An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky

In 2011, I participated in The Arctic Circle program, an expeditionary residency that brings together artists of all disciplines to collectively explore a region of the Arctic. For ten days, about 20 of us shared the cramped quarters of a sailboat and looked for ways to translate our Arctic experience into artistic works as we sailed up and down the coast of Svalbard, located halfway between Norway and the North Pole. One of my shipmates on that trip was documentary filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky. Saeed used the residency to shoot his documentary film There Will Be Some Who Will Not Fear Even That Void…. The film won the Tromso Palm for Best Film from the North from the Tromso International Film Festival and just screened at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver. I caught up with Saeed and asked him to tell me a little bit more about the project and what it means to him.

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You define your company, Tourist With A Typewriter, as a “documentary production company dedicated to creative human rights and social justice documentaries.” How do you see There Will Be Some fitting into this definition?

All the films me and my collaborators have made as Tourist With A Typewriter somehow address human rights, though not always directly. We make films that are far more impressionistic and humanistic than they are journalistic so the human rights aspects is intrinsic to the story. We were originally calling …Even That Void a human rights film without the humans, a little facetiously, but the point was that it was addressing human rights although the topic itself wasn’t about human rights. I see climate change, the competing interests in the exploration of the Arctic and our fundamental relationship to the environment as a human rights issue, inextricably linked to the same politics that are responsible for human rights abuses. Exploitation, greed, militarisation and an unashamedly egotistical and voracious appetite to conquer are behind both wars against societies, against individuals and against the natural world. I believe the same lack of empathy that allows people to kill must also allow them to destroy the natural world without remorse.

Narratively, too, …Even That Void asks questions about the conquest of territory. As climate change accelerates, marginal and vulnerable communities are pushed even further to the margins and suddenly become collateral damage in our “development.” This doesn’t much affect the decision makers in the US, Europe and China, those who define the agenda of development, until it comes home and affects their own people. But indigenous communities around the world, especially in fragile Arctic areas, are finding that the rush to control their resources today looks an awful lot like the rush to control their land 60 or so years ago. For them there’s no difference between human rights and environmental rights. The unstoppable urge to consume and conquer at any cost remains the same.

If we’re analysing the Arctic resource race today, the language and iconography is exactly the same as the Victorian style colonialism of 100 years ago. Stephen Harper’s famous “use it or lose it” speech in 2007 and the Russians planting  their flag on the Arctic sea bed a month later. The Arctic nations (and some non-Arctic ones) are desperate to stake their claims because there is a lot of money to be made in what is probably the world’s last great undiscovered oil fields. This means both human rights and environmental concerns will likely go out the window unless someone’s there to stop it.

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Why the Arctic? What inspired you to want to work in that part of the world?

The Arctic has a special place in the history of British exploration, so as someone who grew up in Britain (but is also a refugee as a result of British colonialism) it was interesting to me to analyse this. Britain went through several phases of Arctic discovery, first as a result of scare resources (whaling), then new economic markets (fur trading) then pure nationalism (the race to the north pole) and  now military-industrial imperatives. That era of exploration very much defined what we think of as the “hero”, and as someone who considers himself an explorer, I wanted to know why and how I was influenced by that propaganda, to the extent that I still have a Victorian sense of the heroic adventurer even though I understand how obscene that image is to me today.

The Arctic is also a place of exploration that allows people to imagine a great blank canvas where they can project their own fantasies. It allows people to imagine what’s up there at the “top of the world”, but of course these fantasies are almost all wrong. They usually assume there’s no one there, and that it’s somehow a benign and pure landscape when, in fact, it’s trying to kill you at all times. It was a place where people made their reputations or came back either dead or humiliated. Because of all this, it has so many questions of strength, nationalism, ego and pride tied up in it, and that makes it fascinating for someone like me who is always trying to deconstruct these urges and understand what compels someone to act like this. Even in my more straight investigative human rights work, I always try to understand “why would someone do this?” We can’t usually find the answer but asking it already marks your approach as different to the purely factual approach.

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How did The Arctic Circle residency change or expand your conception of the North?

I had almost no conception of the North other than the historical / political before I went to Norway. I found it very hard to think of the landscape there without resorting to cliches, so I mostly preferred to keep my mind blank until I was actually there. And, surprisingly, when I was there I found I wasn’t having profound experiences when I looked at wide landscapes. I was moved far more by small details. A frozen feather on a beach, this was one of the strongest images I saw there. The skeleton of a trapper hut, this remnant of human interference. The way the light was so even, and the air so clean, that normal cues of perspective didn’t make sense any more. Things that were unexpected I found much more interesting than just looking at landscapes. I felt like the landscapes only made sense to me when I interacted with them, walked through them, climbed them, ran through them in the case of Ny-Alesund when I felt compelled to run a 5km circuit. Then I could fully understand the cold.

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What do you think is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?

I think the mainstream approach to protecting the environment is dangerously stale at the moment. There seems to be one (largely social) narrative based on providing us with the information we need to make changes in our lives. But why aren’t people altering their behaviour? It isn’t because they don’t have access to the information. It’s because the information doesn’t mean anything to them on a humanistic level. It’s also because our changes are largely under the thumb of giant corporations and governments that have different priorities. This is where artists can play a role. Artist should be the radical voices that are not beholden to corporate agendas and that are not afraid to challenge political momentum. Artists also have the ability – perhaps even the responsibility – to transform a scientific issue into a personal one. How can we comprehend that to destroy the environment is to destroy ourselves? That simple formula is too large for us to get our heads around. The artist can give us a narrative, a personal story or image that explains this in a different way. An artist should allow us to empathise with the challenge of protecting our environment without reverting to the familiar and without overwhelming us with the catastrophic. The artist makes the inconceivable conceivable. This may not lead to direct action, and it may not provide us with the information we need, but I would say it does something more important: it changes our conception of the problem.

Artists have a massive influence on the struggle to defend human rights (back to the human rights question) because they uniquely have the ability to make us understand the inhumanity of abuses. We now largely consider slavery to be abhorrent because our morality shifted when society came to truly understand the horrors of slavery. To be able to properly protect the environment, we need to conceive of a morality in which it’s considered abhorrent to abuse the natural world with impunity.

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What gives you  hope?

Hmmm…tough question. Not much, to be honest. Except knowing that there are people like Ze Claudio who are willing to die to protect what they love. It’s ironic that his death would somehow give me hope, but there is some comfort in knowing there are still radicals out there who are not afraid.

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