United in Compassion and Support: Michele Seminara on the launch of ‘Beyond the Father’s Shadow’ a film by Saba Vasefi

Beyond the Father’s Shadow, a film by Saba Vasefi, was launched at NSW Parliament House on 26 August 2015.

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Saba Vasefi is a human rights activist, feminist, poet, filmmaker and Asylum Seeker Centre Ambassador. She vividly remembers the day she first arrived in Australia seeking asylum, after being expelled from her academic position at Shahid Beheshti University for campaigning against capital punishment in Iran:
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Five years ago, I arrived in Australia carrying only a red suitcase in one hand and my little girl in the other. I felt my hopes and dreams had been taken from me and I was left with little choice but to go into exile. But, before doing so, I had to relinquish all my possessions to my ex-husband so he would agree to give me full custody of my daughter. Divorce can be difficult for all women but in Iran it can be extremely debilitating and gruelling.

I fled the persecution, marginalisation, misogyny and corruption in Iran and sought asylum in Australia. When I arrived, other than the things I grasped in each hand, my only asset was my passion for human rights and art. And that was something I knew no one could take from me.

Five years on, that passion for human rights and the arts has taken Vasefi far and seen her achieve much. She has studied documentary filmmaking at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and on August 26, well-known author and UNICEF Ambassador Tara Moss launched Vasefi’s documentary, Beyond the Father’s Shadow, to a sold out audience at NSW Parliament House. The film, praised by Moss for being powerful, relevant and timely, portrays the struggles behind politician Edith Cowan’s rise to power. Vasefi uses poetic imagery to depict how Cowan’s traumatic childhood motivated her to become a social worker and then the first female parliamentarian of Australia.

In her speech on the night, Vasefi explained that she was drawn to exploring the life of Cowan because —

… I wanted to find a story that resonated with my own narrative. After spending years campaigning against capital punishment in Iran, I hoped I might find Australian women dedicated to the same cause. Edith Cowan was seven when her mother died and fifteen when her father shot and killed his second wife. He was subsequently hanged for the crime…

Cowan championed women’s rights in parliament, pushing through legislation which allowed women to be involved in the legal profession. She succeeded in improving women’s rights in general and the rights of mothers in particular. And she was one of the first to promote sex education in schools. Edith Cowan gave voice to the long suppressed anger, grievances and hopes of the incipient feminist movement.

Many people wonder why I am interested in Cowan and ask me why I made Beyond the Father’s Shadow. I think it is helpful to consider the theoretical construct presented by Halifu Osumare, known as ‘connective marginality’. According to her definition, marginalised groups connect in a manner that cuts through linguistic, cultural and geographical borders. I felt I understood Edith’s pain, sorrow and her fight against political policies which neglected her rights as a woman. I connected to her feelings of isolation and loneliness as a woman in a world that doesn’t trust female voices.

Making the film also brought back memories of teaching art therapy classes for underprivileged children in Iran ten years ago. Arriving in Australia, I felt vulnerable in a new country and culture, and experienced setbacks that I never anticipated after leaving Iran. I became paralysed as a result of domestic violence in Sydney, and I too used art to overcome grief and trauma. Like the children I worked with, I found my inner strength.

A number of distinguished female speakers (who helped Vasefi launch the film and participate in a panel discussion on misogyny and politics) highlighted the fact that women’s voices are often still not heard or trusted. Tara Moss gave a darkly humorous speech on Australia’s ‘meritocracy’, bemoaning the fact that while statistics show women are achieving outstanding results in education, politics and the workforce, they are rarely promoted into senior positions or given the same opportunities as men — the excuse being that they do not exhibit adequate ‘merit’. As Moss archly observed, ‘merit’ seems to be a strangely specific quality, manifesting predominantly in white males.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi, who hosted the film launch, is one of a minority of women (and people of colour) who have managed to display enough of the selective quality of ‘merit’ to be voted in as a Member of the NSW Legislative Council. She recounted stories of her childhood in Pakistan, a country which has one of the worst gender equality gaps in the world, and attributed her own confidence and drive to succeed to the influence of a feminist aunt. She warned the audience that the equal rights women enjoy in Australia have been hard won by women like Cowan and, as our current government works to rewind the supports and freedoms necessary for true equality, that they must be vigilantly defended.

The panel discussion at the launch of Beyond the Fathers Shadow (left to right) The Hon. Linda Burney Deputy Leader of the NSW Opposition. Dr. Mehreen Faruqi Greens Member of legstilative Council. Senator Lee Rhiannon. Dr Wendy Michaels: Historian, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Newcastle; Director, The Women’s Club; Convenor, Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival.

