“Know Your Freedom” award-winning documentary film interview: Fiza Pathan
At the start I would like to thank both Supriya Srinivas and Ghalia Al-Aqili for giving me this wonderful opportunity to converse with them about their award-winning documentary film “Know Your Freedom”. Supriya Srinivas and Ghalia Al-Aqili are the co-directors, co- producers, and co-writers of this inspiring documentary.
As co-directors, Ghalia and Supriya bring a unique insider/outsider approach to the exciting sporting journeys of the three Arab protagonists of the feature length documentary “Know Your Freedom”. Ghalia (the insider) knows the challenges only too well. Supriya (the outsider) asks the discomfiting questions often brushed aside as a social given. Together, the duo attempt to unravel a delicate web of social and cultural barriers that the protagonists must overcome other than trying to make a name for themselves in the rigorously competitive international sports of skydiving, figure skating and weightlifting.
Presenting the award-winning co-directors of “Know Your Freedom”, Ghalia Al-Aqili and Supriya Srinivas.
FP: As an introduction, can you give my readers a glimpse into what your documentary “Know Your Freedom” is all about?
Supriya: “Know Your Freedom” is an intimate glimpse of three Arab sportswomen, specifically from the United Arab Emirates, negotiating restrictions imposed by society, family and self, to achieve their sporting dreams in the rigorously competitive fields of figure skating, weightlifting and skydiving.
FP: Who came up with the title “Know Your Freedom” for this documentary and why?
Supriya: I believe it was Ghalia Al Aqili, my Co-producer/co-director, and a UAE national herself, who came up with the specific title both in English and Arabic of course.
Ghalia: It was almost organic. Capturing a life that isn’t our norm, an outcome of our endless conversations about our protagonists and their mission in life. We realized that freedom for women in conservative societies such as in the UAE is about negotiating your way through restrictions, both open and covert. The title “Know Your Freedom” is as much a recognition of what our stars have achieved as it is a call to action.
FP: The substance of “Know Your Freedom” is very unique and different. How did the idea for this documentary take shape in your minds?
Ghalia: The simplest way to explain how it took shape was when Supriya started asking questions and I started responding.
Supriya: Ghalia and myself would sit in the famous malls of Dubai, chatting endlessly. We were that odd couple – a local girl in an Abaya and an older Indian woman! We definitely wanted the film to be women oriented. We had just completed a short film and believed we were ready for a feature length documentary (how ready we were is debatable, but I am glad we plunged into the project).
A big challenge in a conservative society is access to women and a good documentary must give you more than just some pretty sound bytes. Through a series of hit and misses approaching women’s groups across the UAE, we met our first sportswoman – a skydiver…again in a mall. We realised we had the ideal subject – girls who will not be wary of cameras recording them and their thoughts.
FP: It is stated on your blog that the three sportswomen Amna Al Haddad, Nesreen Ali and Zahra Lari had to face a “traditionally bound society” to fulfill their aspirations. You go on to mention that, the three protagonists in your documentary are “redefining the aspirations of a whole generation of Arab women”. Your comments on that please?
Ghalia: As a UAE national I know many will see us as privileged and who have it all, but many don’t know that we have to still strive for what we dream about and towards becoming a noteworthy person in society. We are trying to show that a woman in the UAE or anywhere has to learn how to either break or pave or just manoeuvre her way to be the person that she wants to be. When the system can’t be changed, we have to find new ways to make that change happen.
Supriya: There is an extraordinary moment in the documentary when Zahra’s father speaks of how difficult it was for him to allow his daughter – the figure skater, Zahra Lari, to live her dreams. It was a candid glimpse into a society that is torn between a rather conservative view of a woman’s role and the aspirations of young women. The news headlines for the region started with the Arab spring and is now mainly about sectarian strife and the ISIS threat. The headlines are missing a quiet revolution as young women become more assertive within families and communities compelling states to take notice. As one person in our documentary rightly said: “We are no longer a small fishing village. Our traditions and society have to adapt”.
FP: How different is the society of Amna Al Haddad, Nesreen Ali and Zahra Lari from let us say the American society to which most of my readers belong, or are a product of?
Ghalia: I’m not sure how to pinpoint the difference between the Emirati women and American women, but personally speaking as an Emirati myself I can say that we grew up with our minds filled with ambitions to be great at whatever we want to do. While growing up, people encouraged us to dream of big achievements. However through time you realize it is just talk and you are shown just a few doors towards ways to live your life. For many girls that is the beginning of the heartbreak they must overcome – but here is what makes our protagonists special is they wouldn’t let go of their dreams and they created unique paths to pursue their dreams within our society.
Supriya: This is an excellent question and really goes to the heart of the matter. Why did we attempt this documentary? What is so special about these girls? Our protagonists have the latest in IPhones; they drive Range Rovers and have designer accessories. They are not your classic underdog, so why should the audience care? As we said in the previous response, underneath the glitz, these girls face an incredible number of barriers – covert and overt. The girls can shop and drive in luxury, and enjoy the best as long as they conform and remain “in the herd”. By training and competing for personal sporting goals, our protagonists are breaking artificial barriers that dictate what a “good conformist” girl ought to do. From marriage prospects to the reputation of a family…the stakes are incredibly high in a tight-knit conservative society.
