Thomas talks with award-winning documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan about her experience of interviewing neo-Nazis & jihadists. Rather than dismissing extremists as unreachable fanatics, Deeyah has decided to engage them directly as human beings, with respect for our common humanity. She and Thomas reflect on how to remain hopeful and empathetic amidst the social divisiveness of our time.
Deeyah Khan – Befriending the “Other”: Seeing Beyond Extremism
“I make films about very dark subjects. Every film that I’ve done is very dark. But the reason I make it is not for the darkness. I’m always looking for the light. I’m always looking for where is that crack? Because I know it’s there.”
- Deeyah Khan
Deeyah Khan is a two-time Emmy Award-winning and twice BAFTA-nominated documentary film director. She is considered one of Norway’s most successful filmmakers having won 25 major awards and received an additional 12 nominations for her work as a filmmaker. Deeyah has made four documentaries to date, all have been shown on ITV in the UK as part of its Exposure series.
In 2016, she became the first UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for artistic freedom and creativity. She is also the recipient of a prestigious Peabody Award, a Royal Television Society Award for Best Documentary film director, a Women in Film and TV Award and the Special Jury Prize at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. Her films have also been nominated for a Grierson Award, two Creative Diversity Network Awards and two BAFTA awards.
In 2018 she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Emerson College in Boston for her achievements as a filmmaker, and she won the 2018 Rory Peck Award for freelance film-makers. Fortune named Deeyah as one of their most powerful women in 2016 and she has twice been included in London’s most influential list compiled by the Evening Standard.
Learn more at deeyah.com
Notes & Resources
In this episode, Thomas and Deeyah discuss:
- Deeyah’s films in which she interviews various extremists and tries to unpack their histories
- Maintaining hope and creative expression amidst adversity and intense realities
- The importance of hearing difficult stories
- How underlying respect for humanity can help us understand the people on its fringes.
Thomas Hübl: Hello, and welcome. This is the Collective Trauma Summit 2020. My name is Thomas Hübl, I’m the initiator and the organizer of this summit, and I am very happy and very curious to be sitting here with Deeyah Khan. Welcome, Deeyah, to our summit.
Deeyah Khan: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you for having me here. What a pleasure to be here.
Thomas: I’m so happy too. Also, in my preparation up to this conversation—and I got to know parts of your work, of course, only—but there, first of all, I think a dear friend of ours, Scilla, introduced us last year. And she said to me, “Thomas, you need to interview Deeyah. She’s amazing.”
And then I went and I looked at your work and I said, “She’s amazing. She’s right.” So, here we are a year later because I know you’re very busy. And what I’ve found out, by listening and deeply immersing myself into your work, is that there are some parallels or some passions, I would say, that we share. And I think one big passion we share is how to transcend polarization and come into a deeper shared level of humanity to take care of the urgent issues together versus apart from each other. I really love this.
And I hear, also, when you speak about many things, that … how you create an embrace. And I’m very curious about that embrace, and maybe what’s always interesting, I think, there’s a purpose in life and there’s a journey how that purpose found us. I’m curious how your purpose found you. What called you? Did you know this as a 3-year-old girl? Did it kind of hit you when you were 20, out of the blue? Or, what was your path to get to the passion that you share with all of us today?
Deeyah: That’s a very good question. You know, as a child, I was … coming from an immigrant family, being dark-skinned, being born in Oslo, Norway, always feeling like someone who’s on the outside and the inside, somebody who speaks multiple languages, who’s able to sort of reside in multiple cultures, multiple stories, multiple perspectives. As a really young child, I used to think that I was sort of a bit of a superhero because I felt like I could understand more people than could understand each other.
Like, I felt I could sit with my old grandfather from a village in Pakistan and completely relate to him, completely understand, and at the very least relate to his feelings, even if I didn’t relate to all his experiences. And similarly, I could sit with a pop music loving teenager who was into American pop culture and Norwegian skiing and whatever, and feel myself completely understanding of that way of looking at life and that way of feeling.
So, I used to think that, wow, I’m a bit of a bridge, because I understand all of them, even if they don’t always understand each other. And I felt I could be helpful in explaining to each other, maybe almost like a translator, maybe where the other person’s coming from. Why might somebody who’s an immigrant feel like this, or speak like this, or live a life like this, and the other way around.
But, as I got a bit older, I very quickly was sort of reminded by everybody in the wider society that this way of being and having all these different hats, in a way, was a negative thing. That it’s what actually made me different. It was a bad thing. It wasn’t a good thing. You’re different. All these hats, or identities or whatever, became the source and the reason for why actually I’m on the outside rather than somebody who is on the inside of all of it. So, in terms of my purpose, I would say that’s always been my feeling. But then, I very much found myself rejected and discriminated against and even harassed and threatened because I’m a woman. And similarly, from white people in Norway—or some white people in Norway—from skinheads, and neo-Nazis and racists, I was made to feel that I don’t belong and that I don’t have a place to contribute in any of this because of my skin color.
So, it was sort of this double thing. Both gender and race was a barrier rather than a kind of a strength. I studied music for a very long time. It was my father’s dream, because of his experiences of discrimination in Norway. He thought that music or sports were the only two professions where he believed you will not be judged on your gender, or your race, or your culture or anything like that. You’ll just be judged on your ability, and your ability to also work.
So, his mantra to me was, “You have to outwork everybody else, and you might not get in the door as quickly as everybody else, but once you’re through, you’ll be fine.” I love music still, and I loved music then, but music was never really my kind of thing. I didn’t like being on display on a stage. I didn’t want to perform. I didn’t want to sit in front of a lot of people, but I like the creating of the music. Anyway, many, many years of all kinds of ups and downs with that, and then a lot of backlash from his own community, the Muslim community in Norway who threatened me, harassed me, threatened and harassed my family. And it was the reason I ended up going to London, actually, as a 17-year-old.
But, the purpose part comes in very late, to be quite honest with you. I found myself very sort of broken. I remember I started getting threats in the UK as well when I tried to resume my career there, eventually. And then I packed my bags again and I went to Atlanta, to some friends I have there. And I remember sitting there just in a flat, just staring at a wall, just because I didn’t want to do music anymore because I finally reached a point in my life where I realized I’m tired. I’m tired of fulfilling everybody else’s expectations of who they think I should be and what they think I should do.
