Friday, April 17, 2015

What Honor Diaries Did to My Amazon

About a month ago, my Amazon.com algorithm for recommendations took a sharp turn. I was suddenly ordering books with titles like Gender and Violence in the Middle East,  Gender and Islam, and Do Muslim Women Need Saving? I found myself digging around in boxes in the basement for my college copy of Fatima Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil. I found myself confronting the question of how I, as a scholar of American women’s history moving into a position as coordinator of our Women and Gender Studies Program, should handle the problematics of staging a conversation here at USD about gender and violence in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia in the context of a screening of the film Honor Diaries.

When the film was proposed as a feature for our biennial Women and Gender Studies conference, members of our university community responded by raising questions about whether this was an appropriate vehicle for inaugurating a discussion of the topic of “honor violence” against women and girls in the nonwestern world. After I learned of concerns about the film, I logged onto Netflix to watch it, and began to investigate some of the media responses to the film, including the critique from CAIR that the film was Islamophobic. CAIR and others called attention to the major funding source for the film, the CLARION project, which had produced films criticized for inflammatory and misleading portrayals of Islam.

I approached the film with the wariness I frequently bring to the blockbuster style of documentary filmmaking that has become popular, the kind honed by Michael Moore, with sensationalistic claims, alarming (but often misleading) statistics, fast switches between different human-interest stories, and of course the scary music we all know so well.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this style of documentary filmmaking. Now, does that mean we shouldn’t screen these types of films in a university setting? Of course not. But it does mean that we need to think carefully about the way we present documentary films, which, often by virtue of the emotional and narrative power of cinema, are taken as authoritative text.