ABU DHABI // Using film to break down stereotypes and inform Americans about life in the Arab world was one of the biggest benefits of hosting the film festival in the UAE, said Susan Sarandon. The actress and Oscar-winning screenwriter, who has starred in movies such as Thelma & Louise and Dead Man Walking, spoke yesterday at a conference at the Emirates Palace hotel.
"We have a limited view of what is really going on in this part of the world," she said. "The American media and the internet are increasingly unreliable sources of information, and the fact that the Middle East International Film Festival and Cinema Vérité have been invited here is a positive sign. "Film and music are a great way to communicate and it's very valuable to open up these channels between the West and the East."
Sarandon, who was speaking after a debate on Women in Film, is in Abu Dhabi to promote her latest film, The Shape of Water. The 70-minute feature documentary focuses on five women in the developing world working on humanitarian issues. Sarandon is narrator and the film touches on topics such as female genital mutilation in Africa, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories and environmental damage caused to the Brazilian rainforest and the Ganges in India.
While Sarandon did not have to leave New York to participate in the film, she admitted she learnt a lot from it. "The reason I do a lot of narration is because it is difficult to gain access to informative documentaries like these in the US," she said. "I learn about things I wouldn't necessarily otherwise be exposed to. Hollywood is not political and people in that industry tend to care more about whether an actor is old or fat rather than the message they are trying to put across.
"I don't agree with the term 'celebrity endorsement' because that sounds more like advertising a pair of sneakers, but I do think celebrities should use their status to press issues and force the media to report on them." Sarandon has a history of political activism. She travelled to Nicaragua in 1984 to narrate a documentary dealing with US military action in the country. More recently she has been outspoken about the invasion of Iraq.
"I am more of a humanist than a feminist," she added. "I think it's more important to respect each other rather than focus on one specific gender. But I do believe women, and particularly mothers, have a very important role to play. When you see your own children you realise a child in any other country is no different. It can be uncomfortable, but personally when I am made aware of a cause then I can't not do something about it."
Kum-Kum Bhavnani, the director of The Shape of Water, said she wanted to make the film to "dispel the notion that people say women just sit back and don't make change". The women she selected for her film bring alive "the texture of life" which put across the "power of film". The issue of the Palestinian situation was highlighted by a peace vigil group called Women in Black. Sarandon's narrative is played over interviews with a Women in Black member and an Arab Jew who talks about racism within the country.
Sarandon hinted she may be further involved with the film industry in the UAE. "There is an enormous focus on culture here and obviously a lot of money to support it," she said. "I don't know if there is room for everything, but I have been approached about the issue of labour rights in this country. There are so many voices and so many things to discuss, I hope that as many of these as possible are given an opportunity."