But I felt so lost, and I felt so broken. I mean, I’d given up my childhood for music. I would practice when children would play. I was working and touring when my friends were exploring life and getting to experience other things. And so I’d given everything to this one thing and also to try to make my father feel like even though his dreams failed, maybe he got to live … Because, he used to say it, he said, “When I had my children, I feel like I got a second chance at life.” So I was trying to also satisfy that. And I just got to a point where I realized, you know, I’m getting death threats for something that I don’t even love doing. It’s not even mine, it’s his.
Anyway, so I’m sitting in this flat in Atlanta and I just thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” But I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I’m good at. I never got to do the, “I think I’m going to be a postman or I think I’m going to be a policewoman.” I never got to do that, because it was decided for me what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. In the “not knowing”, the only thing that I could sort of hold on to was, throughout my career as a musician, I’d always been contacted by young people who were struggling and who were going through very painful experiences. I guess, maybe it’s easier for them to reach out to somebody like me who doesn’t know them, who’s not a part of their life, and they can share everything.
And maybe they feel like, because of my experiences, maybe I wouldn’t judge them. Maybe they felt like maybe I would understand them somehow. So what I thought sitting in that room was, “Maybe what I can do is try and be useful to somebody else. I don’t know what to do for myself, but I’ll try to see if I can be there for other people.” So, I volunteered, started volunteering for a lot of different organizations. Working with women, working with women suffering violence, working with young people; and did that for a while. And then was still sort of feeling frustrated because I felt like I wasn’t really doing … I wasn’t putting myself to real use. I wasn’t using every part of me.
And also hearing these really painful stories over, and over, and over again, I also sort of felt like the world should get to hear some of this. We need to share this so that we can understand, people can understand it, so that we can do something about it beyond me just listening to somebody in just a private, intimate capacity.
And then I, basically, it was very sort of a random thought, but it was literally, I just thought, “I have to make a documentary film about what this does to people, what this brokenness does to people.” What falling between cultures and being let down both by the society that you’re born into and then the families that you’re born into, sort of not being, not belonging to either one, what that does to somebody, and sometimes the deadly consequences of that. And I thought, “Okay, I have to make a documentary film.” And I remember just thinking, “Well, I’ve never done it before, but I’ll somehow figure it out.” And I went to one of my music colleagues because I’ve never done a film. It was never a passion or anything like that. And I remember going to him, going, “Look, I want to tell this story.” Found this story of this one young woman. I’m absolutely obsessed with her story. Wanted to tell it. And I said, “Look, it can’t be that hard. Right? It’s not that hard. Filmmaking.” I mean really kind of really flippant about the whole thing. And he, of course, sort of shrugs, also going, “Yeah. Yeah. We could figure that out. Yeah.” And we would download manuals and sit and read all this stuff and just practice lighting on a dog.
It took me four years to make my very first film. And my only obsession with this story, this was a young girl who was born in Iraq to a Kurdish family. Her family fled Saddam’s violence, and they settled in London. She was forced into a marriage at the age of 17—very, very violent marriage— which she tried to leave, but the family tried to keep pushing her back into it. And once she eventually left it and was in the process of rebuilding her life, and in that process, she also found love, somebody that she chose, her community in London basically found out and they made a decision that, “we have to get rid of her.”
And months later, she was killed and she was strangled and raped and stuffed naked into a suitcase and buried six feet under in Birmingham. And the added tragedy of her story was that while she was alive, she’d gone to the police in London five times asking for help. She did everything that you want somebody to do. And a lot of people ask me, “Did you tell her story because it’s particularly brutal?” And these types of killings are called so called “honor killings” because they are committed in the purpose of trying to restore the reputation and the honor of a family within the community. It’s such a terrible description of what …
Anyway, and I was like, “No, actually it’s not because it’s a brutal story. They’re all really brutal.” The reason I chose her story in particular is when I was researching the film, the police, there was a policewoman that took the case when she’d been killed. And she went to the ends of the Earth to bring justice for this girl. She extradited the killers who’d escaped and gone back to Iraq. She plucked them back, which had never happened in British legal history before, and gotten everybody that was involved and put them behind bars.
And when I was researching the film and I met with this policewoman— Caroline Goode is her name—I remember sitting with her, and she gave me this really kind of police kind of very professional, very stiff police interview. And I turn off the camera and I said, “Look, why did you fight so hard for this girl? You could have taken your medal once you got the first guy or a couple of guys, and you could have gone home and case closed. Done. It’s not as if you have a family pushing you to bring justice for this girl. You were done.”
And she murmurs, she said, “Because I love her.” And it still gives me goosebumps. And I remember just leaning in and I go, “What do you mean you love her?” I said, “How can you love someone you’ve never met?” And she just looks up at me and she said, “Everybody should be loved.” And she said, “And this girl should have been loved—Banaz. She should have been loved. And the people that should have loved her didn’t. So, I do. And, I still do.”
And that is the moment I realized this is the story that I want to tell. I don’t want to just tell the horror story. I want to tell the love story. Because to me, Banaz’s story embodies within it both the problem and the solution. And the solution is that we didn’t care about her while she was alive, and this is what happened to her. And Caroline Goode did care about somebody who she’s never met, has no reason to care about or love at all. And, she did. And what she was able to do for her—although it was too late—but what she was able to do for this girl is incredible.
So, the film was made over the course of four years. Every single person that contributed to the film—because I couldn’t afford it—every single person that contributed to it did it out of love as well, did it because they believed in the story and wanted to do right by her. And so, it happened like that. My whole point of making the film was I was going to give it away for free to women’s organizations and anybody else who just wanted it. They can use it for awareness raising, or trainings or whatever.
And that was that. I never thought, “I’m going to make more films, want to be a filmmaker.” Just, what happened in that living room and what happened in the process of making the Banaz film was that that thing came back from me being a little girl, which is, I really want people to understand. Because if we continue to misunderstand each other, the consequences are deadly. It’s not just that they’re inconvenient. They’re actually deadly, and we can’t afford to keep losing our children, our fellow human beings. We can’t continue to hemorrhage life in this way. We can’t afford to do that. We can’t afford to keep losing the Banazes of the world.
