Donkeysaddle Projects: Art as Inspiration and Activism

Our goals at BorderlessNewsandViews.com include eradicating the walls that arise between people and presenting you with ‘the other side of the news’.  We’re on the lookout for creative people who help us learn about ourselves — and the things that make us more…human. 

The inaugural ‘Breaking Borders’ post is an interview with Ms. Jen Marlowe, award-winning director, human rights activist and creator of Donkeysaddle Projects.  She is the co-director of the documentary “Dafur Diaries: Message From Home” and author of the accompanying book, “Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival”.  Ms. Marlow is a co-author, with peace activist Sami Al Jundi, of the book “The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker”.   Additionally, her numerous articles about Palestine/Israel, Sudan and the death penalty can be found online.

Donkeysaddle Projects’ mission is as follows:  to combat inhumanity through exposing the humanity of those who have been marginalized and oppressed, through platforms such as writing, film and theatre.  Ms. Marlowe is clearly focused on humanitarian activism through her craft.

BN&V:  Let’s start with something easy:  Where does the name “Donkeysaddle” come from?  Does the name have symbolic meaning?

JM:  You think you’re starting with something easy!  I need to come up with a better story about the name but it really just comes from the fact that I have this beautiful macramé donkey saddle that I love — I got it in the old city of Jerusalem back in 1997 or ’98.  Years ago when I was opening my first email account and trying to figure out what my email handle would be, I decided on Donkeysaddle because I loved it and it was hanging on my wall where I could stare at it.  The name stuck.  Then, when I was trying to come up with a name to serve as an umbrella for my work it kind of felt like the obvious choice.  I also liked it because there’s great symbolism in the sense that donkeys are animals that travel to difficult to reach places.  They’re able to negotiate different types of terrain and paths while carrying a great deal.  There is symbolism — but still I have to come up with a better story for the name than “how much I liked my macramé donkey saddle”.

BN&V:  That brings me to the next question…Along with Jerusalem, you’ve been to many other interesting places.  You have done conflict resolution work, worked with children and have stood for non-violent reform in places such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bosnia.  Tell me about your work with youth and how all of this came to be. 

JM: I see everything I’ve done as being on the same spectrum of work — even though on a superficial level it looks quite different.  Fifteen years ago I was teaching teenagers in Seattle.  On the surface it seems quite different from making a documentary film in Darfur but in my head it really is all part of the same spectrum.  The work I did with kids in Seattle was about using the tools of theatre in order to tell their own stories and address the issues that they saw as important in their lives.  That’s the basis of the work I continue to do using different forms of narrative whether they are through my own writing or using those tools for people to tell their stories.  People telling their stories is part of the move towards change, and that’s part of social justice work.

BN&V:  I’d like to learn about the personal danger you face, if any, particularly as a woman doing both conflict resolution work and reporting from these territories.  What compels you to take such risks and live in conditions many would prefer to never encounter?

JM:  There are two answers to that question. First, I will say that from my own experience, I’ve never felt in any particular danger because of being a woman. I know that may not be true of some other women’s experiences, but that has been my experience. In some of the places I have travelled, being a woman has given me access.  As a foreigner, I am often welcome in places that are considered places for men. As a woman, I have access to places for women, whereas a western male may not have that same access to the women and their stories.

The second and larger piece of the answer is that I recognize and understand that in some of places I travel I’m taking a certain amount of risk.  However, I am also very aware that I am going under conditions that are far more privileged than the people for whom this is their life.  I can choose whether to go, when to go and how to go — and I can leave.  The people whose stories need to be told don’t have these privileges and protections – yet my life is no more valuable than theirs.  That doesn’t mean that I’m going to be stupid; I try to do what I’m doing as safely as I can as I don’t think it helps anyone if I get myself injured or killed.  My focus isn’t so much on the danger that I’m in; my focus is on people who are in far more danger than I am.  Those people don’t have an opportunity to choose whether to be there or to leave.

BN&V:  That makes a lot of sense.  That really speaks well of you in that you recognizing that you’re coming from a place of comparably more privilege than what you’re walking into. 

JM:  Well, exactly that’s our responsibility.  In many cases the government that I pay taxes to, is either directly or indirectly contributing to a lot of the human rights violations and atrocities that I am working on or they are participating in the power dynamics of the world that are allowing these things to occur.  It’s privilege, but it’s also about responsibility because the privilege is on the backs of other people.  I have a responsibility to do something about that.

BN&V:  Do you feel that you are witnessing history in the making and viewing things differently as a woman and because of your role in it?

