Sunday, November 19, 2017

On being an anti-war filmmaker

People are dying. People have been killed.
People are human beings.
Iraqis are human beings. Iraqi civilians are human beings.
Iraqis matter. Civilians matter.

In the last couple of years there have been 2 NYT investigations related to Daesh and Iraq that have utterly devastated me. The first was this report from August 2015 on their sex slavery camps, that raised many uncomfortable questions in my mind about Islamic doctrine. The second, is from an email I received a couple days ago from Azmat Khan, a journalist who I went to college with a decade ago at the University of Michigan. Azmat, tremendously, courageously, and astutely, alongside with her colleague Anand Gopal, spent 18 months in Iraq uncovering the number of civilians that have been killed by U.S. airstrikes that supposedly target Daesh. Read their investigation here. 

There are so many meandering thoughts in my silly little brain after reading their work, and after hearing Azmat's interviews on NPR and PBS Newshour.

Of course my first thought is of how the American government does not care, at all, about how many civilians it kills. Indeed, they are uncounted. People like Iraqis, are seen to be expendable, as not human beings. Their lives do not matter to those who decide to invade, occupy, and kill. The journalists mention that the U.S. government actually doesn't even aim for 0 civilian casualties. And so a little 2-year-old girl, Rawa, will be the only survivor of an airstrike that killed 7 members of her family, including her parents. Her home was targeted due to faulty and outdated "intelligence". The American government could not care less, literally.

I remember 2003. I remember March 2003, when America invaded Iraq for the second time. I was in high school in Metro Detroit, and I went to a school that was a third Arab (and is probably about half Arab by now). I grew up during the Bush Administration, during the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, this so called War On Terror, and felt the boomerang effects of the war as the war came home via draconian surveillance on my faith community - and all of it is still ongoing. During these years I felt that I was facing an immensely massive, angry, violent dog, and in turn I was backed up into a corner. It's during this period when I first became politicized, and this is the same age and time when I decided I wanted to write and direct films. I realize now that it is because I wanted to reclaim and portray the humanity of my people. The humanity.

I've been told by my father's side of the family that I am 1/8 Iraqi, that I have a great-grandfather who came to India from Iraq. This is a mystery to me that I've longed to uncover someday, somehow, before it's too late, but I don't know how and I don't know when I'll get to dive into this history. Along with wanting to further explore the villages and towns in Bihar/Jharkand that my grandparents were from, some of which don't exist anymore as they got erased during the Hindu-Muslim violence of Partition, I also want to go to Iraq and see where this ancestor of mine came from. Iraq has frequently been on my mind since 2003, and I've created past film work about the war before. Perhaps it was because of this subconscious connection, perhaps not.

During my more activist days I identified for a time as an anti-war filmmaker. Since I've been able to dive more deeply into creating fictional work, which was my goal all along, I haven't used that label for myself as much, as it didn't seem as applicable.

But for the last week or so, my mind has drifted back to the notion of me being an anti-war filmmaker. Is creating films about migrants anti-war? Is creating films that complicate the narrative of what it means to be Muslim, anti-war?

Perhaps not directly. But anti-war also means anti-violence. Forced migrants, largely migrate because of violence. In creating films that are about migrants, there is a subtle and indirect, and sometimes very direct, commentary on "legal violence" that migrants are subjected to (a term I learned recently). And in creating films that show just how varied Muslim life is, that too is anti-war as it's a means to humanize my faith community - to get away from the language of war and terror, to show life as it is actually lived instead. And so perhaps just creating humanizing portrayals of communities is inherently anti-war, anti-violence.

I am an anti-war filmmaker. I do try to not put more labels on myself, but I think this is one I am returning to. It's a label that very few use now unfortunately, even though we now need more anti-war storytellers more than ever, as the violence in the world we live in just seems to be increasing.

I am so proud of what Azmat and co did (and for once I feel proud of the Umich connection, and I think is also a reason of why Azmat was able to connect to Zareena Grewal, mentioned in the report). I cannot fathom how difficult it must have been to spend 18 months talking to so many victims, survivors, seeing so many wrecked homes, the horror from the aftermath of airstrikes - and the reporters were in Mosul and the surrounding areas when it was all until very recently, under Daesh rule. Ultimately though, this is not about me, or about them, at all. It is about Iraqis.

