An NU-Q graduate’s journey from a small town in Tunisia to Qatar, and then the world
Hailing from the small town of Gabes in Tunisia, Maha Essid was a mere fourteen years old when the revolution in her country began. Exploring that intense, sentimental aspect of her country’s history was always something she was passionate about. Fast forward a couple of years later, and that’s exactly what she did through her first film as a student at Northwestern University in Qatar.
I’ve seen a lot of Arab filmmakers and Muslim filmmakers, but it’s hard to find someone who looks like me and tells stories that resonate with me and my people
Essid knew she wanted to pursue film, and she knew she wanted to do something that paved the way for Arab Muslim female filmmakers. “In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of Arab filmmakers and Muslim filmmakers, but it’s hard to find someone who looks like me and tells stories that resonate with me and my people,” she said. An outspoken, passionate, and resilient filmmaker, Essid strives to increase representation of hijabis in the media and film industries.
She heard about Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) through a friend who visited Qatar Foundation for an international competition. Once she discovered the media and film offerings at NU-Q, it was only a matter of time before she applied and began her journey in a country completely foreign to her. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Essid, though. Convincing her father of the importance of her aspirations wasn’t an easy task. “It took me a while to persuade him. But eventually he agreed, because I told him, ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’”
Staying in the Arab world for university allowed me to explore the diverse cultures of this region, meet people from all over the world, and tell stories I knew our people would connect with
It wasn’t long before she embarked on her journey as a filmmaker. With her first short film, 426, Essid told the stories of female prisoners in Tunisia. “It was an unforgettable experience. Of course, being a sophomore in college and an amateur filmmaker, I made countless mistakes, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It also felt amazing to tell a story I knew the people in my small town would understand and relate to,” she said.
NU-Q, to Essid was the perfect middle ground between her home and the Western institutions she considered enrolling in. “Staying in the Arab world for university allowed me to explore the diverse cultures of this region, meet people from all over the world, and tell stories I knew our people would connect with.” Being in Qatar was also the gateway for a number of international endeavors for Essid. Her film 426 was screened at the Middle East Studies Association Film Festival in San Antonio, Texas; was selected for the Rome Independent Prisma Awards in Italy; and was a semi-finalist for the Los Angeles CineFest.
I’m extremely grateful to have had the privilege of working with some of the most brilliant minds in the region
Another of her films, Refuge – a documentary following two Palestinian millennials and exploring their culture – was selected for the Nazra Palestine Short Film Festival in Venice, Ajyal Film Festival in Doha, and the Middle East Studies Association Film Festival in New Orleans.
“I’m extremely grateful to have had the privilege of working with some of the most brilliant minds in the region – whether they were my teachers, or my friends and colleagues. I hope to create meaningful content and have a long-lasting impact in the film world, using the skills, experience and contacts I’ve gathered over the last few years,” she said.
Recently having graduated from NU-Q, a Qatar Foundation partner university, Essid made sure to go out with a bang, earning herself the Communications Award for the Class of 2020.