None of this was new to me, but when I was younger, I was too afraid to speak about things like this because I was afraid that if I spoke out about it, maybe divisions would deepen and maybe racists would, for example, use stories like this and say, “See, this is why we don’t want these people here. See, this is why we hate immigrants,” for example. And, I realized around those years that my silence contributes to this continuing, and my silence … the price of my silence is far bigger and far worse than my fear. And then my fear of what will racists say? I’ll deal with that too. We don’t have to just tackle one thing. We’re able to address multiple ills within our world that are, as you say, actually connected. It’s a very long answer to your short question, but it’s because
Thomas: No, it’s amazing.
Deeyah: But it’s because I haven’t thought about this a lot myself, but that was the point. And that was in my early 30s. I mean, this is just about … a little under 10 years ago.
Deeyah: Yeah. So, it was late. It was very late. I took too many detours, but I guess I needed to.
Thomas: Yeah, or not. We don’t know. We will find out throughout the course of your life if they were really detours or not.
Thomas: But what we can say, what I hear also, is the arc of your own development. And then you meeting different moments in your life. Like, for example, it seems to me, in a way, the life of that woman called you somehow. Because you said, “I was obsessed with this one story. I wanted to tell this one story.” And obviously the police officer had a similar experience. So, there was something, whatever
Deeyah: You know, it sounds strange, but just listening to you talk, it’s … in some strange way, she saved my life. She came to me at a point in my life where—I have no other word to describe it—but I was so broken and I was so lost. And so, she gave me a purpose. She gave me meaning, and she gave me the beginnings of finding my feet in at least trying to contribute towards being somewhat useful and trying to put also my years and years of training as a creative person, to try and put that towards something.
Because I’m not a journalist, I’m not an academic person, there’re so many things I’m just not capable of doing. And that’s what I was thinking as well, is, “What do I do? Do I do like an opera about this? What do I do?” And I remember just thinking, “No, it has to be a documentary film, because that’s where I will get the elbow room to really do it.” And also, it would be forgiving about the fact that I’m not that … I haven’t done it before. I’ve never touched a camera before. So, yeah, she, in a way, has saved my life.
Thomas: That’s amazing.
Thomas: And I was going to say exactly what you said now. Like something happened in this moment that brought all of you together. There was an alchemy. And, we tend to look at life sometime through these polarized lenses. As I said to you before, like with the reason why we do this summit is because I believe we are living within a trauma matrix that is already thousands of years old that informs our ancestors and every generation. And some of the things have become normal, when in fact they are not normal. They’re hurt.
And one effect of that hurt is this kind of othering, polarization, separation. And we judge one part from a partial perspective of the other part instead of being one web of life, one tissue, one body. And, so what you told us right now, I think the long answer was great because you showed us … it’s easy to say, “Oh, something happened and you made a film about it,” but actually they belong together. They are inseparable.
The event, the lady’s life, the police officer, your … They belong to one fabric of life. And, I want to ask you, given all the experience that you had so far, and I know the beautiful … what I really like about your work, that you’re courageous because I think you’re jumping into things and you’re doing stuff. I think courage also in the spiritual development, in our development as human beings, I think courage is an important factor, that we are going into things and we are exploring life by living it, not by just talking about
it. And, you went into situations that other people will call difficult, messy, complicated. And why do you, why should I deal with this? I want to have a good life.
But obviously, on the planet, it turns out you’re not just having a good life anyway. So, we need to deal with the stuff that’s coming up. And I want to ask you, all the different steps that you made so far, what did you learn? What’s the essence of how to meet polarization without … Because, we can polarize again. And so, we shouldn’t be polarized, but we are. So, how do we deal with othering, polarization, and this fragmentation as human beings when we are all part of it somehow?
Deeyah: For me, part of it was a conscious—in terms of the moving away from fear—part of it was a conscious sort of decision around that point in my life, where looking back at my life, I realized that I’d been nothing but afraid. And I hadn’t dared to just be myself, and dared to be whatever that means, and to be the person that stumbles, and makes mistakes, and doesn’t know what to do. And all of that. I hadn’t allowed myself to do all of that. And I just realized that that had brought me nothing but sadness, and heartbreak, and this sense of loss. And so, it was a conscious decision on that side to decide that I choose no longer to be afraid. It doesn’t mean I’m not nervous and worry sometimes, but I’m no longer going to let fear decide what I will and will not do, how I will or will not live, what I will ask, what I will not ask. I didn’t want to pretend anymore. I didn’t want to perform the roles that everybody expects. I wanted to just be me, and just be me for me. And, that’s it.
And in terms of the polarization side of it, I think having lived most of my life being the other and being othered for different reasons, I know what that feels like. And I’ve done everything. I’ve done the shouting and screaming at the … when I was 13, 14 years old, I would sometimes skip school and I would go to these anti-fascist protests in the center of Oslo. And, you know, I would throw things at these guys. I would shout at them. I would flip them off. I would be just as aggressive back at them. It felt very good at the time. It felt very good. It felt very satisfying to be so self-righteous and to be correct, and for them to be wrong and all of that.
So, I’ve done all of that, but it doesn’t do anything. It never accomplished anything. I still remained afraid of them and angry at them, and they still remained angry and afraid of me. So what’s the point of repeating that over, and over, and over, and over again. And so when I got to the point where I realized I’m not going to be afraid anymore, and I’m not going to let anybody dictate to me how I am going to meet life. And so that’s the point where I realized I—and also in the subsequent films as well—I have been carrying some of these fears with me about some of these men, whether they’re jihadis or they’re neo-Nazis, and they’ve dehumanized me.
That’s a very obvious part of the picture. We can see that. But, I’ve done the same to them, too, and it’s accomplished nothing. So, why not for once try—just as an experiment—try to sit with them as human beings face-to face and see, is it possible for them to recognize my humanity? And is it possible for me to do the same? And the purpose of doing that is not just to recognize his humanity. It’s actually to hold onto my own, because in that process of dehumanizing him and of othering him, I’m actually losing my own humanity in that process.
