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July 31st, 2007
Dishing Democracy
Filmmaker Notes: Bregtje van der Haak

Bregtje van der Haak, Director of DISHING DEMOCRACY

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How did you meet the women of KALAM NAWAEM?

I first met the women of Kalam Nawaem in November 2005, when they invited me to their talk show as a guest. I had just finished a documentary about Saudi working women called Saudi Solutions. In this film, I explored the lifestyle and points of view of women in Saudi Arabia who are actually working, who have a career – strong independent women who could be role models for other women. The presenters of Kalam Nawaem liked this film so much, that they invited me to talk about it. They were really interested in knowing why I presented a different view of Arab women than is normally presented in Western media. Why I chose strong women rather than weak ones, or the ones we see a lot in Western media. We see that Arab women are connected to problems, and these problems are real, they exist, and it’s very important to talk about them. But I thought it was also important to talk about and to listen to strong women because they might inspire us.

What inspired you to make this film?

What inspired me to make Dishing Democracy is the fact that in my recent work and travels in the Middle East and in the Arab world, I recognized the presence and the importance of satellite TV, which has been around for roughly 17 years now. I think the introduction of satellite TV has caused major changes in the Arab world. It has introduced a variety of opinions and information that was not known before in this area of the world. And I’ve always been interested in finding a way to explore the change that was brought by satellite TV. And when I was invited on Kalam Nawaem as a guest, I thought this was the perfect microcosm to look at satellite TV. Why is Kalam Nawaem such a perfect microcosm? Well, because it has the four presenters from four different countries who are extremely charming, intelligent, very strong willed, and very eloquent. I was very much inspired by them to talk about satellite media and what satellite media was about, through them, and with them, and listen to them, and show how they look at the world.

It’s really Rania, Muna, Fawzia and Farah that inspired me to make this film – and not only them, the whole team behind Kalam Nawaem, Samir Farhat, Hisham Musharafieh, Samar Akrouk. They are truly modern, may be even post-modern, transnational media professionals that are extremely flexible, very well informed and very professional. We can learn from them, I think.

What also inspired me is the fact that I noticed that in the Arab world, professionals, working women, working men, are driven not only by individual goals, individual happiness, and making money, but they are really working as a community to make something happen. And this is something that I miss sometimes in the West. It really touched me, and I want to learn from it as a media professional. And I want to understand what it means not to put the individual first. And I learned a lot from the team of Kalam Nawaem. And I hope I can use it in my practice, in my professional life, but also in my own personal life.

In your proposal you mention that you thought democracy was growing from the bottom up in many Arab countries and that satellite television is playing a large role in the process of changing attitudes in the Middle East. Can you talk about this a bit and even provide an example of how you see this in other ways besides Kalam Nawaem?

I think that the idea of democracy is being misused a lot and misunderstood. I think democracy is not only a political system that can be imposed. Democracy means not only political representation, one person, one vote. I think democracy means to be able to express an opinion, and to be able to express an opinion you need information. And I think that free press, free information, freedom of thought and expression, and difference of thought and expression, is fundamental to democracy. So sometimes I’m amazed at how this idea of exporting democracy is taking on, and how people, policy makers, politicians think that you can bring democracy to a region or to a country. I think democracy is something that cannot be brought or bought, but I think democracy comes from within. From the people who think that what they think or what they have to say is worth being expressed. And I think that in that sense Kalam Nawaem is an extraordinary example of an institution, a TV program, a satellite TV program that invites people to form opinions, to think, that fosters debate, and difference of opinions.

You also mentioned in your proposal that you hope that your film would help shatter stereotypes Westerners may have toward Arabs? Do you think it does and how so?

I don’t have the illusion that I can shatter any stereotypes, or that I would be able to change any viewer’s mind, but I certainly do hope that by showing Kalam Nawaem, the women who work on it, the men who work on it, by listening to them, by giving them a platform in my film, I hope that by doing this, Western viewers will get to know a different side of the Arab world than they normally get to know from mainstream media. I think that lately there has been a lot of attention for the Arab world, a lot of attention for Islam, but I think the focus of this attention has been very narrow. What I’ve missed in my own reading of the media and watching television is the modern face of the Arab world. I would like to understand how the Arab world is modernizing, how globalization is impacting the Arab world, how privatization is impacting the Arab world, what it does to the mind of the individual Arab. And I think this is much more important to understand than to focus on what is in the Koran and how some people interpret and use it for the wrong reasons. It’s very important to understand how mainstream Arabs who are modern and want to modernize and are modernizing how they think, how they live, how they look at the world, how they look at us. We have to learn to listen. And that is what I try to do.

While filming viewers in their homes and on the street, did you hear any particularly interesting or amusing stories about how much they love/hate Kalam Nawaeem?

We spoke to many, many viewers in different countries and it was very interesting to see that Kalam Nawaem is really become part of the family in many cases. They tune in on 9pm on Sunday night and the whole family watches, including children. They go to bed very late, and then they discuss the issues that have been discussed in Kalam Nawaem. Sometimes they disagree, sometimes people agree. And also what struck me is that many viewers have very strong preference for one of the presenters. Many men really like Muna, especially conservative men because she is the only one wearing the veil, the head scarf, and they really appreciate that. And the men also like Farah. Farah is a very famous actress, a comedy actress in the Arab world. She participated in many different comedy shows and in soap operas and films. She’s extremely beautiful and men like her. Rania is probably liked by a lot of women, more liberal women. And Madame Fawzia is very much respected for her age and for her writing as a newspaper columnist. So this concept of having four different women agree and disagree on different issues really works because it allows identification with four different forms of identification for viewers.

What were your personal impressions of feminism in the Arab world? In making the film, what differences did you observe between your concept of feminism and the Arab Muslim concept of feminism as demonstrated by the women of Kalam Nawaem?

I think to be a feminist today – a Western feminist or an Arab feminist – is to stress equal opportunities for men and women, and equal pay for equal work, a very simple principle with which almost every woman would agree. I think the difference between Arab feminist and Western feminist is the focus of the Arab feminist on the community rather than the individual happiness. Muna mentions this in the film, and I think it’s something we could learn from because I think that for women, especially mothers, it is very important to understand how to be happy as a unit. I think women tend to have more of a focus, a little bit of a larger framework than just individual happiness so I think that to that extent Western women could really relate to the Arab women, and they have lessons to offer us. For example, the fact that Muna can work in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh, work as much as she does is thanks to the family that she has and the family of her husband who is supporting her and helping her to take care of the children.

In general what really touched me in working in the Arab world is the focus of the women I met to make a contribution to their community and their society. Their focus is not on making a lot of money, or having a wonderful career, or getting a lot of attention. I think really their drive is to make things better, as silly as this may sound, but I think that really is what they want to do. They want to make a contribution, and the fact that they really feel this from deep inside, this desire to make a contribution to the society, not only to feminism and the children, but to the world at large, I think it is related to their being Muslim. I think it’s a very important concept in Islam, to use your skills, your talent, to contribute something, and it’s very beautiful, I think. It touched me it inspires me, and it helps me.

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