Living Proof

Aisha Jamal has a message for women who don’t feel that they are good enough to make movies.

“You will have people sometimes telling you they don’t love your work,” says Jamal, an Afghan-born Canadian filmmaker and programmer for North America’s biggest film festival. “It’s happened to me. But persevere. Realize the fact that you can work on it to make it better. You can work on your skills…. But, at the same time, I tell you to go out and just do it!”

As both a film director and programmer for Hot Docs documentary festival, Jamal knows why there is such a small percentage of women who lack the confidence to share their work with the public. “It’s about role models,” she tells Ms. “If you don’t see yourself performing those roles or, don’t see anyone successful in larger than just a token [role] doing those things, eventually you are going to feel like that’s not where ‘I should go.'” She explains that a lack of female presence in the media—especially of women of color—is one of the main factors as to why only 17 percent of directors, writers and cinematographers in Canada are women.

Before making her first short-documentary film, Dolls and Bombs, in 2010, Jamal didn’t think filmmaking was where she “should go.” Completing a phD in German cinema at the University of Toronto, she had planned on a life in academia. But, as her studies came to an end, the desire to make film rather than just study it became too powerful to ignore. During a trip to her native country of Afghanistan, Jamal packed a camera and started filming. She interviewed children of family members in Afghanistan and Pakistan to examine how they dealt with life growing up in a war-torn country.

Dolls and Bombs ended up premiering at the prestigious Montreal Film Festival, rising above any expectations Jamal had had when working on the project. Through her work, Jamal tells stories to make sense of her reality. “I feel like stories have always been there to make me feel better,” she says. “It’s like a fantasy escape. But, it also became a realm where I can think through things. So, now I really love both kinds of cinema. The one that makes you think and the one that entertains.”

It is not surprising that Jamal would have a love for cinema. Her father was a film critic in Afghanistan and raised his children on the beloved Bollywood movies popular in his homeland. It was also her parents, both teachers before moving to Canada, that instilled in their daughter a love of education. Unfortunately, when Jamal was accepted to film school, her parents were unable to afford the high tuition. Instead, Jamal accepted a scholarship to study at the University of British Columbia and majored in International Relations. Ironically, Jamal’s sister had studied filmmaking in university and has not made a film since graduating.

It was Jamal’s lack of training that ended up giving her the courage to take the risks necessary to succeed in film. Not knowing the rules meant that she wasn’t scared to break them. This gave her the freedom to do what many women are terrified to do, to make mistakes. “No one told me that you needed two years of preproduction or, you needed this much money to make films and so on,” says Jamal. “When you don’t have that kind of thing told to you, you are more adventurous.”

By breaking the rules, Jamal is also breaking stereotypes—but she does not go so far as to say her success means that she has overcome the obstacles a woman of color faces both in and outside of the film industry. “My name is unmistakeably Muslim,” she notes. “So, you do feel like you are walking around being somewhat of a target.”

She adds that those obstacles also impact her personally. “I love this country so much,” she continues. “I work on Canadian cinema. I am a programmer of Canadian film. And then to be told by the outside that maybe you don’t belong and maybe your existence is somewhat problematic? …There are days when I am too depressed by this bullshit to think about it.”

Luckily, most days Jamal is able to channel her frustrations into creating work that changes attitudes. The themes of culture and identity in her work shed light on some of the experiences that immigrants and minorities go through in Canada. This identity gives her an appreciation for diverse films in her role as programmer for the Hot Docs Festival that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Jamal says that this openness is part of her job—”to stay open to understanding what added layer of complexity could come along.”

Jamal also uses her leadership position to ensure that her crews are as gender balanced as possible. She’s a leader in the successful fight to close the gender gap in Canadian film, which several Canadian film boards have recently taken on as their own.

Riding on this momentum, Jamal continues to set goals for herself. Currently, she is working on her first feature-length documentary A Kandahar Away, writing her first fictional screenplay and has plans to work on both a TV and webseries.

Jamal knows that closing the gender gap is a work in progress. Her advice to women is that “it’s important to keep making work. You have to stay active and you have to have tenacity.”

Sian Mitchell is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto. She uses multiple platforms to share her work, but has a special affinity for writing and documentary film. Her areas of interest include social justice issues, current affairs and international politics. 

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