I heard a story about someone who asked a Sufi Sheykh if he could be his student. The Sheykh responded that he had a better proposition. How about he becomes that student’s friend? He tells him: “You walk with me; you don’t follow me. You hear what I hear, see what I see.” He didn’t mean that they were equal. But that they would walk together.
Jude Chehab’s first feature documentary, Q, is about a lot of things. Mostly, it’s about love and the responsibilities we have to one another to nurture and shepherd the love we have for family, for community, for neighbors, for intimates. The darker sides of love are sometimes a factor too – the unquestioning love and devotion one has for, and to, an elder, a teacher, a tradition, a religious order. Q is a story about how a small family helps set one of its members free from a kind of entrapped, dangerously compromising love. As Jude films and witnesses Dr Hiba Khodr’s painful journey through a profound spiritual awakening and transformation, the film becomes a document of how to walk beside a loved one as she endeavors to fly on her own terms. The result is a rich and intimate portrait of a modern-day Lebanese Muslim family. A multiple-award-winning DP and filmmaker based between New York and Beirut, Jude made her first short documentary as director/writer/producer in 2022, in association with Hot Docs and SAP, called 300 Days of Sun, a story of everyday citizens in Beirut who work together to free themselves in the simplest, most practical of ways from the myriad inconveniences of living under an unendingly corrupt government.
The great Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, had a legendary commitment in aiding the artistic development of aspiring filmmakers. Attracted by the nostalgic feel of Cuba, he held his final workshop at Havana’s renowned International School of Film and Television, founded in 1986 by the late Colombian writer and Nobel laureate, Gabriel García Márquez. When she was barely out of her teens, Jude was a member of Kiarostami’s last filmmaking workshop in 2016, shortly before his passing, and his influence imprinted itself on her deeply.
Q had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this past June where Jude was awarded the Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. At its next stop, Sheffield DocFest in UK, the film won the Grand Jury Prize for Best International First Feature. The film was also part of the International Feature Dox competition (garnering an honourable mention from the jury) at DokuFest in Kosovo in August. It was there I met Jude, sitting down next to her at a very crowded table in a very crowded restaurant, where we proceeded to have a warm and intimate conversation as if we were the only people in the room. I felt so at home in her presence, particularly noticing her laser-like ability to really listen. So, I was very happy to meet with her again via Zoom in early September on a Helsinki-Beirut-Houston (yes, the one in Texas) connection to further learn about the making of Jude’s beautiful début feature, joined by her unforgettable protagonist – who also happens to be her mom.
Pamela Cohn (PC): Jude, you shared with me that your cinematic inspirations for this film were the works of Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky and Satyajit Ray, a quite powerful trio of filmmakers. How did these directors influence your creative decisions as a first-time feature director making a subject so close to your heart?
Jude Chelab (JC): I was very privileged to be in that last student group of Kirarostami’s in Cuba. I was so young at the time I probably didn’t take as full advantage of it as I could have. But I saw how much of a human filmmaker he was and how he looked for very specific human stories. From the inspiration of these masters of cinema in thinking about Q, it was about trying to find a spiritual language that would translate far beyond our home in Beirut, to bring people in. Finding the heart and soul within the film became my search. This film did not end up being the film I thought I was going to make. I thought I was going to focus on the group my mom had been a part of all these years. I wanted to get to the bottom of why they are so secretive, maybe make some kind of exposé. I can even say there was a certain level of soul-snatching that was happening to my mother, and I wanted to remind her about the relationship with God one could have, the one she told me about when I was growing up. I wanted to save her, somehow. That’s a big word, but really that was the intention. I’m very happy that’s not what we ended up with after filming for all those years. [The group Jude refers to is the Al-Qubaysiat, an Islamic women’s organization established in the early 1960s in Damascus, Syria, founded and led by Sheykha Munira al-Qubaysi, also known as The Grand Anisa. It aims at teaching young Muslim women and girls the Quran and Islamic values and traditions. Like all Sufi orders, the group has an organizing principle that is hierarchical.]
PC: Did you feel like you needed saving, Hiba? In the film, when you talk about your love for the Grand Anisa and the group, you say, “Love is very, very dangerous.” There is such a huge push for healing in the film and it’s a rough spiritual road getting there.
