Representation, Politics in Art, and Navigating Community Expectations With Farah Jabir

"To be honest with you, I think I make very propulsive, loud films. In my new film project 'Kasbi,' I'm showing two brown women having sex on screen. It's inherently political."

Representation, Politics in Art, and Navigating Community Expectations With Farah Jabir
As a filmmaker, Farah Jabir is drawn to exploring characters who are exploring themselves.

Filmmaker Farah Jabir pursues complexity in her work, and that is especially true for her new film project "Kasbi". The film tells the story of two women — Maryam, a middle-aged housewife who seeks to satisfy her own desires, and Aisha, the young and confident sex worker Maryam spends the night with in a motel room.

Jabir is a graduate of the New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts and has worked as a producer and writer for Netflix, Atlantic Records and Geffen Records. She created "INGRAINED NY", a video portraiture series that focuses on New York’s Asian diaspora. Jabir spoke to Fann about her journey as a filmmaker and writer, how she navigates portraying Brown women on-screen in a nuanced way, and much more.

Fann Staff: What prompted you to become a filmmaker?

Farah Jabir: I think I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 12 years old. My dad was from New York, so we spent a lot of summers and Christmases with him in the city, and we would always pass by NYU, and he'd always say, “that’s where Martin Scorsese went.” As a kid, I was always very artistic. I loved painting and drawing. I was very musical as well. I loved to act and I loved to write. I went to a British school and they make you choose what you want to do at a very young age. I struggled with the idea of having to choose just one [area of focus]. I think that's why filmmaking is so appealing to me. Because while I love cinema — I love watching movies — it also offers me a platform to combine all those arts into one. I can work with actors. I can make music, I can write, I can draw storyboards and all the visuals. [Filmmaking] involves a lot of senses, which I love. 

Fann Staff: How did you come up with the idea for "Kasbi"? I find that such an interesting and unique topic. 

Farah Jabir: I was coming to terms with representation on screen and how I feel that women and Brown women — South Asian and Arab women — aren’t often shown in all of their nuances when it comes to sexuality. I don't want to say it's never been done before, because it's very much been done before in Persian cinema, in Arab cinema, and in South Asian cinema. It's just very hidden [in a way] that Western media doesn't often get to see.

I think “Kasbi” mostly came from a deep place of frustration and needing to communicate some of my own personal issues. Sometimes when I'm back home, when I'm surrounded by my family gatherings and a bunch of old aunties, I'm like, they obviously have a sex life because they have children, right? So why do we not talk about it? Why is it so taboo? Surely, they have urges and sexual needs as well? I think it goes back to the whole Madonna–whore thing as well. People often try to put people of color and women into boxes instead of recognizing them in their fullness, and I was really drawn to explore characters who are exploring themselves in [that fullness], but who also exist with nuances, and [I wanted to explore] some of the gray areas that we don't often talk about in public situations. 

Fann Staff: Looking at your work generally, from “Kasbi” to “Kokomo,” and then also the “INGRAINED NY” project. Would it be accurate to say that the sort of complexity and nuance you’ve mentioned here is something you seek to display and uncover in your work?

Farah Jabir: I think so. I would hope so. I'm really grateful you think that, because at least on my level, I don't know how intentional it is. Rather, it’s just the stories I'm drawn to and that I really want to tell.

Fann Staff: The idea of representation also being a box is really interesting and something people are talking about a lot more, which leads me to my next question. For me, growing up, there weren't a lot of characters I really identified with until I found “Ms. Marvel.” And that prompted me to think, ‘Oh, wait, I can do this too.’ Was there ever a moment for you where you identified with a character in that way?

Farah Jabir: Oh my god, completely. Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh said it best. They’re both Malaysian, and I grew up in Malaysia. A blessing we had was that people of color [on screen] was kind of normal TV for us, right? In Bollywood, in Malaysian cinema, and in Malaysian television. I unfortunately just didn’t watch those, because I think I was working through my own internalized racism. Going to a British school where you’re predominantly surrounded by white people, you're probably going to be ingesting a lot more [Eurocentric] and white-centered content.

But that being said, I think I literally have always related to — this is going to sound really weird, so stop me if it does — gay male narratives. “We the Animals” (2018) is one of my favorite movies. I think these stories of repression really  manage to capture feelings of shame and hiding that I think I was raised to do myself. On another level, I think it's also when I started watching Mira Nair, who's one of my favorite filmmakers. I got to see filmmaking and worlds that I’m a part of through a different lens. Here is a Brown woman who I absolutely admire and respect and love creating films of a high level that show worlds that I don't often get to see. 

Fann Staff: I want to ask about “INGRAINED NY” a little bit more because I think that was such an interesting project. In a time when Asian American hate crimes were on the rise — and they were often targeted towards this specific kind of Asian American — I thought it was really interesting that the project sought to show the true complexity and diversity of the Asian American community in New York City. Can you tell me a little bit more about the way you made the project?