And I’m not willing to do that. I’m not willing to do that trade anymore. It’s been a learning experience, obviously, but a lot of it from that kind of break in my life has become a very conscious decision. And the driving force has been: I have a desperate sense of curiosity. Like a sickly sense of … I’m so curious about people and why people do the things that they do, why we do the things that we do to each other. What makes us capable of inflicting on each other some of the things that we do, but also what makes us capable of some of the most extraordinary things that we’re able to do in the darkest and darkest of times.
So, I’m driven by that. I want to learn, I want to try and understand. When I sat with the Nazis, it was not with the intention of, “let me see if I can change them, let me see if they can change.” None of that was at the forefront. Actually, it wasn’t even a possibility. It was just: I’m curious, and I want to hear about who he is. I don’t need to know what a Nazi thinks. I don’t need to know his politics. I already know that. That’s the boring part. I want to know who’s the human being, what’s the beating heart behind it. And what else is there? And if I’m unwilling to go to that part of him, then I’m doing to him what he does to me.
Thomas: Exactly, exactly. I want to underline this. You said something that I think is very powerful, that by dehumanizing somebody else, we are losing our own humanity. And I think it’s a very powerful statement. And it also
means that we start joining the function of trauma, and that makes the other, like, 2D. In my work, I look at the 2D function. Then you are an image, like a poster in my mind. So, the Nazi is a 2D version of somebody, but it means I lost my feeling of you. I lost a three-dimensional embodied expression of who you are and I don’t feel you anymore. So then I can think about you whatever I want, but it’s not anymore connected to who you are. It’s connected to my own past, to my own assumptions, to my own conditioning, to my own ancestry.
What I hear you did is you … and I think it’s very important what you said. You didn’t go there just to change them. You went there to listen. And that listening opens up that the Nazi is not just somebody. The Nazi can have a political agenda that you disagree with, but can be a loving father that you totally agree with. That that fathering is actually very healthy and the other part is something that you cannot support. But that makes it complex.
Thomas: Let’s talk a little bit about the complexity of not dehumanizing, but discerning. That’s very different. It’s much harder to be a discerning human being than to say, “This is good and this is bad.” And, maybe you can speak a little bit to, also, what was your experience? Because, I think, we are talking a lot about concepts in our world today, but what’s actually the experience that we are having? The embodied experience when we are sitting with each other. So, I’m very curious what was your experience sitting there and listening and having these conversations? Because, in the experience, I believe, there is the transformation. Maybe, you can speak a bit to the experience you had doing this film.
Deeyah: As I say, I was driven by the curiosity, but I didn’t quite expect or even think about what does happen once one sits in close proximity with each other. We can see each other’s face and you can see each other’s expressions. So, I did a film about white supremacists in America. And, I did it because I was on the receiving end of endless death threats from violent neo-Nazis and racists in the U.S. after doing an interview with the BBC defending our multicultural society and saying that we have to live together.
So I decided, “Okay, will any of them speak with me?” And so the vast majority declined and refused to speak with me. This one guy finally wrote back and he actually said no, but I thought, “Okay, he wrote back, so at least that’s something. That’s a beginning.” He’s the leader of the largest and oldest neo-Nazi organization in America. He’s been the leader for that for several decades now. And then anyway, after a lot of pushing and pushing and pushing, he finally said, “Okay, yes, you can come. You come to this and this motel room and you have one hour and then you disappear and I don’t want to talk to you anymore.” And I said, “Oh, great. This is excellent.”
And so I’m in Detroit in this strange motel. It’s just myself and one colleague. The same music guy from before, actually. Just us, going, “Okay, so we’re going to do this interview,” setting everything up. I’m waiting for him, and of course, then, everything starts rushing through my head. “What if he has a gun?” Because I’m in America, and of course you never know. “What if he has a gun? What if he brings people with him? What if they rob us? What if they beat us?” Suddenly, I’m really nervous now, going, “Oh, what have I done?”
And he walks through the door. He comes alone. He did exactly what he said. He comes and he sits down, and we start talking. And one hour goes by, second hour, third hour, fourth. Lighting is disappearing. Five hours later, we talked for five hours, and at the end of that, he said, “You know, actually, we’re going to this other rally. We’re doing this and this over the next few weeks. You’re welcome to come to that.”
I remember asking him, going, “Why did you go from, ‘I barely want to talk to you,’ to now I can join you and I can film you more?” And he said, “I’ve never had a conversation like this before.” And he said, “I’ve never had somebody actually listen.” And he said, “What I’m used to is it just becoming a shouting match. You say your talking points and your kind of anti-racist stand. You stay in that box. And then I stay in the box of I get to say all my Nazi stuff. And then we both win. We both get what we want for our audience or for whoever it is that we’re actually speaking to. But,” he said, “But we actually spoke to each other.” And he said, “So, I would like to continue talking more.”
And what you said a little bit earlier is actually exactly spot on. We were both very clear. Neither one of us budged on, “I disagree with you. I obviously don’t subscribe to your worldview.” And he was very clear about mine as well. He said. “I have and I will, for the rest of my life, work actively against the kind of world that you want to live in.” But, once we started talking about our lives and I would talk to him about what it was like for me as a 6-year-old to go to an anti-racist protest with my father, what it was like for me as a child to see our family and friends’ homes and businesses be vandalized by racists, and for me to be spat in the face at the age of 12 by a white guy telling me to go back where I came from. All of this stuff. And my brother’s friend who was stabbed to death. All of these things, I would just share with him and share with him.
I would ask him about his life as well. There we didn’t disagree, but what I could see when I would share with him my experiences—because I love people’s faces very much; it’s why my films are usually mostly just about people’s faces, which a lot of people think is boring. But, I love what happens to people’s faces when they’re thinking and speaking. But, he looked uncomfortable, and he looked uncomfortable almost like somebody who kind of cares about you, and feels a bit protective of you and doesn’t like that you were treated like that as a 6-year-old or that somebody spat in your face.
And a couple of times I even pushed him a little bit, because I read him some of the threats and I used some of the languages that they used about me, and he’s squirming and getting very uncomf … And then he even said, he said, “Stop saying that. Why do you keep saying that?” And I’m looking at him going, “This is all language you use. None of this is new. This is all language you use or your fellow travelers use. Why is it so uncomfortable?”
