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women advocating for change

YAZMEEN KANJI

A conversation about filmmaking, and her documentary, From Syria to Hope

Filmmaking is powerful. It has the ability to affect people and change attitudes in a way that is rarely paralleled; because of this ability, it really matters whose stories are getting told, and who gets to tell those stories in the first place. 2018 was a year where we started to see some of those norms change: we started to see greater mainstream representation of groups that were previously marginalized. Yet, there’s still a ways to go, particularly when we look at the number of women who get the opportunity to create and direct films. This is why I was particularly excited to sit down with Yazmeen — she’s a young director, and a third year undergraduate student at UofT, pursuing a double major in Equity Studies and Peace, Conflict and Justice, with a minor in Cinema studies. She has spent the last year and a half working on a documentary entitled From Syria to Hope. The film follows the lives of three Syrian families who arrived in Canada under refugee status, in an attempt to combat xenophobia and islamophobia. This film however, is just one of the projects she and her team have undertaken, as part of her organization, Films with a Cause. So I sat down with her to find out more: about film making, her projects, and her passions!

Sanjna: So, how did you get interested in film in the first place?

Yazmeen: I think film was one of my earliest hobbies. I had my first camera when I was about six years old —  it was a camera that no one was using in the house anymore, and because I was the first child, for a while this is how I would entertain myself. I would just film my siblings, or act out scenes for my family. Then as I got older, because of how familiar I was with using a camera, my first instinct would be to create a video whenever there was a project assigned at school. That’s what I did all throughout elementary school! I got into film making more-so in highschool, creating a sophisticated narrative, and putting together a crew of people.

S: How did that high school film making experience come about? Was it for a class, an initiative you started on the side, or something else?

 

Y: I felt as though I wasn’t really having enough of opportunities to create videos, and that was something I really enjoyed doing, so I decided to start a filmmaking club at my high school. We were eventually approached by my vice principal, because there was a York Region Film Festival happening for youth, so that was the first film I actually made, with a narrative and all that.

 

S: What was that film?

 

Y: It was called “One Call”; it actually won second place at the film festival! The topic had to be about youth gang violence — it was something like a five minute film, but it got the message across and seemed to resonate with people, which is really great for a first try. It inspired me to improve, and do better because it seemed like [filmmaking] was something I could see myself doing, going forward. Part of the prize was getting to go on the set of Saving Hope, which at the time was one of my favourite shows; I was able to meet the director, the writer and a lot of the cast I had only previously seen on TV. It was such a cool experience, the experience of being on set was just everything I love!

 

S: What do you like about filmmaking as a medium?

 

Y: I think it allows people to understand a situation on a more personal level, because you’re seeing it through the lens of the characters who are involved, and so you can understand the situation more intimately. The videos and films I’ve always tried to make are usually explicitly social cause or social justice related, particularly because both of those interests (filmmaking and social justice) developed at the same time.

 

S: Mmhm, that’s also why representation matters so much, particularly when it comes to writing or directing, because then you have the ability to decide what stories to tell, and what issues to shed light on. In that respect, do you think it's getting easier for women to be in film? 

 

Y: Yeah, I think now more than ever it’s getting a little easier to be a woman in media and film; there’s increasing support, and a greater deal of acceptance...but I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. Like I have had a few experiences myself — I edit marketing videos for small businesses, and there have been instances where I’ll get on the phone with a client and they’ll say “Oh, you're a woman? I didn’t realize.”And a few of those times, the relationship with the client would get a little strange after. They would get very specific about what they wanted, though they had previously given me creative freedom before knowing my gender.

 

But when I’ve approached people in the film industry, particularly in Toronto, people are very welcoming and accepting of new perspectives. I think it’s something that people are really craving, especially in the writing room. Because audiences are asking to see stories that are showing them, stories that are true, that they can relate to. And they can’t relate to stories if everyone who is a part of these shows, these films, is coming from the same experiences; that just doesn’t work anymore. So I think in that sense, it's getting better, but there’s still a long way to go.

S: Do you think it’ll become easier by virtue of the fact that audiences are asking for more diversity and so diversity will be incorporated that way? Or do you think it has to be more of an active process?

 

Y: I do think that it has to be more of an active process, but I think that audiences need to be more aware of what exactly they want, because it's really easy to fulfill those quotas, but if that representation is not genuine and isn’t appealing to people in the right way then it’s not really doing anything. You can just say “we need a black character, we need an asian character, so let’s just put them in anywhere” but if that representation is just engaging in further stereotyping, then that representation isn’t meaningful, so I think that audiences just have to be aware of those signs — I don’t want to say that you should only watching shows that have social significance, but if that’s something you’re interested in, there are quite a few shows and films out there that are both entertaining and responsible.

S: So how do you see yourself fitting into the film industry moving forward? Pie in the sky, you could do anything, what would you want to?

