Filmmaker Interview

POV: In your own words, what is The Light In Her Eyes about?

Laura Nix: The Light In Her Eyes is about a Qur'an School in Damascus, Syria, and its leader, Houda al-Habash. She's teaching women how to memorize Qur'an and in watching the process of women and girls learning to memorize the Qur'an the audience starts to understand more about why women are choosing Islam in the modern world.

Julia Meltzer: I'd say the film is also about what it's like to be a young Muslim girl. You're let into a community, and into a group of people, who are really embracing their faith, but they're also modern. I think that often we hold those things apart and we say, if you're going to be a modern person then you've abandoned something about that deep spirituality because that's not modern. And, maybe it's a modern choice to try to bring those things together.

POV: What was it about Houda that you found so compelling, and also what is it about the place that's special, or different, that you found appealing?

Laura Nix: Houda is this really amazing character because she is a very interesting mix of both conservative and progressive values, and when you're watching her you disagree with her sometimes, you agree with her sometimes, you go back and forth. You have to really pay attention as an audience member to know what you think, because your feelings about what you're watching change so much. That's what made her very compelling to us as the centerpiece of the film.

Julia Meltzer: She also represents the new face of women's leadership within Islam. There is this movement that's happening. I don't want to give the idea that it's an organized movement, but women across the Middle East are making the move to study Qur'an and Islam within the mosque. Because of that, more and more women are kind of rising in a hierarchy and they are becoming scholars and teachers. They teach other women and that gives women a different type of access to their religion, to have knowledge about their religion and also to have some kind of power within their family to speak about their faith to their husbands, or to their fathers, or to their brothers. It's a story that's not told that often because women are the ones that have access to the story and it takes a while to get into that community.

POV: Is part of what she's teaching in terms of learning the Qur'an, is she also teaching this sort of sense of empowerment for girls and women?

Laura Nix: Because Houda believes that education is a form of worship, she is encouraging women to take personal responsibility for their future. I think that's one of the most important messages of the film — personal responsibility and discipline, and learning to take responsibility for your own life and using education as a tool to advance what you want to do for yourself.

Julia Meltzer: That's not necessarily what you might expect a conservative religious leader to be teaching girls. You might think that she would just be teaching them to be subservient in their home or be a good wife and be a good mother. She is teaching them that. She is saying that's an important role for women, but she's also saying you also have another place. You can go to university. You can pursue your career. You have a role in public as well.

POV: Give us a little bit of the political and religious context in terms of what Syria is like as a whole and where do Houda and her school fit into that.

Laura Nix: Syria has a secular government and there's been a shift in the country over the last 30 years, as there has been in many parts of the Middle East, to become more religious. So there's women in the film who speak about this — that when they went to university, or when their mothers went to university, there was almost no one wearing hijab and when they went to university everyone was wearing hijab, the veil. People like Houda, and the work that she's doing in her mosque, are part of this shift, where women are the ones that are in fact driving some of the shift towards Islam. We don't often think of that in the West. We often think that maybe it's men that are pushing Islam forward. We don't think that women are playing a role in that. But what we found, and it backs up other people that we've spoken to, is that women are actually an enormous part of this shift because they are deciding to pursue religious education in a more disciplined manner and a more focused manner. They are teaching their sons and daughters the same values and that's helping the shift in the whole region move towards religion.

Julia Meltzer: And Syria, it's not like Saudi Arabia, it's not like Iran, it's not even like Egypt. Egypt is a more conservative, maybe more religious population. There's a good portion of the population in Damascus that's more secular minded. But I'd say the outskirts of the city and in much of the country there's a growing conservative movement, but because it's a secular government you don't have a situation like Saudi Arabia where it's forced upon people to be religious in a certain way. I'd say people are choosing it, but it's not a very conservative or religiously traditional society.

POV: Houda is passing on these messages and that's manifest in her daughter, as well, who is also a major focus in your film. Can you talk about her and her role and what she represents?

