If forwarding an email or sharing a story could bring an important creative project to fruition, would you do it? If giving $10 could help us better understand the lives of four young women living in the Middle East or unravel the causes of a cultural revolution, would you donate?
If so, then I’d like to connect you with two talented journalists and filmmakers, Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton.
You may remember their story, if not their names. In 2004 the couple was in Iraq filming The Road to Nasiriyah, a documentary about the looting of archeological sites following the 2003 Iraq war. Although the filming was dangerous, they were determined to document the large-scale looting that was occurring at many Sumerian sites in the region.
Near the end of the project, Marie-Hélène flew back to New York, while Micah stayed behind to complete shooting. Just two days before his scheduled return to America, Micah and his Iraqi translator, Amir, were kidnapped by a local Shiite group.
The kidnapping made news around the globe. Marie-Hélène immediately turned her New York apartment into a command center and began contacting journalists, Muslim organizations, friends, and aid workers all over the world–anyone who might have contact with the kidnappers and be able to lobby for Micah’s release.
After five days, Micah was forced in front of a video camera with four masked kidnappers, a scene reminiscent of both Daniel Pearl and Nick Byrd. Unlike Pearl and Byrd, the kidnappers didn’t kill Micah or Amir, but while they were held hostage, Micah and his translator were beaten, and Amir’s jaw was broken. Fearing for his life, Micah wrote a message in mud to Marie-Hélène on the back of a matchbook.
Thanks to the hard work of Marie-Hélène, her family, and her global network, Micah and Amir were released after ten days of captivity. They have spoken about the kidnapping on National Public Radio, CBS News, CNN’s Larry King Live, Democracy Now, The Today Show, and Good Morning America. They have also recounted this remarkable story in detail in their book American Hostage, published by Simon and Schuster in 2005.
I have known Micah and Marie-Hélène for many years now, initially through their residencies at The MacDowell Colony, where they wrote American Hostage and worked on their film The Road to Nasiriyah. What continues to impress me about them is not only their bravery and generosity, but also their dedication and sense of purpose. It is refreshing to see two artists so interested in the lives of others and willing to risk their own safety to bring these stories to the larger public.
“The kidnapping was a reminder of how much journalists have become targets,” Marie-Hélène recently told me in an email. “At the same time, it was also a reminder of how important passion is in this kind of work…You do this because you are passionate about it and you feel that these stories need to be told. To me, it’s important to continue on and focus on what you think is important despite everything, to remain true to how you want, or feel compelled, to live your life.”
The kidnapping incident has not stopped Micah or Marie-Hélène from working in conflict and post-conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and southeastern Turkey. The couple’s latest film project is called If and is the coming-of-age story of four young women during the Egyptian revolution.
For If, Micah and Marie-Hélène have closely documented the lives of four Egyptian women–an art curator, a student, a cancer researcher, and a journalist advocate. Their footage gives us a glimpse into the inner-workings of the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak’s regime early this year. In the film Shimaa, Mona, Sarah, and Nora explain how they used online networks to spread information and mobilize people, how they came to join the protests, and how their involvement in the revolution changed them on a personal level.
I particularly enjoyed listening to the insights of Sarah Rifky, a curator of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. In this excerpt Marie-Hélène and Micah created for BBC World News America, Rifky explains how the Egyptian revolution created an environment where all citizens, including artists, were better able to express themselves.
For too long, people watched the news instead of participating in the news, says Rifky, they watched politics instead of participating in politics, and they went to art shows, instead of making art themselves. The Townhouse Gallery now hosts the Cairo Complaints Choir, a participatory art project that allows people with no professional experience to turn their everyday complaints into a song. The gallery has become a hub of cultural activity and a rallying place for those who took part in the revolution.
This is one of the best ways to learn about political events–through the eyes of everyday people who have been directly affected. As the filmmakers explained, these young, independent women “are representative of both the discontent that led to the revolution and the incredible optimism and activism that propelled it.”
