August 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
April 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
My documentary film was shown at The Fritz two nights ago. Raffi Cavoukian and his Centre for Child Honouring hosted the event as a fundraiser for the non-profit.
Taxi Casablanca, as the film is called, had its world premier at the same small theatre on Salt Spring Island, to a sold-out house of friends and family, exactly three years ago. At the time, I was so bewildered by the project, that had spanned three years of tireless work leaving me utterly exhausted, even broken and damaged from within, that I couldn’t face the crowd who had come out in droves to support me. I couldn’t receive their love and warmth. I sat in the back row and during the movie chugged back straight vodka — can you believe that! I don’t even drink. I just needed to escape how overwhelmed I was inside.
At the end of that first show, a group of women gathered around me. They were so touched by the film that we — all five of us– broke out into tears.
Tears for what? For the story of Zakia Mezzour, for her courage, for her beauty, for her honesty, for her willingness to live.
Tears for what? For the unlived freedom inside of ourselves? For the stories of women that unite us across the world? For the stories that point to our common humanity, our common need to be ourselves and live with freedom, safety, dignity and self-respect? Or maybe tears for our opening hearts — the ways that we come to love people who have nothing to do with us, who live on the other side of the world, whose paths with ours may never intersect.
Were we crying perhaps because “whether we say it out loud or not, or to ourselves or not, or to each other or not, we all know, we all understand in our hearts that women are the soul of the world,” as Sharon Butala wrote in her exquisite memoir Perfection of the Morning. Or because we know on some basic gut level which is often not even conscious or able to be expressed in words, that this, this soul of the world, has not expressed its full potential, is in so many ways, in so many countries, in so many families, in so many governments, not allowed its freedom, or worse yet, is deeply damaged. Flashes of dire poverty, sex-trafficking, violent pornography, forced marriages, domestic violence, rape… We try to force these images and feelings from our minds as we feel helpless to change what has, in our world, become all too commonplace.
We cry because a woman who drives a taxi is a woman who can leave when she wants to, and go where she pleases. In the film, she drives to the sea to escape the noise and pollution of the city. Just this simple choice alone, the decision to go where she must go, to experience what she must experience, means she is a woman with autonomy, in touch with her own needs and values, in a relationship with her own life.
For me, the tears were for all of these reasons, and for even deeper reasons: I missed my friend, Zakia Mezzour, a woman who drives a taxi six thousand miles away from me who I loved and who changed my life.
At the end of the film screening two nights ago there was a Q&A session with the audience. Unlike three years ago, I had the courage to face the supportive and loving audience.
After some time, I was pleased that Raffi (famous children’s song writer and advocate for children’s rights) stood up on stage and said:
“For me this film is a work of poetry.”
To hear him say this in front of the entire audience made me feel that what I had been trying to accomplish over all those years of work and struggle had finally been recognized. Perhaps the only way we can change the world is through poetry, through seeing and feeling the things that can’t be verbalized, categorized, or compartmentalized. Poetry allows for complexity and conversation and paradox, it allow for feelings to emerge inside our hearts; it allows for inner transformation — the only thing that has ever changed the world.
Earlier that day, another person had said something to me equally meaningful.
I have often questioned what the impact of this film was on Zakia’s life. I know it wasn’t necessarily a positive experience for her. And at the end of it all I hadn’t succeeded in saving her life, that is, I hadn’t bought her a new home to live in, I hadn’t lifted her out of her poverty, I hadn’t secured her an old age pension. Perhaps our friendship had for all of these reasons been a disappointment to her.
It wasn’t until yesterday when my mom said, “Through this film you let her know that she is important” that I realised this was the gift I had hoped to give to Zakia all along. This was the goal of my three years of hard work. And this, in fact, is all that we can ever give to anyone.
The “work of poetry” that is Taxi Casablanca is my meagre offering to Zakia Mezzour. It seeks to tell the world that there is a person you have never heard of, who you will probably never meet, who is extremely important and valuable and precious.
She is Zakia Mezzour, and she is also all of us.
