Q&A: The Sunni-Shia divide through the eyes of a child

Al Jazeera spoke with filmmaker Hoda Elsoudani about her new documentary, Why Can’t I Be A Sushi.

Sushi Documentary
The film follows the journey of two young girls as they learn about the sectarian conflict gripping the Islamic world [Photo courtesy of Hassan Kafi]

The documentary Why Can’t I Be A Sushi, by Hoda Elsoudani, follows the journey of two young half-Iraqi sisters who are curious about the sectarian conflict gripping the Islamic world. It follows their journey as they learn how historical decisions have increased intolerance and fomented divisions within their society.

Elsoudani, a British-Iraqi documentary filmmaker, spoke with Al Jazeera about her goals with the film, which premiered in London this month. 

Filmmaker Hoda Elsoudani says she is a 'Sushi', in the sense that she takes 'a bit of the best' from both sects [Photo courtesy of Hassan Kafi]
Filmmaker Hoda Elsoudani says she is a ‘Sushi’, in the sense that she takes ‘a bit of the best’ from both sects [Photo courtesy of Hassan Kafi]

Al Jazeera: How did you come up with this idea?

Elsoudani: I’ve been thinking about doing a film about the Sunni-Shia conflict for many years now. I myself am a “Sushi”, in the sense that I take a bit of the best from both sects, but the idea mainly came from my personal experience.

I felt that people were always trying to push you to belong to one sect or the other, and the first question was always whether you were Sunni or Shia. When you responded by saying: “I’m just a Muslim,” that wasn’t enough. That really bothered me.

Al Jazeera: How has Iraq’s sectarian conflict affected your work?

Elsoudani: Greatly. I’m sure we have all watched the news, where you hear about a suicide bomber targeting a particular sect, and you’re left with a bitter, angry feeling – but also immensely helpless. So, I decided to direct that energy into a film that will hopefully enlighten people, especially the younger generation.

People may say the film is painting a romanticised picture of Sunnis and Shia uniting, but I would say if it existed once, then it can exist again. I’m sure we can be less arrogant and more accepting of the other sect.

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Al Jazeera: As an Iraqi female director, have you faced specific challenges?

Elsoudani: In a world where the film industry is mostly dominated by men, it may be a challenge for some, but in my experience people have been very supportive and encouraging.

One challenge I personally found was the difficulty of fitting into the mainstream media and getting our voices heard as an ethnic minority. I hope to continue the journey of filmmaking so I can open doors for more female directors from different ethnic backgrounds.

Al Jazeera: With such a sensitive subject, how important was it to ensure balance in your film?

Elsoudani: Ensuring that the film was approached in a balanced way was a top priority for me. It was tricky at times, because I would often question whether I was representing each sect fairly. The last thing I wanted to do was add more fuel to the fire.

I wanted to interview as many diversely opinionated people as possible, because I wanted to keep the film realistic, rich in content and welcoming to different kinds of people.

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Al Jazeera: Some say there is an emphasis on Sunni misgivings towards Shia in the film; was this intentional?

Elsoudani: My main intention was to objectively address as many key issues as possible that one sect may have towards the other sect, and then break down the misconceptions so that some kind of bridge could be built once they realise they have so much in common.

During my research, which involved speaking to many different people in both sects, it was clear that there were more misconceptions about Shia practices in comparison with Sunni, so I wanted to address that very clearly. Shia are also now being targeted and killed, so it’s fair to put a lot of emphasis on this issue.

However, I tried to balance that out by addressing the cultural practices of some Shia, such as the minority that beat themselves during the month of Muharram, as well as the issue of “cursing”. There is a raw scene after a heated debate between the girls and a man who brings up the point that Shia “go around cursing”.

Elsoudani chose two young girls as the film's main characters to remind viewers 'of the simplicity of the religion of Islam' [Photo courtesy of Hassan Kafi]
Elsoudani chose two young girls as the film’s main characters to remind viewers ‘of the simplicity of the religion of Islam’ [Photo courtesy of Hassan Kafi]

Al Jazeera: Why did you want to use two young girls for such a complex documentary?

Elsoudani: I wanted to take people back to their routes, remind them of the simplicity of the religion of Islam. I felt that if I addressed such a complex, sensitive issue so simply, through the eyes of two innocent yet mature children, it would have a greater impact in influencing mindsets.

It connects us to the child within and makes us reflect on our actions, behaviours and thought patterns more than if it was a documentary presented by adults.

Al Jazeera: How have people reacted to the film?

Elsoudani: I premiered the film at the Tricycle Theatre in London for the very first time, and the reaction from the diversely mixed audience was phenomenal. The theatre was packed, and it seemed as though people were very enthusiastic and hungry for such a film.

I did, however, receive several abusive emails from both Sunni and Shia individuals who would not care to unite Muslims and would rather wage war than wave a peaceful flag.

Al Jazeera: What’s next for you?

Elsoudani: I love tapping into identity issues and cross-cultural issues to enliven our consciousness and promote peace. I mostly love addressing unspoken social or political subjects that we tend to shy away from. I’m currently working on a short video tackling the refugee crisis.

Source: Al Jazeera