Emmy Award-winning filmmaker crosses divides to meet with "enemy"

By Kate Roff

When Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Deeyah Khan met with neo-Nazis she was scared.

“I decided to pick up my camera and go and see if I could sit down with people who feel this intense dislike, or even hatred, towards people like me,” Ms Khan told Peace News.

The daughter of immigrants, a Muslim woman, a feminist, a liberal and a human rights activist, Ms Khan is familiar with being a target for hatred.

"For these movements, and very much represent something that they absolutely despise and that they are trying to prevent,” Ms Khan said.

Khan released her film White Right: Meeting the Enemy last year to bridge divides between opposing groups and see if it was possible to “hate in person”.

“For me it's about primarily getting in touch with our common humanity,” Ms Khan said. “To see if it's possible for us to break down the prejudices that exist between groups.”

Her first interview was with the leader of the US National Socialist Movement. She was more than a little intimidated. Death threats are not a new experience for Ms Khan and the violence she has encountered was at the forefront of her mind when she went into the interview.

"He asked me to come to where he lives, in his neighborhood, at a specific motel," Ms Khan said. "We set up all our cameras and were just waiting for him to arrive and I remember thinking 'what are you doing?'. America is filled with weapons and a lot of these guys are usually armed. I was thinking 'What if he's armed? What if he's bringing people with him?'"

Once he arrived, however, Khan said the experience was extraordinary. It was awkward at first, but without the usual context of angry mobs facing each other and shouting, Khan said the dynamic had to shift as well. She said just by being ready to listen, everything changed.

"Because they're not used to someone engaging with them," Ms Khan said, "they also weren't able to behave in the way that they are used to behaving - they know how to react to someone who comes in pointing fingers and shouting at them, ready for a fight."

They talked about everything. Life, family, and politics were all part of the conversation and Ms Khan said that, as she'd hoped, her interviewee couldn't hate her in person. She left that first meeting feeling liberated and wants to share what she found.

“It reminded me that they are just people, they are just human beings,” she said. “I have spent my entire life being stereotyped, I am not going to turn around and do that to somebody else.”

The Norwegian-born filmmaker, who now lives in the United Kingdom, recently earned an International Emmy award for her film, and has previously been nominated for BAFTA awards. Her film was picked up by Netflix in June and is available on the streaming service in the U.K. and the U.S.

Her previous film, Jihad: A Story of the Others, focused on violent extremists and Ms Khan is the founder of Fuuse, a media and arts company that focuses on minorities telling their own stories.

“I'm also interested in the human, emotional, psychological and social drivers of why people are drawn to these movements, in the hope that we can understand it better so we can be better at countering it.”

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