Dr Hiba Khodr (HK): Throughout the journey of making the movie, as Jude said, things changed a lot. This notion of her wanting to save me didn’t happen in the way she thinks it did. It’s what she was able to accomplish in making the film that healed me. It’s not saving, it’s healing. I encounter many people who get upset by even speaking about the group; it was offensive to so many people. But this is about my story, my love story. This is not about the group. When Jude came to me, all she said was that she wanted to make her first documentary about this. It’s my daughter we’re talking about, and she tells me she wants to make her first film so I’m going to let her do it! I didn’t think about how much I was going to sacrifice. The only thing I didn’t want is for someone to watch the movie and think of the group as a cult. That is the one word I don’t want anybody to say. And, of course, it has been said and it’s problematic. To not put any conditions on Jude in making the film was not easy for me. I knew the intentions were good and beautiful and that we were not there to necessarily reveal anything. The process that happened within me during the making of this, what’s seen of my relationship with Jude, what’s seen of my relationship with my husband – nothing was planned. Ziad and I fought and had certain conversations that we’d never had before and for the very first time we’re having these fights and discussions in front of a camera. I give a lot of credit to Jude for the fact that I could move from being very aware of the camera to realizing it was there, of course, but still be able to allow what was happening to happen. The physical reality of the camera shifted everything that was going on into something creative, something enjoyable, despite what was happening to me emotionally.
PC: From the very first moment we hear you in voiceover, Jude, you’re reciting this disturbing, recurring dream you keep having about this faceless woman that might be your mother, or she might not. But then, there is this immediacy in the way you become the director and tell your mother to open the door and your camera lingers on her face for several seconds. It’s such a fantastic opening shot because the negotiation between the two of you is both explicit and implicit. Was this something you were aware of? Was it purposeful?
JC: That’s an interesting read on the opening, no one’s ever mentioned that. But the film also ends that way too where I’m very much directing my mother and you hear me ask her to do certain things. It was kind of a play on who has the power. At the end of the day, am I just another version of the Grand Anisa? I thought about that a lot. Just hearing her speak about it now and saying oh, it’s my daughter, of course I’m going to do what she wants. It’s a bit heavy. There was a lot that evolved organically, and I was evolving. I got the ITVS grant that enabled me to start making this at the age of twenty-three. I didn’t even know how I was going to tell this story, how I was going to be able to give justice to it. I started out with this kind of tunnel vision so that anything that didn’t have anything to do with the group wouldn’t be filmed. My dad wasn’t a character; my brother wasn’t a character. It was my mother and grandma and that was the film. I think my work as a DP made me think, perhaps, that I needed to be that precise.
We ended up with only about fifty hours of footage shot over the course of five years. All of it, every scene, was very intentional. This was partly because I didn’t want to subject my mom to a lot. Every interview was painful for her. I didn’t want to make her speak about things ten times or take twenty hours for an interview. And once she really became the story, I knew that things would continue to open until they would kind of break. It’s so much about the heart and the inner journey she takes, and I did know it had to reach some kind of breaking point.
PC: In the film, your grandmother says what amounts to a very odd statement. She tells you, “We don’t know anything about them” – meaning the group. It was difficult to get a reading on how she meant that. Was she talking about all the mystery shrouded in the teacher-student relationships? As Hiba indicated, it’s so easy to misunderstand what this kind of devotion consists of. You mentioned your deep interest, Jude, in this teacher-student relationship in the Sufi orders. But instead of explaining anything specific about them in the film, you leave a lot of mystery.
JC: That was one of the most difficult things, finding that balance. How do we give enough information so people can follow the journey? The reality is that, oddly, the more you try to understand the group, the less you know or understand. My grandmother spent almost her entire life in it and still acknowledges that certain things are still hidden to its members. There’s a certain level of tension within the group, a certain level of withholding of information, of love. Because there’s so much withholding, it keeps you on edge, keeps you coming back for more.
HK: It’s kind of like a calculated communication of information. It’s done on purpose. I give a little bit here; I give a little bit there. I’ll give something to someone, but not give to someone else. It’s planned. It’s not organic. It’s a strategy to act in a certain way, with certain people at certain times. It’s not so much secretive across the board. It’s secretive when you compare the group to all the other groups in any organisation that exist in the world. We’re living in an age where it all feels like a small village. Everybody knows everything about everybody else. A couple of days ago I read something that stated that the world is now so small, that you don’t even know how or where to move or where you can go anymore. I think the statement my mother said was very sincere because it made her realise that I’ve been inside the group ever since I was first married over forty years ago, and I still don’t know a lot. They purposely limit the access to information or their plan. That’s not necessarily something negative – any organisation does this.
