"I am against soul-draining compromises" - an interview with Faiza Ambah
“We are individuals, not a series of clichés, 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,” says Faiza Ambah, Saoudi filmmaker, whose film Mariam is screened at UNESCO, on 22 September, as part of the commemoration of the International Day of Peace 2015.
Why did you choose, in your first film Mariam to address the complex and multifaceted issue of identity - culture, religion, age – in a context of multiculturalism?
I have always felt, without being able to articulate it before, that immigrants were always expected to ‘clean themselves’ of their foreignness to be accepted in their host countries. To get rid of their accents and habits and everything that made them foreign. So there is often a tension in people like myself who straddle two cultures, we want to maintain our roots but we also want to be accepted by our Western peers. It’s not always an easy balance, and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between who you really are, and who you need to be to get acceptance. Sometimes we bend over backwards to prove that we also have Western values, that we are not inferior, are just like everyone else, no different than our Western peers. We criticise our traditions of Arabs or Japanese or whatever culture we might come from, to better fit in the new country. But by doing so, we also lose an important part of ourselves.
It is only recently that I have started rebelling against this. And embracing my foreignness. I no longer want to rub myself clean of everything that makes me a foreigner. My habits, my accent, my cultural beliefs. As an Arab who has been immersed in Western culture, I have to come to terms with the fact that someone like me will always feel like a foreigner, whether it’s in the West or in the Arab world.
But my vision of what would be ideal is that immigrant citizens be accepted with their foreignness as the French or American citizens that they are, as part and parcel of the American or French fabric, without having to make soul-draining compromises.
Precisely, Mariam needs to embrace her differences and, like most teenagers, assert her independence from the authority figures in her life, whether it be offcial (her school) or private (her father).
Teenagers usually rebel against what is around them. Mariam’s father is a secular intellectual. Her step-mother is a secular working woman. She doesn't need more logic or more 'Western values' inside her home. She misses the warmth and spirituality she found with her grandmother in Makka. Her family home is void of spirituality, a cold shell. So that is where she goes to rebel. If she came from a very devout family she would have rebelled in another manner. Probably in the opposite direction.
Is that why in your story the veil becomes a symbol of strength, security and freedom?
Anything you choose to do empowers you. You are the one who gives meaning to what you wear. I am tired of societies deciding for women what freedom is. For some women wearing the hijab (Muslim headscarf) gives them the freedom to be themselves. For others wearing a bikini gives a sense of freedom. A woman who feels liberated in a bikini should be allowed to wear a bikini. And a woman who feels liberated and closer to God and stronger in a hijab, should also be able to wear one without being judged.
People judge the hijab, or the bikini, based on their own perceptions of those things. Not on the perceptions of the person who is wearing them.
In Saudi Arabia for example, women are made to feel that wearing the hijab makes them more respectable, as if forcing women to cover is not sexism. In the West, women are made to feel that exploiting their bodies to sell everything from shaving cream to cars is respectable, as if it’s not sexism.
You add romance to the mix of a film about a teenager on a spiritual quest. Why did you choose to do that?
Because Mariam is not a cliché or a stereotype. She’s a 15-year old girl. Fifteen year old girls fall easily in love. They are very susceptible to the opposite sex. And Mariam is no different. The love affair with Karim was also a pleasurable way for Mariam to forget about the big decision she was confronted with. It allowed her to be in denial about the fact that she was soon going to be forced to either lose a major link to her spirituality and beliefs, or be forced to leave school. Karim was also an escape from this reality for her.
The fact that he is a young man of Arab origin rebelling against the ban on the hijab, which for him is an iconic part and parcel of his culture, made Mariam believe that they were soulmates, fighting the same fight. But like many young men, Karim’s activism and beliefs, and his choice of who to date, don’t necessarily translate to the same thing.
In the same way that Mariam is forced to take off the veil, other girls are forced to wear the veil. In both cases, one question arises: the submission of women. Was it the starting point for your film?
Absolutely. Very much so. I came to France in 2011, the year the ban on niqab (cloth that covers the face) went into effect. I had just arrived from Saudi Arabia, where the law requires women to wear the hijab and where many women in the more conservative cities feel pressured to wear the niqab.
I personally don’t believe in wearing the hijab, I don’t believe Islam demands it of women, and I don’t wear the hijab except for when I have to, like when I’m in Saudi Arabia.
But I felt a kinship with these veiled women in France, who, like me, were not allowed to dress the way they like. Who were threatened with fines and arrest for dressing in a way they believed made them closer to their God. The same way, not wearing the hijab makes me feel closer to my God.