 

Y: Hmm..I think I would direct films (feature films and documentaries) but I’d also want to do something actively in the social justice field. I think that it's really important for this content to be popularized/mainstreamed because that’s really how you can change people’s minds. I know that there are people in the art world who prefer to keep content with social justice themes in a realm that can only be understood by some people. I want my work to be accessible to the wider population, so that anyone can watch it and understand the message.

S: That sounds very much like what you’re already doing with your organization. Speaking of which, do you want to talk about how you came up with the idea for Films with a Cause?

 

Y: When I came to university, I found myself feeling something similar to my experience in high school, where I wanted an outlet through which I could pursue filmmaking, but those kinds of opportunities didn’t necessarily exist. In first year, I had a lot of fun making films with some amazing people, but I felt like I needed some experience doing social problem films, which is what I always wanted to do. I’m not in a program that’s teaching me the tools, so I learned on my own how to operate a DSLR and about audio and framing shots.

 

When I came up with an idea for a documentary, I thought it would be really cool if I could release it through an organization, and get some friends involved. I’ve volunteered for a few not-for-profit organizations, and searched for local film production companies, and I felt torn in a way, because I felt like I could never be a part of both worlds. I created Films with a Cause, because it meant I didn’t have to pick one passion over the other.

 

S: That's great! Sometimes if you don't see certain opportunities in your environment, you've just got to create them yourself! Would you like to elaborate a little on what Films with a Cause is? 

 

Y: So Films with a cause is a non profit filmmaking organization, dedicated to producing and promoting socially conscious content. That’s the essence of what it is. We’re releasing a call for submissions soon that will happen once a month. This way, students can contribute any written work focused on issues of representation in the media. So we’re going to have a blog section on our website that spreads that kind of information.

 

With respect to producing and promoting films, the first film is From Syria to Hope, a documentary I directed, filmed and edited. The next project is a docu-series; we’re going to start filming this week, but we don’t know what the title is yet. Each episode is going to be really short —  around 5 minutes, so it’s something you can see on social media. It’s going to be released once a month and will profile an individual from a community that isn’t represented enough in mainstream media. It’s not going to focus on the sensationalized problems that they are associated with in the media, but rather the aim is to show them as unique individuals with a really fascinating history and experience that not many people know about. We also want to do it in a fun way, in a documentary style that goes about their day, so you get see what their hobbies are, what their interests are, what their day to day life is like. I’m also going to have a chat with someone about doing a fictional web series, which could be really cool. She’s a really great writer and she’s had these ideas for a long time, and I’ve read some of her scripts and I think they’re really brilliant, so that’s probably another thing. I think these are going to be two things for this year: the docu-series and the web series. I’m going to take a break from the length of film that I was working on previously, like the past film I was working on took a very long time.

 

S: The organization itself has been running for about a year now, right? What has that experience been like?

 

Y: I think it’s been difficult managing so many people; there are definitely a lot of things I’ve learned from that, and going forward there’s a lot I would do differently. So far it’s just been one project with translation help, graphics, and outreach on social media. And we have a lot of plans for the future, but that’s what I feel like it’s been for a few months, it’s just a lot of planning. In this month (January) though, I can see a lot of change happening; we’re starting to film new projects and it’s very exciting, but what I think I learned is that things can’t always happen as fast as you want them to. Sometimes it’s for the better! I thought I would get a lot more done this past year, but I realized this year was really important to strategize, and get together a really solid team, and those things take a lot of time, particularly when you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.

 

S: What would you change about this past year or how you approach things?


Y: I think I would pace the team a lot better and not have such high expectations for everyone, including myself. I think I just set the bar so high, and sometimes that’s good..but I saw so far into the future as to what I wanted that I think I missed a few steps at first. Then I came back and realized that a foundation needs to be built before you can do the creative work.

 

I also wish I got this website done a bit faster, because we have a lot of content already, but having a place to display it is really important. But honestly I don't know if I could go back and change anything, because I’ve learned so much from it and even though things were slow at first, now they’re going so so fast, and so I think it was really important I had that time to process and think about what I really wanted Films With A Cause to be.

 

S: How’d you come up with the idea for From Syria to Hope?

 

Y: Well my mom had been doing volunteer work at our local mosque for quite a while, so when she said they were going to help resettle some Syrian refugees that had come in (I think this was in 2015) I was all for it, I thought it was an amazing thing. I was a little surprised that the communities were taking responsibility for this though because it seemed like a lot of work. Sometimes she’d be home really really late because she was picking up people from the airport..it definitely also took an emotional toll, because she’d be seeing so many people break down when they got to their homes, and see how homesick they are. She would tell me all these stories and then I would meet them on the weekend and we would just hang out and show them around. I felt it was so easy to interact with them, even if we didn’t speak the same language; we had fun and we understood each other in some way. And then I realized that not a lot of people are able to have this experience, and I guess on the news, I saw how sensationalized the refugee crisis was, and the words they were using to describe the situation; like this “influx” of refugees, this “constant flow of people” and when you’re looking at that, you’re thinking about a mass population, you’re not thinking about the individual stories. At the same time I was thinking about how I wanted to work on a documentary after high school. So then I started researching more about the Syrian Civil War, and one day I asked this family that we were really close to, whether they’d be willing to talk about their experiences on camera. And they said yes! I started thinking that it’d be really great if I could find two more families, to showcase the diversity of experiences. So that’s what I did — it took a while to find families that were willing to speak, a lot of them still fear for their safety, which is totally understandable.

