wolves”

Heiny Srour’s multi-temporal, anti-narrative historical epic tells the stories of Arab women resisting both colonialism and male chauvinism.
Celluloid Liberation Front

Leila and the Wolves (Heiny Srour, 1984).

From Dhofar to Vietnam, passing by Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, I always found myself siding with the David of the moment against the Goliath of circumstance. My loyalty is always with the oppressed.

—Heiny Srour

Heiny Srour’s Leila and the Wolves (1984) is a film of monumental resolve and ambition, determined to address the contradictions within the anti-colonial struggle. It tells the forgotten and repressed stories of Arab women throughout the 20th century, fighting against British and Zionist colonialism, but also against male chauvinism, whether at home or on the battlefield. With a single actress playing multiple characters in different historical moments, the film dispenses with teleological linearity to emphasize the recurrence of oppression and the consequent need for constant and multifarious opposition. 

Born into a Lebanese Jewish family whose extended members were also Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic, Srour rejected from an early age the social hypnosis that limits the views of any community. “What was normal or sacred to my Muslim or Christian uncles and aunts,” she has said, “was anathema, or even blasphemous in our Jewish family, and vice versa.” Like Baruch Spinoza, Srour could never reconcile the fundamental contradiction between a universal God that loves all his creatures equally and the concept of “God’s Chosen People.” Ostracized by her community and even by some family members, as well as by those Arab nationalists who equated Judaism with Zionism, Srour, now almost 80 years old, remains committed to the fight against all forms of subjugation, be they economic, national, ethno-religious, or based on gender. For the director, an Arab Jewish woman, secular and anticlerical, feminist and Marxist, the very notion of narrow identitarian belonging is not only unthinkable but politically unviable. 

While still in her teens, Srour was bowled over by The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in which Friedrich Engels, as she would later reminisce, “dealt Patriarchy a fatal blow by proving the existence of Matriarchy.” As the tricontinental winds of world revolution reached her native Lebanon, the young Srour was swept away without ever losing her lucid and critical distance regarding its chauvinist undercurrents. In the wake of the June War of 1967, disillusioned with Arab nationalism, she discovered through her friend Nagy Abu Khalil the existence of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). At a time when the liberation of women was indefinitely postponed “until victory” by many revolutionary movements, the PFLOAG placed the cause at the very center of its armed struggle against reactionary traditionalism, neocolonial rule, and petro-capitalism. From this encounter, Srour’s debut feature, The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974), was born. The first feature by an Arab woman to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival, Srour’s film documents the story of a feminist people’s war that history has conveniently forgotten, incompatible as it still is with the most common orientalist stereotypes. 

Leila and the Wolves (Heiny Srour, 1984).

It would take Srour another ten years to complete her second film, Leila and the Wolves. She was able to secure funding with the help of the Tunisian film critic and festival organizer Tahar Cheriaa, who had also supported The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived. Written in 1979, filmed on location in England, Syria, and Lebanon in 1980 and ’81, and completed in 1984, Leila and the Wolves is, in the director’s words, “an archeological excavation of the collective memory of women of the Middle East.” It’s a multi-temporal, anti-narrative historical epic that seamlessly interweaves fiction and archival footage, documentary impulses with dramatic constructions, with the same actors playing multiple roles. The film comes forth in the tangled context of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990), a social conflict turned sectarian that is historically inextricable from the Palestinian question. The ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine has pushed Palestinians into Lebanon in two major waves, first in 1948 and then in 1967, where they live to this day as landless and rightless refugees. From 1970 to 1982, Beirut was the political capital of the Palestinian Resistance, and Lebanese public opinion and political factions were split over its support. 

Srour goes to the roots of the Palestinian question, not only by retracing its historical dimensions but also by reclaiming the fundamental and fundamentally repressed role women played in the emancipatory politics of the Middle East. Unlike the critique Western feminism levels at patriarchal oppression in Arab countries, which often doubles as Islamophobic paternalism, Srour’s criticism comes from within; it is not disdainful. She is intent on the liberation of women under any type of rule, not the legitimization of one system over another. The film does not simplistically differentiate between veiled women and blindfolded female guerrillas being trained by male fighters. Rather than glorifying the token female fighter and reducing the veiled woman to a passive stereotype, Srour investigates the intersecting manifestations of subjugation. Most importantly, women are never depicted as helpless victims to be charitably rescued. On the contrary, their resistance takes place on multiple planes, against British rule first and Zionist settler colonialism after, but all the while on the domestic front. In this regard, Leila and the Wolves depicts domestic space and activities not as the rearguard of the anti-colonial struggle, but as its backbone. Women smuggle ammunition in shipments of food and pour boiling oil over incoming British soldiers from balconies, but the fight continues within the household once men return to it. Anti-colonial knowledge is not the exclusive prerogative of armed fighters; it is a process of social reconfiguration that permeates every aspect of society, from domestic labor to street politics. 

Leila and the Wolves (Heiny Srour, 1984).

Srour’s film defies the tactical precept of revolutionary movements that public criticism is to be aimed only at the enemy and never at one's own ranks. Thus, it avoids what Frantz Fanon calls “the pitfalls of national consciousness,” a mere reversal of power relations between the oppressed and the oppressor. Leila and the Wolves instead frames the liberation of women as integral to the broader struggle. It criticizes religious power structures and bigotry without denigrating religious beliefs (its closing sequence is a thing of rare, anti-clerical beauty). It supports the armed struggle of Palestinians against Zionist occupation without minimizing the tragedy of European Jews, for whom Palestine was a refuge from genocide. Srour does all this confrontationally but not didactically; her politics came from a place of lived experience as well as theoretical elaboration. 

Consciously indifferent to temporal linearity and formal coherence, Leila and the Wolves sides with the oppressed without idealizing them. Rather than appeal to the white liberal guilt of Western audiences, it emanates from and addresses the revolutionary will to remake the world without exploitation. Its (self-)criticism cannot be opportunistically used to dismiss the fight against imperial aggression. At the same time, it offers an antidote to the glorification of victimhood. It is an imperfect film because, as Srour herself once claimed, “our enemy is any cinema that suffers the moral terrorism of the perfect and finished work of art.” Its restored relevance is not only thematic but methodological: here’s a film that defiantly disregards any moralist binary of good versus evil, us versus them, to champion the immense and composite task that is liberation from all shackles, wherever and whomever we are. 

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