JM:  Not in any concrete way.  In all things, how I perceive things or witness things is informed by my gender.  It’s a part of my identity.  But there is no specific way that I can say that I’ve experienced something in a certain way because I’m a woman.

BN&V:  That actually brings up a point that I wanted to get to.  We know that you’re critically acclaimed and an award-winning artist.  We are curious about whether you have suffered any negative repercussions from people who disagree with your topics.  In light of current politics, have you faced negative implications from covering topics such as presenting a Palestinian family after an Israeli bombing?

One Family in Gaza from Jen Marlowe on Vimeo.

 

JM:  I’ve lost some friendships and I have family members who won’t talk to me or, at least, discuss this issue with me.  But no, if you’re talking about repercussions in terms of having ever been threatened or harassed in any kind of way, I personally have not.  I have colleagues who have; these are people who I work with.  They have faced more adversity because of what they are standing up for.

BN&V:  What about government support?  You mentioned that we pay taxes to a government that sometimes may be directly involved in some of the human rights violations — have you heard anything from government-level officials that would lead you to believe the you have less than full support for your work?

JM:  I don’t have much contact with government officials. I haven’t sought any government funding for any of my projects and I don’t intend to.  There are probably numerous governments out there that would rather I not be writing what I’m writing or filming what I’m filming but I haven’t experienced any direct efforts at censorship.

BN&V:  There have been discussions here and abroad about government getting involved to shut down the use of social media so that certain messages don’t spread.  That subject arose recently during events in London with the so-called riots.  What do you think about these tools such as Facebook and Twitter for affecting social change?

JM:  It takes planning to make a revolution or a movement substantive but once you have it in place then social media can be a fantastic tool to get people mobilized.  For example, I have seen with the Troy Davis campaign that Twitter has been very valuable to help people communicate and organize.

BN&V:  Some see the Arab Spring as a bellwether to the end of autocratic governments across the Middle East.  Given all that you’ve seen and filmed in that area, do you see the revolutionary changes as something that can benefit the Palestinian movement?

JM:  I think it can and already has in some ways.  What has been touted as the “Arab Spring” is still in the very early stages in terms of movement-building.  True non-violent revolution and transformation isn’t just toppling a regime; it takes years of building institutions and planning what to put in place of that autocratic regime.  I think some very exciting things are underway in the Middle East that are still very nascent.  Some people looking for that change to happen right away may become disillusioned; round one has come and gone and things are no different. Take Egypt for example; getting rid of Mubarek, was just one step in a much larger process of building a new kind of Egyptian society in which Egyptian people will have total agency.  I think there needs to be a lot of patience and support for that process.

BN&V:  Many issues of importance are happening globally and you support quite a few causes. What do you think that you would have to do in order to get people support causes and pay attention to human rights violations and atrocities?

JM:  I don’t think that you can force people to see or hear what they’re not prepared to see or hear.  My hope would be that people recognize that we all live on the same planet. Our world is deeply in crisis right now on every level imaginable.  We’re all responsible for the enormous egregious issues that we’re facing.  We share responsibilities for the state that we’re in and we have no choice but to try to pay attention to what’s going on.  Environmental crisis and economic injustices are interconnected.  For people who don’t want to have to care about what’s going on in Sudan, Palestine, or on death row in Georgia, they say ‘Well that’s not about me’ or ‘that’s got nothing to do with me’ — but they are wrong because it does!  We’re on a collision course on this earth and we all have to wake up to that and start doing something about it. I’m not going to tell people what it is that they should do. There are a million different things that we can do and we all have to do what we can.

BN&V:  Fully agreed!  I think it’s great that you’re walking the walk!  You have found “art as activism” to be a useful tool in opening dialogue in the younger generation.  How might the same be interpreted for older generations more entrenched in traditional paradigms?

JM:  I don’t think it’s all that different.  I think what art has the ability to do is create space where people can contribute questions can confront their own paradigms.  It creates a space that’s different than what can happen in, let’s say, a lecture or through the academic sphere.  I think that art can bring people to that space and whether they are youth or older folks isn’t all that different.

BN&V:  It takes resources to further a mission.  One of your supporters is “The Investigative Fund”.  What other organisations are you able to turn to for support of your projects?

JM:  I received phenomenal support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting — not just financial, but in other ways; they are an incredible organization.  The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice supports me, as has the city of Seattle’s art fund.  Hundreds of individuals have stepped up to support my projects, including high school and university students who have done fund raising for me.  There have been people who have opened their homes up and held fundraising events for me so that I could complete a film or project.  Many people have been incredibly supportive.  I have not done anything with Kickstarter yet; many people have suggested it so I probably will at some point.

