Last week Craig and I attended the European premiere of Journey into America at the Culture and Cultures International Film Festival near Toulouse in Southern France.
We were welcomed in the small town of Revel by festival director Denis Piel, a former photographer for Vogue and director of the film Love is Blind. Piel had started the festival to facilitate dialogue between different world cultures.
Nestled in a medieval village in the French countryside, we spent our time eating delicious international food and watching four films a day from all corners of the world. One of the viewing locations was Piel’s Château de Padiès, an elegant 13th century castle-like home that was once occupied by Napoleon’s biographer who accompanied him to St. Helena Island.
The film selections ranged from classics like Edge of the City with Sidney Poitier to modern-day, in competition films like Jackson about America’s homeless. The Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino, which, like ours, deals with themes of American identity in the face of immigration, was presented by the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Tom Stern, the film’s director of photography. It was great to meet and compare notes with filmmakers who were working on similar subjects like Deborah Harse, whose film Marathon Beirut, For the Love of Lebanon, also dealt with questions of Islam and how Westerners perceive the religion.
When it came time for our film, I was unsure how the audience would respond. When the lights came up, however, my concerns were put to rest. There was an audible hush and a “wow” was heard as applause rang out. It was a thrill to see something we had all worked so hard on over the past year received so well. Craig and I got up to speak and answer enthusiastic questions about the story behind the film and how it came together. We spoke about the film’s goal of improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims as well as the technical aspects of the production like our method of having every team member film with their own small cameras.
The film touched a nerve with the audience, and not entirely in the ways I had expected. Some of the responses had to do with the Western perception of Islam and how our film challenged those perceptions. Others responded to different themes such as a German man living in France who spoke about the challenge of living in a society alongside people who are culturally different. When the Berlin Wall came down, he explained, he realized that he actually had more in common with the French, who don’t share his language, than the East Germans.
The themes of interpretation of religion and the need to prevent violence by building understanding struck a chord among locals from that part of France, it was explained to me, because of the region’s history. The film showing took place in an area laid waste during the Albigensian Crusade, an extremely bloody early 13th century war waged by the Pope to suppress local Cathars, an ethnic group whose interpretation of Christianity differed from Catholics as well as the distant King of France. The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which Catholics and Protestants traded massacres, also devastated the area, and I was told that even today farmers commonly find weapons from the religious wars while tilling their land. In this area, history looms large.
The audience response also reflected the controversies surrounding the place of Islam in France and Europe more generally. On the bus to Revel I spoke to a man who used to live in Marseille, a large city on the Mediterranean coast. He explained that despite the city’s large Muslim population of Arabs and West Africans the authorities have refused to allow a mosque to be built which has left the Muslim population to “pray in the streets.” The message the authorities were sending, he said, is that Muslims are “just visiting.”
On the day I departed, I picked up an edition of Le Figaro , one of Frances leading newspapers, to see a front page headline reporting that a French government commission had found that 2,000 women in France were now wearing the burka. Out of a population of over sixty million, this didn’t seem like a high number to me, but people seemed to be worried.
Against this backdrop, it was gratifying to have a forum to explore issues of cultural dialogue in an honest manner. Film is a medium that allows us to experience another life, time, or culture in a visceral way that is unique, and I was pleased to note that the movies I saw were honest and did not shy away from controversy, whether the subject was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the African-American experience.
Through this project, we have tried to promote this kind of honest intercultural and interreligious dialogue with the idea that only with knowledge comes understanding and acceptance. In the American context, this is fully what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the country.
It was certainly thrilling to discuss these issues in reference to our film in France and I could not help but be amazed that only one year before I was traveling with Ambassador Ahmed and the team through the Midwest on the first leg of our trip.
Next stop on the festival circuit: Cairo!