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Interview with ZUHUR'S DAUGHTERS director Laurentia Genske

Zuhur’s Daughters is an observational film about two Syrian sisters living in Germany. Both are teens coming into their trans identities while living in the familial home. Watch it at Hot Docs Festival, streaming across Canada from April 29 to May 9.

Hot Docs spoke with one of the directors, Laurentia Genske, about stumbling upon her characters at a bar one night, and what it means to represent female identity on screen.

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Hot Docs: How did you and co-director Robin Humboldt first meet your protagonists, sisters Lohan and Samar, and what led you to decide you wanted to make a film about them?

Laurentia Genske: Robin and I were actually doing research for a different film and went to a gay bar in 2016 to meet a protagonist, and we saw Lohan and Samar dancing on a platform. At that time, they were 14 and 15, quite young teenagers. They look so fascinating and we felt a kind of aura coming from them, so we started to talk to them and just ask them who they are and what they're doing. There German was not so good at that time, but we managed to explain that we would like to get to know them better. So, we went to a bar another day and they told us that they live two lives, as boys in a refugee centre, and like girls in the outside world. We found it very interesting, so we stopped making our other film to concentrate on them and their story. We started to film the girls going to parties and their lives in the outside world. By the time we met the parents and starting filming at the refugee centre, where they lived, the girls had already started wearing makeup in front of their parents. So, it was not a big secret anymore, and actually the family was quite open; they started to talk about how they felt about the girls transitioning. At first their mother didn't want to be filmed, but at some point became very fascinated with talking with us and wanted to be on camera.

HD: Yes, their parents seem initially reluctant to participate and disagree with their daughters trans identities. What made you persist with them? And what do you think eventually changed their minds?

LG: They were initially scared to go public because there still have family in Syria, who might see the movie, and they didn’t want to get anyone in trouble or be put anyone in danger, so it was a big secret. But the more time passed being in Germany, the girls lived as trans more and more, and so their parents started to accept it more, but they were always hesitant, even at the end. So, it was a long process, overall we spent three years with them.

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HD: Did you have any connection to the Arab or LGBTQ+ community in Stuttgart prior to meeting the girls?

LG: No. But I made my first film about a transgender person.

HD: What is it that attracts you to trans subjects?

LG: I really admire the struggle for identity. In Germany, I feel like we are very behind in LGBTQ issues and could be way more modern. It’s cis-gendered people who are obsessed with gender, which puts so much pressure on trans people when they don’t fit into that binary. Society should be way more open to all forms of identity.

HD: The film is largely observational and you mostly watch the girls go about their everyday lives, putting on makeup, playing video games, going dancing. Did you have a firm intention of what you wanted the style of the film to be from the beginning? Or did the girl's lifestyle’s dictate the style of the film?

LG: Yeah, it was more the girls’ lifestyle. Robin and I did another film together and we seem to just adapt to what's happening in the protagonist's life. So, we don’t know where we will end up. We knew that Samar was sure she wanted to have top surgery, so that was kind of the dramaturgical line for us. But everything else was very observational and very adaptive to their lives. It was actually also very hard because many times someone didn’t want to film, or didn't show up. So, it was more like 90% of the time we were waiting or just hanging out. But the rest of the family wanted to take part more in the film. So, we shot enough that each family member could have their own story.

HD: Lohan and Samar have a younger sister, Mariam, who is also becoming a young woman. She's going through puberty and she'll soon wear the hijab. Can you talk about capturing these different representations of femininity that grow simultaneously?

LG: It was very fascinating to see Lohan, Samar and Mariam growing during the movie because, Mariam is going a completely different path: she is always cooking and cleaning and taking on a more traditional domestic role. She wants to marry and have a big family. Whereas Lohan and Samar are still figuring out what their feminine identities are. There was a time when Samar had a boyfriend and started to really change, she took on a more domestic role at home, she was always cooking and cleaning, but when the relationship ended she was no longer like that and went back to her partying ways.

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HD: Well, I guess you only ever practice femininity, and gender, in relation to other people. Everything is relative.

LG: There is a scene where Samar and her boyfriend have an altercation with a stranger on the street and Samar yells back at him. Her boyfriend implores her to please act more feminine. I think that scene reveals so much. To Samar, she is being a strong, confident woman, as she wished to be, and to her boyfriend this is outside the bounds of femininity as he understands it.

HD: Can you talk about how you financed the film?

LG: We had some initial money from our distributors, Camino Filmverleih, and our broadcasters, ZDF and 3sat, which let us apply for regional funding from Film- und Medienstiftung NRW and Deutscher Filmförderfonds. Our broadcaster and distributor were interested from the beginning of the project, so we were lucky to have access to larger funds with those triggers.

Interview conducted by industry programmer Madelaine Russo.

Categories: Director's Notebook

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