A Piece of Me: The breathtaking film that tackles Female Genital Mutilation
Words by Noor Alabdulbaqi, edited by Sunayah Arshad
Tantalising aromas of incense and freshly ground Ethiopian coffee. Mesmerising brightly coloured garments hung from the ceiling. This is my lasting memory of the special one-day immersive exhibition launch held to showcase the massively important and cunningly beautiful film that tackles the difficult subject of female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation, or FGM for short, is the intentional cutting or removal of a female's external genitalia. It often involves the cutting of the labia and clitoris. The World Health Organisation describes it as, "any procedure that injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons". 200 million women and girls alive today have experienced some form of FGM, the United Nation estimates. At current rates, 69 million girls worldwide will be cut by 2030.
In an effort to campaign for the urgent need to take action to help end FGM, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), collaborated with talented Toronto-based filmmaker Sara Elgamal to produce a stunning documentary film, A Piece of Me, that focuses on the stories of three Ethiopian women, Zahra, Abida and Khadija, who refuse to be defined by their past traumas of female genital mutilation. In Ethiopia, FGM affects 65% of women and girls today. The Afar region where Zahra, Abida and Khadija live is one of two regions where prevalence remains high at 91%.
It was evident that Sara successfully covered this difficult subject in a powerful, yet delicate way. Audience members were captivated by the looping three-parted documentary film, followed by a flood of open conversations with one another. Many attendees of the launch exhibition (including myself) from around the world began to share how close family members were subjected to FGM, voicing stories, experiences and emotions. The campaign and breathtaking film were unquestionably successful in sparking heavy conversations around an issue that affects the lives of millions of women and girls, as well as conversations we either feel ashamed to discuss or, intentionally or unintentionally forget about.
This special one-day exhibit was produced by Somewherelse and featured striking clothes by wardrobe designer Nadine Mosallem. In this interview, I speak with Sara about her experience filming A Piece of Me and the intention behind shifting from the usual FGM victim narrative to a story of strength and resilience.
1. Who is Sara & tell us three random facts about you
I’m an Egyptian-Canadian international Filmmaker, who has produced work in Dubai, Japan, the UK and more. I focus on using compelling and high-quality visuals to tell meaningful global stories via documentaries, branded content, music videos and short films. My work aims to shift the narratives and perceptions of underrepresented regions and people.
I was obsessed with global politics since I was four years old and studied Political Science and Broadcast Journalism at university with the intention to become a Combat Journalist.
My favourite and most relaxing activities are cooking and driving.
Travel is my biggest love and passion - last year alone I travelled to over 18 different cities.
2. The film was shot in the deserts of Ethiopia's Afar region, give us a flavour of your experience there, the people and pastoral communities, the food?
Travelling to the Afar region of Ethiopia was an extremely beautiful and moving experience, one that I believe has shifted my perspective forever.
The Afar people are traditionally pastoralists - they travel around the desert with their family and livestock. Witnessing this lifestyle was eye opening and helped define the direction of the films.
What I will always remember about the Afar region of Ethiopia is the beauty and kindness of its people, the intense heat, the scents of the coffee and incense, and goats, goats and more goats! It was transformative for me to witness the strength and resilience of the women who have a large hand in maintaining the households and livestock. Incredibly, they’re also responsible for creating their family huts by hand.
3. FGM can be a tough subject to discuss, but all three women spoke candidly and from a place of resilience. Was this challenging to unveil and capture?
Its central to the work I’m doing, that the subjects I am working with are comfortable on camera. With a conversation as sensitive and personal as FGM, I created and took many boundaries seriously and refused to ask anyone to speak on their experience if they weren’t completely comfortable doing so.
Luckily, by working with the local UNFPA team in Ethiopia, I was introduced to Zahra, Abida and Khadija who are all outspoken on the topic and were eager to share their message and desire to end FGM. It’s imperative for filmmakers to maintain this mutual level of respect and comfort for subjects and with the film crew. I ensured that every shot we took made the survivors and other women and girls in the film look as dignified, powerful and beautiful as they were in reality.
4. I think it’s so beautiful and touching that you allowed Zahra, Abida, and Khadija to have some creative input by seeing themselves on the screen monitor standing tall, colourful and resilient. They are extremely inspirational. Tell us something about Zahra, Abida, and Khadija that might not have been captured on camera?