And he just said, “Well, just stop saying that.” And so I’m starting to see that other thing in him. It’s difficult. You can see it real-time in his face. It’s starting. It doesn’t compute. He’s holding onto his ideology, and then he’s sitting with this person who he’s enjoying having this conversation with, and even connecting to some of my experiences, and I’m connecting to his experiences. Then we drag in his Nazi stuff, and he’s just going, “Oh, it’s not comfortable.” And so, I liked him. I actually liked him after those five hours.
I of course disagree, and I said it to his face many, many times. I liked him. And in fact, over the course of the filming, I started making sort of fun of him and myself a little bit, saying, “I’ve become like this annoying sister. I keep poking and prodding you and making you talk about things, and making you really think about certain things.” We would talk about things like trying to make him feel or empathize with the experiences of the other. And he would often say, “No, but we don’t promote hate. We’re not here for hate. We’re just trying to protect this.” And I said, “Look, I understand, you’re trying to hold on. You perceive it.” Because everybody’s a hero in their own mind. Nobody’s the villain in their own story. Right? So, he’s not being a Nazi because he thinks he’s the bad guy. It sounds so counterintuitive, but he’s doing everything he’s doing thinking he’s doing the right thing. And I even asked him that. I said, “What if you’re wrong?” And he’s like, “Well, I’ve never thought about if what I’m doing is wrong. I’m working out of, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’” His reference point is just something else.
And so we had all these very long conversations and then there was one really uncomfortable …I mean, there was lots of violence and all kinds of other very bad things that happened. And he was very protective. He actually, because I ended up filming, embedding with him and his group at the Charlottesville march in America, where a young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed. And he actually protected me. He actually made sure that something didn’t happen and was constantly a bit concerned. The morning after that, I remember, with one of his guys, I had a very kind of a bad run-in with him. It was a very, very difficult conversation.
And I remember looking at Jeff—this is the leader of the Nazi group—looking at him going, “I know you’re not like this. What are you doing? Why are you doing this? You’re not like this. You’re not a part of this. You can’t do this. You know, I know you’re a good guy. I really know that you’re a good guy. This is not for you.” And he just stood there. He never said anything. And then, I got a phone call. And I’ve stayed in touch with him. The last day of filming, I walked up to him at the very end. He was getting into his car, and I said, “Look, is it okay for me to give you a hug?” I said, “I’ve spent so much time with you now. Can I just give you a hug and thank you for being really patient and thank you for putting up with me and all of that?”
And he gave me a hug and he said, “You know, yes, you do have a brother now.” And I thought, “Oh, okay. That’s an interesting thing for a Nazi to say, okay.” And then, about two and a half … well, actually, last year he gave me a call and said that he’s thinking of publicly coming out that he’s left. He said he’s resigning. He’s stepping down. And the same thing happened with two other racists that I met with.
And so the intention was never … And they called me a friend even in the process of making the film. And one of them resigned in the process of making the film. And the reason he resigned is he couldn’t stomach seeing me treated aggressively and violently because by this point he’d started considering me a friend. So, these are Nazis. These are the monsters under our beds. And I’m not saying they’re all like this and everybody we can reform or anything like that. But to me, this shows that that capacity exists. And so, if that capacity exists, surely we cannot afford to give up on that.
Thomas: That’s right. And often at this point somebody might jump into the conversation, saying, “Yes, but.”
Deeyah: But. Yeah.
Thomas: And if we don’t do it, and if we give the space to what you said right now, we can just allow the depth and the beauty of what happened without perpetuating the tendency of the past to disrupt it but to give it space to grow. And I think that’s very important. Because there is no argument. Even when somebody came now and said, “Yeah, but listen, you know, these are three people and they are thousands.” But, why do we want to do that? Why we cannot just stay and say, “Amazing!” And let’s explore the principle of what happens when we connect. What was disconnected and got connected?
The pre-assumption in life is that we are separate. And in order to not be separate, we need to connect. So, the way we talk about relation is already based on the pre-assumption that we are separate. That’s why I ask you that I’m very interested in your experience, because in your experience, you are describing a sense of intimacy, a sense of synchronization, of coherence, of looking through the mutual … everybody through his or her past, in order to see the mutual space that you inhabit in that moment in the conversation.
Because, there’s a lot of past standing between you and him. But in the moment you allow this connection, certain things are not possible anymore. And I want to highlight, because it sounds like, okay, it’s just an example, but for me, it’s an important example to show what every one of us can do in our lives. We are not expecting from you to deal with all the neo-Nazis in the world. It’s not your job. But, you’re publicly showing something, that something works, and that every one of us has an option to do something similar where it’s uncomfortable in our lives, and we can do something to jump into the unknown. Because that’s what I heard you say. The recipe is you jumped into the unknown, you exposed yourself to discomfort and you transcended something because of that.
Thomas: And I think it’s amazing. So, that’s why the kind of regular criticism, I see this as a perpetuation of the past. When something new arises, instead of stopping and saying, “Wow, amazing. Let’s nourish this plant.” You understand what I’m saying?
Thomas: It’s something to be nourished and to grow, to be grown.
Deeyah: I agree with you. This is where the collective trauma and our collective sort of stuckness comes in every single time. It’s like a reflex, and it just prevents us from … I’m constantly … So, I make films about very, very dark subjects. Every film that I’ve done is very dark. But the reason I make it is not for the darkness. I’m always looking for the light. I’m always looking where is that crack? Because I know it’s there.
And even if it’s not there, it will appear if I spend enough time there. Because then, I’ll finally, they’ll finally allow me to see it. So, I’m always looking for that crack of possibility, of something better, something else, something deeper, somewhere where we do connect. Even if on the surface, there’s all these barriers and all these walls between us, there will always be that something there.
People do always say to me, “Oh, you know, but this is just three Nazis,” and, “Oh, I’m not going to go out and talk to Nazis.” And that’s actually not the point. The point is not that people should have to go talk to Nazis. The point is what people are capable of, what we all have in us, and what we’re all kind of able to invite out of each other, and what we are all waiting for somebody to come and listen. Nobody has ever listened to these guys. Nobody.