Laura Nix: Enas is studying abroad and that's very unusual for women who are coming from a conservative religious background in Damascus to be able to go do that. It's not as uncommon for men, but it is more uncommon for women. She studies in the UAE, she's fluent in English and she studies not just religion but she studies international relations, she studies political science. These are not typical subjects that a girl of her age would be allowed to study, much less abroad. For Houda, it's essential to her that her daughter be able to study these subjects in particular so that she can go out into the world and give a different message of Islam. She wants her daughter to be able to speak to people unlike themselves, to be able to transmit a different message, so it was very important to her that her daughter gain skills and knowledge and an education that she herself was not able to have. She wanted her daughter to go further than her.

POV: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Houda and her family? What did it take to convince her to actually participate, to be the subject of your film?

Julia Meltzer: I met Houda in 2005 and at that time she was very open to talking to foreigners, which is unlike other women in her position. They might not be open to talking to Americans, or other foreigners, or having them in the mosque. I think she understood the project to be about showing a different picture of Islam and she was interested in that. However, to invite American filmmakers into your mosque in Syria is not something that people will readily do. So it took about three years to convince her to allow me into the mosque. I think it was a process of getting to know her and her really trusting that what I said I was going to do was actually what was going to happen.

Over the course of time, the situation in Syria shifted politically and each time we returned it was kind of a renegotiation to get back into her community. We were only allowed into the mosque for one summer and then we couldn't go back because of the political situation. So, I think that it was very amazing of her to open her community to us because she took on much greater risk than we did as filmmakers. She really put a lot of trust in our hands.

Laura Nix: People often ask us, "Well weren't you scared to be in Syria? Wasn't it dangerous for you?" We always have to explain that it really wasn't dangerous for us. It was dangerous for them because they were the ones that were putting themselves at risk. They could have been brought in for questioning, they could have possibly been detained for working with American filmmakers. So we feel even more lucky that we have this gift that she allowed us the access that she did which is really unprecedented.

POV: Give me a little bit more about exactly what they were at risk for and what the political situation was exactly. There was a religious uprising, or can you characterize why she was at risk?

Julia Meltzer: In Syria, it's never a clear risk. I think that's what makes it so dangerous for people, that you never know when the government might call you in for questioning. Americans are not allies of Syria — they're generally politically against Syria, so just being in communication, being in some type of working relationship with Americans can call you in for questioning and it puts people at risk. I don't want to paint a picture like people would end up in prison or be killed or anything, but it does open you up to expose yourself, and you don't know what could happen.

Laura Nix: I think it's also helpful to explain that we finished shooting the film in November of 2010 before the current uprising began, so we were there in this window of time before things got to the way that they are now, where there is a much greater degree of violence and chaos and repression.

POV: There are also scenes outside the mosque. What was that like? Was that a different experience in terms of what you had to do, or permissions that you had to get?

Laura Nix: Well it was very important to us as filmmakers to not just show the inside of the mosque and follow our characters, but to spend time visually with the world that we're in. There's a lot of beauty to be found both in the mosque and in Damascus, so that necessitated shooting a lot of B-roll out and about in Damascus, which is not an easy thing to do. So, often we shot using a DSLR and would pose as tourists and pretend to not be shooting or be shooting each other — you're shooting the mosque but you have your friend standing there waving or goofing off next to the camera so it looks like that's what's being shot instead of something else. We were always [a] very small women crew and typically, this is true for most places in the world, if you're women and you're shooting people don't necessarily take what you're doing very seriously, so you get away with a lot more. If you're men, you run into a lot more problems. But as women they don't really believe that you could be shooting some film that might be broadcast somewhere else in the world.

POV: And when you were out in the field were you obviously American or were you dressed in traditional garb. How did you go about your business?

Julia Meltzer: People in Damascus dress like we dress. Some also dress more traditionally. I have strong principles in that I always say I'm an American. I never say I'm Canadian, I believe that people around the world really welcome Americans and I've never found any situation to counter that in Syria. I think people in Syria especially understand that a government is one thing and the people is another thing. There was never an experience that I had ever that people weren't really happy to meet an American.

