Hijabtrendz Exclusive: Deborah Perkin

We recently connected with the filmmaker behind Bastards: Sex and the Single Mother in Morrocco via twitter.

What really grabbed our attention was the preview piece below. We knew we just had to interview Deborah Perkin and find out why she was taking on this topic.

Watch the clip and read the interview below for the full scoop and don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section!

What inspired you to take on such a heavy topic? I watched the trailer you have so far, and it is absolutely heart  breaking. How did you even find out about such a topic?

I went on holiday to Morocco with my mother and we were impressed with the way women seemed to be engaged in society, more than in other Muslim countries we had visited, though we didn’t claim to be any sort of experts. When I got home I researched the position of women in Morocco and discovered the family law reforms of 2004 giving women a measure of equality. Even though a lot of Moroccan women think the reforms don’t go far enough, it seemed like a very unusual step in the right direction and I wanted to make a film to celebrate this. So I started talking to Moroccan lawyers, and searching for a documentary subject. Then I found Aicha Chenna, the pioneering campaigner who set up L’Association Solidarite Feminine and that gave me a framework for the documentary.

How were you able to get the women to speak up about their experiences?

I had expected 9 out of 10 single mothers to be camera-shy, given their social status, but the opposite was true. Very few women refused to be filmed and most wanted to tell me their stories and laugh and cry with me. It was a privilege to be allowed into their lives, and they seemed to enjoy the confessional nature of documentary making. We took them seriously and treated them respectfully, which is not how they’re always treated. My Assistant Producer Nora Fakim speaks Arabic, and I don’t, so I couldn’t have understood anything without her, but it’s amazing how much communication can take place non-verbally. I think it also helped that Nora and I lived in a slummy part of Casablanca where the single mums live, and word got round that we were sharing a room, sleeping on two mattresses, in a house without a bathroom, cooking on a stove in the corridor and using the local hammam. We certainly didn’t come across as pampered media types!

I know from personal experience that the Muslim community often doesn’t want to acknowledge that there are problems and feel that those outside of the Muslim community merely want to exploit us. What made you feel that you could tackle this topic and navigate such a sensitive community?

Good question and I sometimes wonder myself! Way back in the 1990s I made a BBC1 series, four portraits of British Muslims for transmission during Ramadan. I learned so much about ordinary Muslims, and the people I filmed were generous, tolerant and welcoming. Since 9/11 there’s been so much tension and misunderstanding, and it’s vital that we try to understand each other better. I think relations between Muslims and the West is one of the most important stories in the modern world. Then women’s issues have always occupied me, as the first place to start with human rights. I’m impressed that Morocco has reformed its family law and I wanted to see how it’s working. One person tweeted me recently telling me to make a film about women’s rights in my own country and to mind my own business, but that was just one of the 5000+ people who have viewed my Kickstarter video! So that’s the big picture.

The smaller picture is that as a documentary maker I am often treated with suspicion, wherever I’m working. I have had to win the trust of the people I filmed throughout my career and that includes prison guards, sex offenders, hospital staff, Hollywood A-listers, garbage collectors, frightened children, frail elderly people, crime victims, drug abusers……everyone deserves a full explanation and to have their fears allayed, and this takes time, and a lot of discussion. It’s completely different from doing a news report which has to be fast and furious. On “Bastards” I had the help of Nora Fakim who speaks Arabic, and also has a personal interest in the story as her own grandmother in Morocco had adopted an illegitimate baby whose mother almost threw her into a river. I think it also helped that Nora and I lived in one room with no kitchen or bathroom, sleeping on mattresses, in a house full of single mums. It was great to live amongst the kind of people we were filming, and we got some respect for that.

What are your hopes for this film and basically the end goal?

I want television and film festival viewers to enjoy it and learn about a world they might not have encountered in any detail before. In Britain we rarely hear a word about Morocco. I’m not actively campaigning to change anything but I do want to shine a light on a radical charity, L’Association Solidarite Feminine, which has done so much to change attitudes in a Muslim country which has recently taken a human rights approach to its family law code. I’m sure that viewers in other Muslim countries will be fascinated to see what is happening in Morocco. Film-makers can only tell stories and hope that some viewers find it useful and thought-provoking, as well as entertaining.

Are you still in touch with any of the women in Morocco?

Yes, thanks to my colleagues Loubaba El Imlahi, Nora Fakim and El Mehdi Mehdioui, who make phone calls in Arabic for me and I yell Salam Alaikum and Shukran down the phone! I’m in touch with all the women in the film. As I speak some French I’m in touch with the lawyers and charity workers directly.

Rabha El Haymar with her daughter Salma and lawyer Lamia Faridi, and Producer/Director Deborah Perkin, at the Appeal Court in Agadir

Rabha El Haymar with her daughter Salma and lawyer Lamia Faridi, and Producer/Director Deborah Perkin, at the Appeal Court in Agadir

Have you faced any obstacles or setbacks in putting this together?

Of course some women have pulled out and we haven’t been able to complete whole stories, but that’s par for the course in any documentary. Rabha El Haymar is such a star and completely loyal to the film. She absolutely wants her story to be told as she has suffered so much. My real problems are time and money. I’ve been working on the film for three years using my own money and taking unpaid leave from the BBC. Eventually I had to leave the BBC to be able to raise funds as an independent film-maker, but I still hope that the BBC will show it, and that’s not impossible, inshallah. The documentary world is very strange, and there are fewer and fewer places on mainstream television channels all over the world where this kind of documentary can play. Thank goodness there are still decent people in some corners of broadcasting who do want this kind of film!

Where can our readers find out more on how they can help these women in Morocco?

Aicha Chenna’s charity L’Association Solidarite Feminine has a Facebook page, and this website gives a good picture of the place.

There are also many other charities working with single mothers and children, as Morocco has a massive problem with abandoned babies – a staggering 6500 were abandoned in 2008, some put into dustbins. The Moroccan Children’s Trust is a great British charity working with street children in Taroudannt.

Did any of your views of Muslim women or women in the Arab community change at all after your trip?

Over the four years I’ve been visiting Morocco, my eyes have been opened to the sheer joy that the women share together, their irreverence about men, their willingness to discuss sex and marriage and money quite openly. I suppose it’s not surprising at all, because women in all cultures tend to share their frustrations and desires away from their menfolk, but I had some hilarious times in Morocco, and some of the things I heard made me blush!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Not really, except to say thanks to you for inviting me, and thanks to readers for taking an interest.