And what I did find is that the reason many of these guys end up—and this is true not just for the Nazis, I’ve done exactly the same type of filming and time, several years I’ve spent with jihadis as well. Without fail, one of the common experiences that both these types of men have is, at their most broken in life, one of these guys or one of these groups came, took the time to understand.
When people say, “Oh, it’s just one guy.” And what I tried to explain to them is they also become Nazis one guy at a time. It is one recruiter, or one person online or whatever, that sits there and grooms them, and takes the time and makes the effort—it’s that word, again—cares about them. Or at least shows, makes the actions of, “I care about you,” even if they don’t, even if they want to just exploit their pain and their brokenness for their own political gain.
But the way they recruit these guys so systematically is so profound and is so disturbing that they have figured out the method of how to reach somebody’s heart and how to build loyalty, how to build trust, how to build connection, and how to build it to a point where people are willing to die for you. And here we are sitting on our end, going, “But they’re just scumbags. They’re just this. Ugh, they’re a lost cause. Let’s just move …”
They’re being put to use. And they are recruited and invited in with caring, and with love and with acceptance. I accept you, for all your frustrations, for all your anger, for all your whatever. And then of course it continues on to, “And here is the reason. Here is the target for all of those feelings. This is whose fault it is. It’s not your own, but this is whose fault it is.”
But every single thing that lures them and prepares them emotionally to become that Nazi or to become that jihadi are all very, very simple basic human needs that you and I have, everybody has. And, we all get those satisfied one way or another. And this is the way that they do it.
And they would say, “Look, we’ve experienced racism. I experienced this in my family. I experienced this. I experienced that. And the anger, and it just built and it built, and something … And I see the injustices happening in this part of the world and that part of the world.” And I remember sitting there with them, going, “Oh my goodness, I agree. And I agree with this. And I agree with this thing that he’s saying, and I agree with this, too.” And it just drove me crazy, thinking what is it that made me pick up a camera and him pick up a gun? What’s the difference, if our experiences have been pretty much the same? In fact, I can add to some of their experiences and go, “Well, I’ve had the additional kind of handicap of being a woman, too, so I’ve had all of that on top of whatever you’ve experienced.”
So, what is it? What’s the difference? I’m not strapping a bomb to myself. What’s the difference? And the only answer I kept returning to and kept finding was when I was at my most broken and I was at my most lost, when I really needed somebody, people who care about me, people who love me, people who wished the best for me are the people that showed up. For him, when he was at his most lost and his most broken, a recruiter from a jihadi group turned up, or a Nazi turned up outside of his school when he was being bullied and offered him protection.
That, to me, says something not about him, that to me says something about us, says something about us and our failure as a society and our failure as his community. These are all members of our communities. These are all members of our extended families, and we are part of letting them down. We are part of pushing them away. We are part of making them so desperate and lost that they become so easy to recruit by these people.
I remember with ISIS, when ISIS was really, really being so effective with their recruitment, they had recruiters on Twitter and online and everywhere that were spending hundreds of hours, hundreds of hours on one young person talking about their problems, talking about what they’re going through in life, talking about … and being there for this person, building this intense connection and bond and trust and loyalty. And what do we do? Nothing. We don’t care about that kid until he’s on the news and has blown up something. Before that, he’s invisible, but we give him what he wants once he does something awful. We reward—as a society—we reward his horrible, horrible, violent behavior. But we never see him when he feels small, and he feels insignificant, and he feels alone. We’re not there. We don’t see him and we don’t care.
None of this is to defend, obviously, their actions. I’ve been on the receiving end of people like this my whole life and I’ve despised them my whole life. The point of saying all of this is, all of this we can solve, but we have to want to, and we have to commit to each other and we have to want to make this work. We have to be able to see each other as part—you said it too—as part of each other. And if we’re going to continue dehumanizing people just because they dehumanize us, then the cycle continues. Then, how is
anybody any different then, you know?
Deeyah: So we can do something about this. Being terrified of these types of guys my whole life, that’s the one … At the beginning of making these films, I was very pessimistic about these types of people, but I’ve left them so hopeful and realizing, oh my goodness, it’s there. The capacity for that is there. And their recruiters see it. They see their capacity. They see what they have to offer. We don’t.
Thomas: Yeah, this is very powerful. I want to underline another thing that I hear. I heard so many principles in what you speak, and I’m coming back to the principles because I think that’s very powerful because it’s something that every one of us can walk with, can contemplate on, and can maybe also translate into our lives. And one principle, you said, “My films are always dark. There’s a darkness. And in the darkness, there is a light,” which is a principle of transformation, that if you really want to transform something, it’s not going to be just an easy ride most of the time. But often, it includes that we have to integrate part of our past and take it into a new future. Not leave it there and try to get away from it, because that creates exactly the parts that we don’t want to see.
And then, I heard you say it needs courage. It needs the willingness to feel discomfort, and it needs us to examine what we cannot see, what we don’t want to see, where we want to look away from. Why do I want to look away from that person? That if I’m present enough to be able to examine this; not to judge it, “Oh, I should be looking at the person.” No. We’re just asking, let’s just examine the act of looking away or not wanting to see that person, or putting a label on them so that it’s quiet. I think you speak to many of those principles that every one of us can practice in our lives, because this is something that everybody can do. It’s difficult and it’s simple at the same time. It’s simple as a principle and it’s difficult in practice.
Then, maybe to hear you speak a little bit to the part … Because, I think, these are seemingly small things, but I believe they are really big things. Because you spoke to belonging, how to cultivate belonging. And I know you’re a mother, and for us to be there for our children, to create the healthy belonging is one of the most important things we can do for a better world. So, I think maybe you can speak also a little bit to you as a mother and as somebody that is very active in the social field.
So, that’s one question I have, still. And the other one is: what can give us the power to examine that which seems dark? Because, usually it’s the past, it’s the undigested past that we are not seeing through that creates some kind of darkness. What gives you power to be in those areas long enough to illuminate them? Because we all, it doesn’t matter if it’s political polarization in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, or racism, antisemitism, there are enough things, or climate change and climate refugees, there’re enough trauma, potential trauma fields. And what gives us the strength? How do you resource yourself to stay in those places long enough for something to emerge?
