Tuesday, March 17, 2015

 An interview with Mary Ann Smothers Bruni: “Quest for Honor”

After spending decades as a photographer, journalist, author, pilot, and activist, Mary Ann Smothers Bruni has been traveling the world in support of her first documentary “Quest for Honor”. Bruni’s lifelong interest in issues related to the Middle East heightened in 1991 after she joined the Kurds, who were fleeing Saddam Hussein following the failure of the Kurdish uprising, in Iraq. Despite feeling solidarity with the Kurds over the many years she spent in Kurdistan, Smothers Bruni witnessed the escalating problem of “honor killings” against women in the region who fought their perceived obligation to marry much older men and live a life of servitude. That lead Bruni to make “Quest for Honor”, an attempt to shed light on the problem of violence against women in Kurdistan and the rest of the world. I recently spoke with Smothers Bruni about the problem of “honor killings”, the challenges of making her first film, and the dialogues she hopes will be inspired by “Quest for Honor.”

TATM: Different documentarians come to filmmaking at different points in their lives with very different levels and types of training. Did you study any artistic or technical aspects of filmmaking at all?
Smothers Bruni: I didn’t do that up front. That came later, probably in post-production. I had my eye as a photographer. I had two cameramen. One was Iranian, and one was local. I spoke to them as to what I wanted… In my photography…I do a lot of very wide shots, then I do a lot of close-ups of hands and feet and details. I was usually very careful to have those shots. I had my monitors and was able to direct. I had very good people, and it was a combination of my eye and their technique and their eyes. I was amazed when I found out that having two monitors was like two cameras shooting at once… Recently I have been [doing camerawork] myself.

TATM: What lead to that? Was it something you learned on-the-job?
Smothers Bruni: Probably that’s true. That’s the way I like to photograph… I never went to photography school…; I learned the camera and started playing with it. In a way it’s frustrating for a photographer to be directing a shot when you feel like you could be doing it yourself. I don’t do it all the time; I don’t think it’s appropriate. I did do some shooting. Being trained as a musician, the film that has most influenced me has been “No Country for Old Men”… The way [the Coen Brothers] handled the ambient sound so you heard the land–I’m from [that] kind of land. I heard it, and I love it so much. In [“Quest for Honor”] we did a lot of that. You can hear the wind…You can hear the sounds in the houses. I found sound was one of the most important things, along with story.

TATM: What about the artistic elements of filmmaking, like storytelling itself? Was there anything there you had to learn? Or did you know what you needed to from your backgrounds in writing and journalism?
Smothers Bruni: A lot of it came from my own experiences. I think artists, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing–a lot of it’s internal. When I’m in Kurdistan, I see so many relationships between the Iraqi-Iranian-Turkish border and our own Mexican border, which I live on and know very well… I think it’s the same with film and photography and writing. Yes, you do learn the technical things, and there are a lot of things you do have to learn, but you go back to your core and your own experiences a lot. I work-shopped a fictional screenplay at one time… I went back to that a lot when I was putting the film together, both in shooting and in editing…themes, symbols, all of those things fit into a documentary.

TATM: Do you think the problem of “honor killings” is getting the response that’s needed– both in the media and politically – in the Middle East? Or America? Or the world as a whole? Why or why not?
Smothers Bruni: What some Middle Easterners are seeing is [a concern] for criticizing another culture… American journalists and American activists…are so afraid of being politically correct. [Why will they] let ten of thousands of women get killed without daring to speak up, because they want to be politically correct and don’t want to offend another culture? Women over there are pouring oil on themselves and lighting themselves [on fire] and killing themselves. Is that not enough of a demonstration that this is a problem that we all should attack? I’m hearing that from the Middle East, loud and clear. In Europe, European journalists interviewed me and asked, “Why is it that this isn’t being talked about in America?” There was a case [of domestic violence in] Dallas, it was all over the European press. It got almost no coverage in Dallas…I’m very pro-Kurdistan. I’ve spent a lot of time there, but I can’t back off of it… It’s time that we start talking about this and saying, “This is unacceptable.” We can’t talk about humans being liberated when women are being traded like sheep or cattle… How can we get all upset because 6,000 people are killed in an earthquake, but 60,000 people are killed and no one wants to write about it.

TATM: What did you learn in making “Quest for Honor” that most surprised you?
Smothers Bruni:

TATM: As you talk to audiences who have seen the film, what feedback have you been the most proud of?
Smothers Bruni: What I’m most proud of was in Los Angeles when Muslim Public Affairs council…sponsored a screening there…they resonated with this… They’re saying, “honor killings aren’t Islam. They’re pre-Islam and pre-Christian.”

TATM: If “Quest for Honor” gets distribution and everybody sees it, what’s your greatest hope of what the impact of the film will be?
Smothers Bruni: I want the film to be the start of a conversation… I don’t want to preach to people, I want to bring them the recognition of this problem. Not only of honor killing, but of violence here in the United States against women. The number of women being killed today grows constantly and we don’t seem to want to talk about it… This is not a women’s problem. This is a family problem. And it’s a societal problem… We need to attack these things. We need to understand them… People who have seen the film and have worked with us are setting up conferences around the world to do this.

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