Q&A WITH WRITER, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN DOCUMENTING FGM?
Nearly a decade ago, I went to Iraq to start a volunteer program to train citizen journalists. Through the NGO Wadi, I met Iraqi Kurds trying to expose and end FGM in their country. At that time, FGM was still widely regarded in the West as African, and the Kurdish exposé was revolutionary. Working with them, I produced short documentaries on FGM in Iraq for the BBC and Guardian.
Eventually, these Iraqi Kurds successfully petitioned their government to enact anti-FGM laws. Through their work, FGM is now largely ending there. This experience inspired me to continue investigating FGM elsewhere in the Middle East, and then later in Southeast Asia, Russia, South America and the United States which led to the creation of Cut: Exposing FGM Worldwide. I became the first person to document FGM as a native practice on all inhabitable continents.
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS OF GETTING THE FILM MADE?
When I first started almost a decade ago, I thought the project would be done within a year or two. I intended only to investigate one or two countries. In fact, earlier versions of the film did not feature non-Islamic cultures. I thought I could just train a few local citizen journalists on how to interview and have them record videos for me. Like many other people studying FGM, I didn’t think about venturing to the Americas, Russia or Australia.
But the longer I worked on investigating FGM, the more countries I found where this was a native practice. The process went on and on, as I gathered evidence in one country after another. There were just too many countries and I didn’t know enough people I could train to get the documentary footage. In the end I realised I had to just go there myself to gather the material.
WHICH COUNTRIES DO YOU FOCUS ON IN THE FILM?
In countries where I already know or trained citizen journalists such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran, and India, I had them shoot and send me videos. The other countries prominently featured that I visited myself are Australia, Colombia, England, Iraq, Malaysia, Russia, Peru, Singapore, Thailand and the United States.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE MAJOR CHALLENGES DURING PRODUCTION?
There were so many challenges that people told me not to even try to tell a comprehensive story. But I needed to get the footage because otherwise no one would believe me that FGM was found across so many different races and religions. In many places it was difficult for me to operate sound and video equipment as well as be the interviewer/producer. It was hard to get anyone to go with me to these remote locations, some of which were known for highly dangerous activities such as cocaine trafficking in rural Peru, Islamic State terrorism in Dagestan and the war in Iraq.
Likewise, in places where I didn’t speak the local language or didn’t know the area, I needed to find a local fixer or translator, which wasn’t easy. I was a stranger arriving at a remote location which posed its own challenge. Imagine this stranger asking local women to talk about their secret taboo practice involving genitals, and to do it before a camera. Needless to say, there were times I couldn’t get the interview. But I had to keep trying because I didn’t know anyone else who would do the job. Also, perhaps a Chinese looking man appearing in their midst got them to open up, because in places which get few visitors, they were equally curious about me.
WERE THERE ANY REVELATIONS WHICH REALLY SURPRISED YOU ALONG THE WAY?
When I started I never thought I would uncover FGM outside Middle Eastern and African cultures. In my own native Singapore, FGM happened to 85 of the 119 Muslim women I surveyed. It is not spoken about and is unknown to outsiders. The fact that FGM likely had an impact on my own Singaporean friends and family who were born and raised as Muslims surprised me.
But having lived in both United States and Russia, I never thought FGM was conducted by certain Christian sects in those two countries. In Russia, an apocalyptic Orthodox Christian sect with over a hundred thousand members performed FGM on some of their females until the Communists obliterated the cult after the Russian Revolution.
As for the United States, I found a surreptitiously shot video from over two decades ago of a white American women talking about how FGM happened to her. I thought I would never find her, but when I did I convinced her to appear in my documentary and be the first white American FGM survivor to openly talk about her memories of getting cut. After a 25-minute excerpt of my film was acquired by a PBS programme and aired on PBS stations across America in December of 2017, two other Christian white women approached us to say they too are FGM survivors. They were cut as children some thirty odd years ago. While The Handmaid’s Tale shows FGM as punishment in a fictional dystopian America, this actually happened in the United States.
WHAT’S THE ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE FILM?
This film aims to educate the public and open discussions about FGM. Why has FGM been for so long considered an African and Islamic phenomenon when in fact it can be found as a native practice on all inhabitable continents? There are many reasons for this. The practice is a taboo topic on every continent, often done in secret. We in the West are often blind to our own atrocities, whether it is FGM or other horrors. Our inability to confront our faults contributes to the ‘othering’ of FGM and arguably this can perpetuate the practice. People tend to care less when a horror is deemed alien, savage, or inscrutable. FGM needs further investigation locally and globally.