Activism, Filmmaking and Third-Culture Children with Deeyah Khan

Activism, Filmmaking and Third-Culture Children with Deeyah Khan

Born in Norway to immigrant parents of Punjabi and Pashtun ancestry, film director Deeyah Khan’s experience of living between cultures has helped shape her artistic vision.

empathy as a kind of diagnostic tool, Khan’s film projects
tend to begin the same way; with “questions, a camera and a handful
of phone numbers in tow”. Her 2012 film, Banaz: A Love Story,
chronicled the life and death of Banaz Mahmod, a young
British-Kurdish woman murdered by her family in a so-called “honour
killing”. Her second film, Jihad, involved two years of interviews
and filming with Islamic extremists, convicted terrorists and
former jihadis.

Theorising about what drives extremism and debunking
stereotypes, Deeyah (whose name means “light”) believes in
illuminating the multiplicities of identity and culture. The
founder of Fuuse, a media and arts company that puts women,
third-culture children and marginalised groups at the centre of
their own stories, Deeyah also runs online magazine sister-hood, which features writing by women of Muslim
heritage from across the world. In 2016, Deeyah became the first
UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for artistic freedom and creativity.

You were born to immigrant parents in Oslo.
As a Muslim woman growing up in Norway, how would you summarise
that experience?

There were a lot of contrasts between my indoor and outdoor
worlds. At home we shared this marvellously rich South Asian
culture with a heritage of art, poetry and music that we
celebrated. In fact, my home life was almost like an ongoing
creative salon, because my family had a lot of friends who were
from Pakistan who were artists and political dissidents escaping
the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule. At home there was a
very lively intellectual and artistic atmosphere. Outside though, I
faced a lot of casual racism as well as some feelings of exclusion
from Norwegian society, which can be insular. But I’m proud to be
Norwegian, most of all because I get to be part of a society that’s
been so active in supporting human rights worldwide. It took me a
while to appreciate the beauty and potential of growing up between
multiple cultures, rather than uncomfortable tensions between my
parents’ culture and the one I was brought up in. When I realised
that I didn’t have to choose between them, but that I could take
what I liked and leave what I didn’t from either culture, I felt
hugely liberated.

Tell us about your name Deeyah – you adopted it in 2002…

My mother named me Deepika after one of her closest friends; I
really appreciate that I was named for the power of friendship
between women. I changed it to Deeyah partly because people
struggled to pronounce it correctly. Deepika and Deeyah mean the
same thing, “light”. My name is a part of who I am, not the whole
story. I chose Deeyah to bridge my South Asian and European
identities: to give a name to the person that I have become through
the interaction of these cultures.

You speak five languages – English, Norwegian, Urdu, Punjabi,
and a bit of Pashto – which has proved the most useful in your

As we live in an anglophone world, English is the language I use
most commonly in my work. It’s the language that I write in, that I
create my films with and that I use to communicate with most of the
people I work with. It’s the language I’m the most comfortable with
due to spending almost all of my professional life speaking it.
Even so, I don’t think entirely in English – I also think in all of
these other languages. They often have concepts and ideas and
feelings that aren’t really expressible in the same way in English.
They remain a creative resource for me, even if I don’t get the
opportunity to speak them as often as I’d like, these languages
still inform my feelings, my sense of identity, belonging and

Do you consider yourself primarily a documentary filmmaker or
an activist?

For me these two categories are the same thing. Filmmaking is
the method I use to express my activism. I’ve always been an artist
and used art as a method to express social concerns. Art and
activism are entwined for me. Even when I was young, the very act
of being a Muslim woman and an artist was a gesture of

Tell us about your approach to filmmaking…

One of the most powerful things about making a documentary is
that it’s a process of exploration. I set off with a question and a
camera and a handful of phone numbers. I don’t know what the
answers are going to be. I don’t know what other questions are
going to come up as I talk to people. So it’s always a journey and
what you see on the screen is a reflection of my own thought
processes as I work out my own feelings and ideas about a

How has your experience of living between different cultures
impacted your work?

It’s provided me with a variety of standpoints, empathy and an
understanding that there’s always more than one way of looking at
any situation. There’s always more than one story to be told. This
is why I try to get multiple perspectives, to include a wider range
of opinions and to talk to people I don’t necessarily have a lot in
common with. There’s always something to learn from people, and
there’s always going to be some point of human connection.