Transcript from the NPR interview:
"KHAN: Well, it's very fascinating because Basim tried himself to report this case on multiple occasions.


KHAN: And he even had a cousin who was a professor at Yale who had written an op-ed in The New York Times about this airstrike. Basim is somebody who speaks fluent English. He lived in the United States for years. He has access to email. He could document his case really, really well with GPS coordinates. There was a video of the airstrike.

So here's somebody who's really acting in the best-case scenario. And in his case, it took him a year and a half to get the coalition to admit that these were civilians publicly. It took him a year and a half to do that. So what chance do these Iraqis who are much poorer, who don't speak English, who don't have access to these resources, who don't necessarily meet a Western...

MCEVERS: Right - have cousin at Yale University.

KHAN: Exactly. What chance do they have?"

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On men and Harvey Weinstein

“What are you studying?” he asks repeatedly, louder each time. I’m reading the Guardian and not paying attention to anything else, and I realize this stranger is addressing me. He demands to know, because of course he demands, he thinks he deserves my attention. “Film”. “Oh, do you wanna be a producer or a director?” I think, I’m already a director, arsehole, and have been for years. “Directing”. “Good luck, you’re at a great school. You’re gonna make it”. I don’t need your encouragement, random bald white man, nor do I want it.

Then the classic. “Where are you from?” I’ve finally learned that I do not have to answer this stupid fucking question, and of how to ignore it. “All over”. He laughs. “That’s a good one”. He says something about how he owns a house south of here. I don’t care about your house and nor do I ever wanna see it. I ignore him. He moves one seat closer and I continue to ignore him. He soon leaves, thankfully.

This past Sunday I walked around after doing some work, enjoying the day, the sun, the music on my headphones. A man cycled up to me; I couldn’t hear him coz of my headphones, but I could tell he was saying “Can I ask you something?” I was at a crosswalk. I told him no, and ignored him. I didn’t want this man, yet another man who thinks he’s entitled to my attention, time, or conversation, to ruin my day.

If these men think I’m they’re “exotic erotic”, they can and should piss off. I don’t know if its my brown skin, my hijab, how I loosely wear it, I dunno, but these stupid encounters happen too often, and interrupt my day. I currently wear hijab (and sometimes I don’t, depending on the space) and I wonder if I didn’t wear hijab at all anymore, if I’d still get encounters like this or if they’d change and become worse. I’m also not highly feminine, nor do I try to be, and I wonder if I was, if these encounters would again get worse.

Why do so many men think they’re entitled to a woman’s attention, time, conversation – or body? Why? We have words as to why, patriarchy, misogyny, etc., but just naming these things doesn’t make them go away. These are universal diseases and unfortunately, they’re also timeless and classic. Meaning, this shit has been going on for so long, practically everywhere.

Why did Harvey Weinstein think he’s so entitled to women’s attention, time, conversations, but especially, their bodies? To so, so many women. When the news reports first started gathering about his sexual assaults just a few days ago, I wasn’t surprised, at all. I’m no Hollywood insider, nor do I aim to be, but I’m aware enough of Harvey Weinstein to know of his status and power, and how he’d use that all to his advantage and think that he’s entitled to having women. I say “having” because essentially Weinstein, like billions of men throughout history, view women only as objects, as something to have, to consume.

So many of the reports – and there are more women coming forward everyday – but still not many men also speaking against him – talk of how scared the woman was of Weinstein, not only because of his size but also of his power. His power. Power. His power to start careers and end them, completely at his own will. The women were too afraid to report before, in case he would sabotage their careers (and he did to those who did say anything), and/or were afraid to fight back in case he’d sabotage their careers (and he did that to those who physically resisted).

This man, this Hollywood giant, assaulted so many women over decades, was able to get away with it this whole time, because of his power.

