FPP will be screening the film “The Semiotics of Islam” at our next event on February 3rd! We spoke with filmmaker Fouzia Najar about the inspiration for the film and about her current work documenting post traumatic stress disorder in the chronically embattled Kashmir region.
Can you tell us a little bit about the provenance of “Semiotics of Islam” and what inspiration you took from the seminal feminist film “Semiotics of the Kitchen”?
The first time a friend lent me Martha Rosler’s piece, I watched it multiple times in a row. The kitchen is an oppressive space for the woman, and the actor pantomimes using everyday utensils in an increasingly aggressive way. However, it’s very much a product of second-wave feminism and I wanted to update it to speak to a more diverse group of women.
The ideal audience will recognize themselves in the piece. Some might identify with the actor, the items displayed or the language that the news programs use. I believe all of these people can benefit from viewing in different ways. Usually in viewing nonfiction films, the target audience learns something, but a Muslim viewer probably won’t receive any new information from viewing “Semiotics of Islam.” They are familiar with both the items and with the media’s agenda that affects Muslim lives daily. The value for them is in representation. An Islamophobe might recognize media that s/he consumes, but I did not intend to make the film for that person, despite the jokey subtitle “A Primer for Kuffar.”
How have audiences reacted to it so far?
Not many people have seen the film, but the feedback I’ve gotten is positive and affirming. The people who seem to enjoy it most have been Muslim women.
Your current project explores PTSD in South Asia. What has surprised you most in your filming so far?
I have learned that mental health professionals worldwide did not consider that people of color experiencing war or natural disasters in their countries were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rather, these experiences and their affects were just characteristic of Third World life. By the time doctors began diagnosing and treating PTSD in Kashmir in the mid-nineties, the region had already been brutally suppressed for many years, and occupied by the Indian government for almost half a century. I want to find out what happens to a society when one third of the population has PTSD.
What challenges do you see ahead in completing or screening this documentary?
It can be difficult to film in Kashmir because often the subject matter directly or indirectly criticizes the Indian government. The military presence is immense: there is one Indian soldier for every six Kashmiri civilians and their actions are often arbitrarily violent. The last time I was there, I used nonprofessional equipment, claimed to be a wedding videographer, mislabeled my media, and depleted my camera batteries so that no officials could view my footage. Visiting filmmakers, journalists and activists have to be careful, but Kashmiri people of all vocations have no recourse.
I hope to ultimately screen the documentary there, but Kashmir has no movie theaters. Even gatherings on religious occasions twice yearly are subject to curfew, so public assemblies (like an outdoor movie screening) are dangerous. Still, I hope to reach people with the film.
Can you tell us a bit about the difference between filmmaking in collaboration, as part of the television series, and making your own, independent projects?
In collaborative filmmaking, you have support; in a television series, you have money; and in independent projects, you have control.