Of course! For me, it was a given that they needed to look back at this and feel they were represented with the strength and might they possess individually and collectively. Getting to know them off-camera was a delight.
Zahra Mohammed Ahmed is a true leader and boss in every sense of the word. She manages the local clinic in her Wereda (village). She is a teacher and educates other young women on good hygiene and health practices. She is also very instrumental in community meetings (including ward members, religious leaders and tribal leaders) on ending FGM, child marriage and rape.
Abida Dawud, a gentle soul and spirit was always surrounded by her family and hated to be away from them for even an hour. She teaches women and girls in her community about the harms of female genital mutilation.
Khadija Mohammed has the sweetest, high-spirited and playful character. What she wants is for herself and her community to live in peace.
Most notably, all three women have decided not to cut their own daughters. Their activism is built into their everyday life - you can’t ignore it. I find this deeply inspirational.
5. FGM can be challenging to address and is important to get it right, how did you decide on which approach to treat it?
When UNFPA came to me with the opportunity to provide a platform for three incredible survivors of FGM, my goal was to immediately pivot from the FGM stories of tragedy we’ve been told and instead wrap our subjects in the beauty of their environment. I wanted to tell a story of strong, beautiful women who are able to redefine their own version of passion and love, despite their past traumas.
The approach I took was to intentionally shoot this like a fashion editorial. I had a moodboard full of Vogue editorials. I wanted to challenge the notion of who we see as ‘supermodels’ or heroes and bring a level of high fashion and cinematic visuals that wouldn’t normally be associated with a United Nations campaign. I wanted these survivors to be seen and heard - I wanted people to feel in awe of these women.
In order to help me accomplish this I brought on London designer, Nadine Mosallam to create beautiful and bold wardrobes for the subjects - and Director of Photography David Bolen who has the ability to capture light and detail in a way that makes everything look incredibly cinematic and beautiful.
6. The film was full of beautiful imagery and strayed away from being just another victim narrative piece that is so often produced. Why was it important for you to shift the narrative?
Regardless of the subject matter, the aim to shift the narratives and perceptions of underrepresented regions and people (particularly BIPOC/ Africa and the Middle East) is my goal and intention for all my future work. It’s important for me to first and foremost have people speak for themselves. Especially survivors of trauma.
It’s also important for me to showcase the beauty of BIPOC + Africa and Middle East as I see it versus the negative ways that is often portrayed in the media. There is often this dehumanising, and perpetual negative portrayal of certain bodies or regions that can have very serious real-life implications. It’s crucial to take this into consideration when we tell these visual stories.
7. The film was certainly a conversation starter. Many attendees of the launch exhibition shared how close family members were subjected to FGM. You mentioned that by doing this, you discovered through conversation with family, that this practice was closer to home than you thought. What can we do as young people to continue raising awareness on the subject?
As young people, the most important thing that we can do in the immediate future is continue to have open conversations about female genital mutilation with our peers, our families and our communities. It is through community dialogue and education/awareness that this practice will end.
8. What is the most important thing you learnt from working on A Piece of Me?
Prior to working on A Piece of Me I knew that FGM existed but wasn’t aware of how prevalent it was. After UNFPA (the United Nations Populations Fund) approached me to pitch on the campaign, I did my research and not only did I learn that over 200 million women and girls alive today are affected worldwide, but I discovered that women in my own family were survivors. This was life-changing.
In addition, getting the opportunity to meet Zahra, Abida and Khadija and hearing their first-hand accounts of the ways in which FGM has negatively impacted their everyday lives provided me with a level of awareness that has propelled me to want to continue to fight to end this practice.
9. Is there anything you’re working on at the moment that you are very excited about?
I am currently campaigning A Piece of Me globally. The film has captured audiences worldwide after two highly attended launches in Toronto, Canada (Toronto Media Arts Centre) and London, UK (Protein Studios). I am blessed that the United Nations is as excited about continuing to push the campaign as I am. You can also expect future exhibits to take place across Africa and the Middle East so stay tuned!
You can keep up to date with Sara and follow her here
Watch the elegantly shot three-parted, conversation-starter film, A piece of Me, here: