Layaly Badr, who started her career in the mid-1980s, is one of the most notable figures in Arab film and television. A director, screenwriter, producer and script doctor, she is also a role model for Arab women, having overcome challenges to reach a position of her choice.
As a screenwriter and script doctor, Badr’s most recent works include the Saudi TV series Al Zahiriya (2022) by Jordanian director Saed Bashir Al Hawari, the film Huda’s Salon (2021) by the Oscar-nominated Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, the film Amira (2021) by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab, and the award-winning film Bil Halal (Halal Love, 2015) by Lebanese filmmaker Assad Fouladkar. This is in addition to her role as a consultant for, among other production houses, Misr International Films, and her being a jury member at festivals such as El Gouna, Malmo, Amman, Dubai, and the Red Sea International Film Festival.
Through ART and Rotana, she was a leading figure in the production process of many films including the award-winning Wadjda (2012) by Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour, which is considered the first feature film by a Saudi female director, Genenet El Asmak (The Fish Garden, 2008) by Yousry Nasrallah; Heya Fawda (This Is Chaos, 2007) by Youssef Chahine and Khaled Youssef, Waraqat Shifra (Encrypted Letter, 2008), Amir Ramses’s debut feature, and Zay El Naharda (On a Day Like Today, 2008), Amr Salam’s debut feature. She is currently working on the story and script for two feature films, which she says reflect the concerns of women in the Arab world.
But before reaching this stage, Badr overcame numerous challenges. The daughter of the renowned Palestinian physician, poet, writer, artist and astronomer Abd al-Rahim Badr, Badr was born in Jericho in the mid-1950s. Her mother died a few years before the 1967 war, which forced the family to move to Kuwait. There, the ten-year-old Layaly had to face new circumstances. Despite her academic excellence, at the age of 16 she was forced to marry a family relation, and had to obtain a special permit to complete her education as married women could not do so in Kuwait.
Badr soon gave birth to a son and daughter, and her responsibilities as a homemaker became overwhelming at a very early age. But, guided in part by her father’s love of art and science, she managed to continue searching for light and freedom. By coincidence she discovered a talent for storytelling: “My elder sister, the novelist, short story writer and translator Liana Badr, happened to be present one day while I was telling my daughter and her classmates a story and she said to me, ‘Layaly, you are a gifted storyteller.’ I hadn’t realised I had this talent, it was just that my daughter had so many questions, which I tried to answer by telling stories.”
She started writing stories with no goal in mind but, when she sent one of them to a Kuwaiti newspaper, the story appeared the following week. “It was a surprise,” she says, “but it did not go unnoticed, This was too big of a deal for me in the late 1970s.” She continued sending out her stories, and they all appeared. “For years, I became known as a children’s writer. The more questions the girl asked me, the more I tried to connect with her through stories, which later found their way to newspapers and magazines. The death of my mother, and our forced departure from the homeland when I was so young had scarred me and perhaps the stories were my way of being closer to my daughter, getting over those deep wounds”.
When she gave a famous Kuwaiti magazine an interview and her picture was published in the early 1980s, the men of the family were upset. But she had been a rebel anyway, she says – “I always did what I wanted” – and in her early twenties, she decided to take over her life: “It was not an easy step, but it was an adventure.” She found a job as a production assistant at the Joint Programs Foundation for the Arab Gulf States, the biggest children’s show production company in the Gulf responsible for, among other programmes, Iftah Ya Simsim (Open Sesame, 1979-1989). So began her relationship with the audiovisual world.
According to Badr, the cultural and artistic community was encouraging, as cultural life in Kuwait at that time was fertile and welcoming to all, making no distinction between a citizen and an immigrant. However, her relationship with the family has not gone well since then, because it was not possible for a woman to control her own life and that of her children if she lived as she chose. “They took away my kids. It was difficult for me to live in a place where I was deprived of them.”
Like many in the Palestinian diaspora, she was close to activist groups, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine granted her a scholarship to travel to East Germany to study directing for children. “Education has always been my refuge,” she says. There she wrote and directed her debut The Road to Palestine, a seven-minute animation aimed at introducing German children to the Palestinian cause. The film was based on real children’s drawings from Palestinian refugee camps and East Germany.
“By moving the children’s drawings in my film, we told the story of Palestine,” she explains. The film won the Golden Lorbeer from German TV, and she was offered a job to stay in Germany. “But I was full of energy, enthusiasm and hope. I wanted to take back the new experience I gained there to produce more films for my own society, and that’s how I ended this special adventure in my life.”
During her one-year stay in Germany, the father of her children had moved to Iraq, taking her two children with him. “It was such a tough time in the mid-1980s. The Iran-Iraq war was raging, and I would spend my weekends at the post office waiting to speak to my children on the phone. It was very difficult for me as a mother, but the importance of this experience was that it assured me that I had the talent and the ability to continue producing films.”
She went back to Kuwait only to remember that she had no one. She stayed there for a year before she moved to Syria, where her sister lived. “I was very determined to work as a children’s television director. I had that belief that I could change the world through children, and that reaching children through television was the key to making that happen.”
