Day Moibi talks with filmmaker Eimi Imanishi about her directorial debut, BATTALION TO MY BEAT, which won the award for Best Short Film at the Cambridge African Film Festival 2016.
DM – Just to begin, why did you feel compelled to tell this story?
EI – In 2010 when peace protests were going on in the Western Sahara, I was married to a Western Saharan at the time and we were watching the news online and it was a really troubling time for both of us worry about his family. Then looking onto international media outlets we saw none of it being mentioned, even when, soon after, Tunisia and Egypt were happening, and all of that made tabloids. So I said to him “would you be OK with me going over there to making a documentary film in order to support that.” I understood that it would be a dangerous thing to try and do, but I didn’t realise quite how dangerous it really was. By the time we got there – I went with a photojournalist from the Wall Street Journal – my husband’s family was threatened and blackmailed by the secret police, that pretty much forced us to stop the investigation and talking to any activists was out of the question because of what could happen to them, or my husband’s family. So at that time I felt really shaken by what had happened, and also really ashamed of my own naivety around how powerful the forces were against not just myself, but the whole western Saharan cause – I was kind of bewildered by the efficiency of the Moroccan police. I decided to turn to fiction, where you can hide truths better, and subvert certain things within the story, so you wouldn’t be pointing fingers so obviously, or denouncing any one government directly. While I was doing further research in that I visited the refugee camps and met a woman who recounted her childhood story to me. There was something very unique about her: she never married, she had no intention to, she played soccer, she was a real tomboy. Because the weight of the culture in the society there is such that a woman is supposed to take care of her younger siblings and learn to cook and has a very specific path, she was outside of that bracket. She really inspired me to create a character that was quite like her and her childhood, and I combined that with the politics of Western Sahara and my frustration towards the situation and moulded that into a loose script that I worked with.
DM – I was also wondering about the coming-of-age aspect of it. All coming-of-age stories deal with freedom and wanting to actualise your own identity and your own future, how do you think that plays in this unique setting?
EI – I think the most important part of coming to age, at least for me, is rebellion, which also is the nature of resistance. In this case with Western Sahara, especially for men and less so for women, rebelling against your family or the system is very much a part of rebelling against the refugee situation and the longstanding crisis there. It’s also about forging a future for yourself, and the only real access to a future there would be to overthrow the Moroccan government and to be able to resettle their lands. I think for Mariam, the protagonist, coming into her adulthood was as much about defying her mother, defying her teacher and the men in her society, but also with the aim to liberate her country. When we’re young teenagers we can have very glorious ideas of the self, and your capacity to change, so that is also a glorification of that age and the flexibility of the mind to feel like it can do anything.
DM – And why did you decide to tell the story from a female perspective?
EI – At first it was because this woman had inspired me so much, but I’ve been trying to think about what inspired me particularly in her and whether someone else would feel that. I think when I visited Morocco or Western Sahara or the refugee camps, I realised that what I had to fight against there was the fact that I’m a woman, and certain rights weren’t extended to me, and I wasn’t the way I could normally be in other countries. There’s always rules anywhere you go about conduct and what’s expected of you, for either gender, but there it was so different from what I had grown up with, it felt almost like something I was fighting against. Men would salute my husband and not me, or they would either say hello through my husband to me, or not acknowledge me at all – that happened with my husband’s father also, who never really acknowledged me directly. Things like that which I wasn’t really used to felt really jarring. His family was very open, his mother and sister especially were very open to me, but I could tell when we would go to visit other people that certain things were asked of me or expected of me, like making tea, or how I acted around the household, there was always an eye out for that, and I felt the very silent rebellion inside me saying “I should have the right to be who I want to be, wherever I am”. And so when it came to creating a story about Mariam, I think that got mixed into her character, and that was the only perspective I wanted to put forth in that particular story. Somehow the rebellion then included that sense of constraint around femininity and what that meant, along with politics and culture all together, it kind of naturally flowed into all that.
DM – We were talking about the representation of Western Sahara in the mainstream media, why do you think the voices of these children are unheard, why do you think nobody is willing to listen?
EI – I think with Western Sahara there is an enforced media black-hole that comes from Morocco, the US and France, particularly blocking satellite access so that the occupied territories have to have satellites in order to get information out.
