Cinema as activism: Saeed Taji Farouky talks 'A Thousand Fires' in Locarno

Having grown up between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian-British filmmaker allows his audience a peek into the human side of oil production in Burma -- while also discovering a spiritual tie between the Asian country and his embattled homeland.
Cinema as activism: Saeed Taji Farouky talks 'A Thousand Fires' in Locarno

Saeed Taji Farouky is a Palestinian-British filmmaker who grew up between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and calls London home. So it is only natural that he views the world as both a global affair and a very intimate experience. In his latest documentary A Thousand Fires premiering this August at the Locarno Festival, Farouky takes us on a journey to Burma (Myanmar) and to the unregulated oil fields of the Magway region. There, we meet a family struggling to make ends meet while they produce a barrel of oil every few days. Within this human tale, we the audience watch a family in flux, a son with ideas of his own, and discover our own similarities with a world that is thousands of miles away and yet, feels very close to our own heart. For the filmmaker himself, this became a very personal voyage into family ties and the parallel experiences of the Palestinians with those of the people of Burma.

The result is a cinematic masterpiece, quiet and powerful at once.

I interviewed Saeed Taji Farouky via Zoom in London.

Do you think that cinema is a form of activism?

Absolutely. Yeah, I mean it's always been for me very closely linked with my activism and with my politics. And I think there's also a long history of political cinema that I'm really inspired by and so for me, that makes it very clear that it's an essential part of any activism. You know, I don't think that it has to justify itself as something with tangible results and I think I'm a political activist in a very particular way. There are others who work with me who are activists in other ways. If I think of Palestinian Liberation, for example, it has a very long history of cinematic resistance and political activism through image makers. So it's a tradition that's very inspiring from the institution I want to see myself as a part of. It doesn't mean that I think my films are going to free people from oppression... But similarly, an armed fighter, may not have the same influence as a filmmaker. So all of these are different forms of resistance and I think they're all essential and they all inform each other, and particularly in Palestine, but also in Burma.

One of the strategies of oppression is to deny us a voice. The occupation of Palestine is founded on the idea that Palestinians never really existed. And even now, the way that the apartheid and occupation manifests itself is very much in terms of, yes of course physically denying access to land, killing us destroying our houses but at the same time, denying us the ability to even communicate our history, and denying us our visual history in terms of the theft of our National Film Archive. So for me it's a very specific way of confronting that oppression.

How did you connect with your assistant directors on the ground in Myanmar, in particular Joshua Min Htut, who was also one of the subjects of the Oscar-nominated Burma VJ?

It was just chance. So Estelle [Robin You, one of the producers of the film] and I were developing a film, and were part of a program. One of the other tutors was Lise Lense-Møller, the producer of Burma VJ. We said, you know, we want to work with someone there originally actually as a fixer but I mean over time they became so integral to the film that they absolutely deserve to be probably even co directors, but they're listed as assistant directors, right. So, Lise connected me to Joshua and, you know, I wasn't specifically looking for him but I was really happy when we met. And I looked at his work because I really wanted someone who was very conscious of the politics, the situation. And then as it happened, he was a perfect match for me in the film anyway because he's from Magway region. He knows those oil fields, he had people who had relatives who work there. And that was one of the only ways we were able to film there, because he knew how to navigate the system.

So he and Than Win Han were really brought on as fixers?

But they turned out to be so much more. They were my window into Burmese culture, into Buddhist religion, into the politics, into the family, you know into understanding family dynamics -- suggesting where to film, helping to craft elements of the stories, they were very much involved at all time.

And how did you find your family, featured in the documentary?

That was also, I would say luck. But it's also very typical of the way that I work. I usually start with a really big idea, a sort of political concept. And in this case it was oil on the fringes of mainstream oil. In fact, the original concept the very basic concept was to make a documentary, like, There Will Be Blood, you know the Paul Thomas Anderson film. I thought, I'd never seen a film like that, and I'm fascinated by the oil industry and particularly by the parts that you don't see. We have a concept of the industry as this behemoth, and it's something that's so intertwined with all of our lives, no matter where we stand politically on it. But I personally, and I assume most people, know almost nothing about what it looks like on the ground. And in the first sort of 20 minutes of There Will Be Blood you actually understand how people searched for, explored for and drill for oil. And as it was, it was an amazing analog because the way they drill in Burma and the way you see in the film is almost exactly like what they were doing in Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century which is when the industrialized oil industry began anyway.

