A Safe Space: Challenging with Art
We may deny it, avoid it or try to ignore it, but discrimination based on any part of who we are is a reality. It might be subtle, layered or disguised; but it exists. Try to think of the difficulties a Canadian woman might face if she happens to be a Muslim, and on top of that, an artist. That can be challenging in so many ways. There is a multitude of hidden stories ready to be told. A team of talented young people have taken the initiative to tell one such story. “A Safe Space” is a short film narrating the experiences of Hajra, a Toronto born Muslim poet facing discrimination when she tries to use her art and talent to get involved in a project she is passionate about. A lot of effort, research and time has gone in the making of this statement against racism and discrimination of all types. It is an art piece, yet also a campaign for equal opportunities for everyone in the society to openly express who they are. The focus is specifically on Muslim Women involved in all forms of artistic expression.
Producer: Lindsay Ogus
I am a Toronto-based producer and actress. Currently, my focus is on impact producing; broadening the social impact in the film, generating awareness, and spearheading community outreach.
I am a Jewish woman, and throughout my life I, and many close friends and relatives of mine have experienced acts of anti-Semitism. Jewish people who choose to visibly represent their faith are often stereotyped and treated differently. This film is about dispelling that kind of intolerance and dehumanization and celebrating people for who they are, not for their religion. I personally feel that art is the language of the soul, that it touches people’s hearts in ways that no other medium can. Muslim female art workers are one of the most underrepresented and misunderstood demographics in society, despite their vital contributions. Setting the record straight on misconceptions and providing a space for diverse creative voices to flourish and enter the mainstream speaks to why we chose to focus specifically on artists.
Director: Michael Flax
I am an award-winning director and producer, with a passion for independent cinema focused on new narratives. I tell strong thematic stories, to change social perception and encourage self-reflection.
A Safe Space is my endeavour to combating the growing rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia. When Trump announced the travel ban, I was livid. There were too many similarities between what was and still is happening to Muslims as to what happened to Jews in the 30s. As a Jew, I knew I needed to take a strong stand in solidarity with Muslims around the world. That an entire group of people is being blamed and feared for the work of a small few is not right, nor is it justice. “A Safe Space” is a message of a strong female Muslim exploring her creative passions. It is a story we can all relate to, but what stands out is the unjust discrimination. I want to change the negative stereotypes against Muslims, into a positive perception. But what we’re up against is fear of others’ faith. For me, regardless of one’s faith or religious beliefs we are all only people. Every single person has a right to exist, to believe what they want, but violently imposing one’s beliefs on others isn’t a way for us all to co-exist. I hope “A Safe Space” can be a positive light in the growing darkness of fear and xenophobia.
Writer: Samih Nassar
I am a teacher by day and screenwriter by night. I have worked for the last two and a half years as an English teacher, the first two of which I spent in the United Kingdom. Now back in Canada, I have continued my endeavours as a teacher and writer.
It was almost a year ago when I was in the United Kingdom teaching public school to kids who, along with myself, were fascinated and confused by the then American election. The topic of the proposed Muslim ban hit home for several pupils as the school had a significant number of Muslim students. I saw firsthand the emotional effects of the proposed ban. I sincerely thought people and leaders within the western world were better than this.
I began hearing about attacks on Muslims in my own city of Toronto. People equating the faith with terror and violence without taking the time to engage in discussion with others. Today I feel far too many jump to conclusions about Islam and the cultures of others in general. “A Safe Space” is meant to challenge that. It is a piece of art that is intended to start a dialogue about issues which, whether we like it or not, affect all of us. I think in these times we need to take it upon ourselves to push and question what is happening around us. One of the best ways to do this is through art.
Lindsay Ogus, the Producer shares her thoughts with The Link Canada on « A Safe Space. »
TheLinkCanada: Let’s start with you sharing with us; which out of the many stories you must have encountered in your pursuit spoke to you at a personal level?
