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 Her home was targeted due to faulty and outdated "intelligence".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?"