Power is disgusting. Harvey Weinstein is disgusting. Men, those who think they’re entitled to speak to me or suggest things to me, just because they’re men, whether they’re strangers or men whose phone numbers I have because I work with them, are disgusting.

I don’t know what else to say really. I suppose I’ll repeat what many others have already said: men need to be raised better.

I think of my nephew often. Let’s call him Joey. Joey is so sensitive; he’s always asking about people, and isn’t afraid to tell people that he loves them. I hope Joey always stays that way, to be so emotionally intelligent, and I hope other little boys are also raised without the notions of machismo, that trap them. Indeed, when men free themselves from the trappings of patriarchy and misogyny, of thinking of themselves as more than their sexual organs and thinking of women as more than objects, all are more free.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

On dissonance

I returned and saw something new on the fridge: a flyer for a rally that took place when I was away, by the Burmese American Muslim Association to raise awareness about the genocide of the Rohingya.

After more than a week and a half of being back, today I stopped and looked more closely at it. There's a photo of a highly distraught woman carrying a half-naked toddler. Both are severely disheveled, and the woman is crying. The image of this woman and her child is distressing, and I think that's the point and why it's on the flyer.

However, I will never meet this woman. She has no idea who I am, and I have no idea who she is. What's much worse though is that there's practically nothing I can do to actually help her. The horrors this woman has seen and faced, and survived, I will never know, can only attempt to imagine.

The dissonance is that a photographer in the field snapped this photo, uploaded it to a wire service, from where it got utilized and the designer of this flyer found this photo of this woman and child, and stuck it on the flyer, which is now on our fridge. I almost wish I could unsee this image, but that speaks to the volumes of privilege I have over this woman, in that I do not have to face war, genocide, or forced migration, rather I can very easily turn away from these things and never have to know about it.

The dissonance is that I wish could meet this woman and her child and family, do what I can to pool resources and provide those resources to them, and make sure that they will always be safe, healthy, and have a home and a community to go home to. But I can't do any of these things. I could donate some money to any relief efforts that are on the ground, but that is most likely the only actual thing I can do.

I will post this and go back to working and listening to music. Why is it that my own life can be so frivolous and I can attempt to work for meaning in my own life, but this unnamed and unknown woman...I wonder where she is sleeping tonight, if they are safe, if they have food and water - but honestly they probably don't. I have all of these things. Alhumdulillah. But why can I have many things - all of which I'm grateful for - and she has nothing?

Most of the world is in willful ignorance about what's happening to the Rohingya. They are facing genocide. They are Muslim. Is it because they are Muslim, that most of the world is not causing a fuss? A few years ago a term "Islamo-fascism" was getting thrown around; rather it is Muslims who have faced fascism, with genocides in Bosnia and now in Burma. They are seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, a South Asian and majority Muslim country. Is it because they are not going to Europe, that the world is again not causing a fuss? The Rohingya are also coming on boats. Those boats are also capsizing. What will it take for people to just even be aware of what's happening? I am made aware due to the flyer on my fridge put there by my Burmese roommate. If this hadn't happened and/or if I didn't live with her, I too could remain willfully ignorant.

The dissonance is that I can write and post this while this woman will continue to suffer, and there's nothing I can do about it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

On Work

Excerpt from Gibran Khalil Gibran's جبران خليل جبران‎‎ poem "On Work" from The Prophet:

"Work is love made visible.
    And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
    For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
    And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine.
    And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night."

This passage has come back to me a lot these last couple of weeks. First, it was when I was writing like a fiend in an attempt to finish my screenplay (insert cliche of Los Angeles *here*, yes). It was hard but thrilling and as I got closer and closer to finishing, I got more excited. The effort was worth it and sometimes I thought, why am I doing this? Like, why? Why does this matter? And then I remembered Gibran's line: "Work is love made visible". That is essentially what I was doing...I poured myself into pushing keyboard buttons, hoping that it'd all make some sense, because I wanted to, because it's important to me, and because some part of me did enjoy it - a big part of me felt fulfilled, with writing and finishing that writing. So yes, that was work made visible.

