Days With(in): At the Intersection between Art and Politics

by Hayat Aljowaily

Growing up, I was fascinated by movie magic. At 11 years old, I’d already memorized Grease and my Oscar speech, too. But as I grew older, though my passion for the arts never disappeared, my interests started leaning more toward issues of social justice and equality. In high school I began dedicating most of my time to attending conferences dedicated to activism, and my Oscar-winning dreams were sent to the back burner. As college applications neared, I faced a dilemma: which path would I choose? Though I could clearly see the link between them, others—including my school counselors—didn’t. Luckily, I found, and was subsequently accepted, to the Dual BA program between Sciences Po and Columbia University. Through this program, I would spend my first two years studying the social sciences, international law, and Middle Eastern studies in the South of France and would then move on to Columbia University in New York, where I—quite obviously—chose to major in film and media studies.

As time went on, the combination of these programs began to make more and more sense. I noticed that the film courses I chose always seemed to tie back to my earlier studies in the social sciences. Apart from the staple introductions to film studies and film theory, most of my electives tended to focus on particular national cinemas (such as Arab and African Filmmaking taught by professor Richard Peña) or on the intersection between politics and cinema (such as Cinema of Subversion: Responses to Authoritarianism in Global Cinema with professor Eric Gamalinda). However, despite the fact that I’d begun to feel comfortable with the clear intersections between cinema and politics, I had yet to apply this knowledge in practice. Though the two short films I had produced, Naila (following a day in the life of a young Moroccan student in New York) and Maybe Next Time (about the frustrating nature of the visa process) attempted to bridge theory with practice, I still felt far from applying what I’d learned in class to my work as a filmmaker.

Enter professor Frances Negrón-Mutaner’s class, Video as Inquiry. When I saw it listed in the directory, I was thrilled: finally, right before my graduation, I would be able to attend a class that would teach me how to use video, or film specifically, as a tool to question the world around me, and by doing so, hopefully, push for change. I was particularly excited about the dual nature of the class: it combined readings in film theory and race and gender studies with practical workshops and exercises. Though professor Negrón-Mutaner was open to any form of video work, I’d challenged myself to focus on nonfiction, since I’d never done so before, hoping to learn how to choose subjects and represent them ethically. I was particularly nervous about the interview process and the “right” way to approach and speak with subjects. When I raised these concerns, Professor Negrón-Mutaner reminded me that there is no “right” way: “You just have to ask yourself: what kind of filmmaker are you?” Her response stuck with me. Though I was aware that I would probably never be able to answer that question, I found it helpful to keep it in mind as I made decisions.

And so I began planning my final project for the class: a short documentary about Nader, the owner of the Falafel on Broadway restaurant at Broadway and LaSalle. I planned to interview him and inquire about issues related to identity, immigration, estrangement, and homesickness. By working on this film, I hoped to foreground the occupation of Palestine and the forced exile of its people that has resulted. I also hoped that I would be able to move closer to the “kind of filmmaker” I hope to be: an activist filmmaker highlighting issues related to migration, identity, and social cohesion. Though I was unable to begin filming and interviewing Nader due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in New York, I was lucky to be able to quickly work on another exercise: a short film that involved following and shooting Gabriella Kaspi, a student at Barnard College. Created in twenty-four hours, the short film is now a keepsake of my last days in New York City.

When Columbia University switched to online courses, I had to pack my bags and return to my family’s temporary home in Belgrade, Serbia. This meant that my plans for the documentary on Nader were halted. While brainstorming what to do instead, I began noticing how nature was changing every day: spring was slowly arriving. Thus, I was inspired to begin filming the spring blossoms with my iPhone while on daily walks near my house. During this time I also began recording some of my phone calls with friends and family: my cousins in London, my childhood best friend in Geneva, my roommate in New York, and a friend in Istanbul. I noticed that while spring was blossoming, our lives were on pause. Overlaying the images of spring with these conversations, I found that by inquiring within myself and my own circles, I was still able to deal with the themes I’d hoped to explore in my film about Nader. All estranged from our home countries, with borders closed, our conversations leaned toward hopes of being reunited with loved ones and familiar places soon.

After professor Negrón-Muntaner mentioned that prior classes had organized a film festival of their work and aware that I mustn’t be the only one who switched to a COVID-19–related film for the class, I reached out to other students whose films explored the pandemic and its effects to curate an online series. And so was born Days With(in). After interested students got in touch with me, we began meeting weekly to discuss our films. Our meetings became a space of artistic collaboration as well as a safe space where we could talk about how we were dealing with the pandemic. Finally, after a few weeks of hard work, our first episode premiered on June 19, 2020.

Though the course has come to an end and the series has been released, what I’ve learned in the past few months will most definitely stick with me, especially considering that I am now entering the film industry. Video as Inquiry feels like a crucial class for any filmmaker interested in using film to question the world around them, but it felt especially important in the midst of a global pandemic. I am more convinced than ever that the social sciences and the arts must come hand in hand, not just as a form of inquiry but also as a form of processing and healing.

Hayat Aljowaily is an aspiring Egyptian filmmaker. Having grown up in five different countries, Hayat has always been interested in issues related to global politics, cultural exchange, and identity. Hayat holds a BA from Sciences Po where she studied social sciences and a BA from Columbia University where she studied film and media studies. Hayat hopes to use films a means to promote social cohesion and cultural understanding.