“I started working when I was 12 and I’m in love with what I do,” says Róisín Tapponi, an Iraqi-Irish curator, film programmer, writer, and founder of the beloved digital film archive Habibi Collective.
Growing up in rural Ireland, Róisín had limited access to cinemas, but the virtual space was opening up. She would watch a film director a night and, started a film log on an excel sheet which she still adds to today.
She realized quickly that there was a gap in her film log because there weren’t any films by Arab women. It was one particular film by visual artist Mona Hatoum titled “Measures of Distance” that was a pivotal stepping stone into her research for more Arab women filmmakers.
For a group of people who are often forced to look at their countries through an external lens, access to authentic stories is rare. So in 2018, Róisín founded the Habibi Collective, a digital archive and curatorial platform for MENA women’s filmmaking, which anyone can access from anywhere in the world, no excuses.
“People always say to me there aren’t enough women filmmakers, and I say there are enough! But people need to see them, and you cannot see them if there aren’t people like me who are programmers, who work to get these films seen,” she explains.
Habibi Collective has amassed an international community on Instagram, with over 450 films in its archive from women filmmakers in the MENA region and its diaspora. Roisin curates Habibi Collective herself and works to highlight diverse themes across film genres, including narrative films, essay films, documentary, commercial shorts, and others.
Her work does not stop there. She works full-time at The Mosaic Rooms, a gallery dedicated to contemporary Arab art in Kensington, London, while she freelancers as a writer and pursues a career in academia. She is a self-proclaimed workaholic, who never feels as though she is working.
The young Iraqi has never been to Iraq but holds a strong connection to the region thanks to family, friends, and work.
“I’ve always been rooted in film and family, but there’s never been a place to call home. When you’re from somewhere that’s a war zone…Palestinians as well feel it a lot…the films are just about this nostalgia and inherited memories,” she says.
Róisín’s more inclined towards essay and documentary films and has seen that women filmmakers tend to be more present in the documentary scene. “Not because my taste is on the experimental side, but because the inequalities in society are reflected in the inequality of the film industry. Women don’t have the same access to resources as men, meaning they can’t easily get those feature-length, Hollywood films.”
The earliest films she encountered were French new wave filmmakers, who she believes paved the way, particularly for women filmmakers in the region, who use methods like “the handheld cameras…and this political, guerrilla type filmmaking.”
There is an apparent lack when it comes to the access of films and screenings by SWANA women, and one of the most common questions she is asked is “Where can I find this film?” so Róisín began to curate screenings across the world, covering climate change to queer identity.
“I did one in the mountains of Slovenia, and no matter where it is, it’s always sold out, and often full of young diasporic people,” she says.
Before COVID-19 hit, Róisín directed the first independent Iraqi film festival. They received over 80 submissions through word of mouth, proving there are a lot of filmmakers, but no industry to support them.
Programming these screenings has proven to be difficult, especially due to institutional bureaucracy. “There is a lot of institutional politics that affect filmmaking, geoblocking is a thing that happens a lot now,” she explains. “Everything is censored in film production and it doesn’t even have to have political content in it.”
Whether the West or the East, Róisín is not a big fan of institutional critique or their eagerness for her presence to check off their diversity box. That’s why she is now focused on working to build her own spaces. Alongside Habibi Collective, she has begun work on an independent streaming service named Shasha, which is set to launch in February 2021, featuring South West Asian and North African cinema.
“A lot of people want to be filmmakers but not a lot of people want to do that work to get the film seen,” says Róisín, explaining that many big-budget films make it to the top of the charts not because they are of quality, but due to the support they get, the money, and the platforms they have access to.
“That is what I’m trying to do, make space for films that wouldn’t kind of get that chance, and it also means mobilizing filmmakers in the industry,” she says. “We have 22 countries in the Arab world, and all of them make film differently and have different psychologies.”
“A lot of what I do comes in reaction to the world around me,” she says. Through all the platforms she has built, and through the work that she does, Róisín is a new kind of underdog who is inspiring the bridge that will take Arab culture to its growing diaspora and the world.
Follow Róisín on Instagram: @roisintapponi