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New Documentary Combating The Preconceptions of The Arabic World

The women of Arab Women Say What?! - Photo from the National Film Board of Canada

When you picture someone from the Arabic community, what do you see?

A new documentary directed by Nisreen Baker and produced by the National Film Board of Canada challenges preconceptions of what it means to be Arabic. This explorative film, Arab Women Say What?!, follows the lives of eight Arab women who discuss the struggles of life as an immigrant, how they stayed connected during the global pandemic, and their conversations about religion, feminism, sexuality, and politics. 

At a function at the National Film Board office in Edmonton, Baker approached the executive producer at the time, David Christensen, on a completely different topic. After a while, she began describing her conversations with her friends, and Christensen became intrigued. 

“We got to talking, and I told him about a gathering with my female friends and the conversations that went on. The more I talked, the more he listened intently. He then pointed and said, ‘This, this is the documentary I’d like to see.’ I finished the luncheon and sprung to work.”

Baker’s enthusiasm had to be postponed with a new virus spreading worldwide, beginning the COVID-19 pandemic. This threw a wrench in Baker’s plan, who had already found excited individuals from her extended friend group to participate in the documentary. However, with adversity comes opportunity. 

For many individuals, technology was instrumental in maintaining connections and avoiding isolation during lockdowns. Baker and her friends were no different. The women began connecting over Zoom, and Baker had an idea. 

“I talked to the producer Coty [Savard], and I asked why don’t we document the time? I mean, everyone’s meeting on Zoom, so let’s record our Zoom meetings.”

Although the idea was unconventional, Savard saw merit in it, encouraging Baker to pursue this endeavour further and develop a proposal for the concept. “And the National Film Board indulged me,” says Baker.

Recording the calls was just the first step for the film. The eight female participants were sent phones to record one-on-one interviews, going from subjects to participants in the documentary. “They’re telling their own story now,” explains Baker. “They don’t have a director and a DOP [director of photography] pointing a camera at them and asking questions. They’re showing us. They’re telling us what they would like us, as the viewers, to know about them. They’re actually communicating, connecting with the larger Canadian society.” 

That is the antithesis of this project: to challenge those watching to put themselves in the shoes of immigrants, to understand what it is like to live in and sometimes between two worlds, and for anyone who isn’t Indigenous to imagine what life was like for their family when they first migrated to Canada.

“For any first-generation immigrant, I would believe in any background, whether it be Latin America, Africa, Asia, or where have you, even in Europe, you somehow don’t fit in both places. Because you adapt, you change, you go with the flow in Canada. You may or may not be the same as your country of origin. Here [Canada], you may be fitting, but not quite. You’re missing a little bit.” 

For Baker and many other immigrants, that’s the beauty of Canada, an opportunity to become more than the sum of their parts, an opportunity to become a part of Canadian culture while embracing the culture of their origins, a celebration of two wholes. 

The film also delves into assumptions about how often communities and cultures can be put into a box. Sometimes, those assumptions can be dangerous. One of the women exclaims, “Just because I speak Arabic doesn’t mean I’m Muslim,” which is an insight into understanding that Arabic encompasses an estimated 350 million individuals who speak it as their first language, with 25 countries where Arabic is the official or co-official language. These cultures and communities are much broader than what Western imagination often perceives. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg in these women’s evocative conversations inquiring into each other’s beliefs and understanding each other’s perspectives on sexuality, ideology, feminism and culture. They also challenge Western narratives, criticizing and trying to understand why, all too often, it feels like violence in the Middle East is normalized in media while tragedies in Europe are given much more focus. 

Like many documentaries before Arab Women Say What?! engages the viewer in a way that forces them to think.

“I hope they [viewers] leave with an opening to a conversation to understand a part of the Canadian mosaic,” says Baker, “that’s been misunderstood and demonized. I hope the next time they hear a story about an Arab, they take a minute to think about how true, how exaggerated or how that could possibly be. I hope they understand we are their next-door neighbours, no different from any other community. I hope they spark a conversation and feel empowered to start a conversation with an Arab.”  

– Ryan Funk, U Multicultural

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