The "Union for Short Filmmakers of Muslim Countries" aims to focus on problems that moviemakers face and to help them gain access to international film festivals. Martin Gerner talked to Maheen Zia, founding member of the union from Pakistan
Maheen Zia: "The aim of the union is to counter the black and white culture that you see in the media saying, "this is a liberal Muslim, this is a conservative Muslim" | Why was the union created and what have you achieved in the first year?
Maheen Zia: In this first year we have been screening films from our countries at the respective neighbouring festivals: Palestine, Lebanon and Syria have had programmes with films from our union. But it is a slow start. We still do not have an office – we are still working out of the office of the "Tehran International Short Film Festival". There was supposed to be a programme at the Karachi festival as well but it did not happen because of the attack on Benazir Bhutto. We had to cancel the 2007 festival because it was a very uncertain time.
The union was founded in Tehran. Isn"t there a certain contradiction to have your head office there on the one hand and want to be as free as possible as an organization on the other?
Zia: The initiative came from there. The "Iranian Young Cinema Society" invited the initial group of people who form the union. The treasurer is from Afghanistan and the head of international relations is from Tunisia. So it is not what you would call a concentration of control and power. It is spread out. Membership is open and we are inviting other filmmakers.
Who is part of the union?
Zia: Our members range from Asia to Africa. We already have filmmakers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, the Palestine territories, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sudan, for example. India has applied for membership. It has a Muslim minority. But the organization is open to any country where there are Muslims. It is not restricted to Muslims though. Non-Muslim filmmakers can also become members.
What is your main purpose? To answer to all the clichés about the Muslim world that we find in western films, especially after 9/11?
Bringing together directors from different Islamic countries: the "Union of Short Filmmakers of Muslim Countries" | Zia: I think it would be fair to say yes. There is an apartheid that Muslims do face. The aim is also to counter the black and white culture that you see in the media saying, "this is a liberal Muslim, this is a conservative Muslim." At the same time it is a way to celebrate the diversity of Muslim cultures. Muslim culture in India is different from Tunisia or Turkey. So it is in order to have a place for this diversity and share it.
What do you mean by "apartheid"?
Zia: Generally, the countries I"ve mentioned are poor. Filmmakers face economic disadvantages. At the same time, I feel that Muslims are misrepresented in a lot of western media. But even in India you can find clichés. A Muslim would always be turbaned and you would always find Arab belly dancers in the films, even in big Bollywood productions. Lots of mistakes like that.
Where is Islam misrepresented in western films in your opinion?
Zia: If you take the issue of the veil for example. It is seen as exclusively oppressive, but there is a very limited understanding of what a veil can mean and what its cultural roots are. There was a film called Yasmin that was produced in the United Kingdom a few years ago. In this film and in others it is mainly extremes that are portrayed, almost caricatures of Muslims. There are some people like that in reality, but the majority are not like that.
You try to work for better access to festivals for Muslim filmmakers. What difficulties do they face?
Zia: Filmmakers in Afghanistan for example are not aware of international festivals. They do not know they exist. In Pakistan we didn"t have the links until a few years ago, when we started finding out that festivals would accept films from us. So, one aim is to educate, and the other is to provide a data base. Any international festival anywhere can access a greater variety of films from our countries now.
Another aim is to make a selection of films to go to international markets that would be interested in purchasing them. This is generally a weak point of filmmakers. They are not very good at marketing their own work or selling it. So we hope to do this with the union.
What perspective do you have for the coming year?
Zia: Right now we don"t have a big budget. We are still looking for sponsors. There are not more than a few dozen members. It would be good if we could get up to 500 members next year to give the union a boost. Holding workshops will take a while. I hope we can have our own website soon with information for the filmmakers about upcoming festivals. Maybe we can help with the language gaps in accessing entry forms or help for subtitling. These are things we can do without having to meet physically.