FP: When did you first meet or come to know about Amna, Nesreen and Zahra respectively?
Supriya: That day, I think in August 2014, is still fresh in my mind when we met with Zahra and her mother at the Ice rink in the Dubai mall on the sidelines of a Disney event. Zahra’s mother Roquiya’s trust in us newcomers was critical in helping start the shoot. Nesreen was part of the 4-way UAE skydiving team and as we followed the team during their competition in Dubai, we got to know what an incredible person Nesreen is. Amna Al Haddad will be the first person to admit that she does not trust people easily. A cousin of Ghalia helped introduce us. We met the rest of UAE team as they competed in Doha, Qatar.
Ghalia: The first meeting was with a skydiver who withdrew sadly before the shoot. (One of the perils of shooting a documentary). We called the Zayed Sports City Ice Rink and we were given Zahra’s Mom contact number who told us that Zahra is part of FBMA (Fatma Bint Mubarak Academy) and it will be good to meet them. While all that was happening I was looking for any contact to Amna. I got it actually from a cousin who had brunch with Amna, and she was hard to track. Zahra’s mom made sure we had a meet with the academy that coincidently also had Amna as part of their Academy. The ladies at the Academy told us that Zahra was to have an event in less than a week from our meet. One thing led to the other for a year and a half – a snowball effect of sorts.
FP: What came first, the concept of “Know You Freedom” or the people you met to become later the stars of “Know Your Freedom”?
Supriya: Another great question – and really tricky. Women were always going to be our subject. Ghalia and myself belong to very different cultures and generations and yet we have similar stories of personal ambitions versus low expectations from family and society. For both us it was a privilege to meet three young women who had the courage to live their dream. Without sounding too dramatic, I believe Ghalia and myself have had this story long before we met each other or our protagonists.
Ghalia: “Know your freedom” – the concept – is in every person who wants to be the ultimate person they envision themselves. It was inevitable for “Know Your Freedom” to come about while Supriya and I worked on this subject matter.
FP: Where mainly was “Know Your Freedom” shot?
Supriya: Our most dramatic day of production was when we got into speedboats to get to the crescent of the Palm in Dubai to record the skydivers as they landed. We mainly shot in and around the ice rinks of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the horse stables of Dubai, the skydive campuses on the Palm and in the desert, the gyms in Dubai and the houses of our stars. There were two overseas shooting stints in Rekjavik, Iceland (figureskating) and Doha, Qatar (weightlifting).
FP: Are there more women like Amna, Nesreen and Zahra in the area from where they come from or are these three sportswomen three rare personalities altogether whom you have come across?
Supriya: “Why are there so few Zahras?” We asked her coach. The singular focus on an Olympic dream and the immense sacrifices that come with it are still the realm of the few and in that area – our protagonists are pioneers. And what is happy to note is that they have a dedicated fan following within the country. Generally speaking, women in sports is no longer a novelty in the UAE. There are scores of women in the fields of horse-riding, some intrepid ones in skydiving and a few in weightlifting.
FP: For most Muslim women, the veil or hijab is a very important part of their being. Did Amna, Nesreen and Zahra find it at times difficult to protect this part of their Islamic roots while they continued to establish themselves in their respective fields as a weight lifter, a sky diver and an ice skater?
Supriya: The Islamic identity is critical to our stars – they take immense pride in their identity. In public our stars do wear the Hijab, which in the UAE is generally a long loose black garment worn on the outside with a shaila (headscarf) covering the head. While the hijab is an impractical garment in a competitive sport, our protagonists have found ways to express their Islamic identity. The three of them have chosen to cover their heads and shoulders even while competing. While it is simple to look at it as an expression of their religious identity, in the more conservative GCC countries of which the UAE is one of them, it is also a public expression of nationality and of belonging to their communities.
FP: We are often informed by certain fanatical organizations through various mediums that ‘modesty’ is a very important part of a Muslim woman especially with relation to her body. Also inform me whether the media in India as well as abroad are exaggerating in their descriptions of the strictures imposed upon women in the area where Amna, Nesreen and Zahra come from?
Supriya: “Reputation is no longer a thought…it is a physical entity,” said one of the UAE girls in our documentary – she chose not to reveal her identity. At another point in the documentary the same girl states, “People will say – Oh you are out all the time…no one will marry you”. Marriage is a critical milestone for UAE girls and even now proposals can come in when the girl has barely finished high school. Family members of our stars have mentioned how some people on social media had been less than welcoming of the girls wanting to compete on the international stage. However while society remains conservative, the silver lining is the state. The government through various organisations actively promotes women in sports. All our stars are getting stipends and support from government organisations which is critical because an Olympic dream does not come cheap.