What drives you in your work?

I am passionate about uncovering stories that we don’t get to
hear, especially those coming from people who don’t get fair
representation in the mainstream media. I seek the beating heart of
a story; the emotional core of any issue, and want to confront
violence in all its forms. I’m committed to diversity too. What
drives me is an intense wish to explore how to truly and honestly
get along with each other as fellow human beings.

You’ve had a past career as a singer, what propelled you into
documentary making? It’s quite a career shift…

It was my father’s ambition for me to become a singer. He
identified it as a way that a girl from an immigrant family could
succeed in a racist society. I learned a lot of my experiences from
that period, but it was never truly my own choice. It was after I
abandoned my musical career, due to harassment from extremist
Muslims who thought women singing was immoral, that I had a chance
to stop and assess my life and my own dreams and hopes, and decide
if singing was what I really wanted for myself. As
counter-intuitive as it may sound, I don’t find music and
filmmaking to be too different – both in terms of creative process
and in terms of the essence. Filmmaking and storytelling have a
sense of musicality to them; how you tell a story or create a piece
of music is not worlds apart. Listening is at the heart of it for
me, and of course rhythm and timing and pauses and silence.

Tell us about your advocacy work with women’s groups across the
Middle East…

I set up online magazine, sister-hood, which features writing by
women of Muslim heritage from across the world – in the Middle
East, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. It’s not only for
conservative or devout Muslim women – it’s also for casual Muslims,
cultural Muslims, ex-Muslims, all of them, together. I wanted to
recognise that wherever you are now in your beliefs, we’re united
by experiences of growing up as women within Muslim communities and
families. It’s very important to me that people understand more
about women of Muslim heritage than the stereotypes of submissive
wife or scary terrorist. sister-hood does that – it shows how
diverse and complicated women who share a Muslim heritage can

Which of your documentaries are you most proud of and why?

I’m very proud of my first documentary, Banaz: A Love Story,
because it’s the first film I made. I had no money and had no real
idea of what I was doing, yet it ended up being enormously
successful, winning me my first Emmy Award. It was dizzying how
popular it became, but it was so important that Banaz’s story was
told and that the issue of “honour”-based violence was addressed.
It was this experience that made me a documentary-film director –
it was the starting point of my own journey.

Your latest documentary, White Right: Meeting the Enemy,
focuses on the rise of nationalism in Trump’s America. Do you
always approach a project from an empathic position?

I certainly try to. It’s not always easy when you have people in
your face threatening you but I still try to understand what’s
driving those feelings. We’re not going to get anywhere if we stop
trying to understand them. We’re not going to get people to
re-evaluate their opinions by just telling them they are wrong,
especially if we dehumanise them in the process. We need to go
beyond challenging their beliefs, and also work out what it is
about those beliefs that attract them. How does having racist
beliefs contribute to the life of a person? Is it an excuse to
blame personal failings on an exterior force? Is it the sense of
being part of a group? Is it a way to feel connected to something
greater than oneself? Working out if these kinds of social factors
might provide clues to the kind of measures we need to build an
inclusive society.

Which are your most frequented travel destinations?

I should probably list Heathrow Airport as my official address,
I spend so much time there. Recently, I’ve been in and around
America filming White Right and following up on the publicity from
that. I’m also in Oslo fairly frequently.

Does travel inform your work?

I travel constantly – to film, to attend events, conferences and
so on. I do feel like a citizen of the world in a way, picking up
on different attitudes and opinions from all corners of the

Where do you feel you have the greatest creative freedom as a

I’ve really only worked with ITV in the UK and they have always
respected my creative freedom, which is why I will continue to work
with them for a long time.

What’s been your most memorable adventure?

It was a harrowing experience to go into neo-Nazi training
camps. They were taking place a million miles from anywhere and I
knew – and they knew – that I was completely vulnerable. All I had
was assurances from some senior members of the group that I
wouldn’t be harmed and I didn’t know what they were worth when I
was surrounded by violent and armed men. It’s not necessarily an
experience I would want to repeat. Neither would I want to be
tear-gassed again, as happened at the Charlottesville riots where I
was filming with a neo-Nazi group.

What’s next on the agenda?

I’m making another documentary – I can’t talk about it now but
I’m very busy working on it at the moment. Follow my company
Fuuse on
social media to keep updated.

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