Deeyah: I don’t want to sound too sugary or whatever, but really the truth of that is, it’s love. I know that if I’m met with harshness, and this comes back to the becoming a mother, sort of, is reconfirming to me all these things that I feel, and think and try to live from. If I’m met with harshness and I react back in harshness, it just kind of gives more power to harshness and doesn’t interrupt it. And similarly, when people talk about hate or violence, if you meet those stands, in a way, with the same, it just actually gets bigger. It gets stronger.
And so to me, I’ve never felt that that moves us forward. My interest is to move ahead. How do we get through this? Not get stuck there or go somewhere else. How do we actually get through it? And the only thing I’ve found in my own life or in work as well is, you get through it because you have to come from a place of love. Your tools, your instruments … it has to include love. And from love, it is listening. It is … I never treated these men—no matter how awfully they spoke to me—I never spoke to them in a way that diminished their dignity. I never spoke to them in a way where they felt humiliated, ever. That was very important for me, because I know what humiliation can do to people, and especially to young men. So, I never touched them there.
Dignity, and I think also empathy. And I think the empathy part of it, and even the listening part of it, I feel, goes back to my music training. So, the music training that I received for many, many years as a child was North Indian classical music. And so that discipline is based around your ear. It’s based on listening. It’s not based on reading music, but listening, and then … And so, I realized that I have that patience, and patience and listening is very, very important, to the point where I could tell, with the police officer—not even by looking, but just by listening to her voice—when I can push more, when it’s okay for her to push more, to talk more, and when I have to pull back and understand that she’s had enough.
Because you can tell from somebody’s just tone of voice or how sometimes it breaks or what happens. And all of these principles of how do we apply some of this in our own lives, it’s, again, not a matter of trying to dismantle these very, very seemingly big, dark, impossible issues, but you know, it all happens a little bit at a time. All these problems have been created a little at a time. They don’t happen overnight. And so, unpicking them, also. I mean, patience is very important. It won’t happen overnight. And, it is one act of love. One act of kindness. One act of caring about somebody and making somebody feel seen, making somebody feel like they matter, making somebody feel like you are a part of me, and I’m a part of you, and we’re in this together. And we don’t know the answers, but together we have a better shot at figuring them out.
Becoming a mother now as well, all of this, all of this is being put to the test in a different way, and in a more practical day-to-day way. If I am stern with my child or I speak to her harshly, it doesn’t accomplish anything. It really doesn’t. When she’s having a tantrum—she’s two and a half—when she’s having a complete meltdown, I have to become completely calm; completely calm, and loving, and patient and just dial down. I mean, my blood pressure has to go completely down rather than up. Because if it goes up—I’ve tried that too—that actually just escalates her even more. And that was just as true as it is for my two-and-a-half-year old—and I’m not saying Nazis are two-and-a-half-year-old emotional people, but really the same thing happened.
When I would have people shouting in my face, or spitting, or being aggressive or whatever, I never rose to that level. So, the only way to de-escalate or to facilitate the space where we do something else, there has to be patience, and somebody has to show up in a different posture. Somebody has to stand in the posture of love, in the posture of patience, in the posture of discomfort, and a willingness. Because it also, with one of the neo-Nazis, what ended up shifting his mind … And again, none of this was, “I’m going to do this so that I can change his mind.” None of it was like that, was ever an intention on my part. But one of the things that sort of shifted his heart was that I was willing to be with him. The fact that I was willing and still sit with him and not judge him. Disagree, very, very clearly. But, I think that he’s not used to people actually caring about him. They just shout back at him. They spit back and they want to punch a Nazi. And he’s not used to it, and so he also got to a point where he said, “I am not able to do this anymore.”
Deeyah: In our everyday interactions with our kids, with our family members, with our coworkers, everything we’ve talked about today applies to that. And everything, in this polarization that we’re in and this very, very divided kind of feeling that we’re in, in so many countries now. That uncle that holds those unpleasant views, rather than avoiding him and not inviting him for dinner, it’s worth maybe just slowly, slowly approaching—not with the intention, “I’m going to change your mind,” or “You need to become like me,” or anything like that—but just slowly, slowly walking through it.
Thomas: That’s right. I think what you said right now, finding—not trying to convince each other that we are still right—but finding out more about the motivation that we hold inside and that you hold inside and that I hold inside and how we create connection, I think, is very important. And then, you said something very strong, because I think many people paralyze themselves to say, “How will we ever change this world?” by thinking the world is large. And what I hear you say is, “Yes, I can hold a global vision, but I’m still making a step at a time.”
Thomas: It came to me now—while you were speaking—like references to the Tao Te Ching, and there is a lovely translation of Steven Mitchell of the Tao— Lao Tzu’s Tao—and there are a few lines that correlate beautifully with what you said. “The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath our feet,” is one. “When the master runs into a difficulty, she stops and she gives herself to it. And because she doesn’t cling to her comfort, problems are no problems for her.”
In a way, I thought this line, which I like very much … because it doesn’t say, “The master never runs into difficulty.” It says, “When the master runs into difficulty, she stops.” Why? Because, trauma always comes with scarcity. Trauma comes with not enough space, not enough time, not enough belonging, not enough love, not enough something. To stop, create space, so when we don’t know, we need to stop and listen. Listening creates space. And so, I was reminded of those lines in the Tao— which is a book that I highly appreciate, because it’s such a concentrated wisdom in 82 or something verses. And if we don’t cling to our comfort, problems are no problems for us. I think that’s also in your lines I heard strongly reflected.
So, I deeply resonate with so many things you say, because I think like Otto Scharmer talks a lot about absencing, which I think is a great word for the collective trauma symptom of numbness, and collective numbness. How there are holes in our society where we are simply absent. That absence creates a lot of side effects, and a lot of social pathologies, so to speak. On the other hand, I heard you say, yeah, but we have to become the presence to meet the absence, in order to bring something new. We cannot go to the same absence and then complain about the absence that we are in. We need a resource.
So maybe, as some thoughts that you still might have, when you look into the world of today, and I heard you say in other contexts, social media supports polarization sometimes. There are good things and there are the shadow sides expressed both ways. But, we’re seeing a lot of heightened polarization at the moment through various political systems, through various, whatever, situations in the world. How do you look at this through the lens of yourself and your work? What are potential next steps? How do we deal with a world that seems to get more and more polarized at the moment?
