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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Feature Films and Global Crises with Rana Kazkaz

Using the power of narrative film to create empathy and motivate action in response to human rights abuses is a personal passion for Rana Kazkaz. She is an award-winning filmmaker and Assistant Professor of Communication at Northwestern University in Qatar where she teaches narrative filmmaking. Her work focuses on Syrian stories with many of her short films recognized at the world’s leading film festivals including Cannes, Sundance and Tribeca. 

She recently screened and discussed her first feature film, The Translator at Northwestern as part of her appointment as the Roberta Buffett Visiting Professor of International Studies in the Program of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. In this episode she talks about her path to filmmaking and the ten year journey to making The Translator.

With The Translator, what became exciting was this idea of a man who wants to find his brother, but in the end needs to find his voice. And that idea of what it means for each and every one of us to find our voice is universal … even though the specific context of Syria is what is being dealt with in the film, through this theme we are able hopefully to touch people and bring them into the story and feel what they're going to feel. Because in the end they're asking, what would I do? Do I have a voice? What is my voice? How do I use my voice?”

-- Rana Kazkaz

Rana Kazkaz

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertize geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today's guest, Rana Kazkaz, uses the power of narrative film to create empathy and motivate action in response to human rights abuses. Rana is an award winning filmmaker and assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University in Qatar, where she teaches narrative filmmaking. She's also a Roberta Buffett visiting professor of international studies at Northwestern University. Her work focuses on the stories of Syrian people, refugees, but also those who remain in Syria, and her films have been recognized at the world's leading film festivals, including Cannes, Sundance and Tribeca. Now, just one more thing. We recently hosted the US premiere of Rana's feature film The Translator right here at Northwestern Buffett. So having you here this quarter, Rana has just been a true joy. The minute I met you, I thought of this podcast because you are such a boundary breaker. There isn't a boundary you haven't broken, as far as I can tell. And in our podcast community at the moment, we're focusing on U.N. SDG 16, which is peace, justice and strong institutions. And I see your work as contributing something truly significant to that critical goal. So I was hoping today you might take us a bit behind the scenes with this film, but also your incredible life and work through the journey across all kinds of borders and boundaries to produce work that builds peace, justice and strong institutions.

Rana Kazaz [00:02:05] Sounds perfect.

Annelise Riles [00:02:06] OK, so let's begin at the beginning. So you are Syrian-American born in France and you grew up in the US, right? Yes. And so what drew you to film?

Rana Kazaz [00:02:17] I always was a storyteller, but it took me a long time to figure out what kind of storyteller I was going to be. And for the early part of my life, up until my early 30s, I thought that was going to be as an actor. That's what I had studied. That's what I was trained to be. After I received my MFA in acting, I moved to New York, where I worked in theater for eight years as an actor, never figuring out how, how to make an actual career out of it. But something started to happen to me as an actor in that moment, which was which was a bit heartbreaking, and I often say that sometimes I feel that New York kind of chew me up and spat me out, meaning that when you and and again, I am half American and half Syrian. So I think with my physical features, for example, I look Syrian and I have an Arabic name. However, I did grow up with an American mother from Chicago. And so I think when you are bicultural like that, you sometimes don't know where you are meant to fit, and it's the world that tells you where you fit. And sometimes that's, you know, congruous with how you see yourself and how. Sometimes it's not. And I think that, as you know, any human being does. You don't start to see yourself with regards to necessarily your ethnicity. That becomes something that you learn is placed upon you. And so when I would audition for roles and it took me, I don't know why it took me so long, but it took me a long time to figure out that I wasn't physically what people had in mind for a lot of the characters that I was auditioning for. Because in my mind, I was capable technically of telling those stories and representing those characters. And sometimes you would meet a director producer who was willing to go outside the box, et cetera. But for the most part, and I understand this now being a director myself, how much the physical becomes a part of who the audience sees as the character. And yes, there are always ways which is important that we can challenge that, and we certainly tried to do that with the translator as well as I was getting this information from the world. The blessing was that it allowed me to figure out where it was. I could be of most value and what stories I could most credibly tell. And it was at that moment that I started to really embrace this idea of who I was and this. Kind of multicultural life that I had had. And the point of view that that allows me to have when I started to to realize for myself that I wasn't seeing the stories I wanted told I wasn't hearing the stories I wanted told. That's when I started to realize, Wow, well, that's maybe where I meant to be. And truth be told, I am so much more comfortable writing and directing and not being in front of the audience anymore. But I think I really started to find my place in my in my early 30s. I started to just transition and and realized that I could actually be of more value as somebody who was creating the stories rather than somebody who was acting in the stories created by others.

Annelise Riles [00:05:45] Someone was saying to me the other day that love and true creativity both don't start until your heart is broken and you've given us a great example of that.

Rana Kazaz [00:05:55] Yes, that that I resonate with that. Does it? Yes, it absolutely resonates. And you know, it's interesting this idea of your heart being broken because I think the first few times that we experience heartbreak for whatever reason, it's something in which we don't know that will come out the other side of. But I think the blessing of it happening repeatedly, unfortunately, is that, you know, you will come out the other side and that there are blessings once you do so, at some point you moved to Damascus. Is that right? Tell us a little bit about why and how in your life there. Prior to moving to Damascus, as I mentioned, I was starting to focus my storytelling more on stories from the Arab world. One of the first stories I started to create was a feature film about Khalil Gibran, who wrote The Prophet, who was himself an Arab-American from Lebanon. I had moved to to Beirut to go do my research there. I was starting at that moment to recognize that being in the region was going to be integral to my work. So it was right after that moment, however, that I got into the directing workshop for women at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. So I went to film school there to direct my first film called Kemosabe, which is about an Arab-American boy who wants to be the cowboy instead of the Indian on the playground. While I was preparing to shoot that film, I had met another woman who was also directing a feature film in L.A., and we got to become friends. And she said, I should really introduce you to my producer. He's Syrian, his name is A.. And meanwhile, she had done the same thing on with NASA and had told him about me and the NSA. And I were googling each other without the other knowing, and we just had this remarkable amount in common. I was born in France, Syrian-American and as was born in Damascus, but grew up in France, but then had lived in L.A. So we had these three cultures in common, and then we both were wanting to be filmmakers, and we both wanted a family and we both wanted to be making films in Syria. And so after I finished film school, it all happened quite quickly right at the end. He said, You know, let's get married and move to Damascus. And I just thought that was a crazy, wonderful idea because I was going to be able to spend more time with my family who lives there. The majority of my family was in Damascus, and I was going to be able to to start a family, which is something I had wanted, and I was going to be able to make films in Syria. And at the time, what was interesting is that, you know, among my my cohort, my fellow filmmakers at the American Film Institute, when I told them I was moving to Syria to pursue being a filmmaker, there was, I think when you decide to leave L.A. and do something like that, it's kind of a crazy thought for people, right, that there's this idea that why would you go there? Why wouldn't you stay here? This is the place to have a career. And in fact, the opposite became true. And I think that if I had stayed in L.A., I would have experienced something similar to what I experienced in New York, which is that you can be chewed up and spit out. You are actually not needed. And I think it was through being in Syria and being able to tell those stories that I started to feel relevant, that I started to feel necessary, started to feel that I had something to contribute and was able to tell stories that had meaning. We moved there. And so we were on our way to to making films. We had made one film called Deaf Day, which is about a deaf boy who lives in Damascus, and his mother wants to teach him how to live in the hearing world. But in the end, it's the son that teaches the mother the value of silence. That was a film that we had wanted to make because Syria has one of the largest per capita averages of deaf people in the world. This film became a way of helping to restore the integrity of that community. That was very much hidden and yet so numerous. And then we were on our way to to making our first feature film. The film had won some screenwriting awards. We were getting some developed. Towards it was called scenes, so scenes from Damascus, but also about the people who live in Damascus. It was kind of a lighthearted comedy, very charming film that took place in the Old City that was meant to be our first feature film. And that was, you know, way back in in 2011 that we were getting ready to work on that next. And then lo and behold, of course, the Arab Spring starts to erupt, which from my point of view, especially for Syria, changed for generations to come, the kind of stories that would need to be coming out from that country.

Annelise Riles [00:10:34] One of the ways that you inspire me is in your courage to go on the path that others can't even imagine. And that, to me, is one of the real emblems of a boundary breaker. Somebody who will just say, why not? I'm going to do it and find that place where their heart really sinks. All right. So you're in Damascus? Things start happening. Tell us a little bit about what the Arab Spring was like in Damascus and what was like for you and your family.

