Hala Alsalman is an Iraqi-Canadian filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She is an Arab Film Festival alumnus with two films, PHATWA which she directed and “Al Khateeb” which she wrote, both featured in previous years. She is currently working on creating a web series called Maybe This Was a Bad Idea. This series stars a character named Zee, a female Arab-American artist with a big idea of how she can change the way the West views Arab men. Her concept? A photography portrait series featuring Middle Eastern men in the nude! The series follows Zee as she works out her vision to flip the male gaze while navigating her own identity and personal life.
Arab Film and Media Institute: Could you tell our readers a little about yourself? How did you first get into film-making?
Hala Alsalman: To make a long story short I started out my career as a video journalist in the Middle East and got really depressed so I decided to tell some of those stories through fiction and dark comedy. The first thing I did was a narrative music video in 2008 for the Iraqi Canadian rapper Narcy called PHATWA and it was about Arabs getting profiled at airports.
AFMI: What inspired you to create your new web series: Maybe This Was a Bad Idea?
HA: I was inspired by my talented photographer friend Tamara Abdul Hadi, who made a beautiful photo series titled “Picture an Arab Man” years ago. I would ask her all the time about the conversations and characters she was meeting and thought it was such a fascinating way to get to know men. As a woman, when you ask a guy to pose shirtless there’s a vulnerability there that you can’t capture otherwise. So I started writing episodes based on some of the people I know and felt it was a compelling concept to pursue. The project was shortlisted by the Sundance / YouTube Lab but didn’t make the final cut – probably because the idea couldn’t be placed in any kind of stereotypical box, which is basically the whole point of this series!
AFMI: What is Zee’s concept behind her photo project in the series? Can you talk a bit about combating these negative stereotypes of Arab men?
HA: As an artist living in the US she’s very sensitive to Arab representation in the media – which has been problematic for a long time. She’s also trying to disprove what a lot of her girlfriends say about Arab men and we are definitely living in a man-bashing time in general. So this is her attempt to capture their vulnerability and humanity through intimate photography.
AFMI: I understand that Zee struggles with the label of “Arab artist” in the series. What limitations do you think these types of labels put on people/artists? Do you think the limitations are only how an artist is received or perceived by the public or do they limit the artist, personally, as well?
HA: It can go both ways because of expectations. If an Arab artist is known for tackling Middle Eastern subjects in their work, they’re most probably going to face some challenges reception-wise if they want to open up their work to broader subjects. They’re EXPECTED to say something about where they come from – as if that’s all they are – especially with the current social climate in the US. This insatiable obsession with identity politics is backfiring in my opinion, because although the idea is to encourage inclusion and fairness, by and large it’s made us forget what connects us all: being human.
I think this notion is further complicated when it comes to artists/people like me who live between the East and the West, physcially or spiritually. I’m part of a growing generation of people who live in a sort of in-between space where we’re too “ethnic” in the West and “not Arab enough” in the Middle East.
AFMI: Your work spans journalism, advertising, feature films, and more. How do you see these different fields move towards more inclusive and diverse representation? What can we do as filmmakers, and media consumers?
HA: We need to make content about us and support it because white people aren’t going to do it for us. And really why would they?
AFMI: There seems to be a lot of new web series popping up in the last few years that are by and about people who we don’t often see on the big screen such as early Broad City, 195 Lewis, Temporary and Brown Girls. Why do you think this particular medium lends itself well to these filmmakers or these types of stories?
HA: I think the main thing is that filming technology has become so accessible and anyone can create content and upload it for the world to see. Instead of waiting for a studio or network to say yes to a project, people are just doing it for themselves with whatever resources they have. However, the internet has become a testing ground for networks because web shows like Broad City, Insecure and High Maintenance all started online with small budgets and are now on HBO.
AFMI: What do you hope to accomplish with this series? What would you like viewers to take away from it?
HA: I can’t control what people will take from this. That’s the nature of art. But ultimately my intention is to tell the story of a woman who’s trying to understand herself and the opposite sex through her work. The characters are all human and flawed – they just happen to be Arab.
For details on the show and how to support its production, check out the crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo!