Film: A Powerful Tool for Social Inclusion
I spent last week at a documentary-making seminar in Belgium. The land of chocolates and waffles. (Oh, and the European Parliament – but I have to be honest about what excites me…)
After exploring Brussels and relishing the quality sugar-rush you just don’t get in Britain, I caught a train to the nearby city of Leuven. The next five days were a whirlwind of exploring technology and experiencing people.
The seminar, funded by the Council of Europe and organised by FEMYSO (Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations), had two broad aims. Firstly, a qualified Apple instructor taught us to video-edit on Final Cut Pro X, perhaps the best video editing software out there. (When I was interning at The Guardian’s Multimedia department, this was the programme used). And secondly, we discussed strategies of producing a documentary and explored its relationship with the concept of social inclusion.
“Film is like music – it’s a universal language”, explained Niam Itani, an award-winning screenwriter and producer who flew in from Beirut to speak to us. She argued that film is a powerful tool for social inclusion when done correctly; using stories instead of propaganda. “Stories which films are built on are universal – they travel, they cross borders. And then film is another universal medium because it is images and music – it travels. So you are using two very powerful tools.”
Mainstream narratives of minority communities are often inaccurate and can be misguided by either ignorance or agendas. This seminar was a fantastic initiative that brought together young European Muslims from all walks of life to discuss their specific contexts and how creativity through film can be used to build bridges, break down misconceptions and empower those communities.
“Film is like music – it’s a universal language” – Niam Itani
We learnt as much from each other as we did from the course. Personally, it was probably the first time I genuinely added European to one of my identities. I’ve never really felt a European affiliation being on this lonely island of ours. It’s a typical Brit perspective to see us as different to the continent (and yes all the countries of the continent are bunged into that word). But my subconscious isolation from Europe started to break down on this trip. Maybe it was a combination of visiting the European Parliament, realising how easy it is to cross borders in Europe, and crucially, sharing similar experiences with the people I met.
Most people came from immigrant communities which settled in European countries a few generations back. Like me, they had multiple identities and faced the challenges that come with it.
Kevser, 25 years old from Germany, is studying for a double bachelors degree at the University of Cologne in Romanistic French and the Languages and Cultures of the Islamic World. She emphasises the confusion of identities young people like herself can face. “The problem in Germany is that immigrants don’t know if they are Turkish or German. If you go to Turkey you are German, and if living in Germany you are Turkish. And then the third point is that you are Muslim.” The religious component is significant as she points out that at least Italian and Polish immigrants are Christian – “they have a common point with the German people.”
The religious element in identity politics is perhaps currently most stark for European Muslims in France. Sonia is 26 years old, has a Postgraduate Program in Financial Maths, and works in investment banking in Paris. She tells me the story of how she wore the headscarf in such a tense political climate. In November 2011 she decided to wear the hijab ‘full-time’ – this included the work environment. As expected, people were shocked. Her boss called her in to ask if she had become an extremist, if this was to do with the Arab Spring, if it was actually legal to wear the small piece of cloth on her head. Sonia also works as a volunteer in the human rights organisation CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) and so was well equipped to deal with the barrage of suspicion. “I know the law by heart”, she tells me, and relates how she confidently offered to bring in two lawyers to explain the legality of wearing the headscarf in the private sector.
Behind her broad smile, I can see the emotion and anger brimming in this petite French lady. “This is based on what? My belief in God? I asked my boss, what is the link between me and my religion, and the risk report we have to produce at the end of the day?” Since wearing the hijab a few months ago she has been increasingly sidelined at work, not allowed into meetings as her presence is too shocking, and her methodology has been criticised as incompetent. She points out that she has been using the same working style at this company for five years – how could praise turn to criticism in only the last few months?
“How can France be a country of human rights and freedom? It’s just bullsh** we learn at school” – Sonia
I saw that everyone has their own story to tell. Everyone has their own challenges, pains, and dreams. Film is a way to express these emotions and ideas. From exploring issues of identity to normalising the presence of women in hijab.
Elmedin, 23 years old from Bosnia, is trying to make a career as a film-maker.”I believe a film without a message isn’t a good film. I want to achieve an impact on human minds.” One of his successful short films explores the relationship between a son and his mother. It is always emotional for the audience – but this is what he wants; to emphasise the crucial place a mother holds in our lives. He also stays away from what he deems inappropriate scenes (namely erotic) and despite many films having that in the mix of reels, he wants to prove you can be successful without conforming.
In this documentary-making seminar, young European Muslims had a platform to share their struggles, passions and hopes. Despite our different backgrounds, we all shared a belief that investing in multimedia is an important outlet of creative expression and a crucial step forward in trying to change negative narratives about the Muslim presence in certain communities.
Everyone I met had a captivating story to tell – I hope that one day I’ll see their stories through film.