Laura Nix, Director, The Light In Her Eyes
On the 4th day of the program, our public screening in downtown Amman at the Rainbow Theater is nearly full with close to 250 people attending. After the film, the Q&A starts and immediately it feels electric, I think because so many Syrians have come. A woman stands, identifies herself as from Damascus and says all five of her daughters went through Houda’s school, and now they are “state of the art housewives.” She loves Houda, she misses her and the school, and she was so happy to see her and images of Damascus in the film since she can’t go back right now. Since I don’t believe Houda’s only goal is to create state of the art housewives, I silently wonder if this woman’s daughters were allowed to attend university.
Like at other screenings, people begin their comments by saying thank you for the film. They are surprised it shows a slice of life that feels real to them, and grateful that it clarifies the messages girls receive from culture and tradition versus what the Qur’an actually says. Many people ask why we would ever make a film about this subject? When I answer this, the response is the same as at other screenings in Jordan: no one is convinced two non-Muslim American women could have, or would want to make this film. I say, “Julia was in Damascus on a Fulbright, was impressed by Houda’s school, and asked Houda for permission to film there.” Or, “We wanted to show what women get from practicing their faith seriously,” and they pause and look at me and say, “Right. But why would you make this film?”
Perhaps they think the U.S. is so Islamophobic that it’s impossible for us to see the beauty and value of Houda’s school. But I when I say how important it is to tell stories about moderate Muslims in the West, people start to nod their heads in agreement. I think the media chooses to focus on extremists, because they are dramatic and sensational. We have scenarios where American right wing extremists make racist videos that inflame radical Muslims who violently protest and the media reports the situation as if the outer poles represent the viewpoints of the majority of both cultures. It’s like an echo chamber that only contains the fringes and the moderate middle is absent. The reality is that the majority of both cultures are tolerant and moderate and not engaged in extremism. But in both places, far too much attention is paid to violent men with radical views.
Not to skip the criticism, a young woman states her dislike of the clips of conservative clerics in the film. She thinks we have used them out of context, and she wants to know why we didn’t include moderate clerics. This is a criticism we’ve gotten a lot. I say, but you have Houda representing a moderate voice for the whole film, doesn’t she count? But she wants to see moderate male Muslim clerics, so people won’t think badly of Islam, and especially of Muslim men. I explain we are not making a commercial for Islam; our job is to tell Houda’s story. And because they have made statements on TV discouraging women’s higher education, they are part of what Houda is up against in her quest to encourage women’s education.
On the final day of our 5-day program we head to Karak, about two and a half hours by car from Amman. It’s a small city on top of a mountain overlooking a stunning valley next to the Dead Sea. We tour its castle, built in the Middle Ages by the Crusaders who were trying to take control of Jerusalem and other strategic areas. The ruins are a stark reminder of the long history of religious conflict. One of the French knights used to throw his enemies from the top of the castle walls to be dashed on the rocks below. But today, we’re the guests of honor at a community center, run by JOHUD (the Jordanian Hashemite Center for Human Development), that is having a graduation ceremony for the members of its Film Club.
A group of people in high school and college made a series of films about violence, covering child abuse, equal rights for women and bullying. The films are passionate and urgent; I’m impressed. More people file in and we show The Light In Her Eyes. When I come back at the end of the screening, the women attending are singing and clapping along to the final song of the film, which has never happened before. When the film finishes, the whole room bursts into wild applause, and I’m really moved.
The discussion starts with a man saying thank you for making the film, he is so happy to see the true Islam represented, and again, he can’t believe Americans made it. A few women speak about the importance of women’s education and how happy they are to see Houda encourage them. Then a young man says there are some inaccuracies in the film. He doesn’t believe women should pray at the mosque as Houda advocates, nor is it appropriate for women to study science or math. “Oh,” I say, “So you agree with the clerics and disagree with Houda?” At that point the director of the center steps in and says these are controversial issues that should be discussed at another time, and thanks me for coming. The dialogue is finished. Later in the car ride home one of the embassy staff members tells me there will probably be more discussion after the film tonight, but not at an event sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. Politically, it’s far too sensitive.
As I’m packing to go home on the last night, I’m watching CNN and the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, MA. The TV coverage is shrill and surreal. They discuss the brother’s immigration status and I can already see how this event could be distorted for other purposes. This has proven to be true since then, as some members of congress are using the Boston attack as a way of blocking immigration reform. I’m reminded of the Q&A’s after Ligiah Villlalobos’ film La Misma Luna here in Jordan, and see the similarities in the conversation — how immigration is used as a scapegoat to mask other more complex issues. There’s a parallel in how fear and ignorance of Islam is used to draw attention away from the work we need to do to create a more sane, equitable, and just society.
Back at home I’m editing photos of the trip and I look at the pictures of the girls from our afternoon at the Baqa’a camp for Palestinian refugees. I see in their faces how we all start – with open flexible minds – and I worry that as we grow older our minds close and calcify. When I look at them they still look receptive, and they give me hope for change.