At only 23, Lebanese-Danish Bella Barkett (a Londoner at heart) is a researcher at an art firm and events programmer at Shasha Movies, curating cinema clubs and organising SWANA films programs for the streaming service. And she’s just getting started on producing films.

Courtesy of Bella Barkett

Hi Bella! Tell me a bit more about your upbringing. 

Hi! I’m Bella. I was born in Bahrain and moved around when I was little to Dallas and Dubai, then settled in London during my younger years with my family. I was away from England during university, as I studied in the US and then hopped back into the Atlantic to London.

It was very exciting to reconnect with the city I thought I knew, but I didn’t. I saw a whole new side of it in terms of the community I met through my work and I think that time away really made me appreciate the city, the creativity that was bred there, and the interactions with its people. 

How did you get involved with the film industry?

I never really knew I would get into film as a career; even now, I wouldn’t say I work in film but in a mishmash hybrid because I like film. But what I like about it the most are the connective tissues with other disciplines, the ties movies have with architecture, archives, art, family memory, environment, and marketing. It’s about all the different elements that make up the film industry.

But film was also not completely unknown territory. It was important in our family; it was a place where I could visualize the stories from the past that my parents would share – and reconnect with a time I never lived in. I remember often looking up IMDB fun facts about the behind-the-scenes of the sets and learning a bit about some production processes. But I didn’t know much about working in film.

Everything kind of happened by chance. I ended up studying biology in college, but I felt more drawn to artistic and literature classes. I then had important health issues, and did not want to continue studying about health or medicine. That’s when I started following less and less this idea I had when I was younger.

Courtesy of Bella Barkett

How did you get involved with Shasha?

During the pandemic, I returned to London, which was a weird time for me, as I was doing online classes at 2 am and finishing my last year of school. I went from socializing on campus to connecting with people online. Instagram became this digital connection point then, through which I met Roisin Tapponi, founder of Shasha Movies and Habibi Collective.

A few months later, Roisin reached out and shared her idea of launching and creating a platform (that would become Shasha Movies) in response to the Habibi collective. So many people would ask in the comments of the collective’s page where they could stream the movies featured on their Instagram because it was an issue four or five years ago to find older SWANA movies on streaming.

What I instantly loved about Shasha is that the team did not come necessarily with a film background, but we all enjoyed the idea of working with movies. So I started, and learned a lot along the curve. At first, we had little to no knowledge on production, distribution, etc, but Roisin already had Habibi Collective, so she took the lead and guided us. But now it’s been two years, the team evolved and Shasha is constantly changing and reacting to the times, which I really appreciate. 

You’re also an event planner. How is it to be planning events in the region? 

There’s this special feeling of being able to meet under the same roof, under the same space with people you love, people you don’t know, and just watch a film start to end. And then of course seeing different ways of how that program, those series of films can be breathed life into. So the film doesn’t become just what’s shown from start to end, it becomes the process before, the process after. You, yourself (the viewer) are part of the art.

I’ve been working mostly on these nomadic film clubs, that are travelling the world. The point is not really to create a cinema club, but rather something that is catered to the people on-site, to let them lead the discussions about movies, and our programme. It’s the meaning of these people’s gathering that should lead the purpose of our events, and not the other way around. We are also trying to set up partnerships with different non-profits that work with film around the world. 

“Our events are about not just dropping our programme but meeting half way and opening that dialogue of collaboration and communication, which is always the best part of my role.”

What’s in for the future in terms of SWANA cinema and events? Do you see it evolving in a positive way?

Yes! I see it progressing. Platforms such as Azeema or Middle East Archive are doing a great job showcasing (first-time) directors and creatives by placing their work within larger institutions. These organizations are also increasing the visibility of directors and artists by making their work more accessible, making it no longer necessary to go deep into an archive to see their work. I think there are quite a lot of initiatives going that way.

But also, in terms of SWANA movies and big distributions, it’s changing. Arab stories are getting more views on platforms like Netflix, which include more diverse characters and showcase more genres. The depth of the stories is also changing; they are becoming more elaborate and less stereotypical compared to the early 2000s.

With Shasha movies, do you privilege newer movies or try to mix and match? 

With Shasha, we try to have old and new cinema. Cause yeah, sometimes you’re like ; where do we watch old stuff from our region?

We felt there was a need and want to represent these old films, and have a place to show them. I think it’s so important to look to your past to create something new. But we also love new directors, first time directors, they really cherish their movies and have great ideas. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yasmine is a Tunisian-Italian freelance writer based in Amsterdam. Her writings are strongly inspired by her North African upbringing and culture, and her thoughts on identity and diasporic nostalgia. You will mostly find her reporting on societal phenomena in the MENA region, often in relation to digital culture, art, and fashion