The panel discussion at the launch of Beyond the Fathers Shadow (left to right) The Hon. Linda Burney Deputy Leader of the NSW Opposition. Dr. Mehreen Faruqi Greens Member of Legislative Council. Senator Lee Rhiannon. Dr Wendy Michaels: Historian, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Newcastle; Director, The Women’s Club; Convenor, Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival.

This sense that we are, as a country, moving backwards rather than forwards in our treatment of women, was a common refrain among the speakers at the film launch. Senator Sarah Hanson Young spoke passionately about the plight of marginalised women such as refugees, paying tribute to the character of those she had visited in detention, saying, ‘We have no idea of the strength it takes to move your family and leave your homeland to go to another country’. She reminded the audience that such women choose to resettle in Australia because they believe it is a free country that treats women well; often, however, traumatic experiences such as sexual violence in detention make a mockery of this belief.

Although we are ostensibly a land of equality, vulnerable refugee and immigrant women experience a different kind of marginalisation in Australia than they did in their homeland. Van Badham, outspoken columnist for The Guardian, spoke powerfully about the way economic inequality contributes to the disenfranchisement of immigrants to this country. She argued convincingly that over the past twenty years there has been a systematic transferral of wealth from the poor to the rich, with the wealthiest 1% of Australians now owning 60% of the country’s assets, while the major social institutions which were in place to support people in need have either been privatised or simply shut down. She pointed out that if your work and security are always under threat you are not a democratically enabled person, and that fear of lack can lead people to scapegoat the minorities who live among them. In relation to asylum seekers, Badham claimed that the current government are using the age-old political strategy of blaming ‘them’ for economic inequality, thereby inciting unfounded fear and hatred. She praised Cowan, who worked to organise education, childcare and healthcare for women, and in doing so established the mechanisms which enable real economic and political equality.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the launch of Beyond the Father’s Shadow was the panel discussion hosted by historian Dr Wendy Michaels. Here the panellists had the opportunity to express their personal responses to the film, as well as to share some experiences from their own lives. Linda Burney, Deputy Leader of the NSW Opposition, pointed out that, just as in Cowan’s day, contemporary politics is a tough and patriarchal business, and revealed that it is still challenging, as a woman, to bring your own way of working into such a male dominated environment. She confessed that when sitting in Parliament she often feels like ‘breaking out and gasping for air’, as Cowan was depicted doing in the film. Dr Michael’s (who narrated and appeared in the documentary) pointed out that Cowan never wanted women to ‘take over’; rather, she advocated that they work alongside men, believing that only through working together would change be possible. Senator Lee Rhiannon (who also appeared in the film) fondly recounted her own childhood growing up in Australia in the 50’s and 60’s, crediting her practical father — who always encouraged her to learn new skills — with being a huge influence in her life. She fondly recalled how his favourite response to any problem was ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’

Besides the impact and importance of the documentary itself, the most outstanding aspect of the launch of Beyond the Father’s Shadow was, in the end, not just what was shared, but the atmosphere in which this sharing took place. Panellists, presenters and audience members alike were united in their acceptance, compassion and support for one-another, and for the cause of women’s well-being in general. As Vasefi explained when asked about her reasons for choosing film as a vehicle for social change:

In the twenty-first century male politicians still make decisions that affect women’s bodies, sexual preferences, marriage and employment. We need more feminists in politics, and consciousness-raising through artistic expression is a form of political action which can be used to elicit discussion about sexism.

Or as Dr Mahreen Faruqi simply proclaimed: ‘Women do belong in the house —Parliament House!’


An excerpt from Beyond the Fathers Shadow (from Adam Lynch’s website http://www.adamlynchcine.com/

 – Michele Seminara

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Michele Seminara is a poet and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bluepepper, Tincture Journal, Regime, Seizure, Plumwood Mountain and Social Alternatives. She is also the managing editor of on-line creative arts journal Verity La. Her first collection of poetry, Engraft, will be published by Island Press in early 2016.

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Woman Scream: Michele Seminara previews the Second Sydney International Women’s Poetry Festival

The Second Sydney International Women’s Poetry Festival. Treasury Room Sydney Town Hall, Friday 6 March 2015, 6.30-10pm.

