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Who belongs in France?

Karim Miské

Karim Miské examines colonial legacies through film and fiction.
Photo Credit: 
Kent Safford

Karim Miské is a documentary filmmaker and novelist based in Paris. His films have addressed a wide array of topics, including colonial legacies, hip hop culture, freedom of press, bioethics, interfaith relations, and immigration to France. His 2013 documentary Jews and Muslims: Intimate Strangers explores a thousand years of interfaith relations between Jewish and Muslim communities; another three-part series for French television examined the history of Muslims in France, from 1904 to the mid-2000s. Miské also wrote a crime novel based in contemporary Paris, Arab Jazz (2012), which was recognized by a number of prestigious awards including the English PEN Award (2015). His 2015 autobiographical novel, titled Un-belonging (N’appartenir), and its graphic novel rendition, Belonging (S’appartenir), engage with being an outsider in Mauritania, Albania, Senegal, and his native France, and chart a possible manifesto for making an internally-coherent identity out of belonging nowhere.

Miské was the Aron Rodrigue International Visitor at the Stanford Humanities Center in January-February 2018. While in residence at the Humanities Center, Miské screened his documentary Muslims of France (2010) and discussed immigration, colonialism, and transnationalism at talks sponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, Center for African Studies, France-Stanford Center, Europe Center, Mediterranean Studies Forum, and the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy. He collaborated with Humanities Center fellows and Stanford faculty on his new film and literary projects, recorded a podcast for the radio-blog Arabology, guest-lectured in an undergraduate class, and explored Silicon Valley, visiting Facebook, Apple, and community centers in East Palo Alto as part of his research for his current novel.

Q. What are your current projects?

I am currently working on two major projects – a documentary about decolonization, and a new novel that takes place in today’s Paris.

The documentary examines decolonization processes around the world, focusing on British and French former colonies in Africa (especially Kenya, Algeria, and Congo) and Asia (India, Indochina, and Indonesia). It will cover a sprawling series of events, people, and places, which makes for serious challenges – how to decide what to select? which themes to focus on? – but also allows for a really rich and, we hope, insightful story about how colonialism deployed “race” and “science” to justify conquest, and how vastly different peoples around the world sought to throw off their colonizers.
The novel, on the other hand, is squarely located in Paris right here and now. It follows a series of loosely interconnected people – Uber drivers and their passengers, millennial computer programmers and drug dealers, friends and ex-lovers – around Paris over the course of a single night. I’ve located it in what I think of as le vrai Paris, the real Paris – which is to say not the old-fashioned Paris of mainstream romantic imagination but the cosmopolitan, fast-moving, diverse city that I know. The novel is a coming-of-age story in one sense, but one that tries, through multiple narrative voices (including Twitter timelines and hip hop lyrics) to capture the scatteredness and distractedness of everyday contemporary life.

Q. Who do you see as your audience when making documentary films? What sort of impact would you like your films to have?

Like most filmmakers, I suppose, I would like my films to reach as wide an audience as possible! Specifically, though, I work hard to make films that can both speak to and provoke people – whether it’s a mainstream French audience in the film Muslims of France, for example, or audiences of many religious backgrounds (or none at all) for the documentary Jews and Muslims: Intimate Strangers. In the latter film, for example, we wanted to show how complicated and nuanced this history has been, covering 1400 years of both peace and conflict across continents, communities, and nation-states. We combined archival materials, watercolor animation, and interviews with leading scholars, and we worked hard to challenge stereotypical understandings of inter-faith relations, from the birth of Islam in 610 to the Holocaust and its aftermath in the 20th century. 

Q. What has surprised you in creating your documentaries? What are some of the challenges of creating films about such emotionally-charged topics?

I am often surprised myself by what I encounter in the archives when researching for a film. In Muslims of France, for example, I was shocked at the levels of violence that took place in mainland France in the 20th century – it was something I had not fully realized, even though I grew up in France. It can also be quite challenging to present people’s stories to audiences who understand them as “Other,” to put flesh on what are otherwise caricatures, to make even those with whom you – or I myself – disagree with into fully three dimensional human beings. This is a challenge for filmmakers, but it is also important for anyone who is committed to understanding why different people do what they do.

Q. Most of your career has been spent as a filmmaker, yet you have also written a memoir of your childhood and early adulthood, a crime novel, and you have a new novel in the works. What compelled you to take up fiction and memoir?

In a sense, both the memoir and my first novel, Arab Jazz, emerge from themes that extend across much of my work, including the documentaries: the possibilities of belonging, the contradictions of discrimination and multiculturalism. Writing the memoir was how I came to make sense of my own entangled biography – how the person I felt I was on the inside matched the face I saw in the mirror, someone whose name made many people doubt me as “really French.” I needed to explore what it meant to be the child of a Mauritanian father and a white French mother, to wrestle with being both an insider and an outsider. It turns out these questions resonate widely – wherever I have presented on the memoir (including at high schools across France), people inevitably come up to me eager to tell me their own stories of belonging and un-belonging. Hearing these stories is deeply satisfying and interesting to me, and shows me how important these issues continue to be. Almost everyone questions how they came to be who they are – I would go so far as to say that perhaps the most dangerous person alive is the one who doesn’t have any self-doubt about their own identity! As for the novels, they too allow me to take up these themes and let them play out in vivid detail, and in an open-ended and creative way.