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A Conversation with Eva Mulvad

By Kimball Thomson, TodaysMama

For the first interview in the MamaVote Interview series, TodaysMama sat down with Danish director Eva Mulvad, whose film “Enemies of Happiness” won Best World Documentary at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The film follows the successful campaign of then-28-year-old Malalai Joya, elected in 2005 to Afghanistan’s National Assembly, the first democratically-elected parliamentary body in that nation in three decades.

Ms. Mulvad requested that we post Malalai Joya’s website, www.malalaijoya.com, for readers who wished to learn more about her or donate to the projects and causes in which she is involved.

TODAYSMAMA: Eva, what inspired you to tell the story of Malalai Joya?

EVA: I wanted to tell a story, in the cinéma vérité tradition of documentary filmmaking, about one of those much talked-about countries like Iraq and Afghanistan—one not as black-and-white as much of the news coverage, which is very focused on the drama and the conflicts, terrorism and bombs. In these countries there are normal people living normal lives. It is very difficult to figure out what it’s like to live there from the kind of stories we are told.

My editor I saw the footage where Malalai stands up against the warlord in the first grand assembly, trying to help establish democracy, and agreed, “This is really a strong story.”

We went to Afghanistan, where I met Malalai for the first time. She’s a bit difficult to find because she lives undercover. We were lucky she was passing through Kabul at the time we were there. It was a great place to be and to shoot a documentary about every-day life in Afghanistan, and all the problems and social issues they are dealing with.

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TODAYSMAMA: How would you describe the impact Malalai has on the women around her?

EVA: Men and women look upon Malalai as someone they can follow and look up to—especially in Farah where she is running a business and a hospital. With little funding, she tries to give out medicine to poor people and offers computer courses; the government has no money and does nothing in a social sense, so she tries to establish these things. In Afghanistan, it’s difficult to find treatment for even normal diseases.

When Malalai was married, she refused to take a dowry and was very open about that. She wanted to set an example to follow. Her province is very traditional, controlled by rules that force poor people have to sell their daughters to men who have enough money to pay the dowry. So it keeps people stuck in that kind of environment and tradition. Malalai wants to change that, and she tries to be an example for other people to follow. I think it is important to have these kinds of examples, so that if you see someone who is not that far away from you, you start to think that you might be able to be the same.

Malalai is not a diplomat. She has another kind of role—a radical who doesn’t compromise. She makes people think that there is a possibility of real change. Malalai is young and wants to change the world here and now. But it also makes sense what the moderates she criticizes say, that things cannot be changed overnight.

TODAYSMAMA: What did Malalai’s story make you realize about the impact that one person can have—even a twenty-something woman with an eighth-grade formal education?

EVA: I hope that people who see this film start to think about what they can do. Most of us don’t live in as dramatic a society as Afghanistan, so we do not have to act as dramatically as Malalai does. I also don’t think politics has to be reduced to being a major government leader. A lot of politics is just living your life the way you think it should be lived, and standing up for what you believe in conversations with the people you meet. It’s about knowing you can effect change by trying to live the life you want to live and being active. I think Malalai Joya shows a lot of courage, and I think we should decide to pick up on some of that energy.

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TODAYSMAMA: If you had your wish, and this film could help change the world, what would you like to see change?

EVA: In general, I think it would be nice if we could change the way we talk about each other, especially between cultures. I think we just need to try to understand people better, and be more open to them. I think more than anything else, it has to do with respect. If you come to a country and do not listen to what is going on there, but you try to put your own system there and try to control everything, it is not going to work. The people don’t want you to intervene in a harsh way. You need to listen to where they are and pay attention to what’s going on. They don’t want all the same systems we have but they want the same kind of freedom economically, and the same chances for security and education.

I also think that in general, we need to report more of the positive stories that are actually happening about the Muslim countries and Muslim people.

TODAYSMAMA: In Western society, there seems to be a preoccupation with an individual’s “back story” and psychological motivation. Does Malalai think in those terms?

EVA: Not at all. I think Westerners always want the personal story behind the story, like “Why did you make this film?” We focus very much on the individual, and want a psychological explanation for why a person does this or that—for example, how something you experience in your childhood is going to make you act a certain way when you are an adult. In Eastern cultures it is not like that. I actually liked her being not as self-centered as we are. It’s more like what part of the society, what kind of role you should take on. If you Malalai why’s the opposition leader, she might say, “Because I can.” I think that’s a good explanation—because she feels she can and should do it, she does it. She doesn’t have any other psychological or moral explanation.

TODAYSMAMA: What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned from Malalai, and from being involved in making Enemies of Happiness?

EVA: I think a really beautiful thing about my work with documentary films is the chance to get out and show different environments. I learn a lot from every film. Personally, I think it has been a privilege to know Malalai. Her energy is really strong, and I feel very inspired by her courage. I hope to be able to not be like her but to have that kind of personal courage in my own surroundings. I also love the fact that we can be so inspired by a Muslim girl from a third world country. I think I love the storytelling from third world countries. We hear about so many stories where they are the victims. But in this case, she is the hero, and I really like that. That is something that I really wanted to tell, a hero story from Afghanistan.

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