Farah Jabir: I'm glad you said that because that was such an intentional choice. My partner on this project, Amelia Lim, is also Malaysian. She is East Asian and I'm South Asian, Arab, and Malaysian. From what I have seen, there’s such an American viewpoint of what “Asians” look like, and that seems to be very East Asian. On the other hand, in the UK, the British version of “Asians” is South Asian. Why are we using such a huge umbrella term, especially for the AAPI community? Being a Pacific Islander is going to be a very different experience from someone who's South Asian or someone who's East Asian. Some parts of the Middle East are also considered [Asian]. [Amelia and I]  were drawn to this idea of ‘how do we represent this massive umbrella term accurately?’ 

I think centering it in New York City was so important because on a diasporic level, it's what we relate to the most. We were also technically stuck in the city because of COVID-19. It was a time and place where we were desperately searching for connection with people. That was the best thing about “INGRAINED NY.” We met 50 different people, and we walked into each of their homes. We would have meals with them, and we ended up just talking with them for hours. And they were all strangers when we began, but we all left with them becoming friends. And we still have relationships with people that I really love and care about a lot.

There are some things in life I struggle to verbalize or work out, and filmmaking is a channel for me to be like, ‘Yeah, I can't figure this out [here], so let's figure it out.’ This is something I do in all of my work. I think the pandemic was unique because it brought up so many conversations related to race relations, and the processing of the past and individual relationships to race, religion, and culture. “INGRAINED NY” was so healing on a very selfish level. We could go talk to other people in our community about the things we're all feeling and it was really powerful for me. 

Fann Staff: It's so interesting being a political science and cinema student because I see so many more things from one that influences the other. Is there something that you politically uphold in your films or something that you bring from that political education that you have? 

Farah Jabir: It's really funny because the first thing that comes to mind, which is I don't even know this is a political view, is this one rule I have. I encourage the filmmakers that I produce for to never show cigarettes on screen. But that's not really political. The thing is that with my politics especially, it's so hard for the art not to be influenced and inherently motivated by personal politics in some way. When you ask me about specific political values and beliefs, I think that's where it gets tricky, because so much of what I try to do is kind of, as you put it, showcase the nuances of different things — a lot of feelings that can't be described, like feelings of pain and processing pain. On a political level, I think representation and progressive values are such an important thing to me. That doesn’t mean that I won't show people with conservative values on screen, but I do think that inherently means that my answer to a lot of things will be progressive. 

To be honest with you, I think I make very propulsive, loud films. [I’m] showing two Brown women having sex on screen. It's inherently political.

Fann Staff: You've talked about representation a little bit but I want to ask something specific. As a marginalized writer myself, I often seek to help with representation. But that can also put you in a box and under a certain amount of pressure of thinking ‘I need to do something for the community.’ Do you feel that? If so, how do you navigate it? 

Farah Jabir: I think that's really fair and it’s something that I think some of our generation is feeling more than others. I know that I can only speak for myself, and I know there’s truth in speaking to myself. I talked to Lulu Wang, who did “The Farewell” (2019) when she came to NYU, and I asked her that exact question. She responded like, ‘I cannot even think of any of that. I'm not putting myself through having to speak for everyone else because it's too difficult and it will stall the writing process.’ It is deeply unfair to put all that pressure on oneself. I get confused sometimes. For example, Ramy Youssef is a very talented human being, but why is “Ramy” (2019 - ) the only show upheld as the Muslim American experience? I love "Ramy," don’t get me wrong. Is that a representation of my experiences as an American Muslim though? Not really.

That is not a bad thing necessarily, it just means there needs to be more space for the art that needs to be created. I have this terrifying and really bizarre, irrational fear that ISIS is going to kill me one day because I write a lot about sexuality and sensuality in women and Muslim women. It’s really bizarre. That's like the only platform level thing that I'm scared about.

Fann Staff: My last question for you: do you have any advice for up-and-coming Brown Muslim women who want to be filmmakers? Is there something you want to let them know before they step into the industry? 

Farah Jabir: For so long, I was so afraid of what people would say about me becoming a filmmaker. It's bizarre, but I thought they would think I wasn’t smart, which is odd because my family is actually very supportive about filmmaking. I also think that for some reason, it's very terrifying actually doing what you want and chasing your dreams. That's when it can be really destabilizing for a lot of people, including myself. Because it takes a lot to really do it.

And I think the only thing I would say is if it’s really what you want, just do it. I think we wait so much for our dreams to happen to us instead of making them happen for ourselves. Ultimately, you're the only one who's going to be able to drive that part of your life, and the industry is still dominated by people who don't look like us. But I think you have to just keep doing it, if you really, really want it. Please don’t wait.