WOLOn 6 March a significant event will take place in Sydney’s Town Hall – the Second Sydney International Women’s Poetry Festival. The Festival is part of a global chain of events celebrating International Women’s Day in over forty countries worldwide, and has been officially named one of UNESCO’s 2015 International Year of Light activities.

The Poetry Festival, also known as ‘Woman Scream’, is a platform for women’s creative participation, providing a socially viable and direct way of using poetry and the arts to encourage women’s achievements and bolster their self-esteem. It is also a vehicle for creatively protesting violence – in all its forms – against women. Begun in The Dominican Republic by poet Jael Uribe, the Festival is organised in Sydney by poet, filmmaker and human rights activist, Saba Vasefi. Saba is originally from Iran. At 24 years of age she became a lecturer at Shahid Beheshti University, one of the country’s most prestigious schools. She was a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, and also worked as a reporter for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. However, she was expelled from the University after only 4 years of teaching due to her activism, and fled from Iran to Australia. She has since completed a postgraduate degree in documentary film making at The Australian Film TV and Radio School, and two of her films, which deal with the plight of refugees in Australia and the issue children’s human rights abuses in Iran, were recently launched in NSW Parliament House. Saba believes that:

The role of women in history, society and culture is underrepresented or devalued. In many instances, the contribution of women is only recognised and appreciated when viewed as subordinate to the role of men. Cultural patterns of discrimination are intersectional; the marginalisation of women functions in a system that involves race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity and age. Contemporary female artists must navigate through interconnected systems of oppression. The literature … of women… is the literature of resistance.

As festival director, Saba has ensured that established – as well as emerging – poets and artists will be represented. Well known poets such as Melinda Smith, Tricia Dearborn and Candy Royalle will perform alongside lesser known, but highly respected, poets such Sara Mansour, Hani Aden and Roya Pouya. In addition, the audience will be treated to musical performances and film presentations, as well as to speeches by the likes of leading feminist and journalist Dr Ann Summers, and noted politician Dr Mehreen Faruqi, among others.

Asked about her motivation for staging the Festival in Sydney, Saba has said:

This is a creative rebellion against the forces that abuse and displace women … My awareness of this matrix of oppression, and the complexity of humiliating structures that support it, motivated me to organise this event in Sydney. I have witnessed discrimination towards different cultures, social classes and other marginalised groups… As a Middle Eastern woman I am pleased to create an opportunity for myself and other women with different voices, from different cultures and with different sexual preferences to scream against violence and once more display our power and unity.

The Festival will be attended by some refugee women and their children, who will be released especially from detention for the evening, and all proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Bridge For Asylum Seekers Foundation..

For further information visit the event’s Facebook site: https://www.facebook.com/events/1396462200655728

– Michele Seminara

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Michele Seminara is a poet and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bluepepper, Tincture Journal, Regime, Seizure, Plumwood Mountain and Social Alternatives. She is also the managing editor of on-line creative arts journal Verity La. She blogs at http://micheleseminara.wordpress.com/ and is on twitter @SeminaraMichele
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The Indomitable Spirit of the Film Maker: Michele Seminara reviews ‘Symphony of Strange Waters’ & ‘Don’t Bury My Heart’

Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart:  films by Saba Vasefi screened at NSW Parliament House on November 19, 2014

'Symphony of Strange Waters' a film by Saba Vasefi

Symphony of Strange Waters a film by Saba Vasefi

Last November human rights activist, film-maker, poet and academic Saba Vasefi launched her films, Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart, at  Parliament House in Sydney to an appreciative and supportive audience. The event was organised by Greens Senator Lee Rhianon and Greens Member of the NSW Legislative Council, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi. The audience were treated to speeches by author, academic and editor Michelle Cahill; Head Of Producing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) Andrena Finlay; and musical performances by the Tara Anglican School’s Axis Wind Ensemble (conducted by Iain Hoy), and Minerva Khodabande, cellist with the Sydney Youth Orchestra.

First screened at The United Nations in Geneva, Symphony of Strange Waters is a poetic and metaphoric film which deals with the experience of an Iranian child refugee arriving in Australia, a country where “even the taste of the water was unfamiliar to me”, and where her inability to speak English left her feeling isolated and unheard. The film is visually breathtaking, with the first half sub-titled and shot underwater, allowing the audience to experience the sense of exile and voicelessness of the young refugee before she discovers— on taking her cello to school one day—that when she plays “People stopped, and started to listen”. Able to speak for the first time through the medium of her music, she then emerges onto dry land, having found a way to connect with her new home and its people. The film expresses how vulnerable and “at sea” refugees feel in a strange new land, and how important artistic pursuits are in helping them to find their voice and express and process their traumatic experiences. As poet Michele Cahill pointed out, while our own government’s policies on refugees become increasingly regressive and ideologically reductive, the use of art and music therapy becomes even more essential, functioning—in essence—as a form of breathing, a method for survival.