Rana Kazaz [00:11:04] The other layer here is that my family and more most of the people were in my family were living is in the north of Syria, in a city called Hama, which in 1982 was the site of a government led massacre in which many thousands of people were killed, including 15 members from our family. It was the decision to move to Syria was and it was a place that I had visited throughout my life as well. So the decision to move there was also fraught with this knowledge that I had about the trauma. That exists there and the political tension that is very present, it's very heavy, you feel it viscerally when you enter the country. I knew that that was also what I was walking into and yet. And. And it's interesting what you're saying about being a boundary breaker, because I think when I look back at that moment now, I also think about how naive I was that I didn't appreciate always what I was risking in the choices that I was making when the Arab Spring. And again, so as you know, we were all in Syria. And as you can imagine, all throughout, all throughout the Arab world, people were just glued to their television sets, you know, watching what was unfolding in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya, wondering which country would be hit next. So much thought about which country was was going to rise up next, et cetera, et cetera. And within Syria, there was this quiet debate that everybody was happening quiet because you didn't want, you know, your words to be overheard. But there was this this curiosity about would it come? Would it would it actually come to Syria? And many people thought, Well, yes, of course it's going to come. The injustices in this country are are too many for it not to to become involved. And yet there was another part of the country that knew the violence that the government was capable of because they had seen what had happened in 1982 in Hama. This was the political discourse at the time, and then it did start in Syria, and it started in Daraa with some teenage boys who who spray painted some graffiti on a wall saying, You are next president. And the government reaction, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, was very violent. The boys were arrested, they were tortured. Their families took to the streets to demonstrate and ask for their release, and the government official of the town of Dara went out and spoke to the parents and said, Go make more children of your own. These are gone. Something to that effect. And it was just that level of indignity and horror. The fire was now lit, so you started to see this, this catching on. And yet what was interesting about this beginning movement is that the people who went to the streets just to put back everything into context, they know that the West has helped to depose Mubarak from Egypt, Ben Ali from Tunisia, that Gaddafi is persona non grata. Right. So the Syrian people already had evidence. That their leadership could be toppled, and so they were emboldened by what they saw to think about what would happen. And yet when the demonstrations first started, they weren't even asking for Assad to leave. They just said, Can we please have more reforms, a little bit more freedom. Soon after that, it became very clear to the people that was not going to happen, partly because President Assad had characterized the people that were that were taking to the streets for peaceful demonstrations as terrorists and being agents of the West, and that they had somehow been manipulated into standing up for their rights. And it was when his lack of acknowledgment towards his own citizens that the people started to come out in droves all over the country, all over the country. And what's beautiful about this was that these were men and women and children. They were of every religious sect or even atheists. They were of every class coming from different educational backgrounds, different professional backgrounds that there was this unified hope that the international community would hear them and help them in the way that they had imagined that they had been helpful in deposing Mubarak and Gadhafi and Ben Ali. And yet the sad truth. The Syrian people were naive and not perhaps understanding what the geopolitical circumstances were. That a government deciding to go into another country to depose a leader is very much based on what they think they can earn back in terms of financial investment and power. And Syria was not aligned with the West. They had always been more aligned with Russia and China, where it continues to remain and Iran. And so I thinkthat this was the unfortunate miscalculation that was made by the Syrian people.

Annelise Riles [00:16:28] Well, there's so much I want to ask you about that, but I want to get to your new film, The Translator, which is a political thriller that tells the story of a Syrian man living in exile in Australia who has made a small mistake that has changed the course of his life. You wrote the screenplay, you directed the film, you worked on it for 10 years and you said somewhere that you wish to dramatize the Syrian quest for dignity and freedom through fiction. So can you tell us a little bit about the film and how can fiction help us to further the cause of peace and justice and strong institutions?

Rana Kazaz [00:17:06] I love this question. I think it's I think the answer to this question is something that I continue to to develop and think about and begin to appreciate for me and I think for many others. Fiction helps us process reality. The real events seem complicated or seem unrelatable because life is stranger than fiction, right? And if we actually try to create real life in fiction, it's often unbelievable. With fiction, you can have a genre so we can bring people in through whatever genre of the film we want. If it's a horror film or in this case, a political thriller, or is it a romantic comedy? There's that pleasure of the journey of being able to create the genre of the journey for the audience. I think the other remarkable thing about fiction is that whereas in documentary, you never know really where the story's going to take you in fiction, you really have the opportunity to actually plan that all out in advance and know exactly where it is. At least you hope to go with the story, and within that, you can choose a theme when you're making a documentary year that the theme is something that you start to discover once you're going through all the footage and trying to figure out, OK, now actually what story lies before me? There was something I intended to do, but what do I actually have? And I think that with fiction, what this theme allows you to do is be very specific about what the message is that you're trying to deliver. What is this film about? And so with the translator, what became exciting was this idea of a man who wants to find his brother. But in the end needs to find his voice. And that idea of what it means for each and every one of us to find our voice is universal. So it was through that hope that even though the specific context of Syria is what is being dealt with in the film, that through this theme we are able hopefully to touch people and bring them in to the story and feel what they're going to feel. Because in the end they're asking, What would I do? Do I have a voice? What is my voice? How do I use my voice?

