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Story Power

Story Power: Impact as a Participant

Conversations with storytellers about the ins and outs of impact campaigns.

Brendan Mcinerney

April 14th, 2024
Story Power: Impact as a Participant

Welcome to Story Power, our column on people who are growing our understanding of how documentary films can influence society. In this issue, we talk to community organizer and impact producer Aber Kawas about what an impact campaign looks like when you include the participants of the film.

Aber Kawas set up for an interview.

Aber Kawas is a first generation Muslim American, a community organizer and the impact producer for the film An Act of Worship. Her entrance into the film industry was not a traditional one. Kawas was initially approached by the creators of An Act of Worship to appear in the film. Her experience as a Muslim American—organizing on behalf of her community and planning her wedding with her parents—is central to the documentary.

Prior to being a participant in An Act of Worship, she was part of the leadership of the Arab American Association of New York. Her work was highly visible, especially in January 2017 when President Donald Trump issued a racist travel ban against people from majority Muslim countries—eventually known as the Muslim ban. The crew of An Act of Worship—which began filming in 2017—recognized her for her talents as an organizer. This led to her becoming the film’s impact producer. Her close relationship with director and VC member Nausheen Dadabhoy enabled her to break into the documentary film industry.

Kawas speaking to a crowd of protestors in "An Act of Worship."

An Act of Worship, which originally appeared on PBS’ series POV and is now available on Vimeo, “explores the last 30 years of American history through the perspective of Muslims across the U.S. that have lived it,” according to PBS’ website. As Kawas explains, it’s a love letter to the communities represented in the film.

Although her situation is very unique, Kawas believes more filmmakers should consider participants or community members for paid positions on a production. “I don't think that's what you should do in every single case, obviously,” she said. Kawas says that it doesn’t make sense to try to employ every film participant in a production, but filmmakers should consider the skills and expertise of film participants when seeking to fill roles such as the impact producer.

“I think that this example should help people think about different ways that they can incorporate the participants in their film into the making of the impact campaign.” Kawas said. Community members are often already experts on the subject matter of a film, and are keenly aware of the experience of a film’s participants.

Kawas filming during her wedding.
Hosting the workshop in conjunction with the screening meant that the audience would have a safe environment and a productive way to speak about the experiences they saw represented on the screen.
—Brendan McInerney

During filming, Kawas saw how her connection with other Muslim Americans on the team facilitated a successful impact campaign. When hosting an event in Michigan—where one film participant, Khadega, was from—they considered what needs that community might have. “Khadega’s main storyline was about mental health,” she explained. “I'm sure many people in her friend group or around her age are affected by the same thing.”

In collaboration with Khadega, the team decided to host a mental health workshop. Hosting the workshop in conjunction with the screening meant that the audience would have a safe environment and a productive way to speak about the experiences they saw represented on the screen. Kawas’ connection with the other participants augmented the care the film’s team was able to provide during the impact campaign.

One of the film's participants, Ameena, protesting against Trump's travel ban.

Despite being distributed nationally, it was made for the Muslim community. Yet, this didn’t preclude non-Muslim audiences from the conversation. In fact, the crew found it to be just as engaging for non-Muslim people and those from non-immigrant backgrounds. The capacity of the film as an educational tool came from its ability to illustrate the Muslim American using values and experiences that appeal to a wider audience.

“We had so many people who weren't Muslims who, of course, came to the screenings and were like—you should use this as an educational tool for everyone.” Kawas said. “And no one in the film had to literally re-explain something that is very innate to them.”

"An Act of Worship's" participant, Khadega, on set.
I think An Act of Worship shows that when you have a more intimate connection, the story ends up being more robust and authentic
—Aber Kawas

Kawas had a lot of experience working with media professionals before An Act of Worship. While living in Bay Ridge, she was a community organizer. Kawas’ mentors encouraged her to do as many media appearances as possible because she would be a positive face for her community. There was no shortage of chances, either. After Donald Trump was elected president, “there was some kind of media outlet at our office almost every time he would give a speech,” Kawas recalled. “When the Muslim ban happened, there was also a really big surge of media interest.”

This was also when An Act of Worship began filming. To Kawas, there was an obvious difference being filmed by a Muslim crew versus working with media from outside the community. “I think An Act of Worship shows that when you have a more intimate connection, the story ends up being more robust and authentic,” Kawas explained. She never perceived non-Muslim journalists or documentary filmmakers as malicious, but something did feel different. She felt more comfortable around the team and was able to talk to the director as a friend. The connection they formed also led to opportunities for Kawas.

Director Nausheen Dadabhouy and Aber Kawas on set of "An Act of Worship."

Although Kawas didn’t recognize it at first, the film’s director, Nausheen Dadabhouy, saw her talent for impact producing. “Our director Nausheen was always telling me, ‘You can be an impact producer. You should get into the film industry—this is something that you can do in the future.’” she recalled. Kawas credits her close relationship with the director for opening that opportunity.

The film industry can be very complicated and opaque for outsiders, but there are many people who already have the capacity to fill different roles on a film’s production. Kawas sees the promise that this type of work holds for our industry.

“There's a lot of young people who come in from marginalized experiences and get involved in political work because it's really natural to their identity, but they don't actually get exposed to different artistic mediums,” Kawas explained. She encourages fellow organizers to consider documentary filmmaking and other forms of media as a complement or alternative path to the change they hope to effect. “I think that there should be more bridges built because it does allow for a greater ecosystem.”

The participants in "An Act of Worship" advocating for voting.

By collaborating with film participants, documentary filmmakers can provide opportunities to people who otherwise would—oftentimes out of necessity—go into different fields of work. The diversity of thought and experience that comes with a more diverse industry only improves our capacity for telling stories. If telling more holistic, impactful stories is important to you, consider having conversations about impact with your film's participants from day one and bring them into the production process.

Have an idea for Story Power? Send Brendan a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.

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