Ep: 008 "Breaking Barriers & Stereotypes", with Alaa Hamdan
Ala is an award-winning filmmaker. She graduated from New York Film Academy. She has won several awards for her shorts and PSAs. She is also a jury member in several film festivals. Some of her work was viewed more than 5 million times on social media!
Her work focuses on uplifting and humanitarian causes such as child labour, domestic violence, etc. Ala presents a TV show on filmmaking, titles Cinerama. She is one of the few Arab women presenting a specialized TV show on filmmaking. Ala is an advocate for social justice and women empowerment and working on projects in Jordan, Turkey and Niger. She is a co-creator of a book titled Muslims of the World.
Girl, we’re thrilled for this interview! Ala Hamdan is breaking barriers and stereotypes as an award winning female Muslim filmmaker who also wears hijab. Her talents quickly revealed that a woman has a place in the film industry and that Muslim girls everywhere could follow their artistic dreams and be successful at it.
SG: Ala, give us a brief back story of where you come from, where you currently live and what you and your husband are doing?
Ala: I was born and raised in Palestine and every summer we would visit the United Sates where my dad was born and raised. It added a lot to my life to live between the two cultures. Now I’m in Jordan and I’ve been here for over 12 years now, this is where I met my husband Tareq Baddar and we’ve been married for two years now and together we founded a production company “at Films”.
SG: I’m imagining a traditional family… and so I am just curious what was their reaction to when you first decided to venture into this carrier choice. Like, mom and dad I want to go into film making!
Ala: It wasn’t easy! Because parents are really scared of the arts. They don’t believe that the arts have a future. [They think] “You want to paint? Paint at home!” They want to see a college certificate as insurance for their daughters or son’s future. So it was a struggle at the begging. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled with the lifestyle I choose fir myself when it comes to photography and filmmaking… but they were not against it. For them, as long as I wasn’t hurting anyone and working hard in college (which was a totally different career) then it was OK. As long as it was just a hobby. I was majoring in English/Spanish translation and I speak Spanish as a third language and I love that, but during that time in college I discovered what I really want to do is filmmaking. So I was waiting to finish so that I can study abroad since it wasn’t in Jordan yet, or I should say there wasn’t a good school for it yet. During that my parents weren’t really excited for the idea…but I think I have managed a way to convince them by showing them results. And I think that what a lot of young people aren’t doing. They keep telling their parents what they want but they aren’t showing their parents any evidence of hard work. When they saw that there were results and people were being effected by my art and the work I do, so they were thrilled for me.
SG: Any girls that are transitioning into where they get to choose their career, this is really important advice! For anyone listening, if there is something wild and crazy you want to do that different from everyone else… What Ala is telling us is just gold. Just do it, show them what you did and then they may go along with that. They may say you know what that’s awesome, I can’t believe you did that, plus you were making great grades in college, plus you were being an awesome daughter, etc.
Ala: And tell them how much the world has changed as well! Tell them how you must evolve and change as well and show them evidence.
SG: So, Ala what is one of the most difficult situation you been in as a result of your career and what did you learn from this incident?
Ala: I would say there was this opportunity that I really wanted and submitted for, but I think they were seeking a male for this role/director. I wasn’t upset but I was disappointed. They thought I wasn’t up for it, but I wasn’t even given a chance to know because I was a female director. But then I started studying as to why men aren’t comfortable with having women behind the camera and it’s not about male vs female... but it’s about how I can convince the world that I can do it. Convince them with actual results. So I always give this tip: start out small! If I kept waiting until someone recognized me, maybe I would have been waiting a long time. But I decided to make my own work in the beginning, small, and when they see the result then they will come ask to work with them or for them (depending) and then we will collaborate. This was a turning point for me!
I believe, if you trust yourself people will trust you! But if you doubt yourself, no one will trust you!
SG: So were just curious because your husband is also a filmmaker did you meet at film school? Give us a little romance here… how did you and your husband met?
Ala: So we both went to NY Film Academy but in different countries... but we did meet in a film location and book clubs. I would see him and have a lot of respect with the way he presented his ideas and worked with the team as a producer. I was impressed with his morals and humbleness. We would first be texting about work but then bluntly asked about the next step. When I sat with him the first time it felt so peaceful, and that’s when I knew. I thought, ‘Wow, I want to sit with him again! I’m excited!’. Not to ask questions, but to really just spend time. And you know alhamdulilah, because we have rough careers, sometimes I come home at 4AM, I was scared if I was really ever going to get married. Do I have to sacrifice my career to get married? I thought at some point I’d have to pick. Then I realized I didn’t have to sacrifice what I love, and I just studied my options better and decided to work harder!
Nicole: It’s almost like you prayed and said Allah please this is what I feel like what I am supposed to be doing but I also want to get married! And look at this blessing that you got… here’s a husband who also loves what you do and understands your schedule!
SG: If someone gave you a blank check and just said Ala and Tareq go make a film, spend what you like, money is no object… what would you do?
Ala: There is a lot of ideas that you want to share with the world, and a lot of misconceptions that you fix, and a lot of positive portrayals that you want to highlight. But I do think about this question! I think now as I am writing my short drama it focuses on a social stigma that sticks with a girl when she does something wrong. (I can’t go into details!) I thought about if women don’t tell our own stories, who will?! It’s not about women empowerment or feminism. But real stories. What women fell and what we go through. As simple as motherhood! Most war stories focus on men, but let’s talk about this woman who is raising kids while her husband is away. She raised boys and now they are men fighting for their country. This is where my work would go! The idea is put a Muslim actor and Muslim filmmaker and put a story that ALL women can share. This is the best way to deliver what Muslim women believe in without talking 24 hours talking about Islam. My focus would be on a film of positive portray of women!
SG: There are ton of girls, especially here in America, trying with their small films and wanting to tell stories. So, if you give a little bit of advice for these girl’s career-wise how they can get noticed?
Ala: You know, I want to tell you one of the pieces that I did was a PSA on domestic violence with over 5 million views and another one with child labor with millions of views as well… and for me, looking at these numbers, I was able to relate, not because of the abuse, but because I was a woman. So use that! Remember that you can feel things that no one else can, you can tell stories that no one else can feel except as a female. Tell a women’s perspective! I would say, be humble but take credit where credit is due. Study and keep growing! And engage and attend film festivals! And one last tip, get a mentor. It’s important to have someone you trust. Have good intentions, inshAllah you will get those results!
SG: We’re so inspired by you, Ala! Thanks for being on our show. You’re changing the world with your craft!