But that’s what’s problematic for me. Because when you turn into an organization, there’s no spirit anymore. In time, that’s what I realized. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with hiding things. I teach public policy and am very aware of interest groups in society that work in a different way. Some of them are very secretive and some of the biggest ones that end up transforming things, making big societal changes in a significant way, are secretive. What’s problematic is for a women’s religious group to become secretive because you lose the spirit. It takes away from that. I’m here to be real. That’s why I needed another path to know God. When I started to meet and sit with other Muslim groups in other places in Europe, for example this group I met in Spain, I started crying, Pamela, and I didn’t know why. It was in the way they behaved with one another that was so real and loving and it made me feel things. They were talking about God with one another; they weren’t talking about Islam. I saw the vastness of it. Secrets make you small and restricted and controlling. God is vast. Don’t restrict me! Don’t restrict a religion or a discourse. I was happy with that system like my mom was. But that changed and I knew that was not what I wanted any longer.
JC: It’s not the traditional student-teacher relationship we’re all accustomed to. At one point in the film, my mother says that she could leave her family for this group. If she was put in that situation, she would have put the group before her own family. Why is it that way? What is the Grand Anisa doing to get someone to think that way? We talk a little bit about a mountain at the end of the film and about these wings that my mom is given to fly up to the mountain top. And then those wings are cut off; they’re taken away leaving her in this limbo. Is the teacher then helping to raise you? Or is there just this power play that happens? Trying to find meaning in one’s life through someone else for a lot of people is about seeking a sense of belonging. The group provided a sense of sisterhood, provided something beyond the materialistic world for my mom so that she felt she had a higher purpose. What do you think, Mama?
HK: I’ve always wanted to be a student to a teacher. I missed sitting at the feet of a teacher, a mentor, a Sheykha. When he was going to college, my son, Mohamad, told me that he wanted to find a mentor, a teacher, who would take his hand and take him to God, someone who would leave him there and tell him, “Here you are with your Lord.” When we talk about student-teacher relationship, Jude, this exists in every tradition. It’s about someone who is really supporting you and whom you love. It could be a coach; it’s not just restricted to a religious relationship. I learned over time there is something called a “force Sheykha”, the female religious teacher who takes you through the journey, holds your hand and then walks with you. I heard a story about someone who asked a Sufi Sheykh if he could be his student. The Sheykh responded that he had a better proposition. How about he becomes that student’s friend? He tells him: “You walk with me; you don’t follow me. You hear what I hear, see what I see.” He didn’t mean that they were equal, but that they would walk together. As Jude said, I wanted to grow my wings to reach my God, the Divine. It’s not about my own self-satisfaction, self-growth. The relationship with the teacher is about love, without control. Of course, every love relationship has conditions. There’s no unconditional love in this world. I see this growth in myself through my relationships with my own students, my own circle. I’ve changed a lot, but there are still remnants. But I’m a completely different teacher to my students because of this.
PC: Some of the film’s most delightful moments for me were the ones where we see Hiba or Ziad or Mohamad deep in prayer or meditation dip back into the mundane or domestic world without missing a beat. In the first part of the film, we see Hiba answer a ringing phone right in the midst of praying to organize brownies and cookies for a group meeting. I think so many non-religious people really misunderstand how seamless the line is between what might be perceived as a solemn religious moment and regular daily life concerns. Why did you feel it was so important to include those moments instead of the usual collage of people constantly prostrating themselves, or other trappings of religious life to show us how devout they are?
JC: That’s interesting you mention this because during feedback sessions of the first rough cut, I was advised to get rid of those moments because they weren’t “central to the story”. Too many of the films from the Arab region are so much trauma porn. It isn’t all suffering all the time. This is our reality, the one I grew up in. I’ve been told by people who’ve seen the film that just in the first twenty minutes alone, any notions they had about Arab women are broken by my mom’s actions, the way she moves through her day. She’s a professor at the university; she’s speaking English. All these things, to us, are so basic. I mean I don’t notice that we’re different from what the standard image is of what people have about Muslims. I wanted to capture every layer of who we are as a people, and I love those instances too where my dad is in the middle of praying and then talking to the Google bot to find out why the internet isn’t working [laughs]. It’s very easy for religious people to be performative in a certain way because we also know we’re supposed to be held to a certain standard. Your guard can never be down. It’s ridiculous to me to have to justify anything about being a religious person.
