Filming from the Margins | Feministaniat

Aug 2015

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Only 6 percent of the Canadian film industry’s directors are women. Reading this in the mandate of a local feminist film festival website, I was taken aback. Unfortunately, I’m too used to hearing criticism on the exclusively evil and exclusively patriarchal East, and, too used to a comfortably sugar-coated interpretation of the West as a playground of freedom and limitless opportunity for all women.

The Breakthroughs Film Festival showcases short films made by emerging women directors.  As the organizers of the festival remind us, women must put in more effort, more labour, more struggle into representing themselves because the film industry, like so many others, is dominated by men.

Safar (Journey) was one of the many extremely poignant short films screened at the festival, directed by emerging documentary filmmaker Mariam Zaidi. The film is an intimate and emotional portrayal of one family’s story, but goes beyond its subjects’ immediate concerns. In just 15 minutes, Safar soberly reminds us of the deep effects upon communities of multiple injustices, from the violent partition of the Indian Subcontinent to exclusionary policies that dehumanize people with special needs.

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Can you tell us about your own film Safar?
Safar is about my family’s attempt to migrate to Canada with Rabab, who lives with cerebral palsy. When my parents approached an immigration lawyer, they were told Rabab’s application would be rejected on the grounds that people with special needs are considered a burden on the Canadian healthcare system. My parents were dejected and didn’t end up applying for landed immigration for the whole family.

Through the film, my parents retell that experience, and reflect on how Rabab’s movement and migration is controlled and restricted because of her special needs. I wanted to make Safar to pose questions about the legitimacy of inegalitarian laws, and about how Canadians with disabilities would feel towards such an ableist immigration system.

What kind of a woman is Rabab?
Rabab has a very strong personality. She is extremely stubborn and almost always gets what she wants from both my parents. She has great instincts about people and often we follow her judgement to make our own decisions about how we feel towards certain friends and family members in our life. Rabab is also very outgoing and gets extremely excited around new people, children and in any kind of lively social environment. She’s an extremely empathetic and caring person, a strangers discomfort or a baby’s cries, for example, can make her extremely upset and worried. Over the years we’ve learned to be better versions of ourselves because of her.

In Safar you mention that the care Rabab requires is not that intensive, despite the label of ‘burdensome’ applied to many people with special needs by Canadian immigration. What do you make of this contradiction?
Even though in the film I deliberately draw attention to the fact that Rabab’s needs involve help with eating, using the toilet, and regular physiotherapy and are not that intensive, I do not propose that those whose needs do go beyond that amount of care are ‘burdensome’ in any way.

Overall, the question should not be about the degree of ‘burden’ or complexity of needs. This is not something quantifiable and neither should we strive to quantify that. The question should be what we can do to make the healthcare system take care of everyone according to their level of need.

In Canada, there are several glaring issues with the healthcare system. Just to name one example, temporary foreign workers and skilled workers on work permits pay into the healthcare system, but are not entitled to receive healthcare. If foreign workers injure themselves and gain a disability, they may face the threat of either deportation or being fired outright. Image 02

You grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Have you witnessed any shift in attitudes towards differently abled people over the years?
I have seen a shift in terms of awareness and a push to provide more accessibility for people with different physical needs. Even though the healthcare system is not free, there are certain routine procedures and processes that have become subsidized. Small changes such as vehicles with disability stickers being exempt from highway tolls indicate that there is an acceptance that accessibility needs to increase drastically. In doing the research for my film, I interviewed a doctor who spoke about a hospital ward of abandoned children who had been born with various special needs. It’s appalling to know that that wasn’t a very long time ago and it indicates how far behind a rapidly developing place like Dubai is when it comes to disability justice and access.

There is a scene in Safar in the metro where there is a woman staring at Rabab. Those stares are extremely common and happen to us all the time. We don’t see a lot of people in wheelchairs, with walking aids or walkers in public in Dubai. I think it has to do with accessibility but a lot to do with awareness and acceptance of differently abled people.

Do you frame your own narrative in the context of imperialism and colonialism?
My father is a Pakistani citizen and my mother is an Indian citizen, and neither is welcome in each other’s home countries. Like many others, they have lived away from their homelands and families in the Gulf, and the choice to live there is directly tied to colonialism and present-day imperialism.

While doing research for my Master’s thesis I met families in the U.A.E who were also told to not bother applying for immigration to Canada, based on the special needs of their family members.

In Canada, I was connected with a transnational disability group at York University and heard the stories and court cases of so many people living apart from their loved ones. One of the cases someone wrote about in her research paper was of a man trying to sponsor his wife who lives with multiple sclerosis- applications like hers are repeatedly rejected due to the applicant’s health condition.

Given that the stories you seek to cover take place on the margins, is it easy get the funding you need for your films?
In Canada there is a favour towards ‘Canadian’ stories, and funds are generally more available to documentary filmmakers whose ideas are based on a certain mainstream notion of what that means.  If you create stories that are interesting to diaspora communities here, it often doesn’t come across as a ‘Canadian’ story to funding bodies, which is rather problematic. I think that is a challenge facing many filmmakers and artists like myself from the South Asian, Caribbean, Southeast Asian and other diaspora communities. The documentary industry has become very competitive, as have most fields of work in the recent past. It is hard to acquire funding and assistance as an emerging filmmaker without a track record.

What kind of documentary films are you planning to make in the future?
There are many narratives I would love to pursue. I am strongly drawn to the stories of South Asian migrant workers, the largest immigrant population in the Gulf, who have contributed the most to the growth of the city, but who have no access to any social services or status. The Gulf is famous for its horrific labour laws and Dubai is no exception where construction workers, for example, are being paid as little as $5 a day to work long in Dubai’s oppressively warm temperatures.

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Safar is currently being shown at festivals and community screenings in Toronto.


Sara Jaffri is a writer and researcher currently based in Toronto, Canada. She tweets at @sarapaloooza.

One Response to Filming from the Margins | Feministaniat

  1. Rana Khan on Aug 2015 at 9:23 PM

    I saw ‘Safar’and it was a very moving experience.Kudos to Mariam Zaidi for highlighting Canada’s approach towards those who are differently abled.

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