Director, Accept the Call
A former broadcast journalist, Eunice Lau has a penchant for telling stories concerning social justice. Her film "Through the Fire" filmed in Somalia, was nominated for best short documentary at AMPAS Student Academy in 2013 while she was pursuing her MFA in film directing at New York University. With her training in narrative filmmaking, she seeks to bring a cinematic form to documentary films. Her works have appeared on Discovery Channel, Al Jazeera English and Channel News Asia. As a Singaporean filmmaker who calls New York City home, her stories often capture the journey of the immigrant and the profundity of our increasingly myriad hyphenated identities.
I was a young reporter when September 11 happened, and witnessed how it forever altered the world that I had grown up in. Atrocities were committed in the name of righteousness; militarization fueled not just the rise of phobia against Muslims, but the support for right-wing governments and the appeal of extreme ideology . Within a decade, whatever lessons and progress we had made since the end of the Great Wars were slowly being eroded. The world is once again, divided and deeply wounded.
Against this backdrop and 14 years after the fall of the Twin Towers, seven Somali American teenagers were arrested on terrorism charges as they attempted to leave the country to join ISIS. Beyond the headlines, what stood out to me was the fact that these youths grew up in a post-9/11 America that was hostile to the very fabric of their being as Muslims Americans. As I followed the story, I wondered how they have suffered and how the counter-terrorism policies have hurt them? And I wondered too, if that anger and hurt had turned them away - towards the false promise of a better world offered by ISIS?
Those questions led me to this story, because in some ways I see it as my redemption for failing in my duty as a journalist to stem the tide against the onslaught on our humanity. I left journalism in 2009 and spent three years incubating in New York University’s MFA film program, learning from esteemed story-tellers. Along the way, I directed and filmed a short documentary in Somalia, Through the Fire, which was nominated for the AMPAS student academy awards in 2013. Telling this story gave me the background I needed to understand the Somali diaspora and why refugees like Yusuf were forced to leave their homes.
Accept the Call is a father-and-son story that takes an unconventional path in approaching the crises of America’s systemic and institutional racism, the rise of radicalization, and ideological warfare that besiege us today. For three years, I followed the journey Yusuf Abdurahman took to understand how his son Zacharia was radicalized and the impact on his family when he was arrested. Through their stories, viewers will experience the systemic racism and prejudices youths like Zacharia endured, while grappling with the religious nuance and theological battles within the community that put them between a rock and a hard place.
One of the anecdotal stories that struck me most about Zacharia is related to me by his friend and former inmate Shaker Masri, whom he met shortly after being sentenced. Shaker recounted how he saw Zacharia making a Mother’s Day card in secret, because he had missed his mother terribly but was forbidden by the strictures of his ideology he had subscribed to then to celebrate such festivals. The image of a boy, barely an adult, expressing his love for his mother, but conflicted by the ideological battle for his soul, wrenched my heart. In telling the story of Yusuf and his son, I hope the microscopic lens on them will rise above the dissonance and evoke a visceral response in audiences of all political persuasions, and in so doing begin important dialogues.
We need to acknowledge the impact of the “War on Terror” on a generation of young Americans like Zacharia who grew up under the shadows of these punitive policies. At the same time, we need to realize how the first casualties of this conflict are often Muslims who do not subscribe to extreme ideology. In not acknowledging the influence of ultraconservative interpretation of the religion, or discerning between peaceful and progressive Muslims like Yusuf and the fundamentalists who carry out human rights abuses in the name of Islam, we have contributed to their vulnerability and marginalization.
We need to be inspired by Yusuf’s fortitude to carry out honest conversations. Only then, can we push back and challenge the false and racist narratives propagated by right-wing factions of society that fan the mills of Islamophobia and anti-liberal modernity rhetoric, and give our audiences an honest perspective on our global crises without prejudice.
CONVERSATION WITH EUNICE
What motivated you to tell this story?
It seems unconscionable to me that the unraveling of the progress we have made in the aftermath of World War II is happening less than 50 years after it ended. I see a repeat of history, and I see reactionary forces using the conflict to propagate their ideologies and inciting war. As a journalist and filmmaker, I feel it is my duty to push back against these false narratives and persecutions of Muslims, and delve deeper into understanding why this is happening.
What makes you think you are the right person to tell this story?
I’ve been asked this question countless times, and I don’t profess to be the most qualified person. I am born and raised in Singapore, a country consisting mostly of immigrants like America. So I do identify with Zacharia’s confusion over his hyphenated identity, of being descendants of immigrants who were forced to leave their homes, and finding a place in this world that allows me to feel comfortable and cherished in my own skin. It certainly helps too that I made a short documentary in Somalia in 2012. Telling that story gave me the background I needed to understand Somalia’s history and the diaspora before embarking on a complex story as “Accept the Call.”
At the end of the day, as storytellers, you relate to people as human beings and draw on our commonality rather than our differences to empathize and understand the universal truths. As with every story I tell, I approach it with a willingness to listen and learn, and be mindful of the trust placed in me to tell it right. I was 13 years old when my political consciousness was ignited by the image of the lone man standing against the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square. That photo by Jeffery Widener illuminated the power of the individual, and the personal responsibility we bear to stand up to evil by doing the right thing. Thirty years on, that symbol still resonates with me.
Why the focus on a father and son’s journey?
We decided to structure this as a father-son story to show how radicalization can happen to any parent whose child has been brainwashed by a cult or extreme ideology. This is a story of reactionary forces manipulating vulnerable people through ideology. I hope after watching this film, parents will go home and hug their children and hold healthy discussions with them about the dissonance that confuse them. As Yusuf tells his son, “Everyone makes mistakes. [But] wise person learns from his mistakes.”