PC: You were brought up in the US for much of your formative years. Very shortly after the family goes back to Beirut after living in the States, you chose to don hijab while you were still very young. Would you talk about that decision?
HK: I can remind you in case you forgot! [laughter]
JC: Growing up here in the US, I always wanted a more Arab name; I wanted everyone to know I was Muslim. We grew up in the suburbs of Florida in a middle-class neighborhood, very white. My parents would suggest sometimes that we should integrate more, be more American. Being in the US you constantly have to justify your humanity. Moving back to Lebanon was a dream come true for me. I could stop having to explain or justify myself because everyone around me looked like me, spoke like me. It was a homecoming, the place where I belonged. I was excited to wear hijab. I told my parents I wanted to wear it when I was thirteen. They did not want me to. They thought I was too young and would change my mind. But I’ve never doubted that decision since.
HK: We definitely didn’t want her to, especially her father. He was afraid that she’d put it on in a momentary coup de foudre. But Jude really did her homework, her research about it in a very smart way. She asked people around her about what they had lost and what they had gained by wearing the scarf. I couldn’t say yes or no. I mean she was in the school of the group, and I didn’t want her changed by that. She has a strong personality. Those of us who wear the head covering always somehow need to prove we have a mind. Having it on does not stop us from thinking!
PC: Hiba, I’d love for you to share a bit more about the personal outcomes, the emotional resonances, of all this for you – the journey we see in the film but also what happened interiorly. There’s a scene with you and Jude where you tell her about this other layer even beneath the soul layer, the layer where our deepest secrets lie. It’s such a beautiful metaphor for your relationship with God, that it belongs to no one else but you, those relationships with your own family that belong to no one else but you, and how all that shifts and changes over time.
HK: My most important journey was documented, a journey I shared with Jude on a very deep level, something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. This will also stay with others, too who see this film and that’s beautiful. It’s not just our home movies. It’s something more. People have come out of the theatre to tell me, “Oh, you’re so brave.” “You were so vulnerable.” I didn’t think about how brave I was, either before the making of the movie or after. The film is about my journey but it’s also part of my journey at the same time. I’m in it and it’s in me but it also has a life of its own now. There is something I have now that’s deeper and that’s more important for me. There is more love. I’m proud of myself that I was able to do this and I’m still walking down the road towards what I want to do. There were certainly difficult moments.
JC: There was a lot of backlash.
HK: Yes, of course there were strong things that were said. Jude can talk about that more. I have to go soon. But yes, there were days that were very, very difficult on me. But that’s part of the contractions and the birth. I took it and continue to take it with a smile on my face knowing that I started with Jude on this project because of Jude. I’m so deeply proud of her. She’s made an excellent work – with me, on me, of me, and for me. How can I be more satisfied than that? I love you, Jude.
JC: I’m getting emotional!
[At this point, Hiba, the whirlwind, leaves the conversation in a flurry of activity.]
PC: We haven’t spoken much about Hiba’s mother, your grandmother, who is also a huge presence in the film, but a touchstone that’s so different from the one you have with your mom. You’ve been brought up by two quite powerful women, influenced by this female energy that is so potent and fierce. Every time you frame your grandmother, you tell her she looks beautiful – and she is. The generational aspect of this line of women emanates a lot of joy in the film.
JC: My grandmother definitely enjoyed it. I mean I can tell you right now she’s in full diva mode. She loves that people mistake her for my mom. [laughter] She puts aloe vera on her face and avocado in her hair. She really takes care of herself. She still goes to the gym and does Pilates. These women formed who I am. They never made me question myself. Like many women, I’ve experienced challenges in filmmaking, the ways we acknowledge the gender imbalance and opportunities that aren’t as easily available to women. But I never really felt that challenge as much as that of being an Arab and a devout Muslim. My grandmother is shown in the film as being so bossy, but she was also always so open with me, even in the way she changes her mind a million times. Every interview with her was so different. One time, she’s with the group, another time she’s telling me that they’ll destroy you. It was very confusing. It’s far from clear cut and I notice that people going into it do very much want clear cut answers and they’re constantly thrown. Nothing fits in with how we might see a secretive religious group, but people do want labels. But nothing my grandma or my mom says or does allows for that. The fact that my mom was given centre stage, particularly by the men in my family, breaks stereotypes too. I love my father for that because he’s just not your stereotypical Arab man. At the end, there’s this subtle moment of closure that’s not even spoken about between my parents, but it shifted things a lot.
