Documentary Filmmaking Is Now Investigative Journalism: Mara Ahmed

Mara Ahmed
Mara Ahmed

While most independent filmmakers consider documentary films as the poor cousins of commercial feature films, they use this format of filmmaking as a stepping stone to enter the larger film universe.

But it’s different for Mara Ahmed, a dedicated documentary filmmaker, who is adding an artistic flavor to her films to convey the right messages to the right people.

As Mara is trying to leverage the power of documentary films to demystify some of the complex issues related to human relationships in the current geopolitical atmosphere, RMN Stars invited Mara for an interaction to understand the impact of documentary films and her views on filmmaking.

Here’s what Mara Ahmed said in an exclusive interview with Rakesh Raman, the managing editor of RMN Stars.

1. Is a documentary film a mass-media product or does it target consumers only in specific narrow niches?

I think it depends. One can produce a documentary that caters to mainstream interests (for example, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a provocative and widely watched film that delves into an event of international significance) or one that illuminates more esoteric topics (for example, Sergey Dvortsevoy’s documentaries about life in the mountains of Kazakhstan).

2. What types of stories can be told through a documentary and is it a more engaging format than, say, a traditional feature film for a certain type of messaging?

All kinds of stories can be told through the medium of documentary. I think that documentary filmmaking is particularly suited to stories that one cannot find in mainstream media because they are either too complex or too obscure and don’t generate the kind of financial returns that most funders require.

3. As you position yourself as a documentary filmmaker, why have you chosen this particular category of filmmaking?

I like documentary filmmaking for many reasons. At a time when American mainstream media have metamorphosed into a bland oligopoly (such that the line between media, government and corporate interests has become incredibly blurred) documentary filmmaking has taken on the role of investigative journalism.

Documentaries are flexible enough to make the exploration of truth not only possible but also engaging. My first film, “The Muslims I Know” was a reaction to post 9/11 stereotyping of Muslims. By giving American audiences an opportunity to meet American Muslims in their own homes, surrounded by their families, and responding to questions that had been posed by non-Muslim Americans, I was able to humanize the “other” in a very direct and effective way. Such is the power of documentary film.

4. Is documentary a commercially acceptable film format? If yes, how do you measure its performance like you have box office data to assess the commercial success of a feature film?

For documentaries which are produced and distributed by well-known film companies, box office data would work just as well as for commercial narrative films. However, the “success” of independent films can be a bit harder to gauge.

5. Which films have you made so far and can you empirically measure the performance of those films?

My first film, “The Muslims I Know,” premiered in 2008. It’s been in the market the longest so I guess that’s the film to use as an example. Initially I sold the film myself (as a DVD, to universities, libraries and private individuals) and its sales were easy to evaluate.

I have screened the film on numerous college campuses and led discussions afterwards. That usually entails an honorarium. Finally, my films are distributed by Films Media Group, an established film distributor based in NYC which specializes in the educational market.

They sell DVDs, digital downloads, films on demand, etc. I get a check from them twice a year. Surprisingly enough “The Muslims I Know” is still being shown regularly – I have three screenings / discussions coming up in October.

6. Which are your future film ventures and when will they see the light of day?

I am working on a documentary about the partition of India. It’s tentatively called “Partition Stories.” It’s my first collaboration with another filmmaker. My producer Surbhi Dewan is based in Delhi. We were able to crowdfund the film’s post-production successfully in May 2014. The film will be completed by the end of this year.

7. What inspires you to make a film?

It has to be a subject that’s close to my heart, something that I think about a lot, something that I question or want to learn more about, or something that moves me. You have to live and breathe your film for years, so I have to be passionate about making that commitment.

8. Are you a successful filmmaker? If yes, how do you define and quantify success?

I think that I’m a successful filmmaker because my films touch people in powerful ways. Either they are moved to tears or they are shocked by what they learn and want to know more or they find a confirmation of certain truths they themselves feel invested in – that as human beings we are all very much the same and that many times the “perceived” differences between us are an expression of deliberate political ideology, more than any natural racial or cultural incompatibilities.

To me “success” is the ability to change someone’s mind – to debunk propaganda and provoke thought.

9. Do you want to stay on the documentary side or will you cross the fence and step into mainstream cinema as a filmmaker?

I am very happy to continue to make documentaries: to meet interesting people, listen to their life stories, try and walk in their shoes through the medium of film. I love to go on that journey and take audiences with me.

I also like to play with the documentary form and make it more pliable artistically, richer, without compromising the reality that it engenders. For example, in “Partition Stories” we are using animation to recreate the past and evoke a certain nostalgia for pre-partition India.

We are also using Pakistani artist Jimmy Engineer’s large-scale partition paintings and the lyrical writing of British poet John Siddique. I see the film as a layering of art and music and culture on top of people’s memories and a shared history that we must remember in order to be whole.

Mara Ahmed (pictured above) has been educated in Belgium, Pakistan, and the US. She has an MBA and a Master’s in Economics. Mara’s film training began at the Visual Studies Workshop in 2006 and continued at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Mara’s first film, THE MUSLIMS I KNOW premiered in 2008. It was meant to start a dialogue between American Muslims and non-Muslims. Her second film, PAKISTAN ONE ON ONE, opened in 2011. It is a broad survey of public opinion in Pakistan, about issues of interest to Americans. Mara is currently working on PARTITION STORIES, a film about memory, reconciliation and the partition of India.

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