Saba Vasefi - speaking at the screening of her films Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart at NSW Parliament House

Saba Vasefi – speaking at the screening of her films Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart at NSW Parliament House.

Don’t Bury My Heart—which has previously been screened by Amnesty International, the United Nations, the BBC, UCLA, and at the Copenhagen International Film festival and the Seen & Heard Film Festival—is a documentary dealing with the chilling issue of the death penalty in Iran as it pertains to children. Although it is illegal in Iran to put children who have committed a crime to death, they may, and are being, sentenced to death (from the age of 9 for girls and 15 for boys), and then held on death row until the age of eighteen, when they are executed. These horrific set of circumstances are explored in a compassionate and complex way in Don’t Bury My Heart: the victim’s—as well as the perpetrator’s—families are interviewed, and many of the scenes in the film are extremely emotional and harrowing. In fact, there was a stunned silence at the end of the screening, as the audience struggled to digest the shocking reality of what they had just witnessed.

In making Don’t Bury My Heart, filmmaker Andrena Finlay said that Saba was to be commended for using film as a tool to shine light on important human rights issues, literally bringing them out of the darkness of the Iranian government’s censorship. To highlight this she told the story of how some of Saba’s film footage was confiscated by officials, and how the documentary was only completed because Saba had the foresight to leave a copy of the film on a USB stick with her mother, who buried it in her garden and then emailed the footage piece by piece back to her in Australia. That the film was made at all is testament to the indomitable spirit of the film maker, and her determination to speak out on behalf of those whose voices are ignored, particularly those of children.

Don’t Bury My Heart - a film examining the death penalty in Iran as it pertains to children

Don’t Bury My Heart – a film examining the death penalty in Iran as it pertains to children

This type of activism has been a hallmark of Saba’s life. As she recounted to the audience on the night, at twenty-four she became one of the youngest lecturers to be appointed to the prestigious Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, but was fired four years later due to her human rights activities. These obstacles only made her more determined, however, and since arriving in Australia she has studied documentary film directing at AFTERS, and continues to fight for the rights of the most vulnerable in our society—refugees—using film as her medium. And while Don’t Bury My Heart deals with human rights abuses in Iran, Saba made a point of noting that refugees—including children—are also being abused here in Australia: “While the Iranian government are executing children by the rope, the Australian government are doing the same by torturing and locking them in detention centres. When I decided to make this film about child refugees, I was advised to change my topic because Australia is sick of refugees—however, this only made me more determined to make the film.”

As Mary-Ellen Mullane (Investment/Development Manager in Documentary at Screen Australia) commented after seeing the films, “Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart are both very much works ‘from the heart’ of a strong woman with something to say. She (Saba) shows great potential as a film maker.” All who were in attendance on the evening, and who have viewed the films world-wide, could not help but agree.

– Michele Seminara

The screening was supported by the Tara Anglican School for Girls; Jan Bowen, chair of the Sydney Youth Orchestra and Stephanie Hutchinson, General Manager of the Orchestra; Pat Fiske, prominent member of Australia’s independent film making community; Mary-Ellen Mullane, Investment/ Development Manager in Documentary at Screen Australia; and Jennifer Ross, Executive and Research Assistant at the National Children’s Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission. ———————————————————————————————————–

Michele Seminara is a poet and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bluepepper, Tincture Journal, Regime, Seizure, Plumwood Mountain and Social Alternatives. She is also the managing editor of on-line creative arts journal Verity La. She blogs at http://micheleseminara.wordpress.com/ and is on twitter @SeminaraMichele

At 24 years of age Saba Vasefi became a lecturer at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, one of Iran’s most prestigious schools. She became a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, and also worked as a reporter for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. She was twice a judge for the Sedigheh Dolatabadi Book Prize for best literature on women’s issues. However, she was expelled from the University after 4 years of teaching due to her activism, and fled from Iran to Australia. She completed a postgraduate degree in documentary film making at The Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS). She is also the director of the prestigious ‘Woman Scream’ International Poetry Festival, to be held for the second time in Sydney, on 6 March this year. https://www.facebook.com/events/1396462200655728/?pnref=story

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