Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Films & Politics

The DC International Film Festival is on, so on Sunday, my friend & I went to watch Black, a new Bollywood film that is about a girl (Rani Mukherjee) who is deaf, mute & blind & her journey through life with the help of her teacher (Amitabh Bachan). It is inspired from Helen Keller's story & I was curious to see how Bollywood would handle such a sensitive issue & was impressed that the Hindi film industry was venturing in tackling social & political issues rather than the usual love story. Well, I was in for a surprise - not only was the theatre packed with about 400 people (mainly South Asians) but the guest of honor was none other than the Big B! It was a truly amazing experience to see THE legend of Bollywood & the most popular actor in the world. He talked about how this has been his most favorite & difficult role as he & Rani spent about 7 months at a schol for the disabled in order to learn sign language. I also learned that he is the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF to help raise awareness about polio & persuade women from rural areas to get their children vaccinated & equal opportunities for girls in education. During the Q&A session, one girl asked him to sing & he called her beside him on the stage & said a few lines from a popular song (Kabhi Kabhi) to her - she almost fainted!! The director of the film festival was on a radio program today & said he had never seen anything like this & that Bachan's fame even beat Elvis Presley’s!

There is no doubt that we live in a very visual society & the saying "An image is more powerful than a thousand words" is truer than ever before. That is why I'm glad to see movies like Black to attempt to educate the public about an important issue. Another Bollywood movie that was praised a few months ago, even by the UN, was
Phir Milenge which talked about the myths & facts about HIV/AIDS.

As an activist, I have noticed how films are being used to raise awareness about political issues. For instance, an Indian film director recently released a film called
Final Solution which highlights the atrocities committed against Muslims in Gujrat three years ago. Last Wednesday, my organization co-launched a movie with another organization about female child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former known as Zaire). The event was a great success as we had a panel discussion with the film director himself - the agony viewers saw on the faces of the child soldiers (some as young as 10) who had been abused & sexually exploited, will stay with them forever. There are countless movies on Palestine & Iraq which are extremely powerful too.

If you haven't seen the movie
Hotel Rwanda, I urge you all to see it. It is incomprehensible that 800,000 people were hacked to death in 100 days in 1994 as the world silently watched. The movie is about a hotel manager who gives refuge to about a 1000 people who would otherwise have been murdered. It is a powerful reminder how just one person CAN make a difference. It also portrays the devastating consequences of hatred. There is one scene where a UN official who is trying his best to help out breaks down the reality by saying something like: “The world doesn’t care because you are black. And you’re not even a nigger, you’re an African.” I have often wondered how people would have reacted if the Sudanese were not black or were in Europe – the silence on part of the Muslim World is disgusting too because the life of a Sudanese is no less worthy than that of a Palestinian or an Iraqi.

The hardest part about the movie is knowing that it is all true. Another heart wrenching part of the movie is when the hotel manager asks a journalist how is it possible that people will not come to their aid after seeing such horrific images, The journalist says that people will probably see it on their news during dinner & say something like “Oh that’s so sad!” & go right back to eating. Many people ask me "What can I do about Darfur/Sudan?" I have a simple answer: call your representative, write a letter to the editor, talk to your family & friends, raise awareness. A former Senator once said, "If every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we had to do something about Rwanda... I think the response would have been different."

Many of us live in a democracy & with the privileges that we enjoy, come responsibilities. If you have not contacted your representative yet, please do so - if you need help, please let me know.

Speaking of visual arts, on Saturday, a friend of mine invited me to an Islamic arts show featuring three Muslim artists: two female calligraphers & a male photographer who had many pictures from Turkey & his other travels. It was very well attended & it was nice to mingle with Muslims for a change. I enjoy hanging out with my non-Muslim friends/colleagues too but I don't participate in Happy Hour (huge part of the culture in DC), so I sometimes get homesick. One thing I have noticed is how such gatherings are great places for Sunnis & Shias to meet in a comfortable environment & get to know each other - I have made many Sunni friends in DC & it's been a great experience for me to learn more about their perspective & for them to learn more about Shiaism.

This is the 3rd time I've left home & every time I leave, I go through a period of questioning my identity. I wonder, "Who am I?" In politics, you automatically get labeled either as a "liberal" or "conservative" which I hate because I don't fit completely into either camp. I have to be so careful as a Muslim woman because I know people are observing & will make judgments about Muslims based on their experiences with me. Some of the people I work with have never worked with or befriended Muslims before - esp a woman in Hijab, so I'm constantly answering questions about Islam. Whenever, I attend events or meetings, I'm usually the only Muslim present which is sad because we definitely need more Muslims in the political field. Many times, I see white male politicians & it makes my blood boil that they make decisions that affect the rest of the world when they don't know anything about other religions, countries, cultures, problems, etc. Although I'm glad I am able to get rid of misconceptions, it gets really tiring - it's a constant battle between being a Muslim, Shia, activist, employee, woman, human being - sometimes I just want to be Fatema - myself, but find it impossible to do, except when I'm alone at home. All I can say is that being a Muslim woman in politics is TOUGH....