Female genital mutilation is a taboo subject that affects tens of millions of women throughout the world.
The documentary "Our World: Dropping the Knife – Kurdistan" produced by BBC Arabic TV and "The Guardian" and for which Palmerton filmmaker, Noah Berlow, served as producer and editor, began airing on BBC World News and BBC Arabic TV on Oct. 25 reaching a potential global audience of 30 million viewers.
For Berlow, best known in L.A. as a go-to filmmaker for music videos and behind the scenes VH1 documentaries featuring musicians like Sully Erna, Alter Bridge and Slash, FGM is not necessarily a film subject that he would have contemplated let alone sought out. However, two years ago when his former colleague at Steven Spielberg's SHOAH Visual History Foundation in L.A., John Chua, approached him about producing and editing this sensitive and potentially controversial subject matter, he agreed.
Alarmingly, since 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a resurgence of FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan. In outlying villages, up to 80-90 percent of women had had their genitals "cut" off in varying degrees usually between ages 5 and 9. Returning to the old ways served as an assertion of newly found cultural independence. The custom of FGM was aimed at keeping women "pure" and sexually submissive.
Despite a lack of funding for the project, during the summer of 2012 Berlow flew to Amsterdam for four weeks to work on the film initially called "Handful of Ash." He worked in the production facilities of Amnesty International with the support of HIVOS, an international humanitarian organization in the Netherlands. There he edited 13-15 hour days to produce the hour-long documentary with Chua, translators and the two brave film-makers now in their 30's who risked their lives over 10 years to document and bring to world attention the practice of FGM in their home country of Kurdistan.
Editing emotionally difficult material is not new to Berlow. For three years, he worked full-time in the Research & Education Department of Steven Spielberg's SHOAH Visual History Foundation editing testimonies of Holocaust survivors for documentaries and educational shorts.
When asked what it felt like to work with such horrific subject matter like the Holocaust and FGM, Berlow said, "I have to admit that part of me just wanted to turn away. But then I realized that no matter how emotionally painful and retching it was for me to handle the footage, these are stories that had to be told."
Berlow said, "In the case of FGM, I was hesitant at first not only because of the repulsive nature of the subject matter but also in light of the fact that the original footage was all in Kurdish. After thinking about it for a while and encouraged by John Chua who knew and trusted my work, I realized that if I didn't help these filmmakers, perhaps this film would never get made and the practice of FGM would continue. I knew I had to do what I could do to help them get this story out and save millions of young girls from a lifetime of suffering and possible death."
He added, "Despite going through the proverbial emotional wringer at times and having to surmount the sheer difficulty of the process of production and editing which required bridging language, cultural, ethical and financial barriers, it's good to know that I have been part of a team making a real difference in outlawing and discouraging this practice."
Late in 2011, after being pressured by a devastating Human Rights Report detailing the extent of FGM in their country and subsequently viewing "Handful of Ash," the Kurdish Parliament outlawed the practice of FGM. Nonetheless, while to a lesser extent, FGM has quietly continued. Debates with Muslim clerics resulted in finding no justification in the Koran for FGM and declaring a "fatwa," an edict, against FGM.
The fact that BBC World News and BBC Arabic TV agreed to produce and distribute "Our World: Dropping the Knife – Kurdistan" is helping to get the word out that Muslim clerics now declare that female genital mutilation is "an injustice….a crime against women." Up to 30 million young girls are still potentially at risk of FMG in the next decade.
The BBC documentary "Our World: Dropping the Knife – Kurdistan" will be viewed by millions in the Arab world.
Today, filmmaker Noah Berlow can add to his credits the satisfaction of knowing the film he produced and edited has played a role in putting a global spotlight on the practice of FGM in Kurdistan and, hopefully, will help end suffering from this horrific practice.
To view a 16-minute web version of "Our World: Dropping the Knife – Kurdistan," go to www.theguardian.com/society/video/2013/oct/24/fgm-film-changed-the-law-k... .