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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Mary Ann Smothers Bruni--'Quest for Honor'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, director/producer/writer of Quest for Honor.

Synopsis: The alarming rise in "honor killing," the heinous act of men killing daughters, sisters and wives who threaten "family honor," endangers tens of thousands of women in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and adjoining countries. The Women's Media Center of Suleymaniyah, Iraq, has joined forces with Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to end this practice.  Quest for Honor follows Runak Faranj, a former teacher and tireless activist, as she works with local lawmen, journalists and members of the KRG to solve the murder of a widowed young mother, protect the victim of a safe-house shooting, eradicate honor killing and redefine honor.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Mary Ann Smothers Bruni: As a writer and photographer, I have been telling stories in words and images for decades. I envied my filmmaker friends and the many tools they had to tell their stories--movement, time, sound and rhythm. And I adored them. Elizabeth Warnock "BJ" Fernea, who produced six successful films on Middle Eastern women, was one of the most important advisors to Smothers Bruni Foundation. She brought the idea of a film on three women in Iraq to us shortly after the second Persian Gulf War, and the board jumped at it. We founded SB Productions LLC to produce the film. Unfortunately, BJ became fatally ill. The director she chose, Maysoon Pachachi, decided against another film in Iraq. And I took over! Help! But with their capable suggestions at crew and structure, and the advice on cameras and production from our attorney Lawrence Taub--who, unknown to us when we hired him, was producer of Naqoyqatsi, Anima Mundi, Powaqqtsi and Koyannisqatsi--I muddled through. The experience of having work-shopped a fictional film script with Jack Remick and Bob Ray in Seattle helped me craft the story.  
In Iraq I was greatly helped by video and film producer Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, wife of Jalal Talabani, the first Kurdish president of Iraq. Hero opened doors, shepherded us and often provided us with transportation and guards. Without her caring touch, we could not have made the film--nor could I, at last, have become a filmmaker.  


IDA: What inspired you to make Quest for Honor?

MASB: The brave, hardworking, quick-thinking, selfless women of Kurdistan inspired my 1994 book, Journey through Kurdistan; articles in the San Antonio Express-News, The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune; and photographic exhibitions that traveled from Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi, to London, Canada, Bhutan, via a couple of stops at Middle Eastern Studies Association meetings. Kurdish women were the inspiration for, as well as the stars of, Quest for Honor. Watching them grow from peshmerga guerrilla fighters and deeply burdened and widowed heads of households into attorneys, members of parliament and architects was quite wonderful.  
More rewarding was witnessing the women's ability to go from fighting Saddam's cruelty and rebuilding from the devastation that he left to tackling with equal vigor the inequities and problems of their own society, the struggle we portrayed in Quest for Honor. The ferocity and talent of original women in that fight was awe-inspiring. Without the early efforts of Kafia Suleyman, Nazanine Mohammed and Hero Ibrahim Ahmad--the founders of the original ZHINAN (women)--the successor organizations we portray in the film would not have been possible.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MASB: The largest loss was BJ as a friend, mentor and birthing mother of our Iraqi project. The challenges abounded. But each seemed to make our filming stronger. The most hair-raising obstacle was the cross-border shooting from Turkey and Iran at our filming near Rania. In fact, we had to jettison our first story of women on the border, when the very picturesque village where we were filming was attacked (unfortunately, not on camera), and the villagers all fled. That was during our first summer of shooting Quest for Honor, in 2007. While we were at the Women's Media Center in Suleymaniyah, trying to rethink our story, Runak Faranj received the telephone call about the murder in Rania, and we were off and running.  
After three days of shooting in Rania, Hero invited me for tea and sent me home with three cars of presidential guards. She warned that there had been a cross-border shooting in the area, and she didn't want us unescorted at this juncture of the Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi border. The crew, including me, was sick that night, and I wanted to call off the next day's shoot. DP Behzad Oliadonighi and co-producer Birusk Tugan convinced me to let them go forward the next day without me. I was too sick to argue with them, basically, and figured we would have time to reshoot anything that went wrong. 
At noon, Saddik Barzani called to tell me that an airliner had been shot at in the area and that all flights into Iraqi Kurdistan had been cancelled. For security, borders would probably slam tightly shut and stay so for some time. There was one last charter flight going out the next morning, and we had seats on it. I called Behzad and ordered the crew back immediately. My naughty mutinous crew kept filming and didn't return to the hotel until midnight. They had to pack equipment into soft cases for the four-hour drive to the airport in Erbil. Thanks to Ms. Talabani's guards, we were able to tear across Iraqi Kurdistan late at night and arrive in time to repack into hard cases and make it to the airport.  
What did they get that day, that we never would have been able to get without Behzad and Birusk aruging with me? Just the cemetery scene, the talk with the little boy, and Birusk's incredible interview with the victim's brother-in-law. Such a talented and knowledgeable crew makes even work under difficult circumstances a pleasure.  


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MASB: Our first story was of three women from three different parts of Iraq. When BJ, whose book on Shia women was in print for over 40 years, and Maysoon, from a famous Baghdadi family, dropped out, we opted for three Kurdish women. The story in Rania became compelling, so we put two other of our characters aside for a later day. When we cut the Rania story, we realized that we needed a threatened woman who was still alive to get her side of the story. We let our friends in Iraqi Kurdistan know about that, and our Kurdish cameraman Hemin Kaikaiy called with the second story.  
Not to worry about the women we put aside--a young village girl turned architectural student and a well known woman doctor. They are the subject of a film we are editing now. Our story grew and grew and hatched a second film. 


IDA:  As you've screened Quest for Honor--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MASB: The responses to screenings runs the gamut. Mostly very positive, particularly with activists to protect women, both in the States and in Iraq. Women who work with Family Violence Protection Services and the Battered Women and Children's Shelter in San Antonio identified with their Kurdish counterparts. We invited Runak Faranj to San Antonio to visit the center and exchange strategies with women here.  
Psychologists, a psychiatrist, and a gynecologist who worked with Kurdish women found the film important and will be using it in their work. Arab women at a conference in Suleymaniyah, Iraq, asked us to subtitle in Arabic for use by 40 Arab women's organizations, and we are doing that.  
Just when I thought I was home-free, some older women from the Kurdish government harshly criticized the work. They thought I had made Kurdish women look "like Afghanis." Certainly not my intent, and, at least until now, a minority view. Our crew was largely Kurdish, and I strongly feel Quest for Honor is their film. In any case, I loved the Afghanis portrayed by Havana Marking in Afghan Star. So I don't know quite how to respond to that criticism.  


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MASB: I am not aware of any particular documentary that has influenced me. One film that kept coming to mind in our final crafting of Quest for Honor was No Country for Old Men. I loved the film's ambient sound--the crunching of the grass as boots moved through the landscape, the silence of the land broken only by the wind. We were blessed with plenty of wind and sand-textured air that became part of our film. Not to mention a vocal parrot and a variety of chirping birds.  

Quest for Honor will be screening August 6 through 12 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 13 through 19 at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles

To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Quest for Honor in Los Angeles, click here.


To purchase tickets for Quest for Honor in New York, click here.