Lindsay Ogus: So many of the stories I have heard from the women involved in “A Safe Space” have affected me deeply and as a result changed me forever. One hit me on a personal level; the story of Madiha Bhatti, an Arabic calligrapher from Toronto. Madiha shared many things with me, among them her childhood love of painting and sketching. While growing up, her passion for the arts continued to blossom until the age of sixteen when she was diagnosed with epilepsy. The difficulty she faced in coping with the diagnosis forced her to give up on her dream of becoming an artist. I had had a startlingly similar experience in my late teens. For me it was a different diagnosis, but the impact on my creative drive and commitment similarly waned. Just like Madiha, I spent years living a life devoid of art, seeking fulfillment in the wrong places, always coming up empty. Six years passed until I finally recovered my passion for painting. This was a year and a half ago, and I have since ritualized the practice of painting first thing every morning, a decision that has transformed and enriched my life beyond words. For Madiha, the revival of her passion for visual arts took seven years, and like mine, it took on a new and deeper form. Madiha’s story affirmed that I was not alone in my experience, and helped me to remember that while we may think we have lost something dear to us, these things can be recovered, in new, unimaginable ways.
TheLinkCanada: How did the three of you get together? Who contacted who? Was there an intention to produce such a movie or did it force itself upon you?
Lindsay Ogus: It was a serendipitous event. I was acting at the time, and both myself and a close friend and actor, David Chinchilla, felt a nagging sense that we wanted to do something meaningful, something we could really sink our teeth into. I had recently met Samih, and after reading some of his work I intuitively felt I needed to work with him. This was around the time of the Trump ban, and all three of us were just sickened by what we were seeing in the news. Samih had several friends personally affected by this ban, and we were all adamant about doing something to combat all the hate. Immediately, we got to work brainstorming the outline of the first draft. Not long before this, I had met Michael Flax on a Canadian Film Centre set where he was hired as the producer. I would have never guessed at the time how intimately we would be working on a project together— but life is so full of surprises. A friend of mine who had heard about our idea mentioned that Michael was looking to direct a film like this one. Flax is a humanitarian to his core, and is one of the most politically informed people I know. I knew it would be a stellar partnership. Once we amalgamated into a team, we started reaching out to the Muslim women who would eventually breathe life into the pages of our script. And the rest is history!
TheLinkCanada: There are two sides to this coin of Muslim women involved in arts. On one side, they face discrimination due to Islamophobia. On the other they sometimes face opposition from their families and other Muslims which discourages them from following their dreams. I have personally experienced this as a writer. Was there talk of this paradox while creating the script?
Lindsay Ogus: Absolutely. For some, the struggle was very pronounced and played an enormous role not only in the life choices they made with regards to their passion, but influenced the type of art they created. I feel this question was best addressed by one of our participants, a Toronto-based ceramic artist, Habiba El Sayed. This is what she had to say:
“A lot of my earlier work was about being on this fence–between familial opposition and the need to freely express myself creatively. Having one foot on each side of this fence was a big problem for me growing up. I never fit the good Muslim girl role in the way a lot of people close to me hoped I would. This resulted in tension during some of the formative years of my artistic career.
It has also sometimes been a challenge to integrate as an artist, people don’t always readily extend invitations. Too many times have I heard “she’s Muslim, she doesn’t drink, she can’t go out with us.” A lot of people have kept me at an arm’s distance– not on purpose, but because it can be hard to connect with someone who looks more conservative than you do.
The struggle to please both sides is real, and this is so hard for artists who are supposed to be the ones who feel the most freedom to express themselves. I shouldn’t have to worry about how my work will be received if I talk about certain things, but the reality is that I do.”
TheLinkCanada: Do you think you were able to find a representative sample of the Canadian Muslim Women population involved in Arts? What was the criteria you had in mind while approaching people to gather information and inspiration?
Lindsay Ogus: There is a wonderfully diverse group of Canadian Muslim women involved in the campaign, ranging from LGBTQ Muslims, to women who choose to wear a hijab and women who don’t, to women of Filipino, Somalian, Indian, Swedish, Iranian and Pakistani backgrounds. There is also a wide spectrum of artistic disciplines represented in our sample group, including visual artists, graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, actresses, make-up artists, henna artists, comedians, novelists and poets. Some of the women use their artistic practice as a side job or hobby and others have made it into their full-time career.
In terms of criteria, we wanted to keep participation as open and inclusive as possible. I started by emailing some of the bigger Muslim-based and Diversity-friendly institutions in Canada for advice and contacts. This included the Intercultural Dialogue Institute, Canadian Council of Muslim Women, The Canadian Ethnic Media Association, Noor Cultural Centre, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, Inspirit Foundation, and many more. I also located people through LinkedIn and asked everyone I knew from friends, friends of friends, past and current coworkers, anyone who could put me in touch with Muslim women in the arts. Eventually word spread, and people started approaching me. The outreach took months, but proved effective in attracting a well-rounded group of incredible and talented women.