POV: What were the stylistic choices you've made regarding the aesthetics of the film?

Julia Meltzer: When I started shooting the film I knew that I wanted it to be a very close and intimate-feeling film. It was really important in this environment that we have a lot of stereotypes about, that is very foreign to us, that you just feel like you're this far away from someone, that you're almost feeling what it's like to wear their clothes.

Laura Nix: We're also making a story about people who are moderates and how do you make a story dramatically interesting about people who are moderates? It's challenging to be able to do that. We tried to drill in. We tried to be getting into the detail and the texture of all the moments that we possibly could and have a feeling that comes out of those moments be what carries viewers through the film.

POV: What surprised you most in your experience making this film? What's something that you went in with one understanding and came out completely on the other side?

Julia Meltzer: Honestly, I was really surprised by how much women and girls get from this education. I have to say that I have my own stereotypes. I have my own opinions about it, like is it really great that they're memorizing this text? What, is memorization the best form of learning? But I think there's something that happens to girls when they're around a bunch of other girls who are taking that process seriously and doing it well. They're asked to stand up and read and speak in front of a group. They're told to take themselves seriously. I saw that girls within that mosque who took that process to its limit were really poised, strong people and that was not something that I always saw in the larger society. The best of that world is that they're open. They're open to the world and they know what their values are, but they are open to learning about other people as well, and I can't say that that happens in a lot of other religious circles there. I also met very, very extremely opinionated closed-minded people, but I didn't see that happen so much in Houda's mosque.

Laura Nix: On another level, on a personal level, I come from a more secular background, so I walk into a very religious environment and I had a lot of assumptions about that and some prejudice about that. I think that was the thing that surprised me the most was that in that environment to see the kind of discipline that was involved. Learning was not something that I would have thought would have been going on in that place, and it changed me, in a way, because I think that it made me realize that I need to be more open to any type of religious environment, no matter what the faith, and not make assumptions about people's beliefs because of their background, because of their religious faith.

POV: One of the contradictions, at least from a Western point of view, is the fact that she's empowering young girls and women or encouraging them to empower themselves, and yet you look at some of the restrictions of the religion and what she's preaching from a Western point of view as restrictive and contradicting that.

Laura Nix: We get this comment a lot when people are watching the film. They feel like they're kind of a Ping-Pong ball going back and forth in relation to how they experience her, and sometimes people don't like that because they want to think one way or the other about a character. They want it to be more black and white and they're not comfortable in the gray, but we felt very strongly in the telling of this film that we had to embrace the gray and show Houda in all of her complexities and all of her contradictions. It was an essential part of telling this story.

Julia Meltzer: I also think that you see limitations put on girls, especially around dress. I think that, generally, Western audiences, have a reaction to that like, "But they should be allowed to show their hair if they want to!" And, "They should be allowed to wear looser clothes or a T-shirt if they want to," and that somehow that's impinging upon their freedom. I think we often don't look at it as: It is their freedom to choose this, as well. And that the girls, maybe they're not being brainwashed and maybe they're not necessarily being forced to do this. Maybe they're choosing it. And maybe their mothers are choosing it. Because previously, in the generation before, they were not allowed to do that.

We often don't have access to that history and understanding that their were limitations placed on them previously, where they weren't allowed to wear hijab, and so this is in a way a different type of freedom.

Laura Nix: There's something else that happens too, where there's certain attitudes about women that are expressed in the film, more conservative attitudes about women's roles that some audience members have a very strong visceral reaction to. I think that the strength of that reaction is sometimes based on the fact that it reflects a kind of old-world attitude and that in our culture we're really only one generation, maybe two generations away from that. So we respond to it very defensively, in a way, because it is still threatening or intimidating to us. We might think that it is farther away than we want it to be. But I think that it's helpful to keep the dialogue going about the work that we still need to do in our culture for women's equality, because we're not done yet either. I think that happens a lot, that people want to talk about women's equality in a different way, in another region, rather than owning the work that we still need to do here in our own culture.