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Weaving the Personal and Spiritual With Filmmaker Jude Chehab
"I had a lot of expectations of what 'Q' would be, and it didn’t turn out like that. How people react to it and receive it is beyond our control. It's a matter of doing what feels right by you, because that's the only kind of truth that we can know."
Jude Chehab is a Lebanese-American filmmaker, producer, and photographer. Her feature-length documentary “Q” (2023) is a personal and moving exploration of her family’s generational relationship to a secretive women’s religious order in Lebanon. The film explores her mother’s relationship to the order and how that relationship has changed over time. “Q” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Chehab won the Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. Chehab spoke to Fann about her journey creating the film, and how filmmaking itself is a spiritual pursuit.
Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Jude Chehab: When I was young, my mother would always tell me, ‘Jude, you're an Arab, you're a woman. You're a Muslim. You have a lot to be upset about. Do something about it’. She was always trying to push us into the arts because she felt like there's a lot of engineers and doctors out there. This is where Muslims are needed.
[My parents] got me a camera at 15 and I started making little documentaries here in Lebanon, and I think I was inspired by the fact that we didn't really have Muslims in film telling our stories. Moustapha Akkad, who made “The Message” (1976) was my role model. [Watching that film] felt like — it's very cliche, everyone says it now — feeling really seen. Seeing his films made me feel less at war with myself. Since then, it’s just felt like a responsibility because we don't have Muslims in this space.
Fann Staff: People often struggle with having to represent people, and that can box you in sometimes. We, as marginalized creators and writers, often have to consider representing people while we're making our art. Could you talk a little bit about how you navigate that feeling of responsibility?
Jude Chehab: I think it's really tough. Right now, I'm in the thick of it. I just released “Q.” It was a challenge making the film because the institutions that were supporting me imagined a different film [than I was seeing as I was making it], and then you might screen it to Muslims and they see a different film as well. It's just a matter of staying true to the original intention and vision that you had.
Trying to balance all these things is impossible. You're not going to make anyone happy by doing that. That's something I learned along the way. I think I had a lot of expectations of what [“Q”] would be, and it [didn’t turn out like that]. I think it's a matter of doing what feels right by you, because that's the only kind of truth that we can know. How people react to it and receive it is beyond our control. So it’s just a matter of sticking to what we have in mind.
Fann Staff: You mentioned that even you had a different idea of what the film would have been before you made it. Was there something while you were making this story — and getting the footage together — that surprised you during the process?
Jude Chehab: So the film is about my mother and grandmother and I's relationship to a secretive Muslim women's religious order. Going into it, I was just curious about the group and my mom's attachment to the group. She's been with them for 40 years, but I didn't know much about their relationship. When I started, the film was about me exploring that relationship and also trying to answer questions I had about the group. As I went on and production continued, I realized that's not the film that I wanted to make. It really was this intimate family story, and the consequences of [my mom’s relationship with the group] on the family as a whole. I think a lot of things changed in that way. [Some] institutions in the West — and not even just the West, I even got this feedback from funders in the region in the Arab world — wanted more information about the group.They wanted the documentary to be more of an exposé, which doesn't feel genuine to me at all. It just isn't the story that I want to tell, or the story that's needed. We have enough bad images of Muslims out there. I'm not trying to do that, I’m trying to make something that's respectful and sensitive but still gives justice to her story.
Fann Staff: When you make a documentary, people often have the perception that it's in pursuit of a particular truth, or else based on hard facts. But when you're making such a personal story, one that is so deeply connected to you and generations of your family, how do you navigate the gray area of the personal and what you had to show?
Jude Chehab: Yeah, it was really hard. Making the whole film was very emotional. Obviously having my mom unbox all of this, and do this all in front of a camera [was very difficult]. I don't think we would have done it if the camera wasn't there. When things were tough, navigating that was just [a matter of] remembering the reason that we were making the film. I think what really kept me grounded [was that] everything was working towards this message and feeling that we want people to leave with.
Even going into making “Q,” I thought by the end of the film, I would bring my mom over to where I am. She would see things the way that I do and have this awakening from a lot of trauma that she had with this group. That doesn't really happen [in the film]. That’s something that I had to deal with as a daughter and as a filmmaker — that it might not be this answer, this result that I imagined. That’s very naive, for starters, but it was just part of that journey.
Fann Staff: That’s amazing that you and your family were at the point that you were able to go so deeply into that trauma. Could you talk a little bit about how you brought up the idea and decided to start the film to begin with?
Jude Chehab: It wasn't easy. I feel like I’ve said that a bunch. In the beginning, [my mom] kept saying, ‘I'll find you X members of the group. You can talk to them,’ really trying to push it away. But it always felt like “Q” had to be the story of these generations impacted by this religious order, and that's the way that people are going to be able to relate to the film.
I think that with time, the camera was always there in the house, and [my family] got used to it. In the film, there's a lot of very intimate moments between my mother and my dad. I'm very impressed and honestly kind of proud of them that they were able to open up and to be very real, genuine versions of themselves. Specifically in the [filming] site that we have in Lebanon, we were someone else when we left the house than we were when we were inside the home. [I’m very proud that my family] could be so open with audiences, showing their true selves and answering these difficult questions that are a benefit to others. They had to go through this pain so that other people could benefit.
Fann Staff: If someone from the religious order you talked about watched the film, what would you want them to take away from it?