And because they cannot have their own, they always have to borrow, and in order to do that they would need to be in some kind of agreement, but Morocco always blocks that and threatens the US or France by saying “if you give access to the satellite in order for the refugees to disseminate the information, we will open our borders and Europe will be swamped with Africans”. So that is what holds it down and stops the information getting out, whether people are interested or not. And you really have to know specific routes in order to get that information, you need to know the right sites that the Saharawi government uses in order to disseminate some information, you need to know the right twitter accounts – you need to have that knowledge base already instead of being able to see it on the news or in newspapers. I don’t think so much that there is a lack of desire to hear the story – that hasn’t been the reaction I’ve gotten at least – at festivals where the film has been played. Interestingly, more women have been coming up to me and saying that they, on some level, could relate to Mariam, or could empathise with her thanks to her performance. I don’t think there’s any more reluctance to hear this story versus any other, but in Western Sahara’s case there’s an added difficulty because the access points are barred, making it so they’re restricted even more than some other territories.
DM – I would say that your film, BATTALLION TO MY BEAT, is more exposing than exploitative of what’s going on, do you think this is helped by your links to the region, in how you’re able to see it?
EI – I think so because the way I first related to the place wasn’t political, it was through family. I had always kept my eyes and ears as open as possible to people’s stories, but I didn’t go in and meet his family and his friends with the intention of making a film, it was a slow progress over thirteen years of just learning through my experiences there. It was around the seventh or eighth year that I was going in and out of the occupied territories, that it began to be more of a research and project based intent with which I was going. On some level it is because of my personal relationship to the place and real curiosity around the theme of belonging to a place, and our desire to fight to regain control for one place. I think that familial link is very important, and it’s what propelled me to stick with it when it became very difficult and there was a lot of opposition to it. There was also a lot of fear to follow through with it that I still carry because I don’t know what the repercussion of this film will be for my transit through Morocco and Western Sahara, I haven’t tried to go back since the film has been released around the festival circuit. I still carry that fear with me, but I think that going on the theme of belonging somewhere, and people strongly feeling that they belong somewhere, I’m very interested when people, through that sense of belonging, are either driven to violence, or to very courageous acts. I think that’s partly because I grew up moving around, I didn’t ever feel like I belonged someplace, so there’s probably a void there that I’m trying to fill through other people’s experiences through displacement or belonging, and what territory means to some people more than others, and the integrity in that.
DM – And understand what home is, I think.
EI – It’s a very complex sentiment, that of home, belonging, ownership, and how that then builds your sense of identity and self-worth even, because I don’t have access to those feelings in such a clear way, and there is no one place that I can call home, I’m even more interested when people have that strong feeling, and what that means for humankind even.
DM – Your film was funded successfully by Kickstarter; how do you think this platform has changed independent filmmaking? How was that process for you?
EI – The process was mortifying, excruciating and really, really, liberating, just that it’s possible to do it this way, and you can reach people that aren’t in your immediate friends and family circles to do something, especially when I had no work to back it up because this is my first short film. There’s this kind of trust that is given to something because it is concerned with social justice or underrepresented communities. I think that that, to me, was a kind of revelation that we’re not alone, to take these powers on, to try and defy something, there are other people there. I would want that to be the model in some way for a feature film that I’m trying to make that is also about Western Sahara, but based in the occupied territories. As a project gets bigger, the Kickstarter becomes more difficult because you’re then asking for, say, a hundred thousand dollars, which can be much harder to tap into. So I feel like it has these limitations – especially if you’re just starting out – when it comes to feature film, but it still allows you to put yourself on the map in terms of the film industry, and that is really an incredible power. So with stories like this that are so small, it can actually make it connect into the minds of people who care about this stuff, or even people who care more about film than social justice, but then see it at a film festival, I think that’s also quite powerful. When making the film I wanted to reach audiences who weren’t necessarily already on the lookout for a story like this, but also people who are just into film and are going for an evening at the cinema, who can then go home and talk about it.
DM – You said you’re going to work in the Western Sahara again, what themes and ideas are important in your filmmaking? What are you hoping the audience gets from your work?
EI – I think ultimately that we all deserve to belong where we choose, and although it’s a very grandiose and idealistic thing, I think it’s worth striving for. That’s where I feel there’s a link to myself in the work, not just through my ex-husband’s family, but something that I can hold onto that’s been really important to me, and finding stories through which that can be channelled is more interesting for me, because it opens up the capacity for me to try and understand other people, and others to try and understand those people, and widen the network of the acceptance of what I believe to be a fundamental human right – to belong and traverse borders, and to be in a place that is right for them.