Documentary Film Explores Why Americans of Arab Background Must Vote
By: Ahmed Mansour/Arab America Contributing Writer
What is the Arab American story for 2018?
What stories most honor their struggle, their triumph, their pain?
I never set out to find such a story, but in 2017, almost by accident, I did. A documentary filmmaker captures the action. Then in the editing room, he gets to see what is emerging and which human struggle can grab an audience. That, in short, is how Brooklyn Inshallah came to be, and why I believe it is such an important story for Arab America to see in 2018, before the elections in November.
It all began when I decided to cover the 2016 primaries for the NY City Council where one candidate stood out. Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian American Lutheran Pastor, running as a Democrat in Bay Ridge, the largest Arab American suburb. Given unprecedented access to the campaign, my team shot over 600 hours of cinema verite campaign footage. Being originally from Palestine myself, there was no Arab English language barrier to overcome, as there might have been for any local American filmmaker. These were my people.
It became clear from the start that this was no ordinary campaign. First El-Yateem was the only Arab American ever to run for a City Council seat in New York City. Second, despite a population of 30-40,000 potential voters, it was a startling revelation to learn that most Arab and Muslim Americans did not vote. The last election, only 250 cast their ballot. Wanting to know the back story, I came to my third discovery, that there was an Arab Community still living in shock and fear.
I filmed witnesses telling stories of persecution, NYPD surveillance, and deportations after 9-11. I saw first-hand how the other candidates exploited racism and bigotry against El-Yateem to win the vote. What emerged was this Arab American community’s suspicion that the system was rigged, or that voting did not matter, or if you wanted to vote, no one would take the time to explain it in your language.
That set up the drama of my documentary. Could our candidate, El-Yateem and his campaign team change that? The campaign was a whirlwind of energy, where they registered and mobilized over 3,000 Arab and Muslim voters. Voter turnout showed an increase of almost 1200%. Led by a team of inspired women leaders, the candidate, and his volunteers took to the airwaves and the streets formed alliances with local Muslim, Jewish, and other Christian communities, and finally won the endorsement of unions and social democrats who sent hundreds of volunteers out in that last week of campaigning. It is a story you have to see.
In November 2018, we face another election. If I took my camera to other Arab American communities, I wonder if I would find the first story of voters too scared or cynical to register or cast their ballot? Or would I find the second story about leaders like my candidate emerging and organizing? For me, the second story is the only way we can make democracy work. That is why I have fast-tracked the editing of my documentary, so this Arab American story can be shown more widely to inspire the change in other communities.
My long-term goal is to get funding to finish editing “Brooklyn, Inshallah” and then to submit it to festivals such as Tribeca and Sundance so this amazing Arab American story is told. But short term, I want to use it to show my Arab-American community that they really can make a difference in US elections. If any year is the year to do that, it is 2018.
Currently, we have more Arab and Muslim Americans and allies running for office than ever before. In primaries, we have had huge successes in the primaries: both Arab American women won the primaries in uncontested districts: Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ilham Omar in Minnesota. The more great news is that Ammar Campa-Najjar has a great chance to win in San Diego since his Republican opponent is being indicted. However, Abdul El-Sayed, lost his primary to run for Governor of Michigan, a state with a large Arab and Muslim population. That means we cannot afford to be complacent. The battle is not won or lost with one primary.
As far as the NY City Council primary, El-Yateem lost, but his efforts were not in vain. Coming out of his uphill battle, his supporters formed “Yallah Brooklyn” an alliance of Arab American voters who are playing a decisive role in the 2018 elections. No one will dare ignore them again in a hurry.
“Brooklyn, Inshallah” can serve as the basis for a non-partisan initiative to educate our community on the importance of voting and how to get involved to support the candidates of your choice. We are partnering with local Arab and Muslim organizations to host screenings and voter registration drives in every main Arab American community across the nation. I have secured funding to attend as many of these as possible to share insights and facilitate post-screening discussions.
If you would like an opportunity to screen the documentary, please contact us. But do not delay because time and funding are limited. Together we can ensure that Arab and Muslim Americans have a strong voice in electing America’s leaders.
For more information regarding the film go to: https://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/FiscalSponsorship/profile?id=17829
Ahmed Mansour, a New York-based filmmaker, is an NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute-News and Documentary Program graduate. Mansour was born and raised in a refugee camp in Gaza Strip, Palestine. He runs his own production company specializing in short videos and has received residencies and fellowships from Duke University and the Paths to Peace Leadership Program.