Ricki Stern on the Universal Terrors That Drive “A Radical Life”

"A Radical Life"
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When Tania Joya was attending college on the outskirts of London in 2001, she didn’t know what to make of 9/11. Never feeling quite at home in the Bengali Muslim family she was born into, she also was made to feel foolish to try to fit in amongst her caucasian classmates as she matriculated, subject to anti-Asian slurs and extra self-conscious when battling with dyslexia and a deformed bone in her leg that led to surgery. She responded with shock as the rest of the world did at the sight of the Twin Towers falling across the Atlantic, but after commenting to another young woman with a similar background to hers in her politics class, she might’ve been more surprised to hear her say, “Was it so bad?”

In “A Radical Life,” Joya describes accepting an invitation to come home with her classmate to listen to her mother explain the concept of jihad in reasonable terms, and director Ricki Stern only needs her subject sitting in front of her to witness a war, wrestling with the choices she made from that moment on that led to marrying John Georgelas, one of the top ISIS operatives and a fascinating figure in his own right after becoming radicalized in Plano, Texas. The two may not have had much in common beyond their faith when they met through the online dating service Muslim Matrimony, but as Joya testifies about their 15-year marriage that would see the couple relocate from Texas to Egypt, with Georgelas eventually looking to join the fight in Syria, in spite of the three children Joya was left to care for, their bond was rooted in how they thought others felt about them rather than any feelings they had towards each other.

If Joya makes it sound relatively easy to embrace such extremist beliefs to gain a sense of belonging, Stern shows just how common an experience that is when limited in what personal footage Joya has of herself, the director is able to illustrate her journey with video of others who have shared the same path. Initiated by Graeme Wood’s reporting for the Atlantic on Georgelas’ case, “A Radical Life” opens up a larger consideration of how people are swept up into causes they might not necessarily believe in while rarely leaving Joya’s side, observing her remembering not only how she got more heavily involved in ISIS through John but how seeing her sons grow up and seem to have so many opportunities with how smart they were led to more of a belief in herself and less in the aims of the terrorist organization. Only a filmmaker as experienced as Stern could pull off such a high-wire act in a rare foray outside of her partnership with Annie Sundberg on such films as “Marathon,” “In My Father’s House” and “Reversing Roe,” and fresh off the film’s premiere at the Hamptons Film Festival followed by its debut on discovery+, the director spoke about tackling such sensitive subject matter, having some of her own assumptions challenged and the rewards of a willingness to listen.

How did this come about?

I have always been fascinated with cults and radical and extremist groups, and I had actually been working with a producer who had come to me and Annie [Sundberg, my filmmaking partner] with a series about radical women. It was through that that I met the producer Pia [Maria-Kallinger] on Tania Joya’s story, but even before this film came about, I was always so curious about women who joined ISIS. There was actually an incredible Swedish limited series called “Kaliphate” [about] Muslim women and young girls who join the caliphate, and specifically women joining a group like ISIS always made me wonder, so this opportunity to talk to Tania about it, I really got some incredible insight into the journey to this radicalization.

When you first met Tania, was there anything that surprised you?

Yes, I had seen some of the press she had done before I spent time with her and was really interested in the deeper story because she’d been asked these standard questions about how she ended up in ISIS and she had a fairly robust and interesting story to tell, but what’s different from reading it in a news story or seeing a news clip is that I really felt there was a lot more there. When you get past this facade, we really begin to understand her fears, her doubts, her vulnerabilities — a lot of things that people can relate to on a human level — and in her case, presented with opportunity and indoctrination and desire, led to this extremist life. But [what] we’re seeing in many ways in people who are driven to extremist groups, hate groups, anti-government groups in the United States and around the world today comes from this very universal feeling of do I feel included? Do I feel supported? Do I feel ostracized? Do I feel like an other? How can I create my own community? Sometimes that comes from a place of hate.

And unlike pretty much every other feature doc I’ve done where there’s a main character who’s the focus of the film, I had a much more limited opportunity to spend time with Tania, so the [interviews were] intense over two periods of time – the first was four days of nonstop interviews at her house where I constructed that black box, like a memory box that felt in some ways like an interrogation, both literally and figuratively in the sense of her going back and interrogating her own story.

I was really moved by the moment where she’s working out in front of the camera what person she was versus who she is now. Was that something you had to deal with throughout?

