It’s a small world after all

Last week, I agreed to help out a faculty colleague and invite visiting Afghani filmmaker Sahraa Karimi to speak to my students.  She was in town for a few days and looking for classes to visit, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear from an international artist who has created work against some strong odds.  Turns out she rocked my world.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I walked into the classroom, here was this slight young woman looking for all the world like an American student, working her Blackberry while waiting for me to arrive.  She really didn’t look like someone who has made a revolutionary film that is winning awards all over the world.

Filmmaker Sahraa Karimi

Sahraa may not look very imposing, but she has had an amazing life.  At age 14, her parents sent her to Iran to continue her education when the Taliban prevented girls from going to school.  She completed high school in Iran then went to Bratislava, where she now lives, and she is currently finishing a PhD in film studies.  She is both an actress and filmmaker, and her feature film, Afghan Women Behind the Wheel, is now making the rounds of festivals around the world.   Her most recent prize comes from the Canary Islands Film Festival.

Later that day, I saw a screening of the film.  It’s wonderful — a documentary following four women; three who are learning to drive and one who drives a cab.  Driving is presented as a metaphor for freedom — women learning how to “drive” their own lives.  We see the similarities with these women and women we know, but we also get a glimpse into a life that is very foreign to us.  Here’s the trailer:

Afghan Women Behind the Wheel

So here’s the “rocking my world” part.  Not only was this young woman extremely young — at 27 years old only a few years older than most of my students — she’s one of the most articulate artists I’ve ever met (even after she introduced herself by saying “Excuse my English, I learned it by myself”).  In addition to her own clear artistic view, she also spoke eloquently about the power of culture — culture is power, she says, even more than knowledge.  If a people are unified by culture, they are much less likely to consent to oppression, which is why the Taliban (according to Sahraa) fear museums, films and music even more than schools. 

I looked at my class after she spoke and saw that my students, like me, were a bit verklempt.  I had a little bit of trouble speaking for a while.  We talk in classes about things like art being good for the economy, for bringing people together, yadda, yadda yadda.  But seldom do you get to see in person the power of what the arts can do in a 27-year-old girl.  Sahraa Karimi is living proof that the arts can change lives.  She changed mine — just as she is changing others all around the world.

You go, girl.


About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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8 Responses to It’s a small world after all

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing Ellen…what an incredible young lady!!!

  2. Mary Jo Walker says:

    Would love to have heard her speak! I totally agree with her about the power of culture. (knowledge and culture….)

  3. Krisi says:

    She was absolutely amazing! I was so happy that I rolled out of bed an hour early to see her. I could have listened to her talk all day! When she talked about the Taliban being more afraid of culture than schools it made me wonder about our own system and why arts are the first thing we are cutting in the budget. Is it because it is a “frill” or is it because of something more? I don’t know; just a thought I am still trying to wrap my head around.

    • Betsy Bostwick says:

      That is a really good point, Krisi, and one that I have pondered a lot lately. In the most recent election, there were still politicians referring to the arts and the outcomes of the National Endowment for the Arts as “pornographic”. (Hello, that’s so totally 80’s…). But seriously, it makes me wonder what they are really afraid of.

      Ellen–sounds like this was an amazing visit. Wish I could have heard her speak, but I will certainly keep my eye open for local screenings of her film!

    • Certainly if we marginalize art and not celebrate it, it means that fewer people know its power. People who cut funding for the arts may not even totally realize it why they are doing it, but I think that’s why Sahraa’s words resonated so much with us — there’s that feeling that something deeper is there.

  4. David Coury says:

    I agree, an amazing woman with an incredible life story. It’s funny, the first time I recall ever hearing about the Taliban was in Spring 2001 (six months before 9/11) Mullah Omar wanted to (and did) blow up two giant statues of Buddha that were over 2000 years old. While the Taliban considered them idolatrous, they were nonetheless Afghanistan’s greatest tourist attraction and as works of art, important monuments in our world’s cultural heritage. The international outrage at their destruction was universal and it signaled worse things to come. Now almost 10 years later, Sahraa’s visit and the story of her fleeing the Taliban and how her father was killed by the Taliban makes for an eerie reminder of intolerance of the Taliban not only for art and culture, but people.

  5. Pingback: Artini: Back to School Edition | Artini – Arts Management with a Twist

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