On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump enacted an executive order that effectively banned citizens of seven predominantly Muslim communities from entering the United States. It caused many to wonder how they could stem the tide of bigotry rising across North America (as Canadians, we are certainly not immune). It also left just as many ambivalent and unmoved, too disconnected from these seven nations to really feel their plight.
Ban This Series, a free, seven-film screening series running from March 6 to 8 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, is valuable to both of these groups. Presenting one documentary from each of the seven banned countries, the films tell personal stories from citizens of these nations. In reflecting their lives back to us, the filmmakers make apparent that, despite surface differences, the human experience is similar around the world.
Exclaim! spoke with Hot Doc Ted Rogers Cinema managing director Alan Black about this unique and timely series. He says that Hot Docs was inspired to use cinema as a physical space to tell important stories.
"When we heard about the travel ban, we started to think, 'What can we do?'" he recalls. "We show films about people you might not consider. Films where, once you see them, you can't unsee them. The difference between ourselves and between people on the other side of the world is very much imagined. 98 percent of us emigrated to this country, but we don't realize that we are them."
The films chosen for this series – Sonita (Iran), My Country, My Country (Iraq), Libya in Motion (Libya), Stolen Seas (Somalia), Beats of the Antonov (Sudan), The War Show (Syria), and The Reluctant Revolutionary (Yemen) — represent a wide variety of stories, but what ties them together is that they depict people across the world who want the same things: to have rights and liberty.
"It's not an anti-Trump series," Black adds. "It's a bigger issue, and we have a bigger goal. We want to generate empathy, and give people new perspectives on places in the world we don't consider that often. Each film in this series, taken on its own, is an astounding piece of work."
The idea of transformation and transplanting viewers, especially those with a more isolated worldview, is an ongoing goal for the Hot Docs team. "The issue is that people are living inside a curated bubble in their community, where they interact with other people who have similar worldviews," Black says. "They might not be interested in, or have the bandwidth to, go outside that bubble, and its very hard to be empathetic to people we know nothing about. I don't think that issue is going away. As a documentary cinema, its our job to present stories that take you out of that bubble."
Films in the series like Sonita (about a young woman who idolizes Rihanna and Michael Jackson and wants to become a rapper) or The War Show (which centres on a Syrian radio DJ and his friends who begin to get more politically active as their country hinges on the brink of destruction) are, as Black puts it, "incredibly relatable, especially for people who were students, and experienced their worldviews expanding during that time."
The theatre aspires to introduce more programming that encourages audiences to think critically about issues affecting the modern world. "It's hard to not open up your heart and mind after watching all these stories, and not want to know and understand more," Black says. "We want to encourage audiences to see more, learn more, and be transformed. You go into a film, and when you come out, hopefully, you're a little bit different."
Ban This Series runs from March 6 to 8 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. The series is totally free, with opportunities to donate to Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and National Council of Canadian Muslims at the door.