FP: I am awed by all three of the three sportswomen who are the main ‘drivers’ of this documentary but I must confess, I am much intrigued by Zahra Lari the skater. I being once in my lifetime a fan of ice-skating know that there are many rules regarding the craft including the costume as well as the music. How did Zahra Lari get or did not get her way?
Supriya: Zahra started late at 11. Girls and boys typically start figure skating at 3 or 4 and start competing by the age of 5. Her father candidly admits he was reluctant for her to compete “in front of men”. Conversation around choice of costume and choice of music were critical in Zahra’s entry to this field. When she first competed in Italy, audiences were puzzled looking at her headscarf and organisers were both wary and concerned about it from the safety point of view. Today Zahra says, it is not an issue for a girl to compete with a headscarf. It all seems easy, but the courage and steely determination that it must have taken Zahra in those early days are unmistakable.
FP: Have any one of the three sportswomen received during their training and sporting events any backlash from family members, society or certain other organizations?
Supriya: Fortunately for the three protagonists, the state apparatus is on their side. The leaders actively promote women in sports. And yet there are only a handful of girls pursuing sports professionally, which is indicative of a society that is conservative at heart. While the murmurs of opposition from society and the extended family was evident with all the three of them – but they have had their advocates. Like the grandfather in Nesreen’s case who rejected early marriage proposals for his granddaughter or Zahra’s uncle who questioned a colleague when he thought the extended family did not approve of her figure skating. “She is skating in a hijab and she has the approval of her parents – so what is wrong with that?” the uncle argued.
FP: Weightlifting is a very difficult sport not only in the sense of the job itself but also where stereotypes are concerned which mainly center on the illusion that only men are capable of a better job in this field. However, it seems that Amna Al Haddad has managed not to only surpass the ‘gender’ stereotype which already is very predominant in this field of athletics but also the ‘regional’ stereotype. Correct me if I am wrong in presuming that Amna’s journey was not an easy one.
Supriya: Your observation is absolutely accurate. In the documentary, Amna addresses the taboo around women weightlifters and she effectively argues the case that you can be feminine and lift weights. The importance of Amna’s journey is effectively expressed in martial arts trainer, Wael Al Sayyegh’s words: “Society may not understand her today. But they will in the future. Her journey to Rio Olympics is gold. She does not need to get there for me.”
FP: From all the teammates of Nesreen Ali who all practice and are into skydiving, you only highlighted Nesreen’s story. Why so? How different was Nesreen from her other teammates?
Supriya: You are right. All the girls on the UAE 4-way team are equally outstanding. Nida is an engineer and a skydiver. Radwa is a single parent and is an inspiration. Alena, their coach was the national skydiving champion for Russia. Nesreen is a UAE national just as Zahra and Amna are.
We were keen to maintain a common thread of nationality within the Arab world. Apart from that Nesreen is truly remarkable. Not only does she skydive, she is also a champion endurance horse rider. 160kms on a horse is all a day’s work for this champion. And when you see her personality unfold, you will see the fighter that Nesreen is.
FP: When will “‘Know Your Freedom” be coming to Mumbai, India my hometown?
Supriya: At present we have entered a number of festivals and are thoroughly excited about our first screening at the Cardiff Independent Film Festival on April 22 – 24 2016. Ghalia will be traveling to Jakarta to receive an award from the International Film Festival for Women, Social Issues and Zero Discrimination 2016. It is always exciting when we get that email that we have been accepted and more recognition is mentioned on our website at http://www.knowyourfreedomdocu.com. As soon as we get a screening in Mumbai, you will be the first to know.
FP: What message do you wish to convey to audiences who will be watching your documentary very soon?
Supriya: This is a difficult question to answer. Our decisions while editing the documentary were personal and from that viewpoint, I can tell you that we want the audience to know that these girls have fought for what they have achieved. Like every other athlete competing to get to the Olympics, our stars worry about the costs of coaching, equipment, competitions and so on. Sponsorship or the lack of it is a constant worry. In addition to that, Zahra, Nesreen and Amna have walked a fine line between maintaining tradition and the rigors of modern sport. We hope audiences will see that.
FP: If you were to describe your satisfaction with the production of this documentary in one sentence, what would that sentence be?
Ghalia: Capturing a life that isn’t our norm
Supriya: Creating a personal dream from reality
Thank you, Supriya and Ghalia, for enlightening insaneowl.com and its followers about your award-winning documentary. I am sure that the documentary will not only gain a lot of accolades, but will also motivate women around the world to take that one tiny step towards the fulfillment of their ambitions and dreams, despite numerous obstacles in their path. I am quite sure the stories of Amna Al Haddad, Nesreen Ali and Zahra Lari will serve as benchmarks for everyone who is right now struggling in the heat of oppression.
Continue the good work and all the best for your future ventures. I do hope that we may be able to speak through the medium of my blog once again in the near future. Warm regards from Fiza Pathan.
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