Laura Nix, Director, The Light In Her Eyes
The last trip I went on with FILM FORWARD was showing The Light In Her Eyes all around Jordan. The audiences there were predominantly Muslim, and many Syrians came out to see our film. They were deeply engaged and passionate about the content of our doc, and the Q&A’s were always feisty.
I had no idea what to expect when showing the same film in rural Maine. I have some experience of being in the state, since my mother is from Brunswick in the section known as Downeast. As a child I went there every summer to visit my grandmother and I have a very nostalgic relationship to this place that centers on the ocean, eating lobster in my Nanan’s kitchen, and that delicious smell of pine. So what it would be like to go back there as an adult showing a documentary about a Syrian Qur’an school to discuss contemporary Islam?
I found enthusiastic and engaged audiences. Really smart high school students. And people who are committed to learning more about other worlds, and cultures different than their own. I went to screenings packed with 500 high school students, and screenings where there were 12 people. And no matter the size, all of them were curious and thoughtful.
I often started screenings by explaining that our documentary was shot in Syria before the conflict began. It offers a different view than what’s on TV right now, a view of a time when the country was at peace. Then I asked the audiences what they thought of when they thought of Islam. Usually people said 9/11, terrorism, violence. At Mt. Desert Island High School, some students answered, “Mohammed” and “the Five Pillars” (their teachers are doing a good job!). I would also ask students what they thought of when they thought about Syria. At Bangor High students said chemical weapons, war, and Assad. One person said “a deep and rich history.” I said I looked forward to talking after the screening, and seeing if people’s thoughts and images shifted somewhat.
And they did. Many people said they had never seen images before of moderate Islam and it changed their point of view. A teenager said, “The movie challenged stereotypes I didn’t even know I had in the first place.” At the Bangor High screening, I asked the students to tell me what they thought of when they heard the word feminism. I got answers ranging from “overreacting” to “independence” and “empowerment.” After all the screenings, many audience members said their view of Muslim women had changed. They were surprised by the degree of independence and autonomy many women at the mosque had. “It helped me redefine my views on Islam and on feminism.”
At a screening one night in Greenville, the audience was surprised when I told how some women in the mosque asked us how we dealt with oppression of women in our culture. And when I first went to Syria, I remember being surprised at that question as well. But when I explained that women from the mosque were deeply disturbed by how women are sexualized by mass media in the West, and they didn’t know why we would stand for it, people in the audience started nodding and said “Well, they’re kind of right.”
Even though many audience members were inspired by the discipline and hard work of the students portrayed in our film, many were frustrated by our main character. They wanted to know why she still thought it was necessary for girls to wear the hijab (head scarf) and why she thinks women need to obey their husbands. One high school student said, “Despite their liberal views, traditional gender roles were encouraged by the people in the documentary.” Of course this is why Julia and I made the film. We found all the contradictions fascinating.
One comment in Maine I heard more than any other was how much people were struck by the sameness in our cultures, despite the obvious differences. One student said she was surprised “by the profound parallels between our culture and Syrian culture.” That’s what I found in making the film too. At the end of the day, discovering commonality is always more interesting.
A few details distinguished these screenings from all the others I’ve been a part of over the years: Every night when we said goodbye people warned us about hitting moose on the road, apparently an ever present danger in this region because they wander across streets, are the size of a small van, and can cause significant damage. It was the first time I was invited to polka dance at a local dance hall after a screening. And never before have I been given a key to the city, like the people gave me in Monson (population 686 people). Two brothers, Jim and John Wentworth, made the plaque from local slate and wood, and hand engraved it. Perhaps even more extraordinary, they also gave me a huge jug of maple syrup that they harvested from the trees of Monson! I was over the moon. I’m going to relish that sweetness, happy I have new memories of this place that I knew as a child.