I have worked this whole summer - which is actually what I wanted. I didn't get any time off, and the end of August was the culmination as well as the beginning of a bunch of things. However, I felt grateful, as it was only 2 years ago as I was telling a coworker, when I had nothing at all going on for me. I was out of work, out of money, out of ambition and ideas. That's the moment when, pretty much exactly 2 years ago, is when I decided to apply to graduate film schools, and when I seriously started pondering leaving NY, of actually doing so this time. 

2 years later, on Thursday last week was the last day of my full-time paid summer internship at a socially-conscious film company, and it was perfect for me; I also had to turn something in major that day (duas for that, fingers crossed, etc, duas for real); and I had to pack and clean in the midst of it all, as well as receive my subletter. It was a lot for one day. In addition I showed my subletter around a bit as it's her 1st time in Yankland. So, an incredibly full day, but in terms of work, yes it was a lot of work that I had to do and put in, but I'm grateful for it all, because I know what it's like in comparison to have nothing going on. 

It's not even a week later and I find myself itching to work again. What happened? I never thought of myself as a workholic. I don't think I am one. Perhaps it is anxiety about my trip, that might be it. Though filmmaking in general is a very anxious thing, as it's a 24/7 hustle. You can't ever really take a break from it. Because if you do, the whole machine can just stop. And right now, the only part of that machine, is me. To get a film going, it's all on me at this stage. And it takes a lot of effort and muscle and brainpower and time and commitment to get anything off the ground, especially when it's just one person. Other people don't come into the picture until much later. For months and years, it is just me: pondering, researching, writing, applying, fundraising. So it's constant work around-the-clock, and I find myself, at a time that I supposedly have off, that no, this isn't really time off, there are things I need to research and connects that I need to make, ASAP. 

It's anxiety, yes. Whether it's travel anxiety or filmmaking anxiety, I'm not sure, but the only way to tackle it is to work. And it's work I enjoy doing. I'm lucky now where my work consists of working on my films - I don't have to do anything else. Even that internship was pretty specialized and fit my goals really well, so I greatly enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, alhumdulillah. Basically these days, I find that the work that I'm doing is for myself, for my films, which is what I've wanted so badly for so, so long. Who knew that I'd have to go to school for that to clearly didn't happen on its own like it has for others. By the way, I know what real anxiety is like and how crippling it is...last year it resulted in me not being able to do anything, at all...whereas now I just want to keep working and moving. Thank God.

Anyway, blah blah. Work. I'm in Metro Detroit currently where I spent 8 months last year. Today I drove around and saw some of the places I worked at - the library, cafes, etc. A big part of me wishes I could just spend the rest of my time here doing my work at these places, that would feel pretty great, but I can't, there are a few rounds I have to make, and it'd annoy Mum if I spent all my time outside the house. Part of me wishes I could spend a month in MI - on my own - and do my work at the libraries and cafes that I know and enjoy. 

But that is not likely to happen, for reasons I'll write about soon.  

Edit: Part of me thinks I should have spent this night doing more actual work. But instead, I read, and I wrote (blogged...this). I know in the end it'll be better for me to have taken time to reflect, read and write, than just plain keep working. Because all of that is work too, and makes my "actual" work, better. If I want to be better at what I do, I should be better, and reading and writing makes me, perhaps not always better, but at least more reflective and hopefully a little bit more aware about things. Hopefully.
Also I'll be spending part of tomorrow working at a locale I know well...and I am geekily excited about that. 

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

On Being A World Citizen

I'm a world citizen. So is Salma Hayek.

People tell me that I'm a world citizen, "a citizen of the world". The Guardian calls Salma Hayek a world citizen as she's Mexican-Lebanese, lives in London and is married to a Frenchman.

Some time ago somewhere, my awful memory can't remember how or where (#migrantlife), but I think it was in L.A. - I met a black Londoner who told me that she's from Islington. I then had to explain for the somewhat-thousandth time the reason for my accent. I've always envied people who can definitively say that are from somewhere, that they can claim a place. Once at a friend's gathering in Jackson Heights some years ago there was a go-around of intros, and people had to say which place they can claim. I honestly can't remember what I said for myself. Bihar? London? UK? Michigan? Metro Detroit? Certainly not New York, in a room full of many actual New Yorkers.

