I was blessed at the beginning of my career to work with filmmaker Mira Nair, whose body of work includes the Camera D’Or winning Salaam Bombay and global hits Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. Indian born and Harvard educated, Mira divides her time between Delhi, Kampala and New York. Her motto then, and now, is: “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”. A simple enough assertion, but one that has inspired me to write this article just as it has inspired me throughout my film career.
Modern culture is fast encroaching on our already depleting attention spans. Instant gratification has become the norm; we all want everything now, all of the time. The rapid proliferation of smart phones and connected devices has ensured that our link to an entire world of information is always on. And it follows that as we want to consume more, we need to consume faster: whether it’s the death of a global popstar, a royal wedding or the indiscreet leaking of super injunctions – all you really need is 140 characters. Even the revolutions were Twitterised.
But the written word is also being written out. Why use words when a picture can tell a thousand words in a millisecond? When you recall the 9/11 attacks, isn’t it an image that immediately springs to mind and continues to endure? Both a chillingly perfect symbol of terrorist might and efficient shorthand to facilitate a worldwide retribution. If a picture can do this, then the moving image is an even more seductive tool, undeniably efficient in form and content.
In this context, cinema is one of the most important cultural mediums we have today. It’s a rarity to have someone’s undivided attention for 2 hours in a darkened room. Within that space, a filmmaker can invent and re-imagine entire histories for his or her audience whose editorial defences are somewhat weakened because they are there to be entertained. At the risk of sounding glib, how much easier is it for one to accept Oliver Stone’s version than it is to actually find out what happened to John F Kennedy? Cinema matters because there’s simply no other cultural form that, in the best case scenario, is consumed at the rate of millions, over an ongoing lifecycle and across the globe.
Back on earth, the film industry seems a completely inaccessible fantasy. During the publicity campaign for THE INFIDEL, I was often asked by Muslim members of the audience how I got into the industry, what my parents thought and whether I would make another ‘Muslim’ film. The sense I often got was that, being a complete anomaly, I had to fulfil some sort of duty that no one else would. Indeed for most ‘good Muslims’ the prospect of being a filmmaker seems mad: impractical, high risk, possibly haraam (forbidden), an awkward conversation at best with one’s parents. And this is reflected starkly in the UK film industry which remains maddeningly homogenous. It is a fact that there are no ethnic minorities in creative positions working at any of the three major British film financiers – BFI, Film4, and BBC Films. That’s a sad fact for me but also a sad fact for you, because these are the people that are shaping our film culture and choosing the films that ‘represent’ Britain.
Rather than just gripe about underrepresentation, ethnic minorities and Muslims need to get proactive. This means becoming part of the creation of those cultural mediums that purport to represent you (and those who don’t). It is a duty and responsibility to contribute and shape the stories that emerge from this country. In the words of Edward Said:
“I feel outnumbered and outorganized by a prevailing Western consensus that has come to regard the Third World as an atrocious nuisance, a culturally and politically inferior place. Whereas we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginal voices, our journalistic and academic critics belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion and institutes at its disposal.”
Said, in “Culture and Imperialism”, highlights the connections between imperial endeavour, the creation of a universal ‘truth’ and the cultural forms that reflect and reinforce it. His focus remains largely with Western narratives about the colonial experience but we could so easily be talking about repeated narratives regarding Muslims versus the varied experiences of the community.
Accessing and participating in the wider culture means more than just speaking to your own. It means speaking to others; being visible onscreen, backstage, behind the camera, in the cutting room, on the writing team for Desperate Housewives. It means reclaiming the accepted narratives that permeate media, art, film, TV, comedy, theatre, newspapers, radio, not just looking on in silence.
Unless Muslims start contributing to culture – someone else will always be telling our stories.
Reclaim Your Stage:
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