Filmmaker Nadia Shihab rarely chooses a project with conscious determination. Her process is much more personal and intuitive.
“I never say ‘I want to make a film about X.’ With my last three films, I began by filming with family in one of our homes. It’s a place to begin,” she said. “It’s usually not until the end when I can look back and understand what the film was about or why I made it.”
The artist draws inspiration from her influences – her family, especially the women. “I come from a long line of strong women – mothers, midwives, teachers, architects, painters, political organizers – and I consider my voice as an artist as a continuation of this chain,” she said. “I owe everything to their struggles and when possible, I allow their voices and stories to find expression in my own work.”
She began filmmaking in her early 20s, drawn to the political power of film. In response to what she saw on television after September 11, 2001, her own approach to the medium was to simply reframe situations from her own perspective.
“While the nightly news was showing mug shots of suicide bombers, I was filming my grandma making coffee,” Shihab said, referring to the making of her first short film, I Come From Iraq. “I wasn’t thinking of how to tell a story, I was thinking about the unseen, the migratory, the domestic, the maternal. All of those threads ended up in my work and I liked the way that felt.”
Filmmaking also appeals to her on a personal level. “I can be very sensitive to the energy of others, so film allows me to work slowly and in solitude… in a way that suits my disposition,” she added.
The films to her credit include I Come From Iraq (2003), Amal’s Garden (2012) and Jaddoland (2018). Of these, Jaddoland – her first feature length film at 90 minutes – is the one she is most proud of because the process of making it was a huge learning experience for her.
“I learned a lot about the power of centering one’s voice and experience in a work,” she said. “And also about how hard it can be to do so.”
Shihab, who grew up in Lubbock – located in the plains of West Texas – as part of an immigrant family from Iraq and Yemen, started out thinking she was making a film about her home. But she soon realized she couldn’t tell that story without also making it about her mother, Lahib Jaddo, and their relationship.
Even the Lubbock area is a character in the story, a strong presence with its dusty, windblown, desolate spaces. When she first started filming Jaddoland, her mother was working on a series of paintings that used Texas and Iraqi landscapes interchangeably. “As a child, I remember watching her in this same studio,” Shihab shared in her director’s statement. “Sifting through old family photos and handwritten letters in Arabic, reassembling a story that had been scattered across languages and geographies.”
While it’s a very personal story, the film asks age-old questions that are universal: What is home and where is it? Who are we? Where do we come from and where are we going? What can we leave behind? What must we carry? How do we grow? What is our deepest desire or need?
The end result is a thoughtful and moving film, in parts both playful and heartbreaking, that explores the meaning of home and identity across three generations and two very different lands. A movie that resonates with others.
Jaddoland was a co-production with the CAAM and World Channel, and was produced by Shihab and 2015 CAAM Fellow Talal Al-Muhanna. It was made with support from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Tribeca All Access, Firelight Media, Center for Cultural Innovation, IFP Documentary Lab and Enjaaz – a Dubai Film Market Initiative. Shihab presented the film at CAAMFest in 2019.
It won the Truer Than Fiction Award at the Independent Spirits Awards in January 2020 and Best Documentary Feature at the Austin Asian American Film Festival in May 2019. In addition, it also earned Special Jury Awards (2019) at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, as well as a Special Jury Mention (2018) at the New Orleans Film Festival.
Today, Shihab lives in Oakland, California, and juggles raising a toddler with her creative work. The year 2020 has been hard on her.
“We lost my brother to cancer, which has been very tragic for me and my family. COVID-19 has been disorienting and difficult, especially with a child at home. And the Black Lives Movement has been both incredible to witness and support, and also strangely alienating in the context of this quarantine,” Shihab wrote in an email. “All of this makes it difficult to work at this very moment.”
“But I’m okay with that,” she added. “I don’t believe in constant productivity.”
Yet, she also finds hope in our current circumstances and is energized. “I’m inspired by how cross-racial solidarity is happening in ways that feel deep and confrontational to our own internalized racism. Asians for Black lives. Arabs for Black Lives,” Shihab said. “I hope this doesn’t end at surface-level tokenism or allyship, but actually pushes through to dismantle what’s oppressive and build something better in its place.”
While she hasn’t defined her next project yet, she is spending time contemplating her artistic possibilities. “I’ve been deconstructing my process – working with photography and sound separately in the hope of returning to filmmaking with a form that feels new and exciting to me,” she said. “I’ve also been exploring unconventional approaches to screenwriting that allow me to work in more hybrid and experimental ways.”
Reflecting on her creative journey, Shihab has learned to trust her intuition. She knows what advice she’d share with her younger filmmaking-self. “Take your time. Follow your intuition. Don’t seek permission for your creative choices. Don’t place so much power in the advice of strangers,” Shihab said. “Not knowing is part of the journey.”
Rashda Khan is a Houston-based freelance writer and communication specialist. Some of the titles she’s donned include journalist, food writer, romance author, editor and communications coordinator. Her fiction deals with identity, immigrant life, feminist issues and multicultural influences.
Watch an encore broadcast of “Jaddoland” on WORLD Channel, 8/7 Central on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. Check your local PBS station for complete listings. The film will also be streaming September 1-15 on WORLD Channel’s website and is also available for educational screenings.