 

I eventually found two other families, and all of them have different experiences, but in some way or another they’ve all said that they really miss their home and they would rather things go back to the way it was, when they were with their families. Because a lot of them left their extended families and you know, it’s really sad because though they still have hope, it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen because so many people have left. So that’s basically why I started it and why I think it’s important. On a personal note though — because I’m a Muslim, and because I saw islamophobia rise after a number of refugees had been accepted, it was really hurtful to me.

 

S: You also mentioned that the style of the documentary was very important; do you want to talk about the style of the documentary and why it’s important that you filmed it the way that you did?

 

Y: Yeah sure. I think it coincides with the fact that I didn’t have a lot of filmmaking experience in the documentary style, but in the end I think it was important that I filmed it in the way that I did. I think it makes it more realistic, it doesn’t look too cinematic or anything like that, particularly because I think its really important to feel connected to the people you’re seeing on screen, and I think you’re able to do that with this film. Another thing I chose to do was, in all the interviews, they’re looking into the camera, and in most or all the documentaries I’ve seen, people are looking off camera. But I’m not filming experts, I’m not filming community organizers, or people talking about another group of people, I’m filming the people themselves who are going through this situation. Sometimes it frustrates me because I’ll look for documentaries about a topic I’m interested in, it’s often experts speaking — which is great, but I feel like there’s an entirely different side that I’m missing out on, which is that lived experience, which is to me, the most important thing. A lot of people are hesitant to have interviewees look into the camera because they think it’ll be awkward, but I didn’t find that at all; I think all the participants were so engaged in what they were saying that it wasn’t an issue. And that’s important, because its as if they’re talking to whoever’s watching it, it has greater potential to strike a chord with people.

 

 

S: So what influences your filmmaking or editing style?


Y: I feel like I pull from a mix of things; I wanted From Syria To Hope to be entertaining, so it appeals to more people, including people who don’t normally watch documentaries that often. So I took some inspiration from Hollywood films, in the way opening scenes look, or how blockbusters end. Most people love Hollywood films; you can trash Hollywood all you want, say it’s not artistic enough or it’s not deep enough, but we all love some entertainment. So the way I started off From Syria to Hope, I actually took inspiration from — some people might have a problem with this, but I think it worked out great — I had loved watching World War Z; I’m not sure why, maybe it’s Brad Pitt.

 

But I just love watching videos that have great editing sequences, because I also really love to edit. So the opening scene to World War Z shows journalists talking about serious issues going on in the world, paralleled by stupid jokes and memes and things like that; this contrast is supposed to show what the world is being distracted by in the midst of what’s actually happening.

 

S: Oh! That’s similar to the Childish Gambino “This is America” video concept right?

 

Y: Yeah, exactly! It’s that kind of idea. At a first glance you might not see it, but I’ve watched it so many times and it really resonated with me, to the point where it became the inspiration for the opening scenes of From Syria to Hope — like what’s actually going on, contrasted with the rhetoric and what’s being said about the refugee crisis. So I cut some clips from the World Economic Forum and what they’re saying, to what some journalists are saying, to footage of what’s actually happening, to people uploading videos on Youtube, just saying really horrible things about them. I cut that together and that became the opening of the film, and then it goes into the first family. I think that sets the understanding for why a film like this is important, and why films like this are important, to sort of counter mainstream ideas about a topic that lead to a lot of misunderstandings.

S: So now that the film’s completed, what are your hopes, anxieties? How do you feel?

 

Y: I mean it is really scary because I’ve dedicated so much time to it so I really hope it was worth it, and though I’ve already submitted it to film festivals, I’m still looking for feedback because I know it’s not perfect and I know that I want to improve. The kind of ideas I have can be really valuable I hope, because though I don’t have that much filmmaking experience, I’m in equity studies, peace conflict and justice studies and the topics we’re discussing really need to appeal to more people, because this is our planet, these are our people.

 

So with this film, I hope that it will resonate with people and make people feel like what we’re seeing in the media doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and that everyone can do something really small because at the end of the day, the problems that people are having are really specific. For example, someone I interviewed for the film brought to attention the issue of Wheel Trans for the TTC, because he’s in a wheelchair and he talks about the difficulties navigating the city, and commuting. There are still a lot of accessibility issues in the city, which he was surprised about. So things like that — you know, focus on one thing and that can become something you’re going to become invested in.

If you’re interested in Films with a Cause, you can get in contact with them at:

Email: filmswithacause@gmail.com

Website: filmswithacause.org

Instagram: https://instagram.com/filmswithacause/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/FilmsWithACause

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/filmswithacause/