On Video: girls in the director's chair... ...and take on their heritage | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Video: girls in the director's chair... ...and take on their heritage 

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"In our religion, when you get married the guy comes and chooses you," says a young Muslim woman in one of the most revealing interviews in the video documentary Benaat Chicago: Growing Up Arab and Female in Chicago. "I feel like a little toy in Kmart...and I don't like being picked out."

Later, a young heavy-metal fan with green hair and "different" clothes tells about being ostracized by other Arab-American girls at school; a girl talks about a friend who hides her ethnicity by passing as Puerto Rican or black; and another sequence follows a group of girls going to a mosque--one wears a traditional head scarf and shorts.

The 30-minute video was made by 12 lower- and working-class Arab Muslim girls who range in age from 10 to 17 and live on the southwest side. The girls were part of a yearlong media literacy workshop at the Chicago Center of the American Friends Service Committee. They kept journals, discussed Arab-American culture and current events, examined how other groups view them, and shot videotape. The result is Benaat Chicago, meaning "Daughters of Chicago," which was coproduced and codirected by the workshop leaders, non-Arabs Mary Zerkel and Jennifer Bing-Canar.

The video, like adolescence, is often self-conscious and awkward. But that may be the price of putting the camera in the hands of the people being filmed. For outsiders, the video raises more questions than it answers.

Many of the scenes document the clash of cultures the girls face. Their Muslim upbringing does not allow dating or drinking, yet they want to fit in with their peers at school. "The young women are not able to articulate it quite so clearly," says Zerkel, "but it's clear that two things were discussed constantly: their position as a minority in the broader culture and how their position within their own culture was different than that of the men."

The girls were also aware of stereotypical representations and wanted to provide a truer picture of what it is to be an Arab-American, and particularly an Arab-American female, in the United States today. Tellingly, many of the girls prefer to be referred to as Arabian, though they're not Saudi Arabian. "Just close your eyes," says Bing-Canar, "and think of what you hear when you hear the word Arabian: knights, horses. It's an exotic and positive thing. But Arab has all of these negative associations--Ay-rabs and terrorists."

In one segment a girl says, "People find out I'm Arabian and they say, 'You don't act Arabian.' That shows me that they don't really know us, that they only know the bad side of us....Some of my friends say they've changed their minds about Arabians when they find out I'm one. They say, 'She's cool, she does laugh, she does go out, she does have friends. She doesn't stay home cooking and cleaning.'"

Another girl recalls how, during the gulf war, a friend whose father was an army lieutenant said she was glad that her dad was going to "'blow away some of those greasy Arabs.' I turned around and said, 'I'm one of those greasy Arabs.'"

"The girls felt very strongly about whenever Arabs are portrayed in the media it is as a terrorist or belly dancer, which is another way of marginalizing them," says Zerkel. "I feel strongly that making a tape is a really good way for young people to begin to analyze mass-media structures. Through that process they get to see, 'Well, I'm making these images, and all the images I see on TV are made by someone, and they mean something.'"

Benaat Chicago has been shown at various educational conferences around the country, as well as to a number of social service agencies. Reaction has been mixed. "One thing for sure, it has created a very lively discussion within our community," says Maha Jarad, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, who worked closely with Zerkel and Bing-Canar on the video. "Within any community there's a tendency to stereotype youth, regardless of the culture. Youth are looked at as being dumb, that they don't know any better, that they don't have any legitimate issues and are emotional and irrational. On the other hand there has been a tendency to deny that these issues exist in the Arab-American community. Some community members have thought the issues expressed by the women in the video do not represent all of the community. They certainly don't, but the issues they discussed are not isolated to one or two cases."

Benaat Chicago will be shown with nine other short films at 7 this Thursday, March 20, as part of the Women in the Director's Chair festival at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Tickets are $9, $8 for students and seniors. Call 773-281-4988. It'll also be shown free at 6 next Thursday, March 27, in the Illinois Room of the UIC Circle Center, 750 S. Halsted. That screening will be followed by a panel discussion with some of the young women featured in the video. Call 312-427-2533. -- Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): video stills.

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