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Colette Ghunim is a filmmaker from Chicago. She directed The People’s Girls, an award winning look at public sexual harassment in Egypt. She also founded Mezcla Media Collective, empowering women in the film and production industries. She is currently working on her documentary Traces of Home. We sat down with her to talk about her career and being raised in a multicultural home.
SR: Please introduce yourself!
My name is Colette Ghunim and I’m a documentary filmmaker. I’m half-Mexican and half-Palestinian. My mom is Mexican and my dad is Palestinian.
SR: Growing up in a multicultural household, were you nurtured by both cultures?
My dad, he came here much later (in life) than my mother, so he’s much more connected to Arab culture than my mom is to Mexican culture. [She} grew up in the projects in L.A. and they started from nothing. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so most of my neighbors were mostly white. I never really was around many Arabs or Latinos growing up, I definitely felt disconnected from both cultures.
There were Latinos in my high school. They’d ask, “Oh, you’re half Mexican. Why don’t you know this song? Why don’t you know Spanish?” I was definitely disconnected from what they were connected to with their upbringing.
SR: With those social clashes in high school, how did you resolve them? Or did you?
I think it was just brushing them aside really. It made me sad and sometimes I didn’t feel comfortable. My friends were all different ethnicities in high school. That was my main friend group. I did end up joining the Latino debate team in high school and there I felt more connected than before, but there were definitely things they would say or they would talk about that I just didn’t know.
Once I was in college, that’s when I started learning more about my own cultural identity and joining the Latino and Arab student groups and learning about what was happening, for example, with Palestine and Israel. I had no idea until I went to college. Also, with immigration and things like that, too. I just learned a lot. I was inundated with a lot of information then.
SR: Once you found the community in college, did that kind of resolve itself inside of you? You felt like, okay, cool, now I feel a little more a part of the culture?
I think what most resolved it was me studying abroad, because I got to travel a lot in Latin America and also in the Middle East, and that’s when I really felt like, oh, wow, these are my people. Being with people that were like, “oh, yeah, she is one of us.” That was absolutely beautiful, even though I was coming from the US.
SR: How did that help your confidence?
Well, language-wise, I went to Latin America to learn Spanish, so then when I came back I felt way more comfortable being with other Mexicans and being able to speak Spanish more fluently. Then I learned Arabic in Egypt as well. So now I can actually talk to my aunts and uncles and cousins that I was never able to talk to before because they didn’t know English, which was just an opening of new worlds for me.
SR: For people that are getting pulled in different directions by their family cultures and then those from school and work, do you have any bits of advice you can give them to say “here’s how you can be more comfortable or here’s how you can navigate it?“
Knowing that my family went through things and went through trauma that made them adapt to this new place, and there’s reasons why we disconnected from these cultures, knowing these things are what makes your family your family and makes them stronger because of this, and that gives you the opportunity to be what you’re getting to do here in the U.S., too. I don’t know, having that perspective really helped me.
Also just traveling abroad. I definitely think it’s super important for people to travel and connect back to where they came from. Take advantage of it in college. There’s so many grants and things like that that are just not available outside of college.
SR: That’s an avenue a lot of people don’t know about. Grants are free. They’re not loans. What’s the process like to get a grant? How easy is it?
[In college] there was a department of studying abroad and I asked them. They gave me a mentor that would tell me what grants were relevant and then I could apply to them. Asking for advice is huge, because I wouldn’t have found it if I didn’t do it that way.
I think telling your personal story is the main thing. Yeah, social issues are important, but they want to know why you are the one that should deserve this grant. So making sure that it’s about you. It’s usually free to apply, so you should be able to do it.
SR: How did your documentary, The People’s Girls, come to happen?
When I was studying abroad [in Egypt] the first time, we had a mutual friend, Tinne Van Loon, and she’s a documentary photographer. When I came back to the U.S. and I went to this film festival, I was like, oh, my God, I want to do a documentary. Tina was doing a project about street harassment, just like photography and getting written interviews and that kind of thing. I was like, oh, why don’t we make an actual film? She said okay.
I went [back to Egypt] and we just were doing it off of our own money and then we did a Kickstarter campaign. We did a trailer that went viral of me walking across a bridge getting catcalled, and then that’s how we were able to raise the funds for the People’s Girls.
SR: You talked with a number of women there. Was there a social, or cultural challenge in getting them to open up?
The difficulty was getting women to speak. It was very hard to get access, but it was helpful that we knew Arabic and that we were women, too. They became more open. There were a lot of women that were not wanting to be on camera and things like that, so we couldn’t add them. So we had to choose people that were very outspoken about the issue. They were already very active in non-profit groups and activism groups around women’s rights and street harassment. So the ones that talked [with] were already quite vocal.
Another difficulty was finding a mother to talk about her son and how she feels about harassment, because we were trying to figure out where this is coming from, how children are being raised with equality and how to treat women and that sort of thing. Yeah, it was impossible, and then finally we found one mom that was willing to do it.
SR: Have you had any follow up with the women there or with HarassMap?
There’s been some great cases and there’s been some really bad cases. So every week there’s something good happening and then bad, and then good and then bad. So slowly… I mean, the best thing is it’s no longer a taboo subject. Before, it wasn’t even allowed to be talked about. Now it’s out in the open and women are being able to share their stories on social media, which has fueled more stories to come out, which is fantastic. But there was somebody who was a bystander that intervened and he got killed. Very sad, very, very sad. So that brought fear to interfere or stepping in. But then it also had a huge GoFundMe and people were like this is what we need to do.
And we’ve talked to the women. We had a screening in Egypt and they were the panelists for that and HarassMap is still going strong, too, with their work. So it’s been good, it’s been a good tool.
SR: Now you have a doc that’s in the works called Traces of Home.
Both my parents, they were forced out of their homes when they were children. So through Traces of Home, we’re going back on these journeys to Mexico and Palestine to try to find their original homes and then also finding out more about my own identity and being a first-generation American in the process.
We just went to Palestine in March. We finished production there, and now I’m launching a Kickstarter campaign in September to raise money to go to Mexico by January. My goal is to finish it by the 2020 election. My dream would be to have it on a PBS broadcast.
SR: Tell us about Mezcla Media Collective
We started Mezcla in November 2017, a friend and I. It was very difficult to find other women of color to work with. LinkedIn searches, Google searches, it was just impossible. Like, literally none would come up. So there must be some other women here in Chicago that we can start to build a community with. So we made a Facebook event… and 70 women ended up showing up. So we’re like, holy cow, this is definitely something that is needed for the community.
We started having regular meetings and quarterly events. We had a DP retreat for cinematography and now we’re at 350 members, and it’s continuing to grow. So it’s an amazing resource that’s been organically growing. people have been hired in Chicago because of this, full time jobs and freelancing.
SR: Mezcla translates to mixture. What is the mixture, what are the ingredients, and what is the product?
The mixture is a variety of colors, of backgrounds, of experience levels, and of passions and special skills. So having all of these things creates such a vibrant community, which is the product that we are trying to create both in Chicago and our dream would be to have branches throughout the U.S., that it’s this hyper local organization that is building communities wherever it is.
SR: Do you have some advice for people wanting to direct, but don’t know where to start?
The best advice that I ever got was from a locations guy. He’s like, well, Colette, if you want to direct, the best way to learn everything is not by becoming a PA and then trying to become an associate producer and then producer and then get to director level. You need to make your own project and that’s how you’re going to gain credibility, learn everything, meet people. It’s the best way to do it. So that’s when I decided to make my own film. Creating your own content, even if it’s with your phone or whatever camera you can get your hands on, creating a team and making your own thing will be the best thing for you.
It’s very important if people are interested in doing film to go into the deeper reason of why they want to do it. It’s beyond just telling your story, but your story resonates with our entire community. It’s not only our duty to tell our story that’s being challenged by the dominant narratives right now, but it’s our right and we have to be doing this for our own people to know who we really are.