Micah and Marie-Hélène have until 10:07 a.m. on August 3rd to raise the $15,000 they need to fund their new film If. They will use the money they raise on Kickstarter.com to return to Egypt and continue filming their characters’ stories. These funds will also allow them to begin editing If, a process that takes a great deal of time and focus.
A few days ago, Micah and Marie-Hélène shared this update:
“Events are moving quickly in Egypt. In the last two weeks, protesters have reoccupied Tahrir Square demanding changes to the military leadership, and civilian rights that have yet to be granted. Many protesters are being arrested and subjected to closed military tribunals, and some given long jail terms. The harassment of foreign journalists is also continuing, including the arrest last week of four reporters in Suez.”
Things are changing rapidly in Egypt and the money they raise will allow Micah and Marie-Hélène to document these events and finish the work they’ve started.
When I asked Micah if the kidnapping had made him more reluctant to visit politically unstable countries like Egypt, he explained that he has become “more cautious when planning or making decisions about going out into the field.”
“It was a couple years before I was back out in the Middle East,” Micah said. “But there is only so much you can plan for. There is a moment when you know you are taking a risk, and there is not much you can do about it. I was in southern Afghanistan last year and the vehicle I was traveling in was hit with an IED. While in Egypt, I was detained by the Egyptian Military. If you want to cover the story, you really need to be close to it. And these stories are important enough that I feel it’s worth telling them.”
While I wish I could use Gwarlingo as a platform to help every worthy artist raise money for their next project, I can’t. I am sharing this particular project with you because it’s a cause I believe in and one I’ve felt compelled to contribute to myself. Micah and Marie-Hélène are not only wonderful people, they are also talented filmmakers. I know they will put the $15,000 to good use. $10 is the minimum donation. If they don’t raise the full amount by August 3rd, they won’t receive any of the pledges that have already been made to the project and all existing pledges will be canceled.
If you can’t donate yourself, perhaps you know someone with a special interest in independent film or Middle-East issues who would like to make a contribution? Donors who are able to give above a certain amount, will receive Executive Producer credit and will have an opportunity to meet Micah and Marie-Hélène in person. But making a donation isn’t the only way to give. You can also help by sharing this story with others through Twitter, Facebook, and email.
This short clip will tell you more about the project (if you’re reading this in an email, click here to watch the video):
Micah and Marie-Hélène have also assembled this longer nine-minute piece for Granta magazine:
On June 20th, Micah and Marie-Hélène shared this update on The Huffington Post.
The filmmakers are currently in post-production on The Road to Nasiriyah, the documentary about the looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq and the kidnapping. The film is being executive-produced by Alex Gibney, Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side, and Wider Film Projects. The Road to Nasiriyah was also selected to participate in LA-based Film Independent’s inaugural 2011 Documentary Film Lab.
Micah and Marie-Hélène’s writing, photography and film work has appeared in print, online and on-air for The New York Times, PBS, CBS, CNN, Newsweek, Archaeology Magazine, Der Spiegel and l’Espresso, among others. Their recent story and online documentary about the impacts of the Ilisu dam in southeastern Turkey, was published in the Financial Times Magazine. You can see Micah’s photo essay “Faces of the Facebook Revolution” in Vanity Fair by clicking here. More information about Marie-Hélène and Micah and their work can be found on their website.
This film will only be funded if at least $15,000 is pledged by 10:07 A.M. EDT on Wednesday, August 3. If you’d like to contribute, click here to view Micah and Marie-Hélène’s Kickstarter page. Please consider sharing this article with friends via Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. Your help can make a huge difference.
While you’re here, don’t forget to check out the Gwarlingo home page, which is updated regularly. Right now, you can preview new music, see the latest Gwarlingo recommendations and reader comments, plus view Gwarlingo’s “Photo of the Week.”
If you like Gwarlingo, I hope you’ll consider subscribing by email. (It’s easy, safe, and free, and you won’t have to remember to keep checking the website on a regular basis). You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook or share a “like” on the Gwarlingo Facebook page.