Finally, this month I am moving into a new cabin. I found out a few days ago that this cabin, which is on a gorgeous pastoral farm, used to be a Turkey shed (perhaps more on this later). It was the home of one well-fed and happy turkey, the place where she lived out her life in the sun and the rain.
Next month there will be a new turkey moving in, her name is Mary Flowers and she is looking forward to more poetry.
November 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
The ancient Greek philosophers said that in order to love someone, you must first know him. True love comes out of a depth of knowledge we have for another person, and, in my opinion, this is a life-long process, as human beings are universes unto themselves. Love happens in the continual opening up to knowledge about who a human being is and what they care about. It is something that happens every time we meet one another, this is why we ask “How are you?” We are saying, I want to know you, because I care about you. I don’t want to know the “you” from last time we met, I want to know the you today, again, anew. Don’t forget in Genesis it was Adam who “knew” Eve, and that’s how it all began, with knowledge … yes, we all know what that really meant.
For this reason, I think that the quality with which we see another person is the foundation of all love. I have found that working as a journalist and filmmaker can be akin to a kind of therapy. Journalists are powerful listeners. We are in essence saying to our subjects, “You have a story to tell. I see you”. Perhaps there is no greater gift we can give another person.
Some Medieval philosophers also posited that God created the world and human beings so that the universe could become conscious of itself. I simply love this theory. It is kind of like the koan which questions, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” To what extent does the universe exist if there is no one to be conscious of it? Does humanity make visible the beauty of the world, through our strivings to gain knowledge of it? Does humanity make nature precious, through our ability to love? Are we not in a continual relationship with life, because of our consciousness itself.
Descartes said “I think, therefore I exist.” Some spiritual teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, have called this a “fundamental flaw” because it is actually thinking that separates us from our true nature, which arises in the absence of thought. I would say that, in the interpersonal realm, I exist not because I think, but because I am seen. In other words, I exist because you exist. I exist because you see me. And you exist because I see you. This is why we have a deep longing for connection that is built into the fabric of our biology. Our connections give us life, not only socially, but spiritually as well. Our connections make us human and whole.
At the same time, in the absence of being seen by other people (hey, it could happen), we know we exist because we have a relationship with ourselves also. This is called self-knowledge. And self knowledge is also self love!
I was lucky enough to have shared my week with a quite cute blonde who made me conscious of the sad truth that I’m not really a dog person, even though I love this cutie enormously.
Thanks for reading.
October 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
About three years ago I was watching Woody Allen’s Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona at a theatre in Montreal. The film is about various female protagonists embarking on different roads in their romantic lives. Christina, played by Scarlett Johanssen, becomes involved with a sexy Spanish painter who, as it turns out, has a volatile ex-girlfriend he’s still in love with. The three of them end up shacking up together in a humorous love-triangle-turned-artists’-colony as the film unfolds.
One night Christina wakes up in the middle of night and goes into the kitchen to write in her journal. While she has been happy with her adventures in Spain, slowly, she’s begun to realize, this just isn’t what she wants. She’s not disspointed, merely, dissatisfied. She makes a little espresso in the dim light, sips it quietly. The next morning she tells her lovers, “I don’t know what I want but I know it’s not this.”
At the time when this film came out, I was deep in the muck of a complicated film production, relationship confusion, financial stresses, and an imprecise gnawing dissatisfaction with the direction my life was taking. I envied Cristina’s freedom. I, also, longed to wake up in the wee hours of the morning alone, brew a coffee, decide to be or do otherwise, to write in my journal, to leave when I wanted to, to go where I wished to go. Alas, at that point in my life, leaving wasn’t an option. I had a feature film to produce and a long road ahead of me to travel. Oddly, I felt trapped by the very things I had strived to attain, and this caused me a lot of grief.
Sometimes, we don’t have the luxury of knowing what we want, and yet, simply knowing that it’s “not this” is all the information we need.
September 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
The other night I was telling a colleague about the many trials of documentary filmmaking. One of the problems with this format is that quite often, people who are not oriented towards making films are drawn into the genre, usually by virtue of a powerful story or message they are longing to bring to the world. Because technology is more accessible than ever before, it is quite easy to assume that anyone can make a film. I once heard Margaret Atwood tell the story of a friend of hers, a doctor, who mentioned to her that when he retired he would “become a writer.” She replied, “when I retire, I’m going to become a brain surgeon.” Just because a medium is accessible to you does not mean that you are going to gain any immediate mastery over it. Owning a scalpel does not mean you should operate.
