Crime After Crime, a documentary by Yoav Potash, screened at the closing night of the New York Jewish Film Festival. This is investigative journalism as well as personal and emotional filmmaking with an important social action message. Too often we think of journalism in opposition to social action in documentary, but this is an almost perfect merger of the two impulses. The director was still in Park City where this remarkable film was still playing at Sundance, but one of the two pro bono land-use lawyers, an Orthodox Jew, came to hear the applause of the NYJFF audience at the Walter Reade Theatre. I wanted to hear the director speak, and here he does.
"Quest for Honor": Local Journalism, International Documentary
A successful documentary film takes you on an emotional journey, introduces you to remarkable characters, presents you with images that expand your world, and gives you information to think anew about a significant story.
Quest for Honor is such a documentary. It debuted at Sundance 2009 and is among the 15 films on this year’s shortlist for the documentary Oscar. Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, its director, is described as a first-time filmmaker. Technically true, but more importantly she earned her extraordinary access to Kurdish women. She has photographed and written about them for 17 years, publishing a book Journey Through Kurdistan. She first entered Iraq in April 1991 by “walking up a mountain above Circurca, Turkey, and joining the two million or more Kurds who were fleeing from Saddam’s gunships.”
At the very end of the film, you get an inkling of what is spelled out in the press kit on the documentary’s website www.questforhonor.com: “In September 2005, I received a phone call from my long time Iraqi Kurdish friend Hero Talabani—camerawoman, video producer and now filmmaker. She called from New York where her husband Jalal Talabani, first Kurdish president of Iraq, was speaking at the UN.” It wasn’t until 2007 that Mary Ann focused on the Women’s Media Center, Runak Faraj, Editor of Rewan (Dawn), its newspaper, Runak Rauf, its well-connected director, and Kalthum Murad Ibrahim, its young regional reporter.
With extraordinary collaboration, Mary Ann Smothers Bruni finds ways to let these Kurdish women and a few Kurdish men tell the story of their culture. The intimate, frank conversations her team records are astonishing.
In the Q & A following the screening of the documentary, Mary Ann referred to what one feels while seeing the film – that honor killings are not uniquely a problem of Islam or the Middle East. As she writes on her website:
“…Under Roman law, a father could kill his daughter or wife with impunity for reasons of honor. “Honor killings” were frequent enough in 17th Century Spain for a genre known as “honor killing dramas” that depicted the practice to become popular. The best known of these are by Spain’s foremost dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca and include “El medico de su honra, The Physician of his Honor,” in which a doctor bleeds his wife to death because of suspicion of dishonor, even though he knows she has been faithful. Calderon was a priest, and some scholars connected “honor killing” of that day to the Counterreformation and the Roman Catholic Church, just as some writers today attribute it to Islam. Most likely “honor killing” is a pre-Christian, pre-Islamic practice based on the consideration of women as property whose ability, and perhaps duty to produce offspring must be regulated by men of the family. Dowry deaths and crimes of passion have the same roots. “Honor killings” came to the Americas with the Spanish and were legal until the latter part of the twentieth century in various American countries. Similar traditions still persist in some of the southwestern states of the USA.”
Quest for Honor shows the role of local journalists and activists as agents of change. It hints at how satellite technology and cell phones bring the outside world into view as powerful pressures for change. It portrays the advantage of having the official policy of the Kurdish Regional Government aligned with the forces of change. But ultimately values change slowly in a society and within each family.
Executive Producer Sissy Farenthold, who has visited Iraq three times on peace missions for women, called to invite me to the screening. It was a wonderful surprise. I had profiled Sissy in a 1975 public television documentary A
that I made with Studs Terkel. A lawyer, Texas legislator and contender for Vice President on the Democratic ticket in 1972, Sissy later became President of Wells College before moving back to Houston. I wonder how our society might have changed had she become Vice President.