What part of yourself have you assigned to Mariam?
I know what it’s like to fall in love with someone based solely on your own wishes. I know what it’s like to crave something more powerful, more substantive than the daily and the mundane. And for five minutes, on my way back from the hajj, which I covered as a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, in the car ride back from Mecca to Jeddah, I wanted so badly to maintain the deep and incandescent spirituality I was feeling, that I considered wearing the hijab. Participating in the five-day ritual in and around Mecca I felt closer to God. I could imagine that God really existed, and I so badly did not want to lose that feeling.
So I understand Mariam when she talks about wanting to maintain that feeling of security and warmth and of being embraced by God. And wanting to bring it home with her, even symbolically, to her cold and logical home with her intellectual father and step-mother. She wants something that is her own. That is private and intimate to her. That means something, and adds warmth, only to her.
In Saudi Arabia, you are a pioneer of female journalism. What were the main difficulties and what support did you receive?
I was very lucky because my father was the first feminist I knew. He treated his daughters like he would have treated sons. He sent us abroad to study, encouraged us to work, and expected us to make something of our lives. My first editor in chief at the Arab News was also very supportive. I was the only woman in a four-story building, and I was working in a cubicle next to male colleagues.
One of the small sacrifices was wearing the hijab throughout my shift. I didn’t like it, but I did it because I understood that it made it possible for me to break new ground and allow women to prove that they could work among a male work force. I was making strides and opening doors for all Saudi women. After I left, the paper hired six female journalists. And other newspapers started doing the same. So my positive experience paved the way for others.
But when foreign journalists came to interview me during their visits to Saudi Arabia, all they saw was an oppressed female wearing the hijab. I had the strong impression that anything I said they couldn’t hear. They thought they already knew me because in their mind, a woman wearing a hijab is not an individual. She is a stereotype. A factory-produced clone.
One thing Jérôme Bleitrach, my French producer, and I consciously strived for, when making Mariam, was the insistence on the fact that this was not a film about ‘the hijab.’ It is a film about ‘one hijab.’ This generalisation of a whole sub-population is dangerous and dehumanizing. There is not one big box where we can throw all women who wear the hijab. There are as many individual stories and reasons as there are hijabs.
Why did you abandon a successful career in journalism to devote yourself to cinema?
I became a journalist for the same reason I am now a filmmaker. To fill a void. To humanise my culture. To tell stories and shed light on things that seem obvious to me, but which many people in the West don’t see at all. I feel that Arabs and Muslims are seen as a monolith, not as individuals and I have this strong desire to speak out and give a voice to a culture that for many years has been mainly news fodder.
When I was growing up, the idea of being a film director was not a part of the list of things a Saudi woman could do. But I’d always been interested in writing fiction. I tried my hand at writing several novels but never completed any.
When I was Gulf Correspondent for the Washington Post based in Saudi Arabia, I was able to take online screenwriting courses. I fell in love with the puzzle-like aspect. A script is like a Rubik’s cube, if you move one side, it changes everything else. You have to get all the sides working together. And when that happens it’s magical.
I wrote one script and then a second. I was torn between my job which I loved and respected, and this new passion that had been ignited in me, and I left journalism to pursue it full time. It was scary, but I took several summer courses in directing, in Los Angeles and in Paris. But the real university was the three months of pre-production, the 11-day shoot of Mariam, and the three months of post-production.
What are your future projects?
I’m working on a feature script about an Egyptian imam running a mosque in Brooklyn, New York. It also touches on the subjects that are close to my heart. We are individuals, not a series of clichés, and it is dangerous and dehumanizing to sort the world into two categories, us versus them, regardless of which side you are on. It’s what makes killing people easier.
I’m also developing a science fiction project I’m very excited about that goes in a new direction for me.
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Interview conducted by Jasmina Šopova (UNESCO)
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Faiza Ambah is a pioneer of female journalism in Saoudi Arabia. She was the first woman to interview politicians and important social figures for Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper. Later, she became a correspondent for The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post, before deciding to focus on filmmaking in 2009.
On 22 September 2015, at 6:30pm, Room XI, UNESCO organizes the screening of her 40 min film 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).
A debate follows the screening with the participation of Faiza Ambah, the film director, Jérôme Bleitrach, the producer, Jocelyne Dakhlia, specialist of history and anthropology, and Malika Mansouri, psychologist and psychoanalyst.