One of the things about documentary that most people forget is that it is an art form, much like writing or music, it is at its core a creative pursuit and requires a certain creative agility. The problem is that many people who arrive at the door of documentary are oriented towards different modes of expression in the world, say, as in my own case, journalism, environmentalism, or education. These are important aspects to bring to the genre and to the telling of stories, but all too often overlook the artistic quality that is required to bring a project home.
One of the problems I encountered with my own film –and I can assure you there were many– was that I was not confidently rooted in my artistic sense of self. I had been trained as a producer, academic and journalist, and was successful at raising money, generating ideas, and writing film proposals. In retrospect, I also had a strong artistic vision for the film and for how the story should be told that was poetic, intimate and sweet; however, perhaps tragically, because I lacked an artistic identity, I also lacked confidence in my vision — which I consequently turned over to the hands (and fists) of others.
My advice to new filmmakers is that you first become oriented in your artistic self and make this the starting point for where you are headed- this is where your power ultimately lies. Usually, the artistic orientation you will discover is something very personal, very tender, and intimate. In the case of my film it was the tender memories of my mother and grandmother when they drove me that spearheaded my fascination with a female taxi driver in Casablanca. It was the intimacy of the car and the relationships that unfold between women while driving, it was the sweet and complicated empowerment of a woman in the driver’s seat her life, with the car as her shelter, the car as her witness.
I am grateful for my film project for many reasons. Most of all, I am grateful that through the disappointments and travails of it, I unintentionally came to identify as an artist. Much like pregnancy wherein a woman births a child and a child in turn births a mother, I birthed a film, and my film birthed in me a new identity. This is not to claim any great talent, I believe the merits of our artistic works are not really our business if we are doing our best and turning up for our work with our whole hearts. We become artists not only through the practice of our chosen art form, but through how the process of creating in and of itself changes us.
April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
Around this time last year, I read about the sad passing of Marcel Simard, a veteran francophone documentary filmmaker who had been producing and mentoring in Montreal for decades. His death was by suicide. This story has stuck with me over many months, even though I didn’t know much about Simard until after his passing. As far as I can tell, there was only one small article written about him in the Anglophone press, and this story has basically gone underground as life moves forward.
This is a shocking and tragic situation that we all need to be aware of. In that small article published in the Montreal Mirror, its author referred to a growing “cultural poverty” that is sweeping across Canada. I thought this expression was a poignant one. Put into the context of a cultural poverty, Simard’s death shouldn’t seem so surprising. Artists and journalists have come to depend on certain funding for their work; for documentary filmmakers (who are both artists and journalists at once) that funding has been primarily through broadcast licenses and government programs. The veterans among us have built their entire lives and livelihoods upon these funding sources. When they are taken away, the rug is pullout out from under their feet, often with tragic consequences. One friend of mine, a woman who has made over 100 documentaries over the course of her career, told me she has had to completely reinvent herself at 65 years old. “The money just isn’t there anymore,” she said.
Victoria’s Times Columnist yesterday called this situation “cruelly ironic.”
“Documentary production has dropped to its lowest level in more than six years,” the TC noted. “During that period more than 2,000 documentary production workers have been forced to leave their jobs. The industry is still reeling from the effects of declining funding from broadcasters and sources such as the former Canadian Television Fund, now the Canadian Media Fund.”
The “cruel irony” is that documentaries are enjoyed by the general public more than ever before, but they’re just not getting the funding they deserve. Unfortunately, reality television shows garner higher ratings and are more readily financed by broadcasters. Hence, I found myself watching The Real Housewives of Orange County the other night, at once recoiled and seduced by this vapid muck of cable television.
I have read about a wave of suicides by Indian farmers whose livelihoods have been desecrated by changing weather patterns and the absence of monsoons. When people’s livelihoods are swept away, we shouldn’t be surprised by any occurrence of suicide, suicide happens for precisely these reasons: Poverty, hopelessness, the collapse of an identity. In Simard’s case, it was cultural poverty.