Jude Chehab: I would want them to see the vastness of God, because that was really the end point that we wanted. It wasn't a matter of ‘this is bad, this is good’ black-and-white; it’s more like that gray area you were talking about earlier. It really is that maybe this specific group didn't work for [my mom], but that shouldn't push her away from the entire religion. And that's really what we were showing — maybe the group isn’t great, but God is always great, as cliché as that sounds. But that's what I would love for them to see: that she was having a true, genuine human experience; that this isn't a critique of them, it’s just her experience.
Fann Staff: I noticed in an interview with The New Arab, you talked about how you wanted to give nuance to the images of Muslims. You mentioned that there's enough bad images of Muslims out there. How did you navigate the concept that there needs to be a good guy and a bad guy even in a documentary that is based on something so complicated?
Jude Chehab: It's really complex. I think that shocks audiences. I even have a friend who's German, and was like, ‘Wait, so do you or do you not like the group?’ after watching the film. It's in this limbo area, and it's something incredible, I think. People always expect a filmmaker to be really critical, and it needs to be very obvious where I [as the filmmaker] stand. And I think it is very obvious. It's just subtle. I mean, I wouldn't have made this film if I weren’t critical of the group and of my mother's relationship to it. I'm asking my family very tough questions. I think that we're just used to, in this day and age, a voice-over by the filmmaker that explains everything exactly how they feel. Instead, [“Q” is] very poetic. Even the way I speak a couple of times in the film feels like a poem. [I'm saying how I feel,] I’m just not saying it straightforwardly.
By the end of the film — not to give it away — the most dangerous thing that [my mom] does is really reclaim her faith, and she sticks by it in the end. I think that's really confusing for a Western audience that thinks, ‘Okay, this is the moment she's gonna rip her hijab off and have her freedom moment.’ All these relationships are very complex. It's a relationship with an abusive partner. That kind of love never goes away. I think [the film] asks those questions. But people are always expecting a film that discusses spirituality or religion to paint things in black-and-white. That doesn't happen. I think that really challenges people's perception.
Fann Staff: What is the trope that you hate the most about Muslims in Western media?
Jude Chehab: Everything. I don't even know. Oh, my God! The majority of them are just equally as bad.
I think it would be the ‘Muslim women are oppressed’ trope. I feel like I saw that a lot in [making and reception to] the film. There were even advisors and institutions telling me, ‘Wow! Your family speak English? Your mom is hijabi and she's a professor at the university? We've never seen something like this.’ It's this discourse that feels 20 years old. We're so far past this, but still we have to justify ourselves and justify our characters. The last thing we added in the film was that scene of my mother at the university teaching her class. Initially, I didn't feel like it was needed. But it's one of my favorite scenes now because it shows the stakes and and how dynamic she is as a character, which you shouldn't have to explain but we still have to show. [Otherwise] the minute that someone sees her, a Muslim woman in a hijab, they come away with certain connotations and would never expect us to speak English like that. It's just crazy, but that's the reality that we live in.
Fann Staff: Apart from the story that you told in “Q,” what is the story you would like to tell in a film next?
Jude Chehab: In the next film … I think something I'm feeling really attached to right now and thinking over a lot is how we as Arabs — maybe as Muslims, I'm not sure which yet — have reached the point that we're at now; kind of looking back at our past. Not a matter of seeing what went wrong, but thinking about something that we lost along the way, of giving us back some sort of dignity by the end of the film. I don't know what the film is, but something that chronicles all of this in a very poetic manner and really analyzes the state of the Arabs right now and how we got to this point.
Fann Staff: That sounds so interesting. Is there a Muslim creator out there that you're particularly inspired by?
Jude Chehab: The first name that comes to mind is Bassam Tariq, who was a mentor for me very early on. He saw a sample I had of “Q,” and I remember him calling me right away to say that he's just so happy that there's other people doing this work. From that moment on, he's been someone that I look up to in the way that he sees film and cinema and being a Muslim filmmaker. One thing he said that always sticks in my mind is that we're all looking for God in cinema. It's just so beautiful. In the making of these films, that's what it feels like — part of this spiritual journey. Why make this film about my mom? It's a tough film. It still brings out pain, I’m still nervous [about] how people will react. Just knowing that it's for this higher purpose makes it easier.
Fann Staff: Yeah, wow, that is a really amazing way to think about it. What advice do you have for up-and-coming and aspiring filmmakers?
Jude Chehab: The thing that I really stuck to in the making of this film — because it was really challenging, and I went into it thinking it wouldn't be — is just how important it is to hone in on your vision and your voice. There's going to be a lot of noise, and there's going to be people in your ear trying to tell you what film you should make. Only you know the film that you should make. Deep, deep down, especially for brown Muslim filmmakers, there's a film that we know we should make that is literally untouched by colonization in just the way that we think. Those are the films that we have to make, despite how challenging it'll be and how many voices we have to push out. And maybe [despite the lack] of funding we will get because we're doing that. But this is what's needed. Our youth, including myself, need this.
Fann Staff: Those are all the questions I had personally. Is there anything you'd like to add about the film?
Jude Chehab: Follow along on our journey. It's "Q" the documentary on Instagram. I made this film for Muslims. I really hope that's the audience that we get to come out and see the film, engage with it, and be in conversation [with it]. It's not easy when we talk about something within our community that might not be perfect, but it's something that I hope that we're able to do as a community.