Delving into the world of the extreme-right might seem like an odd choice for Norwegian filmmaker Deeyah Khan, who in her latest documentary White Right: Meeting the Enemy’ joins the literal frontline of the neo-nazi American 'white right' movement.
Mainstream media attempts to seek to ‘understand’ extremists has been controversial, but for the Emmy-award winning Khan it is not merely an academic exercise, but deeply personal. The documentary unapologetically opens with Khan's point of view: “I am the daughter of immigrants. I am a Muslim. I am a feminist. I am a lefty liberal. And what I want to ask you is: am I your enemy?”
The film was inspired by vitriolic reaction to a 2016 BBC interview where Khan talked about the importance of living together in a multicultural society, warning “Britain will never again be white,” which resulted in her being listed on white extremist websites and targeted with death threats.
“I’ve spent a lifetime being afraid of people and the reason for making the film and going out there into these communities was to try and confront that fear,” she told SBS Life.
“I was done being scared of these people and I just had enough."
“I was done being scared of these people and I just had enough,” she said. “I realised I can hide and keep my head down or I can walk into this and see if I can understand any of it.”
The result is a documentary providing fascinating anthropological insight (and deliciously inverting the standard frame of angry Muslims interviewed by a curious white journalist). From hanging out at neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville and rural white supremacist gun ranges to conversations in lounge rooms, Khan’s low-key, never ingratiating and empathetic frame of reference unnerves her subjects, some of whom are meeting the physical embodiment of an abstract hate for the first time.
“It’s very easy to sit behind your laptop and send ruthless messages to somebody. It’s very easy when you are in large groups and protesting and throwing up Nazi salutes. I was interested in sitting down one-on-one with people like this and have the conversation where I am able to recognise their humanity and they are able to recognise mine. Is that possible?”
There are surprising exchanges, with one follower leaving the movement after meeting Khan – but Khan also had hairy moments during filming, with one white nationalist Iraq war veteran threatening to fire a bullet into her camera.
“He was just holding on to his gun and staring me dead in the face. And he said ‘the best thing about being there (in Iraq) was I got paid to kill ragheads like you’."
Khan’s unflinching resolve in the face of male violence of all stripes has been well-honed. Khan, from a liberal Muslim family (her mother is Afghan and her father Pakistani) grew up in Norway and was a local celebrity and child music star. She was forced to flee the country at 17 after threats from Muslim fundamentalists. Extremism and male violence is a theme in her work; her previous film Jihad explored the motivations of young men who join militant Islamist groups.
“It is very much a male problem.”
“When it comes to both movements – having talked to representatives of both movements – having received of abuse from both movements – it might as well be the same guy, emotionally and psychologically.”
“It is very much a male problem.”
While the leaders of extremist movements tend to be driven by power, she noticed the radicalised followers were nearly all men in crisis - many of them military veterans suffering PTSD, lacking emotional tools to deal with feelings of isolation, shame and humiliation, and sharing a sense of entitlement and misogyny.
“The biggest reason is masculinity and a very sick, broken and damaging form of masculinity,” said Khan.
“What these movements, what they end up doing is they end up providing not an equaliser but some kind of compensation for whatever is lacking in that man’s life.”
Khan is clear she doesn’t seek to explain or justify her subjects – but as the rhetoric of white supremacy finds legitimisation in the halls of power and rising global populism, Khan’s lens is a deeply insightful one aimed at learning how to be better equipped to counter extremism.
“I have been stereotyped my entire life I know what it feels like to be stereotyped. I am not about to turn around and do that to someone else, even if it’s somebody I dislike and disagree with. This decision not to dehumanise - it’s not anything noble or honourable. To me it’s about holding on to my own humanity.”
White Right: Meeting the Enemy will broadcast on SBS Viceland on 9 September at 10pm.