If this sounds like some kind of whiny rant to bring back the arts funding for over-privileged (and lazy) artists, it isn’t. This is what Harper and his team would have “ordinary Canadians” believe. The arts are vital to our society, they aren’t something that can just be swept away, devalued, and undermined when the economy takes a downturn. Good journalism is the foundation of a democratic society, and everyone knows that. Documentary filmmakers are artists and we are journalists, our work isn’t just a solipsistic hobby, it is a vital component to a functioning world, where ideas are generated, where empathy is nurtured, where information is disseminated in great depth and with great insight and context.
It’s shocking that the arts in Canada are not given more attention in the political debates of late, even though there are more people employed in the arts than there are in agriculture and many other industries in this country combined.
March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment
International Women’s Day, it’s not another hallmark occasion, it’s not a celebration of the “feminine mystique”; it is a time for us to affirm our belief in and our commitments to the rights of all people. As women, we spearhead this vision by declaring that we matter.
As the old adage goes, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” It wasn’t so long ago (1920) that even in our own liberal country, women had to fight to be referred to as “persons” in our legal system, a “minor detail” that disallowed our right to vote!
So the acknowledgement of International Women’s Day isn’t something we do as women, but as individuals who refuse barriers that prevent us from living out our unique destinies. As we free ourselves, we allow for -we stand up for – the freedom of all people in all times and all places.
The most powerful thing we can do as feminists is to take a stand against injustices that hold us back in our personal lives, and to transcend, much as the heros of the hero journey myths, not only the external barriers but, perhaps more importantly, the inner blocks to our freedom. The inner barriers are the things we say to ourselves, the insidious beliefs about our own self-worth, capabilities and potentials, which remain unquestioned critiques and ultimately draw the boundaries of what is possible in our lives.
A documentary on the life of Benazir Bhutto that I watched at the Saltspring Documentary Filmfestival last weekend knocked the wind out of me. Bhutto was a Pakistani politician who at 35 years old, became the first woman and youngest person ever to lead that Muslim country. She was eventually assassinated by a suicide bomber in 2007, after having come back into power twice over the course of her life. In her rich, varied and tragic biography she is noted for having endured solitary confinement as a young woman, the murders of her two brothers and father, all while raising a family of three children, living in exile on unfounded corruption charges, and suffering the imprisonment of her husband which lasted for eight years.
What is striking and fateful about her story is that, as the eldest child, her father overlooked her gender, and passed down the reigns of his own political power to her, rather than to her brother, the eldest son.
It appears she grew up in a world in which her gender did not define her destiny. It’s hard to imagine the kind of inner resolve and belief in oneself and one’s abilities it would take to be the first woman to lead a country based on Islamic law. Indeed, I believe that most women today, even those like myself, who grew up in a post-feminist world and political climate, would have a difficult time feeling worthy of that much power. What is incredible about Bhutto is the femininity and grace that she carried in her mannerisms, which seemed to make her at once incredibly soft and vulnerable while at the same time unshakeably empowered, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
We don’t have to become political leaders to reach our full potentials. What Bhutto struggled with in her life, the incredible tragedies and injustices that she fought in her outter world, aren’t that different from the inner battles that we all fight, day in and day out, as we try to make it in our individual worlds, rising up to embody our fullselves, slaying insecurities, the demons -the thoughts- that corrupt our paths and hold us back and create suffering- ours and others’. We all have them, no one is exempt. The inner journey, I am sure, is the same for all of us and an inextricable part of what it means to be human.
As I watched the documentary on Bhutto I thought, this amazing woman has had all of her inner battles made manifest in the external world, and the world has watched as she has overcome them. Towards the end of her life, the end of the film, she speaks about having transcended so many of her obstacles, that a spirit moved through her that was her voice and her message, that she had a power to communicate to the masses in a way that far exceeded the capabilities of one individual soul. She was connected to something much much larger than her.
Watching her move on the screen, watching this little girl grow up to be that angelic woman powerful beyond any normal human measures, I thought, she must embody the destiny of all people. Because we are all – men and women alike – that perfect combination of humility and strength, vulnerability and empowerment, grace and fearlessness, feminine and masculine.