Annelise Riles [00:19:18] Although it is fictional? You mentioned. At the event we had here at the Buffett Institute that many of the vignettes, the motifs, the stories even are based on stories you've heard or things you've seen or experienced or people you know have experienced without giving too much away. What are some of those elements that you really wanted to to surface for for your audience?

Rana Kazaz [00:19:42] I think no one was how small the grievance could be that that a citizen could commit that could endanger their life. So the fact that our main characters guilty of just the mistranslation of one word and then to see the ripple effect and the consequences that has not only on him but his entire family is something we were aware of. We knew of stories like that. We had heard stories of people who had lost their jobs or had been thrown in jail or had their home taken away from them because of a very minor grievance, such as the one that Sami commits. Interestingly, when we were screening the film in Geneva at the Q&A afterwards, a man stood up and he said, I am Syrian and I was a translator there, and we all held our breath because he didn't know what he was going to say next. And what he said was, I wish everybody to know that what is depicted in this film is true. He said I lived with fear every day. He said not just me. It was something that he actually talked about with his fellow colleagues, who are also translators. The fear they had that they might inadvertently mis translate or have a slip of the tongue that would somehow expose their lack of support for the government or would embarrass the government.

Annelise Riles [00:21:13] Just incredible. Well, now that you've revealed a little bit, maybe we can dig into that bit. So this main character, Sami, you know, he he's amazing. He's a translator. One of the things that stays with me is his soft face. He has such a soft face. It's not the face of a hardened activist or the face of a determined person. And yet at the end, we find that he's a very determined person. Can you tell us a little bit about him? Where is the actor from? How did you find him? Why did you cast him? And do you identify with this character in any way?

Rana Kazaz [00:21:49] Sami is played by Ziad Bakri, well-known Palestinian actor, and we had many conversations with him about how to make him look soft through his costume, through the colors he was wearing, through the hairstyle, through the tone of his voice. Because of his journey. Because he is, he doesn't lack the same, let's say, outward strength of his father and brother, which is something that haunts him in terms of knowing that he has his father and brother were such fierce activists who used their voices. The idea was that Sami was somebody who was reluctant to use his voice. In fact, the translator profession suited him perfectly because he could just hide behind the words of others. He didn't need to offer his own opinion or his own feelings. He could just, you know, say what they were of another person. Of course, that his name is Sami, that this is a name that works across both Arabic and English, which, you know, he's an Arabic English translator. And then, of course, he lives in Australia as well. He knows how to operate in an English speaking culture as much as he does in an Arabic speaking one. Sami's journey becomes very interesting in that it mirrored our own. At the moment. I had always thought of myself as an activist and yet went face to face with with the opportunity to be an activist in Syria. I ran away. I didn't participate, even though this was a movement I believed in. For us, it became important then to think about and examine and hold ourselves accountable for that decision that we had made. So Sami is very much, I guess, representative of trying to overcome that guilt, but also to say, no, we have to be accountable. It is not OK, not to say anything.

Annelise Riles [00:23:36] Just as for Sami, he gets that second chance and boy, does he take it. You've done the same with this film. Last question. You know, we are talking about a work of art, and of course, it is a work of art, but it's also a mammoth organizational project, right? I mean, you were telling me about the dozens of folks on all different continents across national borders that had to be coordinated to run this thing. And we at northwestern Buffett are really interested in cultural cost, national cross linguistic collaboration. You've been doing this in spades for 10 years. Can you tell us a little bit about that and any lessons or insights you would share with our audience about how to do it well?

Rana Kazaz [00:24:18] The translator is a co-production between eight different countries, production took place in two different countries, post-production took place in five different countries. Actors came from 10 different countries. We had four languages spoken on set. The decision to try to do something like this, I think, is very admirable. But the execution is mammoth. You used another great word. There it is. It is mammoth. I embrace and will continue to try to work in that way. But I think just with much more awareness about recognizing that in a way, what it means is that all the players you bring to the table have to be on board with that kind of experiment.

Annelise Riles [00:25:11] Absolutely. And yet, you know, we still imagine genius is a singular thing. But as we say at, Buffett genius is collaborative genius. Now you've done it, you've achieved it. Congratulations. Thank you so much for all you bring to us at Northwestern University writ large, both in Qatar and here in Evanston. Can't wait to continue the conversation and see what you do next.

Rana Kazaz [00:25:32] I am so grateful for every second. I have enjoyed every moment of this journey with you and Buffett. Thank you.

Annelise Riles [00:25:43] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at