That’s exactly what I was looking for in the film was to really understand what her story or what the external version of herself was and bring her back into her own memory and processing it a bit in front of the camera. That moment you’re referring to where she’s talking about Osama bin Laden, going back into those feelings and she compartmentalizes it afterwards when I ask her what those feelings are that were brought up and she says, “No, no, that was the old me,” but the old you still lives inside of you, right? And what’s interesting about her is that she’s the first person to say “I’m just a radical person. And I don’t know who I’ll be in 10 years.” She’s working on herself, trying to still figure it out and that uncertainty is very interesting about someone who has made radical choices in her life, but there’s some empathy that we feel for her because she’s often feeling lost at times.

At one point, she puts on a hijab. Was that actually a difficult request to make?

Initially, it didn’t seem like that much of a request. We asked her and she was willing to do it and then it was more after how we talked about it made her feel, like she hadn’t put on a burqa since she left [the Middle East], so for her, it was putting on more than just the religious robe, but putting herself into that memory of what it meant for her. It’s obviously not what it means for most Muslims, but her experience of it was very specific, so it brought back feelings for her that were unexpected for her and were unexpected for us.

Given the limitations of how much conversation you could have with her, did you know how you could lay images over her testimony that weren’t necessarily tied to her specific experience but could illustrate it?

Initially, there was discussion about shooting [recreations] and even impressionistic visual material, but I really wanted to rely on archival [because] it universalizes her story. Some of it was her personal archive, but some of it, for example, when she flees Syria are other people fleeing Syria. I wanted the archival in a way to make it familiar and universal, so it was not just her own specific story, but something that we could relate to in a historical way and [Tania’s] story is more than just her story, it represents a lot of people who have found themselves drawn/attracted to radicalization and also attempted to get out at a time in Egypt and Syria when she was there, so some of the footage represents other people struggling with being in the midst of war and having to escape.

It’s such a fascinating choice when you’re using a lot of home video footage rather than news clips or anything of the like. Did that make it a more difficult dig?

Very much so. It was a lot of digging and digging with some people on the team. I even contacted filmmakers I know who have shot in Syria and [other] countries [where] they’re there as maybe a stringer for the AP, but they shot a ton of their own footage. We were just trying to get beyond news clips because it was too hard to tell a story that way, and of course, there are some groups that were able to log the ISIS propaganda footage, so that became very important in telling the ISIS evolution. Her story of radicalization is parallel to the growth of ISIS and the formation of the Islamic State and the Caliphate, so that was what was also really interesting to me was to make sure the audience walks away with an understanding of the evolution and the declaration of the caliphate.

The film does include two other prominent interviews, one with Graeme Wood, whose article for the Atlantic serves as a basis for the film, but also Naureen Chowdhury Fink from the Soufan Center. How did you decide what to include beyond Tania’s testimony?

It’s always hard to go from very personal, first-person narrative to bring in outside voices that don’t feel like “cut to the talking head expert,” so it was important that the people that we interviewed, while they are experts in their own areas, felt personal in their explanations. We spoke to other Muslim women [besides Naureen] and in some of the other interviews that didn’t make it into the film, but were used for research, we were making sure we were understanding and not feeding into Islamophobia, but also make sure that we were accurate about the formation of the caliphate and understanding Muslim tradition. Tania’s experience is very specific to her journey, but it doesn’t represent necessarily Islam and it doesn’t necessarily represent Muslims and their culture and traditions, so we were really wanting to temper her narrative and give insight into it that steps away from it and gives a broader perspective and understanding.

Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Not really. After doing the four days of interviews with Tania, the interesting thing that came out of it was the story of John Georgelas, her husband, because he’s believed to be dead, so he can’t share his story [himself] and his family were not interested in being interviewed, so the story that we hear is from Tania, but also a deeper dive that was done by Graeme Wood, who has written a brilliant book [“The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State] and in it, he tells the John Georgelas story and how he became who he is. He really becomes the voice of John Georgelas outside of Tania’s first-person understanding of his journey, so in the end, his story became more pronounced than initially it was going into this than I thought it would be.

This actually isn’t the only film you’ve had on the festival circuit recently. Has this been a busy season for you?

Yeah, the other film that’s coming out, “My So-Called High School Rank,” which I did with my film partner Annie, we shot over two-plus years, so it’s always interesting. This film was fortunately only a year in the making, so not as long as it can sometimes take, but you’re grateful to have the work and grateful to be busy, so I never complain about that. I’m always happy to be working.

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