Saeed Taji Farouky on Cultural Boycotts and Cinema as Resistance

Saeed Taji Farouky

Saeed Taji Farouky, photographed by Layla Tosifi.

In August, I met the director Saeed Taji Farouky at the Mimesis Documentary Festival in Boulder, Colorado. He was the event’s headliner with his latest film, A Thousand Fires, an entrancing study of a Burmese family working in their unregulated oil field. Getting to see his work in a movie theater, and witnessing the subsequent conversation, was my favorite filmgoing experience of 2023. Later, at home, I streamed Farouky’s other piercing feature-lengths, 2013’s The Runner and 2015’s Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, the latter of which won the Amnesty International Film Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. This November, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the world’s largest documentary film festival and previously the site of both international and Dutch premieres of Farouky’s films, decried a pro-Palestine action which took place during opening night. Some filmmakers withdrew their work in solidarity with the Palestinian contingent, of which Farouky is a part. Over Zoom, the London-based filmmaker and I discuss his art and the utility of cultural boycotts.


THORA SIEMSEN: When we first met, I mentioned that your use of music in A Thousand Fires didn’t tell me how to feel. You said you wouldn’t mind if it had. Can you elaborate?

SAEED TAJI FAROUKY: There’s a strange reaction from a lot of filmmakers now where they try not to use music because they say it’s manipulative. But every element of filmmaking is manipulative, the edit, the choice of framing, the movement. So what’s the purpose of the work? For me, it’s to make people feel something, and music is one of the tools of filmmaking, so why would I not use it to make people feel something? What they have in mind is music that replaces the narrative, music that tries to fill in the gaps of a story, for example. But if the music is contributing to that, then “I won’t use music,” to me, is like saying, “I won’t use a cut” or “I won’t use dialogue.”

SIEMSEN: Who are some of the biggest influences on your visual grammar?

FAROUKY: In a way, they’re not really filmmakers. I’m very influenced by certain novelists in terms of grammar. I look a lot at Georges Perec, the French experimental novelist, because he’s not so interested necessarily in plot or narrative. In Life a User’s Manual, he takes this extreme analytical approach to describing every object in a room, in every room of a building. There’s something I love about that because I have a very analytical mind. I still consider myself a journalist, and my approach can be quite meticulous in that way. What I love about the novel in general is there’s a point where you start to wonder why you’re still reading it, because it kind of stops making sense. And there are some points that are really just absurd, like listing every item in the hardware catalog. There’s also a moment at the end of the novel where you realize that the entire book has taken place in the exact moment of the main character’s death. So, for me, it’s an incredibly subversive use of time. Lately, that’s one of the biggest sources of inspiration for me in terms of alternative narrative structures and techniques.

SIEMSEN: For those who haven’t seen A Thousand Fires yet, you observe a Burmese family working on their unregulated oil field. Their son isn’t taking to the family business, so they somewhat reluctantly let him try his hand at being a footballer. How did you relate to the family’s dynamic?

FAROUKY: It took me a long time to understand my relationship with the family, and that’s not uncommon. I often start a project knowing there’s something there, even if I don’t know what exactly that thing is. For me, the process of filmmaking is also about understanding those relationships. Maybe halfway through editing, someone was trying to describe the film and they said, “It’s a film about a family that has to break apart in order to save itself.” I found that to be not only a really beautiful and poetic way of describing what most families have to go through, but it made me realize how profoundly I related to that family and its dynamics. After watching this family over the course of years, I started to understand why my own father did what he did. At that point, the focus of the edit became the family story, and much less about the novelty of watching manual labor or the politics of oil or even the mythology of the dragon that produced the oil underground.

SIEMSEN: How soon after filming did the junta in Myanmar start?

FAROUKY: We actually weren’t even finished filming. I was going to do one more trip in March 2021. It was kind of bizarre. I usually spend a lot of time on Twitter, and someone from Burma had posted a very innocuous message like, “I’m seeing tanks on the street.” Very quickly it became apparent that something monumental was going on. Then, within a couple of hours, people were saying the military had taken over. So I messaged the producer and said, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to film anymore.” And of course, that was right. The country fell into what was more or less a horrific civil war, an extremely violent military coup. There’s an absence there because the film was never finished in a conventional sense. But I like that, because I think all stories deserve to have a void in the center, that makes them more mysterious. What I often find, anyway, is that the best version of a film is sort of one version less than what you think is the final version.

SIEMSEN: When have you felt the least safe while filming throughout your career?

FAROUKY: The documentary I made before this was in Afghanistan. We were on the front lines in Helmand, so that was extremely dangerous every day, getting shot at. I think that was just weeks and weeks of an anxious sense of dread.