So we started with that concept which was, how do we see oil coming out of the ground and being turned into a product and becoming an industry. And we narrowed in on Burma as a country which we thought had a lot of potential in terms of telling that story, and also because its political history was fascinating to me. And Joshua also was more of a kind of investigative reporter so we just basically acted like investigative reporters asking for rumors, looking for new oil fields. Following a hunch, we would drive for six hours and find nothing, or find that the oil field was already too big and didn't have that sense of exploration anymore, or it was too late, you know, they had abandon the field -- they drilled it, and there was nothing left. And we did that for several weeks. Over two trips, and then maybe three quarters of the way through the second trip, we found an oil field that I was suddenly interested in because of where it was and what it looked like and we started exploring. And we came at this crossroads of these two trails, and in the middle of the crossroad was Thein Shwe digging, and there was just something about him that I felt instinctively very close to him. I really felt like I understood him a bit and I also wanted to know more about him. And he looked at me and smiled in a way that reminded me so much of my father and it felt like there was something there. I started filming with him and he was very natural and very interested and we were both curious about each other. And then soon after he said, "I wonder what it was that brought you halfway across the world to meet me? Maybe we were related in a past life." And you know, immediately I understood this was the right person to make the film.

There is a very personal connection you feel with Thein Shwe, whom you say reminds you of your own father. How did your own background, your childhood bring you to the idea for this film?

There are many layers to that, the first is that I was in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as a kid. And so, of course oil was all around us, you know the industry and the apparatus so you can see you it. You know in Bahrain, there's a tourist attraction which is the first oil well ever built up in the Gulf. Bahrain was the first country to discover oil in the Arabian Gulf, so it's ever present. In those countries governments are made on oil, they wouldn't exist without it. Then there was the idea of my father, as a guy from a difficult background and he was born as a Palestinian refugee, and he made a lot of sacrifices for me and my sister and for our family you know so that we could have a better life than he. I've had some conversations with my dad about those kinds of things and I remember being very surprised, probably in my mid 20s, when he said something like, "I would have done anything to get you a foreign passport." That's actually why I was born in the UK, and it was surprising because actually, my dad was often very absent, when we were growing up. So it's easy as a kid to think one way about him, and it's only as I got older that I understood. I understood to some extent why he was so absent, and it was because he needed to do so much work to build a better life for his kids, in order that we wouldn't have to do what he did. And now I'm so very grateful about that.

And I saw that in Thein Shwe, I think I understood that when I saw him and I felt that, especially in the way he interacted with his son. And then there's the political layer which is things like I came of age during the first Gulf War, a very influencing moment for me as a kid -- I was here in London. And that really shaped my understanding, I would say, of the oil industry, of exploitive capitalism, of Western imperialism. It really shaped my understanding of geopolitical forces and the complexities of it. And if you put all those three together it's a very kind of half intellectual, half-emotional response to this industry.

When people look up your name, it gives them a definition of you as a "British-Palestinian filmmaker". How do you feel about that label?

In a way have that's how I've always defined myself. I mean, Britishness is a very technical thing for me it's not something I'm emotional about at all. You know, Palestinian is much more an identity but at the same time. I've never lived in Palestine. I've lived in Egypt and I'm also half-Egyptian, I speak Arabic with an Egyptian accent so I could just as easily be defined myself as Egyptian. But you know it's not how I was raised, it's not the tradition that I inherited. I think it's important for me to assert that Palestinian identity for exactly the reasons I stated before. The occupation of Palestine is to deny our existence and so to even insist on that identity, even though many people challenge it is important.

This film is also a Palestinian co-production [filmmaker May Odeh is Associate Producer on the project] which was very important to us.

Even though on the surface it might seem like it has nothing to do with Palestine, I think the film has a lot to do with it. And yes, I mean sometimes I get very emotional about that sense of identity and sometimes I feel like it's completely arbitrary and ridiculous. The only thing I do feel very strongly about is that I don't feel English and I don't associate with being English at all. I mean English for me is a very particular culture which I really don't relate to. But then you know I go to Palestine and I'm also very different from most Palestinians. Most Palestinians are refugees or the children of refugees. You know when people want to make fun of me or criticize me or whatever, they say "but you're not really Palestinian," when in fact, living abroad in exile is a much more Palestinian experience than living in Palestine, because that's the nature of our diaspora.

And finally, what would you want your audience to walk away from the film feeling, knowing?

That's always tough. I don't make documentaries to convey information, and I don't make documentaries to teach or to educate, or even to entertain.  I watch films because I want to feel a certain way, I want to feel the emotional transformation that the filmmaker wanted. In this film the ending came actually quite early in the editing process. There was something that was very clear to me. It was just this three or four shots sequence we put it together and immediately it worked, and it was so simple. And on the surface, meaningless and very slight. But you know, in that way the editing creates a meaning greater than the images it is made of. It had this sense of melancholy. And that was really what I wanted to feel, because that's how I feel about the ideas of family and parenthood. That's the feeling I got from the family and that's how I wanted viewers to feel.

I mean, I'll give you an analogy -- this August will be the 10th anniversary of my mother's death. And when she died, I had two very strong feelings exactly at the same time: one was the sense of sadness and mourning and tragedy, and the other was a sense of relief and freedom. Both at exactly the same time. And the last 10 years have been me sort of trying to come to terms with feeling those two emotions at the same time and with the same intensity. That's the end of the film. It's a sense of love for a family and a realization of our own mortality at the same time.

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