For six years she earned her living as an assistant director on TV series with the renowned Syrian director, producer and TV writer Haitham Haqqi. “I learned a lot from this experience, and the most important thing was that I had more confidence that my real project is to work with and for children.”
In 1993, she directed Aroos Al Bohayra (The Bride of the Lake), a half-hour musical fiction film for kids, which won an award from the Cairo Children’s Film Festival, then Al Loghz (The Puzzle, 1994), a children’s live action feature film. In 1995, with support from UNICEF, she wrote and directed Noreed Kawkab Lana (We Want A Planet For Us). But it was her 1997 feature film Moftaah Al Hekayat (The Fairy Tales Key), in which she pioneered the art of merging live action and animation, that made her name. The film won the Golden Award at the Cairo Children’s Film Festival, and the Arab Television Festival Award in Tunisia. “This was the last film I made during my stay in Syria, which lasted from the mid-1980s till the mid-90s. The father of my children had given me the boy back, but he kept my daughter. It created a deep rift inside me despite all the success I’d been having in my career.”
In the late 1990s, Badr moved to Cairo, where she was offered a job in the children’s channel of the ART group. “There I felt closer to my dream of changing the world through children, not only by making films, but by participating in the production plan of children’s content in a leading Arab children’s channel at the time,” she recalls. One of her distinguished contributions to which the channel’s management responded was the removal of encryption on the ART children’s channel.
In Egypt, which had a strong and well-established animation movement, she managed to produce many children’s programmes and series with the contribution of Egyptian animators for ART. She also produced documentary series aimed at bringing the children of the Arab world together. “My core vision was to encourage children to work their minds, to think critically, to ask questions and to try to explore answers without limits and in all areas.”
It was not so long until she became the director of the ART children’s channel. “I am proud that, in constructive cooperation with the management and owners, I was able to turn an Arab children’s channel into an influential element in shaping the awareness of children and adolescents in the Arab world, just as my dream had always been,” she says. “I am proud to have fulfilled a part of my pledge to Arab children and adolescents, to let them have the opportunity to grow up in a different environment from the one in which I was raised and due to which I have paid dearly all my life. I was trying to be, through what is produced in the channel, the children’s own voice.”
She recalls working on various topics and issues that at that time, compared to the present, were considered sensitive and controversial, especially in the presence of children and adolescents. During that period, she also directed the first season of the popular children’s series, Zaza and Jarjir (2004), which continued to be produced by other directors for five seasons until 2008.
Beginning in 2005, and in response to the general production climate, the channel’s interest shifted away from children, to producing films and TV series for adults. A new department was established in the ART Group to support the purchase and production of films and TV series from across the Arab world, including Egypt: “A new phase of my journey thus began. The ART group became a leading producer in the Arab world, and I was chosen to work in the new department as a production, sales and creative manager where I got more involved in the production process of films and TV series. But my vision was always to strike a balance between what is commercial and what is artistic.”
At this stage, and until 2010 – representing ART – Badr contributed to the production of a set of cinematic and TV landmarks by both iconic, and emerging directors. However, with the decline of the ART group, in 2011 she moved to Rotana, which began to take the helm of film production in the region. There too she worked as creative and sales manager for five years.
“But I felt that my long experience in sales and production dried up my soul, so I quit in 2015 because I wanted to return to writing my own films,” she says. As a result, she moved to the USA for a screenwriting course in the New York Film Academy. “There I started writing my own feature film, which I am currently working on. I also enjoy more work as a script doctor, consultant, and jury member.”
Badr is still grateful for the many years she worked with and for children as a director, writer and producer. She believes that the limited interest in producing Arabic content for children and adolescents negatively affects our cultural uniqueness and identity. “In a world overrun by technology and globalisation, there is a critical necessity to reconsider the production of Arabic content for children and adolescents. Only education and art can safeguard our cultural uniqueness.”
But Badr believes that there is an important paradigm shift in the Arab world with regard to audiovisual production. “On the one hand, Saudi Arabia’s entry into the film production market and its expansion in film theatres will restore the glories of the box office. On the other hand, the expansion of virtual platforms provides an unprecedented opportunity for audiovisual content. Film and series makers, both for children and adults, should take advantage of this huge opportunity for abundant production, creativity, and quality.”
For a creative woman who said no whenever she felt out of place, she believes she had a rich experience, and it’s time to say more about herself as a Palestinian, an Arab, a woman, a mother, and an artist through her films. “I am a single mother who has always tried her best to prove herself in countries that are not hers, and has won the challenge every time. I have gone through both happiness and pain, and I have always believed that we should speak of the pain out loud so that others may avoid it.
“This is what I want to achieve through the films I write, whether by telling my own experiences or those of other women. I think we, women, share the same challenges and social oppression, and we all want to prove we exist. Personally, I strive to take it a step further, which can be found in the characters of my films as well. What I am most proud of is that I have always been able to do what I want and pay the price without fear. I learned to be proud of myself, my children, my achievements, and I appreciate that I have always been a free spirit.”
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.