I very recently met a journalist who calls herself a "permanent migrant" on her Twitter bio. I think that is a terrific term. As HXA, I often use "#migrantlife" to comment on the many ways that all of my moving around has permanently affected my psyche: I'm often confused (see above), having vivid flashbacks, and will forever be an outsider - a "forever outsider".

It's not only that I don't belong to anywhere - I will never belong to anywhere. Ever. It's impossible for that to happen. I will never be "from" anywhere. For even if I were to move back to any of the places I have ties to - I can't say I'm from them, remember - I will still not be from there, I will still not belong - India, London, New York, Michigan. Because I have spent too much time already in other places. I explain to L.A. residents who I meet that: "I was raised in the UK and Michigan, and lived in NY for several years before coming here" and it's always a similar reaction: "Wow, you've really moved around" / "Wow, you've seen a lot of America", etc. Yes, yes I have. Yes, I am messed up as a result. Yes, I as a poor person use film, the most expensive medium, to express how messed up I am because of my migrant life.

Is there an advantage to being a world citizen? I can look at America as both an insider and an outsider I suppose, and other places too. To me though that feeling feels overrated because being a world citizen is quite lonely for me; my brothers have been much more successful at finding life partners for themselves (mashAllah). And there are other things; the reason I am typing this actually at 4:17am is that I had a very early appointment at the passport office yesterday at 7am, and then after work I came home and my nap became me sleeping until 3am. Being a supposed world citizen ruined my sleep cycle - thanks, world.

Also, there's a comfort and an ease that someone has when they can say something like "I'm from Islington" so effortlessly, confidently, and with poise. Whereas I have to say a paragraph just to explain why I'm standing in front of someone, of how I ended up HERE. Right here, in this spot, let's mark it with an X. I can't say "I'm from XYZ" so easily, because it's just not true. It's why I'm going to London next month for a few days; I just want to see the city I was born in, to reconnect with it in some way, in my own time, hence I won't be staying with relatives. I want to see what London is like with Sadiq Khan as mayor (yay!) and after Brexit (Goddammit).

"Where are you from?" is a question that I and many others who aren't white Americans, really hate. Because for me when I'm asked this question, I can't just say one place, I'm forced to mouth my whole paragraph. But most of the time my soul resists answering so fully, because I honestly don't think this complete stranger who I will never talk to ever again, deserves to hear or know my life story - it's not worth my time or energy. So I try to deflect the question as much as possible but sometimes I can't escape it and give a forced answer, to not come off as completely rude. Fuck that though.

Whiteness still annoys me. Even though I feel like in the last few months because of an essay I read (that I have to write about soon) that I'm aiming to move past looking at identity markers, especially as a writer who develops characters, I still cannot get over whiteness or white supremacy. And I probably won't, and I think that's perfectly okay, because white supremacy is not ending tomorrow (how AMAZING would that be though?!). So when a white American asks me where I'm from - a European doesn't matter as much, as they clearly are also not from here - but when a white American asks me that I internally get pissed off, as I know what they are really asking is "Where are you from? Because you're clearly not from here" (hey thanks for reminding me whitey!) or "Why are you brown? / Why do you look the way you do?".

However, when an immigrant and/or a person of colour asks me where I'm from, I don't mind, because I see it as we're comparing notes on our life experiences. Hence when NY taxi drivers asked me where I'm from, I usually just said "My parents are from India". Because I knew what they were really asking me was which Muslim country I'm from, as they were often Muslims themselves if not also South Asian, or they had lots of Muslim friends. But a white American from Massachusetts - "from", hah - asking me the same question pissed me off immensely, and I left that convo as soon as I could.

By the way, I have enough labels on me that I either stuck on myself or that other people stick on me, so I'm not going to add "world citizen" to that silly list.

P.S. the head photo on this blog was taken at DTW in 2009 in what I like to call its "techno tunnel". Yes, taken at an airport. Like I said, #migrantlife. Wow, I really can't escape it.