Interview: Art As an Interfaith Dialogue

By Back to Religion Editor

“Following a six month long immigration from Communist Ukraine in 1989, my family and I arrived to the United States as refugees, with simple hope for a better life where food and water were available and a little freedom, too. Ten years later, when I chose to study Fine Art, my family was unclear why I was throwing this new opportunity and life away; I thought I was taking it by the horns. While I have not been very politically minded in my life, waking up in my studio on 9/11 in New York, eight blocks away from the towers, changed everything.”

With these words, Anna Kipervaser, a producer of On Look Films, started her talk referring the shifting stages of her art career.

“I watched people’s relationships change because of one misrepresented event, and I witnessed my family’s understanding of the world also change, all directed by the media. I couldn’t understand why we as people had to fear and hate each other, it seems so clear that we are all human, therefore, we are all the same.

After traveling to the Middle East in 2007, my work changed dramatically; I felt it was my duty to make art, mainly paintings, about Islam, and to confront audiences to which I had access (Western) with uncomfortable questions, because while traveling, I had confirmed, again, that mainstream ideas about Islam (that snowballed since 9/11) in the West, are simply not true and I found a way to do more than just talk about it as I had before. Paintings led to discussions, discussions led to openness, openness led to understanding.” Anna added.

The recent documentary that Anna and the rest of On Look Films are working at is driven from a marvelous idea that can be a core for a positive interfaith dialogue. Voices And Faces of the Adhan: Cairo, is a feature-length documentary that displays collective and individual voices as seen through the lens of the 1,400 year-old oral tradition of the Muslim call to prayer and the muezzins who recite it in Cairo.

Culture & Entertainment page interviews Anna Kipervaser to speak more about idea and the message of the film.

Editor: Thank you, Anna, for accepting this interview. Can you start by illustrating the idea of the film? Why did you choose the Adhan in Cairo as the main story of your film?

Anna: When I was traveling in the Middle East in 2007, I made it to Cairo by chance, actually. It was there that when I heard thousands of individual adhans come over the giant city, that I was more moved than by anything in my life prior to that moment.

It wasn’t only a spiritual experience, but also a human one. During my weeks in Cairo, I visited many mosques, among them was the Mosque of ‘Amr Ibn El-Aas where I heard the most beautiful adhan and I kept coming back day after day.

Upon returning to Chicago, I searched for a recording of this particular muezzin’s recitation of the adhan, but I never found it. In fact, what I found instead was even more interesting. I learned that this 1,400 year-old practice has never been properly documented or archived and to top it off, a new law had just been approved in Cairo to change the way it is practiced.

The Adhan Unification Project intended to replace the thousands of individual muezzins in Cairo with one, whose voice would be broadcast live from a radio station and transmitted to wireless receivers installed in the myriad mosques of Cairo.

I vowed to create a digital archive of all of Cairo’s 4,000 officially recognized mosques and their muezzins and to create an art installation representing Cairo, where speakers would hang from the ceiling that would sound the five adhans of the day from all 4,000 mosques at the exact time they were recorded, and the walls would be lined with photos of muezzins and their mosques, accompanied by biographical information.

I applied for the Fulbright, but didn’t receive it and my best friend, Rodion Galperin, suggested we make a movie about the topic. So we put together an international team, On Look Films, received several grants and individual donations and began working!

Now, more than three years after we began working on the film, we have finished principal photography and are ready to edit, but are out of money, so we are raising finishing funds on Kickstarter.

Editor:  Is it your first documentary production about Islam and Muslims?

Anna: This is my first film, actually!

Editor: What is the major message behind the film? What are the new facts about Muslims that you may have discovered during filming this documentary?

Anna: We hope to provide new access into Islam while documenting the 1,400 year-old oral tradition of the adhan, thus dispelling misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims.

The film will promote cultural understanding through the stories of muezzins that bridge the gap across cultural divides while providing a record for the future of what may be the last generation of muezzins in Cairo, before and during the Adhan Unification Project and the Revolution.

If answering what new facts I learned about Muslims, I can’t say, because Muslims, like Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, etc, are humans who share strong connections to one another and to their beliefs. I only know that I learned, and continue to learn, new things about humanity every day.

There is so much good in the world, and we, as people, have the power to inspire peace and understanding through knowledge, tolerance, and beauty. I am honored to be alive and to be part of the community of the human race.

Editor: Did you get any direct feedback on the film? Did you make a tour for the film or not yet?

Anna: Even though the film isn’t yet complete, we have been doing presentations about the film all over the United States since 2009 at universities, museums, galleries, film festivals, and other cultural and educational institutions. Three examples of great feedback we have received during presentations has been: 1. at a gallery in Chicago, where someone said they didn’t know that Cairo was more than sand and pyramids, and are now interested in traveling there; 2. at almost every single presentation, someone comments on the power of the human voice and we talk about how sacred space is created; 3. Muslims attending presentations always thank us for making the film, by which we are honored and humbled.

Once our Kicstarter campaign succeeds and the film is complete (within the year), we will continue doing our outreach with presentations, as well as, inshaAllah, premiering the film at international film festivals and distributing worldwide to theaters, television, internet, Netflix, and the like.

I also hope to be able to raise the necessary funds to create the digital archive, multimedia library, and installation.

Editor: As an artist, how do you view the recent anti-Muslim film produced in America? And what is your definition of artistic freedom of expression?

Anna: As an artist, I don’t think the anti-Islam film is an art. I think it’s a rude and crude way to use the medium of film and exploit the power of social media.

My definition of artistic freedom of expression coincides with my views on being a human: the first rule is respect. I am ashamed by this anti-Islam film.

It is because of this film, and the world’s reaction to this film, that I feel it is more important now than ever for Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo to be completed and screened worldwide. I am on an international team that is struggling to get a film funded that will bring understanding and dialogue, while this ugly film’s clips became known all over the world overnight and have caused violence and unrest in the hearts of men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims.

There is so much good in the world, and we, as people, have the power to inspire peace and understanding through knowledge, tolerance, and beauty. I am honored to be alive and to be part of the community of the human race.

More than anything, it is our job – as people, no matter what religion we follow, or what race – to find meaningful connections across our divides, by celebrating our differences and our similarities, so we may learn from them.