Deeyah: I think the only way to stop that, or interrupt it, or at least slow it down, is to be part of the antidote to it. The only way to be the antidote is to behave almost exactly in the opposite way. So, rather than being closed, rather than being hard, rather than being cold, rather than “othering”, essentially, we have to open up. Everything is tightening around us, everything is becoming closed, everything is hardening between us, and we have to do everything that we can within our own context to chip away at that, and to contribute to making little cracks for light to come through for connection to become possible.
But we have to be patient. This is not fast food. This is not instant gratification. This is something … where we are today, it’s taken us a long time to get to this point. It’s taken us a long time to unravel and break things in the way that we have. And so, we also have to have the patience to do whatever little or big that we can to contribute to opening. What we need is people’s hearts opening. Right now, they’re closing.
To me, I always think about, what is it that I would like to hear? What is it that my child wants to hear? Or maybe you don’t want to hear something. Maybe just needs to be hugged, or maybe you just need to smile. My brother, he does a lot of public speaking in Norway, and he does a lot around mental health, and especially for young people. At the end of each speech that he does at the school, they always give him this big, beautiful bouquet of flowers. He always takes this, and on his way home, he always walks down the street and he finds somebody and he just walks up to them and says, “This is for you. I think you might really enjoy
this today.” He said just what happens to people’s faces.
I mean, that’s nothing. It’s nothing to be sweet or kind to somebody that you don’t know, know nothing about. They might be having a great day. They might be having an awful day. But I think just showing up to life not with a heaviness, but with caring, with hope. I think hope, actually, is one of the most powerful tools that we have. Because when we think about, “Oh, this is so big. Oh, this is so complicated. Oh, this is bigger than me. I’d rather just hide and get away from this,” that’s what anything oppressive, that’s what it wants from us. It wants us to give up. It wants us to think that this is too big for me. Anyone that tries to oppress us, any system or person.
So, to me, hope—and I’ve said this before too—but I really believe that hope, it’s an act of defiance. It’s an antidote to the apathy and to the numbness that you’re talking about as well. Because I think in there … and that’s what I’ve collected. When I’ve made these films, that’s what I’ve collected and taken with me, is not the pessimism that I’ve started with, but actually hope that there is light. There’s always possibility for change. It’s always there if we all have it within us, if we all have the capacity to do amazing things and to do awful things.
That’s no different for anybody else. I think it comes down to each one of us to do what we can, even if it is just the tiniest gesture of kindness, and love, and caring towards somebody that we might not know, and wanting nothing in return. Just doing it because you’re putting something else out there that is so tense right now. Whatever we can do to loosen up people’s bodies and people’s hearts a little bit is, I think, worth doing. It changes the room if you walk in with a smile or with a lightness. It changes the feeling of a room. We just have to do that. That might be very small, and it might be trite. I don’t know. But, I’ve seen it work. It’s one thing I know we can do, and it doesn’t cost us anything. It doesn’t cost us to be loving, and to be caring, and to be to other people how we wish people might be to our children.
Thomas: Right. And, it seems to be also that, as you spoke at the beginning about you being relentlessly curious about human relations, that, in a way, your own soul’s journey or your own mission in life is to bring that deeper and deeper into our society. And also when I listen to your words, I think that it’s very obvious that as your first film started, it looked like … you didn’t plan on winning awards and bringing out films. Sometimes people look at people that followed their passion and also became more known, as, okay, “in big steps”, but often, those big steps started as the first experiment. Because it’s connected to something that we really care about, and you really cared about this woman, it opened a gate for you. And I think that’s a really beautiful example and a very empowering example for everybody that’s looking, “Yeah, I would love to contribute something, but I don’t know.” Yeah, but I heard you say, “I wanted to contribute, but I didn’t know.” It’s not so uncommon that, “Everybody who made it had this great idea from age 3 on, and you knew you wanted to make film documentaries.” It wasn’t that way.
Thomas: And it often is not that way. For some people it is, but for some people, it isn’t. And to be in the question and let life find you … because that woman found you, also.
Thomas: Same as you found her story.
Thomas: I think that’s a very important part that we often forget. That life finds us while we find life. It’s a mutual movement. I think that’s what you beautifully displayed.
Deeyah: And I think our heart has to be open for it. That’s the one thing that I deeply committed myself to about 10 years ago, and I still follow every single day, is that I will never again live a day where I don’t listen to my heart. Everything I do, I only listen to my heart, and I know that that comes with consequences and a price, which means maybe I don’t own a home. Maybe all that, those types of things. But, I don’t care. I feel free in a way that I’ve never felt my whole life. I will only do what feels right and what my heart says, and I will only obey that. Wherever that drags me, I’m willing to go.
And so far, it’s been amazing. It’s been amazing to have the opportunity to speak to incredible people and to get to sit with them and hear about their life and what they’re willing to share with you. It’s such a privilege. It’s such an honor. And in the hope of learning about them, ultimately I get to learn about myself. I get to understand myself better. What an incredible gift that is.
Thomas: Right. I think these are beautiful words to round up our conversation here, so that … I think it’s another thing to underline. That you listening to them means you become more whole and you become more unified in yourself. I think that’s a very deep wisdom. For everybody who thinks we’re going out to do it for them, we are actually doing it to become unified in ourselves, and that serves many people. That’s fantastic. But it’s not just a one-way street. I think that came out very beautifully through our conversation.
Is there anything that you … any final thoughts? Otherwise, I think it was a very lovely journey that we went through. Very beautiful.
Deeyah: No, I think that’s … No, I think that’s it. I can talk to you for a long time.
Thomas: Likewise. Likewise. Yeah, so thank you, Deeyah. This was fantastic.
Deeyah: Thank you.
Thomas: I really enjoyed it.
Thomas: And I love the sensitivity, and your mission and the beauty that you bring into the world through your work. So, fantastic. Fantastic.
Deeyah: Thank you.
Thomas: Many blessings for your work.
Deeyah: Thank you. I really, really appreciate it. What a joy and a soothing experience to get to sit and talk to you. It’s so nice. Thank you. I really appreciate it.