Three MAAS grads share how careers in documentary filmmaking have enabled them to give voice to untold stories and reshape dominant narratives.
By Isabel Roemer
The Master of Arts in Arab Studies (MAAS) program equips students to work in a range of fields after leaving Georgetown, including—as this issue demonstrates—those that promote cultural understanding through artistic lenses. These three MAAS grads have chosen filmmaking as a means to inform and inspire, and each have gained international recognition for their talent at telling stories on the big screen.
Mahasen Nasser-Eldin (‘01), an independent filmmaker and lecturer based in Jerusalem, Palestine, specializes in reconstructing historical narratives using audio and visual archives. Her carefully-researched documentaries tell stories of resistance, resilience, and empowerment, and have been screened at both local and international film festivals.
Nasser-Eldin won the 2017 Ramallah Doc Pitch for her film We Carve Words in the Earth, which follows the Palestinian women’s movement before the 1948 Nakba. Having recently been awarded a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Nasser-Eldin is currently building on the work of her latest documentary, Restored Pictures, about an important female Palestinian photographer of the early 20th century. She holds an MA in filmmaking from Goldsmiths College in London in addition to her MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown.
“Being a creative practitioner in documentary film has deepened my understanding of how film is able to revive meanings of the past within colonized societies where local narratives have been lost and abandoned by dominant histories,” says Nasser-Eldin. “Film has the potential to capture representations of history that respond to local, on-the-ground needs for cultural expression that locates lost knowledge and can lead to reflections on how the past is constructed and represented with a lens relevant to present times.”
Nehad Khader (‘11), senior programmer for Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival, also views film as a way to capture cultural histories. Having produced White Fright—a short documentary that cross-examines America’s segregated system of national security and the media’s role in perpetuating that divide—Khader is now making her directorial debut with the feature documentary Unbowed, about a Palestinian activist who was arrested and tortured into signing a confession that would come back to haunt her half a century later and includes interviews with former prisoners.
“Documentary work is as difficult as it is rewarding,” says Khader. “These phenomenal elders are trusting me with their most sensitive and painful memories, but they’re hungry to have their stories heard. And I have the weighty responsibility of holding, then communicating all of this information.” Unbowed has received a fellowship from the Tribeca Film Institute and was jury-selected by the Palestine Film Institute for the 2018 Cannes Producers Network.
Khader says her natural love of storytelling was informed by her work at MAAS on the Palestine Poster Project (see page 13), which revealed new possibilities about non-traditional ways to document people’s histories, particularly those of Palestinians. “I want to upend the false narratives about Palestine and the Palestinians, and for my people to see and recognize themselves in honest, excellent, futuristic stories.”
Dorothée Kellou(‘12), an award-winning journalist based in France, is newer to the world of film, but since beginning work on her documentary temporarily titled Out of Place, she has received grants from the Center of National Cinematography in Paris, the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture in Beirut, and International Media Support in Copenhagen. Kellou’s film tracks her journey with her father to the Algerian village where he was raised but had not returned for fifty years, shedding light on the wounds caused by France’s forced resettlement of rural Algeria.
“I could never understand why he hadn’t tried to pass on his Algerian heritage,” says Kellou. “It’s as if he had forgotten a part of himself.” Then, when Kellou was 25, her father—a filmmaker himself—gave her the script for a film he’d never shot called Letter to My Daughters. “The storyline opened my eyes to his upbringing. He had grown up in the shadow of barbed wire, in a village placed under French military surveillance.”
Kellou’s documentary grew out of the thesis she wrote at MAAS. A grant from the program enabled her to conduct research at the military archives in France, meet with French soldiers who had served in her father’s village, and travel with her father to to collect testimonies. “I am very proud that the story of more than three million Algerians who, just like my father, have remained silent about their lives in open-air resettlement camps, will be known to a greater audience,” says Kellou. “Cinema is a powerful tool to tell and reshape narratives.”
Isabel Roemer is the CCAS Multimedia and Publications Assistant. She is studying Health Care Management & Policy at Georgetown.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.