SIEMSEN: How is occupation a through line in your work? I’m thinking particularly about The Runner. I see a clear link between the struggle of Sahrawis and that of Palestinians.

FAROUKY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Sahrawis and Palestinians have had a very long history of solidarity, to the extent that the Sahrawi flag is almost exactly the same as the Palestinian flag. I always think of how I can best use cinema as a political tool. I think the production of solidarity is extremely crucial, and not just through the film itself. I have a real problem with this idea that our only goal is to humanize. The film itself can help to encourage solidarity by expounding on the morality of that liberation movement. My engagement with Western Sahara, my engagement with Burma, those are all still quite active. The distribution and exhibition of the film can encourage solidarity too. That’s at least one of the most important things driving my own work, but it’s also one of the best ways cinema can be a tool of resistance.

SIEMSEN: Your film A Thousand Fires was in the main competition for the 2021 International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, the world’s largest documentary festival. This year, a group of activists staged a pro-Palestine protest during opening night. The use of the slogan “From the River to the Sea” was then denounced by the IDFA. Many filmmakers withdrew their work from competition in solidarity with the Palestinian contingent. Were you surprised by how many?

FAROUKY: I mean, it’s difficult to say. I was surprised by who withdrew their work. They represent a very broad range of filmmakers from around the world, from different races and classes and different levels of privilege. I was pleasantly surprised by how vocal they were willing to be, knowing, of course, that making a political stand like that could seriously jeopardize their reputations and their careers. But I was also disappointed that there weren’t more people who withdrew. Oftentimes, I’m a little critical of some of the strategies of progressives because I don’t think we are selective enough in what battles we choose to fight, right? Not every front needs to be fought at the same time, but in this case, those filmmakers were facing a triple form of oppression: not only are they Palestinians, but they’re Palestinians who have been denied a voice historically as filmmakers and, on top of that, denied the right to even protest the suppression of that voice.

SIEMSEN: Why do you think certain messages are accepted when they’re embedded in art projects and suppressed when they’re spoken plainly on the street?

FAROUKY: I think the difference is that film, political cinema in particular, exists on the margins today. Those films are not known on the streets. And when they’re out on the street, it reflects the sentiments of ordinary people. The sentiments of artists, however, have always been considered marginal and radical and progressive and are, in a way, easier to dismiss because the art or film world itself is easy to dismiss as peripheral to “real” politics. Once you take to the streets, it’s a much bigger threat.

SIEMSEN: How would you explain cultural boycott to a person unfamiliar with the concept?

FAROUKY: I mean, there’s a practical way and there’s a sort of intellectual way. The practical way for me is that every other form of resistance that the Palestinians have tried has been more or less denied to us or criminalized. So the political process was a disaster. Despite how far the Palestinian authority was willing to acquiesce, we still saw no movement in terms of ending the occupation or the establishment of a Palestinian state. So, in a sense, for Palestinians and supporters living outside Palestine, a boycott is one of the few things left to us. It’s also a strategy that’s been inherited from other successful liberation movements. We have historical context that we can draw on and be inspired by. For the imperialist project to work, they need to deny our cultural continuity and try to establish their own, on top of which some artists and poets and cultural creators have been extremely compelling resistance fighters who, as they said about Ghassan Kanafani, never fired a shot. They use the pen as a weapon, or they use the camera as a weapon, or they use the stage as a weapon. So for us, it’s important to try and counteract that. Now, that means we have to produce our own culture, and that’s one of the reasons why I feel so invested in cultural resistance. What a lot of people don’t know, for example, is that when you receive state funding by the Israeli Film Fund, you have to sign a contract that says nothing you’ll do will undermine the integrity of the state. Some filmmakers have bravely refused to sign, but the vast majority do not. So that’s one basis on which we urge a boycott because those terms are unacceptable to us. The important thing is that the boycott be against institutions, never against individuals. In fact, there are many individuals, Israelis and internationals both, who are not subject to boycott because they do comply with the very basic demands of the boycott movement. So for us, especially as cultural workers, it’s another front in the resistance.

SIEMSEN: Online, you’ve been sharing daily doses of Gazans being joyful or refusing to be broken. Is joy a form of resistance?

FAROUKY: I have to take my lead from the people in Gaza. It’s very easy to lose all faith and motivation, and I have lately, to be honest. But when I see people in Gaza laughing and posting videos of their children playing football or listening to music, asking the world to recognize that they still have the capacity to feel that and reminding the world that they’re not dead yet, it’s necessary for us to also hear that call and to answer it and to respect it.