At a film screening in Amman, Jordan, the crowd's chatter dies down as the theater lights dim. A silhouetted woman appears on-screen and begins to speak. It doesn't matter that you can't see her face and don't know her name. Her account — a story of brutality, prison, and a life of perpetual fear — is powerful, urgent, and deeply disturbing.
Her story and those of the film's two other unnamed women are the driving forces behind Jordanian-Spanish filmmaker Widad Shafakoj's documentary If You Meant to Kill Me._ The film looks at how women in Jordan are put into preventive detention in order to "protect" them from becoming victims of "honor crimes" (loosely defined as murders of women perpetrated by family members who believe they have "defiled" the family's "honor" in some way, often over a mere accusation of a romantic relationship).
These women are detained under the Crime Prevention Law, which authorizes governors to arrest individuals under suspicion of a crime. But instead of prosecuting the criminals, the law is used to detain the potential victims. These women can spend extended periods of time — sometimes years — in custody for a crime they did not commit.
At the film screening in Amman, a man in the audience declared that some women deserved to be victims of honor crimes. Shafakoj, barely raising her voice, responded that perhaps the law should be used against men like him. The room burst into spontaneous applause.
In her films, Shafakoj takes the issues that are staring us in the face — the people on the streets, unquestioned norms, and the marginalized on the sidelines of a crisis — and puts them front and center. Her work has been transformational and controversial. Shafakoj's first documentary, ID:000, was a team project for a filmmaking course. It tells the story of abuse in an orphanage in Jordan, of how orphans are assigned an ID number — "000" — that marks them as orphans. They are assumed to be illegitimate children and inevitably face harassment and discrimination both on the streets and when they try to find work.
As a result of the film, Shafakoj says, the orphans featured in ID:000 were issued different ID numbers, effecting change in the negative stigma against them. "I saw the power of making a documentary," Shafakoj says, "and I was like, I know what I'm going to be doing for my whole life."
I met Shafakoj in Amman, where she's currently finishing her next film, on female Jordanian footballers. We talked about honor crimes, the deep-rooted need to fundamentally change how people see women's lives, and why people often ask her, "Why do you always have to show negative things?"
Saba Imtiaz: What I find really interesting is that your work is about very public things that other people just don't notice. Is this a conscious effort?
Widad Shafakoj: Not really. I think when I made ID:000 and saw its impact — that these orphans were then able to go to the interior ministry to actually apply for proper ID numbers and got them — it was incredible to know that I helped create change for people who needed it. I felt so powerful to be able to do that. And I'm just a filmmaker, not a politician or a social worker. [This issue] was just something I was passionate about.
SI: So many of these films are made and nothing happens in terms of legislation or policy change. Do you see your work as a form of activism, a call for reform?