What stories we long to hear, we will write ourselves

By: Nadia Shihab

It was morning at the Mohonk Mountain House, and the thick fog of the previous night was lifting to reveal a dewy forest outside the windows of our meeting room. I was in the Hudson Valley to attend my third and final retreat for my 18-month fellowship with the Firelight Documentary Lab. We were seven fellows in total, and as we took our morning coffee and sat down in the circle of chairs arranged for us, we were asked to contemplate a simple question:

What events or people have had the most impact on your development as filmmakers?

For ten minutes, the room was silent except for the gentle squeaking of black Sharpies on paper. Then slowly, we each moved to our chosen walls and began to arrange our sticky notes in imaginary horizontal timelines. On one wall: “Moved to white suburbs with black dad”. On another wall: “Bullied in school”. On another: “Grandma died”.

Our families were complicated, our roots tangled. Someone remarked: Our lives are defined by messy trajectories.

It was true: our individual paths into directing our first feature films were unexpected and emotionally fraught. But beautifully so. Personal impasses and societal ruptures gently pushed us towards our future selves. And though each of our artistic voices was unique and our approaches to the documentary form were varied, there was also a connective thread in our “lifelines”.

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Firelight Media Documentary Lab Fellows and Staff at the Mohonk Mountain House.

What we shared in common was not just that we came from communities that were underrepresented in the film world. It was also that, for most of our lives, the nuance, complexity and beauty of who we were and where we came from was so often rendered one-dimensional in the stories and images being made about us.

I recalled 9/11 and the limited rolodex of images that repeated themselves in the mainstream media: the violent Arab man, the powerless wailing woman, the brainwashed child as victim. These were not the images in my mother’s photo album, where long-haired hippies partied on the beaches of Beirut, or where my uncles played music during spring picnics in Iraq.

When I decided to pick up a video camera in 2001, it was a choice made out of necessity. If negative images of us were used to dehumanize our communities, instill fear in the public, and build support for a never-ending war, then it seemed our own survival and self-determination depended on making images of our own.

As I gained confidence behind the camera, I quietly moved away from reacting, and towards simply creating, on my own terms. Filming with my mother and grandfather in JADDOLAND became a way to forge an intimate cinematic language of self-representation — one that embraced beauty and mystery, the textures of our longing and desires, and a reimagining of our relationships to home.

When I began, I didn’t yet call myself an artist and what I was making was not yet a film. The camera was simply a way to hold the things that I loved close to me, and to define the rhythms and ruptures of our lives in a language that was my own.

But too much creative isolation can also weaken the spirit. If my time with other Fellows in the Lab has taught me anything, it is that we still need each other — to push us to dig deeper, to speak truth, to never stop critiquing systems of oppression, and to be unapologetic in the work we do even if it runs the risk of alienating others.

As artists making work at this moment of time, the aesthetics of our resistance may look different from the generations that came before, but they are rooted in the same struggles and aspirations. And if it was our parents and grandparents that crossed borders, challenged tradition or transcended destiny, ours is a story of excavating, reclaiming and reimagining our own stories of being and becoming. We no longer cast our eyes downward and ask for permission. And why should we? What stories we long to hear, we will write ourselves.

Nadia Shihab is a Firelight Media Documentary Lab fellow, filmmaker and musician based in Oakland. She creates work that explores narratives of place, identity and dislocation to forge new ways of rendering personal and collective history. She is currently in post-production on her first feature-length film, Jaddoland.

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Firelight Media is dedicated to supporting documentary filmmakers of color and cultivating audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.

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