In his latest documentary, EXIT TO AL-HARAM, the Oldham-born filmmaker explores the strength of faith, the detriment of censorship, and the importance of collaboration
This film was never meant to be made, and that’s exactly what allowed its creation. Kazim Rashid was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia with his family, but more specifically with his grandmother. Unbeknownst to the majority, she had hoped to be granted the “most gracious of deaths, a gift from God for many Muslims; to die and to be buried in Mecca”. Whilst this may sound morbid to most of us, for Rashid and his family, “it’s basically like winning the Olympics”. Rashid holds in his grandmother a great deal of admiration and esteem and was gracious to burden this task for her. He mentions how they used to share a bed in the early years of his life, and credits her for helping to raise him. He wanted to document this experience for his grandmother, as a “short and hopefully beautiful” home movie.
In the build-up to the trip, Saudi Arabia broke out into mass political unrest. Infamous for its questionable political behaviour, rumours of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked controversy and international crisis. Weeks elapsed as the situation worsened and elaborated, with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman being the primary suspect for the journalist’s murder. Rashid and his family were still without any passports until an hour before they were due to travel to Saudi Arabia – embassies were in total disarray. A courier came by to the airport and brought Rashid, his siblings’, and his father’s passports. In an unfortunate turn of events, there was no passport for his grandmother, and she was unable to travel to the volatile country. EXIT TO AL-HARAM – which premiered yesterday on NOWNESS – is a follow up to his film from last year, 2001: PRESSURE MAKES DIAMONDS. Once unintentional, it became a pursuit of Rashid’s internal conflict and the manifestation of this. It contrasts the unavoidable nature of circumstance with the unwavering devotion to faith, as bitter as this may be.
What do you hope EXIT TO AL-HARAM will achieve, or help you to achieve?
Kazim Rashid: I hope the film goes someway in articulating the beauty that comes with a lifelong devotion to a divine belief and higher being. At the same time, I hope it also juxtaposes this with a critique on how closely organised religion sits alongside structures like capitalism. I believe faith, hope, and love are some of the most important beliefs and values we can have, but I think organised religion as a socio-political structure has done a brilliant job of commodifying pure, optimistic beliefs. In doing so it distracts us all, and creates this transaction based economy, which I think devalues our inherent ability as humans to be able to love freely and give openly.
“Censorship in my opinion is one of the most castrating components of perceived community – what people want you to say, expect you to say, and need you to say. It is the antithesis to our perceived notion of liberty” – Kazim Rashid
You refer to Saudi Arabia as ‘mostly off-bounds’ with ‘heavy surveillance’, how important is your own creative liberty when filmmaking?
Kazim Rashid: Saudi Arabia is one of the top 5 most censored countries in the world- sitting alongside closed nations such as North Korea and Eritrea. They have a long modern history of flogging bloggers, silencing journalists and critics, and banning a variety of media and platforms for expression. I have no desire to make a film that critiques Saudi Arabia’s censorship program, however, this was something that played a role in the making of the film implicitly. For the 10 days I was in the country, daily news reports of Khashoggi’s murder was punctuating the whole experience, but moreover it was the practice of sneaking my camera in to one of the holiest sites in the world, guarded by dozens of armed police and military, in order to capture the images I wanted. It felt dangerous, but it felt vital. This film is not about surveillance or censorship, although they are both implied throughout; in the modern era these are two things which punctuate so many of our daily lives, as well as the global political agenda. Censorship in my opinion is one of the most castrating components of perceived community – what people want you to say, expect you to say, and need you to say.
It is the antithesis to our perceived notion of liberty, which works on both a macro and micro scale. In the marco sense, some of us are lucky enough to live and work in places where we can mostly say what we need and want and, in the right context, it is respected and permitted. Other people do not have that same liberty, and it may cause them great danger, or in some cases, lead to death. On a more micro scale, those of us with the aforementioned liberty to speak our minds are still fighting softer forms of censorship; through expectations of our peers, communities, or collectives. This, to me, is just as detrimental to the progression of society.
With technology forcing a now rapid development of culture, how do you feel religion’s place in society is being affected?