This is who we are when the boundaries have dissolved.
February 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
I love stories of women taking back our public spaces, taking back the night… check out this story of the first female taxi drive in Fes, Morocco’s third largest city. Bravo Bella!
In anticipation of the upcoming International Women’s Day on 8 March, we bring you the fascinating story of the first-ever woman taxi-driver in Fez.
October 4, 2010 § 1 Comment
“For Zakia, driving the taxi affirms her identity as a free woman.”
Morocco is said to be one of the most progressive Middle Eastern countries, so far as women’s rights are concerned. In 2004, King Mohammed VI passed the family law code which officially recognized women, as of age 18, as legal entities for the first time. The law granted women greater rights during divorce, changed the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, placed restrictions on polygamy and gave women the right to marry without the consent of a male guardian. However, societal expectations around marriage and family, the stigma that accompanies divorce, issues of poverty and lack of education make taking advantage of these legal rights challenging for many women.
Sharing the taxi with her ex-husband, Zakia has spent upwards of five hours a day behind the wheel for more than eight years. Opinions toward her chosen career range from surprise, to support, to staunch disapproval. By the encouragement of her supporters, and determined to prove her detractors wrong, Zakia goes about her day. She seems to take genuine pleasure in driving, even if it’s at someone else’s behest.
In the face of religious and societal traditions, Zakia takes a powerful stand against Morocco’s approved cultural norms. Her courage has proven to be an inspiration for other women in the city. “When I see this woman driving, it’s as if I’m driving,” says one female passenger. “I would love to have that opportunity. To get to that place, you had to show men there’s nothing women can’t do. And it’s true!”
The film covers several broad themes in one fell swoop – women’s rights, poverty, education, domestic abuse and employment. Along with the varied applications in academia – women studies, cultural studies, and economic studies – the film is an intelligent and interesting choice for casual observers.
You can catch Taxi Casablanca, part of the Beyond Borders series, at 2pm on Wednesday, September 29th at the EMMEDIA Gallery.
May 9, 2010 § Leave a comment
When the great Canadian journalist and broadcast host Peter Gzowski’s passed away in 2002 I read a quote from one of his listeners in the Globe and Mail that has stayed with me ever since: “He built a bridge of love for light to pass,” it read.
I had always remembered Mr. Gzowski (who, it is estimated, had interviewed over 27,000 people in his lifetime) as the gruff, elderly, friendly-giant-type voice of CBC’s Morningside, which filled the rooms of my childhood home every morning for as far back as I can remember. The idea of his creating “a bridge of love” seemed to me an odd yet insightful metaphor for such a character.
I just returned from my yearly attendance at Hotdocs documentary film festival in Toronto, where I watched over 15 documentaries from countries around the world. The films ranged from stories of women trying to stop the wide-spread practice of genital mutilation in Kenya, to a story of non-violent resistance of the Israeli separation wall in the small Palestinian village of Budrus. I saw a film about the life of a Shamanic sexual healer named Baba Dez in Arizona, and a film about the situation of women in Iran who are desperate to divorce their husbands under extremely oppressive laws. Finally, I saw touching portraits of people’s interior lives and journeys; one which documented a man’s quest to hold his absent and drugged-out hippie father accountable for the neglect and abandonment he grew up in the shadow of.
The stories were often at once tragic, raw, joyous and transcendent, and pulled at my heart and gut in their utter honesty. The stark vulnerability of the subjects and directors who sought to shed light on these stories also amazed me. I wonder, how could any of these stories have been told without the creation of a bridge of love for light to pass.
So now, eight years after having read that brief eulogy, I am struck with the truth of what it means to be a journalist. This work is at its root a work of love: It is the work of deep listening from which emerge the stories that want and need to be told. Journalists are witnesses who often become transformed themselves by the stories they document.
Last night, I arrived home late from the 7-hour bus ride. The cats could feel the love, and curled up together on my bed for the first time… well… ever!
I will think about how I can build that bridge of love in the telling of stories in whatever direction my work takes me from here.