A very kind white man was explaining near-field-technology to me. I was looking up at him, mouth agape, like a child at a magic show. I thought I could turn my writing hand to anything, but I was wrong. I could not write press releases about technology.
Have you heard of Sunday night anxiety?
I had everyday anxiety. I vomited every morning. Sometimes every evening, too. I barely ate. I was a very fashionable and unhealthy stick.
When I got fired from that job, I felt a perverse sense of relief. Goodbye near-field-technology, goodbye bullying co-worker, goodbye nice but always-absent boss. Goodbye inadequacy.
Something had to change though. And oh, my parents were not going to like that change. I wanted to make films.
My parents, Sri Lankan Muslims, immigrated to Dubai in the early 80s. They don't talk much about their time in Sri Lanka. But my father once told me he hid a Tamil family in his kitchen while an angry mob knocked on his door asking where they were. Gifted with a salesman's tongue, my father somehow talked his way out of it. The Tamil family were so grateful they offered him their house. He said no; they were leaving for Canada but they'd soon come home. They never did.
All my parents ever tried to do was keep me safe. I'll always be grateful for that.
But now what was I going to do?
My mother asked me this question with the regularity of a metronome. My parents wanted me to marry. They wanted me to have a stable job. Preferably both. With one gone, the other was inevitable. Right?
Wrong. I had refused every single one of the men they had introduced me to. And I would continue to do so until I met The One.
Where did I get such ludicrous romantic notions? Who the hell did I think I was? Not only that – I had decided I was a filmmaker! A stand-up comic! The only thing I could get from such foolishness is shame and indignity with a side helping of poverty.
At the time, I thought those rhetorical questions had a very clear answer – Lee Pace. Tim Burton.
As a pre-teen and teen, I would sit down to watch a film every Wednesday night (the weekends used to be Thursday and Friday in Dubai). It would be the strangest film I could find, as far away from my own experience as possible. Usually it was films about white people. But it was also Soldier's Girl, a heartbreaking film about a trans woman falling in love with a soldier at the height of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, starring Lee Pace. It was also Edward Scissorhands, the first film I ever saw that showed sympathy for the ‘monster’.
Much to everyone’s relief, I did fall in love and get married. Still reeling from the multiple redundancies I faced during the global financial crisis, I decided I was a capital-S Screenwriter. I read screenplays. I watched films. I took them apart, trying to figure out their machinery. And I wrote. I wrote screenplays till my eyeballs hurt and my fingers bled.
I entered competitions, hoping someone would see the potential of 1.8 billion Muslims as a market.
Nope. Zip. Nada. Space is not so silent.
The silence was kindness though. The feedback, when it occurred, often cut right to the bone. I had a gauzy idea of what privilege was before I became a screenwriter. But its meaning slammed home afterwards. And I knew I didn’t have it.
Seven years of this and I was fed up.
As it turns out, my parents were right. I wouldn’t be respected in the film industry. I wouldn’t make money. In fact, I had been spending money. I wouldn’t be treated with dignity I deserve, neither as a woman nor as a Muslim.
However my parents were wrong about something else: Silence was not safety. Silence was complicity.
Artists like me have a shot at changing things. If our collective unconscious changes, maybe we can change policy and institutions. Maybe it will become safer for Muslim women to walk down the street, go to school, catch a bus, have dinner with friends...Maybe. Just maybe.
I too was wrong about one very important thing. It wasn’t films that gave me romantic notions. It was my parents. I had a roof over my head and food in my mouth, so I dreamed. These past two years, I took to directing my own work. Watching my mother manage a business has taught me all I need to know about that. Now that it’s time to sell what we’ve made, there is no greater teacher than my father, the world’s best salesman.
My parents will be horrified to know that they paved the way for me to be a filmmaker. They imagined my freedom and now I'm imagining a better future for myself and all Muslims.
Sabina Giado is a mum, Muslim and comedy filmmaker. She tweets at @SabinaGiado and blogs at sabinagiado.wordpress.com.