In 2012, 84% of the planet’s population had a faith, with most of those people belonging to an organised religion. Like any agenda, technology gives it the opportunity to distribute itself further and wider. If anything, technology probably gives certain negative facets of religion even more opportunity for growth- like most modern ideologies, technology is just pure oxygen. Religion, on the other hand, is as modern as it is old. Christianty gave us Capitalism. Wahhabism legitimises the House of Saud. It would be foolish to see religion outside of the context of modern socio-political infrastructures; the two are totally interdependent. That is why religion so successful- it exploits both our heart and our minds at the same time. Faith, on the other hand is a different story, but we can discuss that another day.
You often explore varying themes of duality, many of which seem to be harshly exacerbated when contrasted with their counterpart; is this the reality of life as a modern British Asian?
I feel like even the word duality isn’t nuanced enough to help really illustrate most of our practical experiences- is there such a thing as polyity? You are right though; a conflict of ideas, values, and identities is a theme that remains constant through my work. The reason I make films is to make sense of and digest my personal experiences in the context of the world. It often happens to be – as with most of us – an experience which has duality running constantly throughout. This is why I’m attracted to splitting my screens so often- not only does it allow for immersive installs, but it also quite literally helps frame ideas alongside each other, giving each of them space to breath, and time to find their place in the story. In EXIT TO AL-HARAM, there are a series of shots which place money and technology alongside collective devotion and prayer- two ideas which go hand in hand in most of our lives. On some occasions I’m actually trying to devalue the suggested symbolism, and to just normalise it because it is, of course, simply a part of our daily life and not always so existential. Sometimes it isn’t that deep, even if it is that deep.
‘EXIT TO AL-HARAM’ is a follow up to your debut film, ‘2001: PRESSURE MAKES DIAMONDS’. What are the main differences you have found in assessing these two fundamental points in history?
2001: PRESSURE MAKES DIAMONDS attempted to try and explain a moment in history which I think affected everyone. It had multiple layers to it, which I think were grossly overlooked. That’s why I decided to use the Prince Naseem fight as the arc for the whole film- I didn’t want to tell a story that looked back on the War on Terror, I wanted to tell a story that explored the impact of global geo-politics on individual and collective experience - in this case, the prospect of South Asian and Arab culture. With EXIT, I don’t think it’s looking at a fundamental point in history as much as it is looking at a point in my personal history. It’s much more a love letter than it is a document. I think universality comes not in its documenting of a time, but in its documentation of a feeling and personal conflict that I’m sure many of us share.
As part of your film premiere, you are also working with artist Lotte Andersen in curating a symposium of your fellow creatives, ‘THE LOVERS TABLE’. Why have you decided to collaborate with her and what can we expect?
I mostly collaborate. Even when I’m making solo works I collaborate with different practitioners to help execute my vision; musicians, editors, art director, curators etc, collaboration is a central part of my practice. But working on joint project that I co-create is a totally different type of process. I invited Lotte to work on this project with me because I had actually booked her for a client project I was doing, and fell head over heels for her energy. She’s infectious, exciting, and positive. What I find most interesting about working with her is that we produce work for a lot of the same reasons, and are attracted to a lot of the same themes, yet our work is completely different, and most importantly we work in totally opposing ways. At its best it’s totally intoxicating, at its worst we get nothing done. But we are both prolific, and she works like very few people I know- that’s why it has been so fruitful thus far. THE LOVERS TABLE is something we conceived together and will take around the world with us, popping up in different cities to connect with different audiences. At it’s core its a video symposium, I don't think anything like this exists today and I’m incredibly excited to see how it grows with each iteration.
What is next for you and your work?
Well right now it’s some film festivals and screenings around the world, but most importantly I’m hoping for some inspiration for a new piece. Me and my wife are about to have a child, who will be born to a British Muslim father and a German Jewish mother. I’m thinking about making something for him; to help make sense of the world he’s going to be born into, how he got here, and the social tensions he will inherit. Let’s see- I have an inability to start anything until the project I’m currently working on is done, including all the promo. I live in constant fear that my current idea is my last idea. Arundhati Roy said upon the release of her second novel which came twenty years after her global mega-hit debut, that she simply didn’t have a story to tell in that time. Every time I finish something I think it’s my last. Hopefully inspiration strikes soon.
Kazim Rashid’s EXIT TO AL-HARAM premiered at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival on the 8 June, as part of his symposium with fellow artist Lotte Andersen, THE LOVERS TABLE