PC: Ziad, in fact, lets you push him around a little bit in the way you’re trying to get him to reckon with some things about your mom that you’re trying so hard to understand. To me, that’s what the best of religion can offer us – the ability to constantly question things, not seeking answers because there will never be one, really. I think your film shows how beautiful that ineffable mystery can be in someone’s life, however they choose to deal with it. It’s such a loving gesture to really listen to your family in this way. When you interview other young Lebanese people, as you did in your BBC piece after the horrendous tragedy of the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, this deep listening is apparent there too. After asking a young woman about her hopes for the future, she tells you that while she doesn’t really have any hope for the future, she still feels it’s her duty to keep helping other people.
JC: My relationship with Lebanon has changed so much. It’s been a really tough time there. I’m in a place of such privilege that it’s actually hard for me to talk about it. I mean I’m in Texas right now. I don’t need to go to the American Embassy to ask for a visa. Who would be there the very next morning at the blast site picking up all the remains, not really stopping right then to think about how traumatized they are? It’s community; it’s not an individualistic society as it is in the West and that’s the beauty of it. All of us feel the same level of responsibility and I think that comes through in the making of my films.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s been a lot of backlash from the group. I mean they haven’t actually seen the film, but nonetheless feel they can weigh in on my intentions. They think I’m doing it for the fame and the money. Yeah, well, it’s documentary – no fame, no money. [laughter] But we shouldn’t be naïve. The beautiful things my mom expressed in this interview are nice, but there was so much pain we went through together to get her to the point where she could honestly say that the group could say whatever they wanted. She was on her path. She wanted everyone to just move out of her way, basically. It took so much work for her to be able to say that.
When we talk about these things in documentary, it’s such a naïve stance. It’s not just about having a good relationship with your participant, and that’ll result in a great film. It’s definitely not that. There’s so much that comes after making the film. There is beauty too and that outweighs the pain. But what is it that really keeps me going? It’s a sense of responsibility to my people, to showing them this film, to finally start having a conversation. In the entire region, no one talks about religious discourse, the systems we have in place. How can we talk about it? How can we evaluate it? How can we nitpick it but also really hone in on these questions? It’s so challenging for them. And it’s also why they’re very upset because we’re not taught to challenge things in this way. Everything needs to remain the way it is and it’s not to be spoken about. From their point of view my mother was being incredibly disloyal by doing what she did.
PC: The thing is that by exposing one woman’s journey, we know that that must absolutely speak to so many other women who don’t feel they have this opportunity. Perhaps part of that backlash comes from feeling exposed because your mom cannot be the only woman who has had this kind of awakening. What about this experience has been particularly transformative for you?
JC: I did come into this thinking there must certainly be some simple answer and that all can be solved by knowing what that answer is. The making of this film really showed me that that’s not how we, as humans, function. It allowed me to think about relationships moving forward and to realize how dynamic we are as people. The emotional fluctuation throughout the film was frustrating and I asked my mom about why she seemed to give me a different answer every time I asked her about how she felt about things. It’s just endlessly fascinating to me, how sensitive we are, how fragile we are, how fragile love can be. I learned so much about love. There’s the love my parents have for one another, between my mother and God, between my mother and the Anisa, between my mother and me. Sometimes these loves can be destructive. But they can also be regenerative. I wonder why so many films I watch end up becoming films about identity. It’s the worst. Because then there’s no more human being. The heart of it, for me, is to keep returning to the human spirit, to the resilience of being human.
Pamela Cohn is a Helsinki-based critic, writer, film & video curator, story structure consultant, and festival moderator. She’s the author of Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers(OR Books, New York & London, 2020), and co-producer and host of The Lucid Dreaming Podcast: Conversations on Cinema, Art & Moving Image. http://www.pamelacohn.com/