To consider the veil as a symbol of freedom and independence seems, to say the least, paradoxical in Western society in the XXIst century. Yet the story of young Mariam brings another perspective to the question. By telling Mariam's almost ordinary life story, Saudi film director Faiza Ambah addresses a series of reflections on identity and multiculturalism, with a special focus on adolescence, friendship and love.
“We are individuals, not a series of clichés,” says Faiza Ambah, “and it is dangerous and dehumanizing to sort the world into two categories – us versus them – regardless of which side you are on. This is what makes killing people easier.”
Faiza Ambah, like Mariam, was born from Arab secular parents, in a Western country. She probably would not have felt torn between two cultures if she had not been requested to choose one against the other; if people around her had not tried to stick a simplistic identity label on her.
Mariam, like Faiza Ambah, is perfectly adapted to the society chosen by her parents. She is a good student, wearing jeans and t-shirts, adopting a lifestyle consistent with her age and school environment. But when she becomes a teenager, she suddenly goes through a period of uncertainty and, as most teenagers, she needs to both be reassured and affirm her personality, her difference, her identity.
What’s the solution? To keep on her head the hijab she wore during the pilgrimage to Mecca with her grandmother! But this souvenir of warmth and well-being which she very much wants to keep with her, in France, is banished from French schools, in accordance with the 2004 Law on signs or dress by which pupils overtly manifest religious affiliation…
Faiza Ambah, unlike Mariam, did not choose to wear the hijab. A leading figure of women's emancipation, she was a pioneer of women's journalism in her home country. Before her, none of her female compatriots had interviewed well known Saudi and international figures or wrote about politics, oil, social and economic issues in English or covered the region for the international press. She started at the Saudi-based Arab News, and then moved to the international press where she was a correspondent for The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post, before she decided to focus on filmmaking in 2009.
Mariam is not a film about the hijab, says the film director, whose fundamental claim is probably as simple as difficult to achieve: the right to be yourself, whatever the consequences.
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On 22 September 2015, at 6:30pm, Room XI, UNESCO organizes the screening of Mariam (in French with English subtitles), as part of the commemoration of the International Day of Peace (21 September) and in the framework of the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures (2013-2022).
The screening is followed by a debate with Faiza Ambah, the film director, Jérôme Bleitrach, the producer, Jocelyne Dakhlia, specialist of history and anthropology, and Malika Mansouri, psychologist and psychoanalyst.