This is my first post. After 20 years making documentaries on subjects of human rights and social issues, I realize the stories I tell never really end. They certainly don’t end with the completion of a film, and sometimes one film has led to another. More often, the news reminds me that bearing witness is an ongoing obligation. The news out of Somalia is grim – the worst famine in twenty years. Added to the ongoing tragedy of internal conflict and the failed international policy of “containment” and/or neglect, there can be few places as miserable right now.
A few weeks ago I had dinner with Dr. Hawa and her daughter, two remarkable women who never left war torn Somalia, though they could have. In 1991 they opened their farm, just outside Mogadishu, to anyone fleeing violence and for the past two decades they have been treating victims of war and disease in their clinic.
Dr. Hawa is a gynecologist whose main love is maternal health. She has saved countless women and children, but she has had to do so in dire circumstances with an ever evolving set of challenges.
She has never backed down – taking in boy soldiers and forcing them to trade their weapons for bedpans and work in the hospital- forcing armed militia off her land. She has two rules for anyone seeking refuge with her: no clans, and no wife beating. She and her daughters have created a remarkable, peaceful mini-society within a war zone – and it’s become home to 90,000 people (read more).
When we made Devil’s Bargain in 2007 we focussed on the Horn of Africa and the small arms trade that was keeping Somalia in a state of perpetual violence and instability. The outside world had essentially written off Somalia as a failed state, and its problems were spreading across the region: guns, violence and rape know no borders, and were destabilizing once peaceful communities in Kenya and beyond. The world’s biggest refugee camp, Dadaab, on the Kenya-Somali border was overflowing with new refugees and even more depressing – refugees who had lived there for 16 years. I can only imagine how the already overburdened CARE Canada staff that run the camp are managing to deal with 500,000 more starving refugees. I hope to make a film about Dr. Hawa, to show the world that there is hope despite what seems like insurmountable conflict, and it can be found in the actions of a tiny woman who still believes in, and fights for her people.
IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY - the story doesn't end
I recently received a message from a journalist in Rochester, New York telling me that a teenage girl was in critical condition after being stabbed multiple times. I experienced a sensation best described as deja vu. The 13 -year -old girl had been found in the garage by her mother and rushed to hospital, where she remains. Her name is Samina Qasam. Her 16 - year - old cousin Faheem Abdul Jaheel has been charged with attempted murder. The family are from Afghanistan and speak little English, but Faheem has entered a self-defense plea. He is currently being held in Monroe County Jail, awaiting a September hearing.
The Judge has issued an order of protection for Samina. see article Our last film, In the Name of the Family features the story of Fauzia Mohammed, a teenage girl whose family, also from Afghanistan, live in the same neighbourhood as Samina. Like Samina, Fauzia was attacked in her family garage, and survived multiple stab wounds over most of her body. Her brother, Waheed, is now serving 10 years in Attica Correctional Facility for attempted murder. Both Fauzia and Waheed are in the film, describing the escalating conflict that led to the near fatal attack.
We visited Rush-Henrietta High School where Fauzia and her brother were students – the same high school attended by Faheem Abdul Jaheel. A football game was going on, cheerleaders did cartwheels and the whole scene looked as American as apple pie.
I tried to imagine the scene through Waheed’s eyes. To him, American society was confusing. The values he brought from Afghanistan seemed to clash at every turn. For Fauzia, America was the land of opportunity, and she quickly learned English, made friends and won a scholarship to college.
Her life and her brother’s were on markedly different courses, and the more he tried to control her the more she tried to escape. We don’t yet know what drove Faheem to attack his young cousin. Perhaps this story will be different. But I know from making Crimes of Honour and In the Name of the Family, that girls in danger from their families are often caught between two worlds. I believe it’s our responsibility to look for ways past the cultural divide, and work within these communities to help immigrant families. I believe we need to avoid both the hysterical anti-Muslim rhetoric of the right, and the irresponsible “politically correct” attitudes of the left, who refuse to see this type of violence as more than domestic violence. It is domestic violence of course, but of a specific and unique nature. I believe in naming the crime, and honouring the victim. Most of all, I hope with each tragic case that there is a renewed awareness and effort to keep these girls safe, and find ways to stop the violence.
NO MAN'S LAND: WOMEN FRONTLINE JOURNALISTS
It’s hard to believe that so many years have passed since I followed journalists Janine di Giovanni and Lyse Doucet as they covered the war in Sarajevo and Afghanistan respectively. See No Man’s Land.
Both women went on to ever more remarkable careers as frontline journalists. Janine is about to release her new book in North America this fall and I can’t wait to read it. No one writes about conflict and the human condition like Janine, and I believe she has outdone Martha Gellhorn as a chronicler of war in our time. Her new book, Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of War and Love by Janine di Giovanni (Bloomsbury) is about the effects of covering war, and her attempt to build a new life in Paris with her photojournalist husband and their son (read more).
Lyse Doucet, now a senior editor at the BBC, has just been nominated for two Emmys! And, she has finished a remarkable new documentary called Afghanistan: Unknown Country. Check it out on Youtube. For anyone who remembers No Man’s Land, we told the story of a 12- year-old girl in Sarajevo who kept a diary like Anne Frank, in an attempt to make sense of life under siege. The film ends with Zlata Filipovic telling Janine di Giovanni that she wants to be a journalist someday. Guess what? Zlata Filipovic became a journalist too.