BN&V:  How do you pick your topics? Would you mind sharing with us some information about your upcoming project about Troy Davis?

JM:  In most of the cases it’s not me picking the project, the projects pick me.  In Troy’s case, I heard his sister speak on ‘Democracy Now’ in 2007, right after Troy had survived his first scheduled execution date.  His sister, Martina Correia, was speaking and I was just amazed by her; she’s an unbelievably strong, incredible woman who has been fighting a double battle for her own life and for her brother’s life.  She has been fighting this double struggle for years and I was also amazed by Troy’s story that had, at that point, barely broken into the media.  Democracy Now was one of the few news agencies covering it.  I decided to do some research but, like so many other news stories that corporate media isn’t telling us, if we know where to dig for information we can find it — but we have to know about it first.  I found a website about Troy and I wrote him a note, I had no thought in my head that I was going to get deeply involved with this case, or with him or his family.  I just wrote him a note in prison because it just felt like something I could do to show solidarity with him.  He wrote back and so we started corresponding; he eventually introduced me to his sister and that connected me to the rest of the family.  That’s how I became involved.

BN&V:  Once you know about something it becomes a part of you.  You can’t unlearn something any more than you can un-ring a bell.

JM:  That reminds me of a great quote I love from Arundhati Roy:  “Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it”.  My hope is that my work is a piece of what is allowing people to see – and once they see it they will feel a responsibility to get engaged.

BN&V:  You have collaborated on your books. Is there someone with whom you would like to collaborate in the future?  If so, is there any particular topic?

JM: I love collaboration; my favorite way to work is in collaboration with other people. I don’t think I can single out any individual as there are people I have collaborated with and I want to keep working with them. Working with them has been such a joy; one person is Dave Randall, a British musician-activist who plays with the band Faithless. I’ve worked with him on the music for almost all of my projects. He’s inspired many to pick up instruments such as the guitar for beginners. He’s a phenomenal artist and social justice activist.  There are two graphic artists who I’m working with, Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones on another video about a death row inmate who is likely innocent, Reggie Clemons, and I’m telling the story through sketches. There are so many amazing people out there; to work with them combines skills, talents, visions and a commitment to the issues.

BN&V:  Would you most like to concentrate on short documentaries or do you have feature film aspirations in addition to the books and articles you write?

JM: When I finished my last feature film, I thought I didn’t want to do another feature length film for a while. It requires a great deal of fund raising and I am not particularly good at it so I don’t like putting my time and energy there.  I don’t like begging for money but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t ever do it again.  I don’t have plans for what my future projects are; things just develop and I respond by what I think I can bring to the table or what seems to be needed at the moment.  The book that I am writing with Troy Davis’ sister Martina is her story – it’s something that she wanted to do but felt she needed help and I said “Okay, well that’s something I can offer”.  I’m very much honored and privileged to be a part of helping her to tell her story.  Just the same with my book that we just published, “The Hour of Sunlight”, Sami had been a dear friend of mine for years, many of us had been encouraging him to tell his story because it’s so phenomenal.  He finally said he was ready to do it and I felt I had something to offer that could help make that happen.  I don’t consider myself a filmmaker or writer; I consider myself an activist and those are tools that I use and enjoy using.

BN&V:  People who are breaking down the borders that separate us mean a lot to us at BorderlessNewsandViews.com.  Help us to help you – what can we do to spread the word about your work and your activism efforts? 

JM:  What a nice question!  It’s wonderful when there are people interested in the work I’m doing.  I’m delighted if people want to read my books and watch the films I produce and then are interested in becoming involved with the various issues.  More than that I feel if my work is to achieve any piece of what I am hoping to accomplish, is that as people encounter my work it instills in them a deeper commitment to repair so much of what we’ve damaged in our world.  Yes, there are concrete things so that my work continues such as donations and people buying my books; all these things are important and I’m not trying to dismiss any of that but I hope people encounter my work and it inspires a sense of outrage, commitment and that people use that in whatever way they choose to.  I don’t want them to just walk away saying ‘Wow that’s really horrible!’ and then not think about it again.  I want them to walk away and think ‘I need to respond to this’ and then begin what I think is a life-long process of how to respond to it.

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Follow Ms. Jen Marlowe at one or all of the following:

Website: http://www.donkeysaddle.org/

See also:  The website for Rebuilding Hope: http://rebuildinghopesudan.org/

Learn more about the Darfur Diaries at: http://darfurdiaries.org/

Facebook:  Donkeysaddle Projects

Twitter: @donkeysaddleorg

YouTube Channel: donkeysaddle

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