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.
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:
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.