TheLinkCanada: I absolutely agree that the Jewish and Muslim experience is ironically similar. Both have to fight stereotypes, which can be frustrating at times. How do you plan to highlight this similarity in your movie as an advantage?
Lindsay Ogus: We didn’t want to take away from the message of female Muslim empowerment in our film, so the similarities are more in our team than in the film. In the production team, myself, the director, and the production manager are Jewish. The writer Samih is Palestinian. We had several Muslims in our crew. So, the full crew was representative of the diversity we’re promoting. For us, representing the similarities in how we fight stereotypes was exemplified in the collaboration between Jews and Muslims in the entire filmmaking process, directly from script development through to test screenings.
TheLinkCanada: I am sure you agree that we are blessed to be Canadians. We enjoy freedoms and opportunities which people in other parts of the world can only dream about. How much being a Canadian ignites you to get involved in projects of inclusiveness like “A Safe Space”?
Lindsay Ogus: Even being able to make this film means we are coming from a place of privilege. In Canada, we can make films about any topic, whether it’s combating stereotypes, speaking out against our government or any other story we can think of. On top of that, the diversity of Canada is something that has always made Toronto so much more interesting. With all the little neighbourhoods of ethnicities, we are so lucky that we can experience so much culture in just one city. That drives us as filmmakers, to show how enriching diversity is. That there is so much fear, and growing hate between people of different backgrounds, does not make sense to how we’ve grown up, celebrating all our differences as strengths. My passion for supporting multiculturalism stems from my upbringing in Canada, and I will always fight to show the power of diversity, not the fear of it.
TheLinkCanada: What is the response of the people you approach to get support for your project? Do they match your enthusiasm?
Lindsay Ogus: Responses toward the project have been one of the most interesting parts of this initiative. Where they have been positive, they are through the roof and beyond in terms of the support and the degree to which people identify and offer their assistance. Hugely influential, as well as smaller mom and pop organizations have lent their support and stood in solidarity with us either through posting about our film or donating to our Indiegogo campaign. Our hearts are so full from their support. Toward the very beginning of the project however, before anyone knew who we were or what this was, there was a great deal of reluctance to be the first to get involved. Certain individuals, namely the Muslim women we contacted during outreach did an impressive amount of due diligence and exhaustively questioned our process and intentions. Rightly so, they wanted to know whether we were doing what we said we were going to do— that is, authentically portraying a strong Muslim female in our story, providing real empowerment opportunities to Canadian Muslim women, and including diverse Muslim women throughout the process. Outreach began right at the onset of this film, while we were developing the script and it continued for months afterwards; and I can say with confidence that I am most grateful to the women who were hardest on us, who challenged us to do more. To think more deeply about the people we were representing, the consequences of misrepresentation, and about what empowerment really meant, not just to us, but to the women we were responsible to. This resulted in over 100 script rewrites, months of back and forth interviews and conversations, and more, all in the effort to keep refining, until we felt we had something these women could proudly stand behind. First and foremost, our responsibility has always been to them. Instead of seeing this as a form of pressure and discouragement, we decided to use it as fuel to make the best film and social justice campaign we were capable of doing.
TheLinkCanada: What are the different ways in which everyone can contribute to your efforts to make “A Safe Space” a success?
Lindsay Ogus: There are a few ways in which people can help contribute to this film and social movement. We have created a stretch goal for our Indiegogo campaign to raise additional funds to rent a gallery space to host a multidisciplinary art show, panel discussion and screening. The women will have an opportunity to showcase their work, and participate in a discussion about safe spaces, art, identity, and how the three intertwine. This will include a Q + A, followed by a screening of the film.
At this stage, we are a small group, which can be limiting in terms of output and reach. One of the most effective forms of help we can receive is collaboration with other change makers who have the passion, ideas and resources to expand the campaign and its reach. Our goals are to include more women in our campaign, to access bigger audiences within Toronto and the rest of Canada, to create widespread awareness about the barriers to entry for Muslim female art workers and explore what we can do to generate real opportunities for empowerment and inclusion. We want this film to be a catalyst for change. By portraying strong Muslim female leads in media, and changing the negative stereotype into a positive perception, we hope our film can stem the tide of growing discrimination.
Please visit this link to support this project: