Watch “MÉBÉT” until 2/28 on our festival platform,
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this story/film?
JAMA JACK: I wrote the story in 2012. At the time, I was a student studying for my undergrad degree in Morocco. One of my outlets for navigating racism while being an international Black student in an Arab country and all of the stress around that was writing. I started a blog when I was in Morocco, and I was using it to write about my experience. Another thing that brought me to this story is that I’m a feminist activist. I’ve been working on human rights since I was 10, starting as a child activist doing work around children’s rights. I spoke up as a child about my rights and why they should be respected. My focus as an activist has primarily been engaging with communities around how we can stop stigma.
Marrying those two aspects of my life, my writing talent and my passion for activism as a feminist, is how I identify my purpose in this world. And that is what brought me into a space where my blog moved from narratives of what my experience was in Morocco, to using my writing as a tool to speak up about the issues I’m passionate about. As time has gone on, my passion has shifted towards women’s rights, and that also includes other marginalized populations. One afternoon in my dorm room, I wrote the story that gave us “MÉBÉT”. The original title was “A Mother’s Plea”, and if you watch the film, you’ll understand why. And that is really how the story came about. 7 years after that story was written, we started the film that is “MÉBÉT” today.
MARTIN: Was there a specific person that your story was inspired by, or was it a collective inspiration from stories of young women being forced into marriage? I noticed at the end of “MÉBÉT” it dedicated the film to a woman. Can you talk about that?
JACK: Her name is Musu Bakota Sawo. I knew her when I was 10. Like me, she was a child activist, but her story is different from mine. We were both working in the same space, but despite her work, despite her voice, despite the things that she was fighting against, she ended up being a victim. Her family forced her into marriage. When I wrote the story it wasn’t just Musu, it was about all the other girls I have met, and all the other girls stories I have heard who have gone through child marriages. I’ve seen it happen to my friends. I’ve seen it happen to former classmates. I’ve seen it happen to girls in my neighborhood. In Gambia, it’s very prevalent. It’s a normal story for people to hear, and that’s where the problem lies. That’s really what the inspiration was for me.
MARTIN: How involved were you in the filmmaking process?
JACK: Very involved. Funny thing is in 2014 I got approached by this UK filmmaker. She was an indie filmmaker as well, and she said, “I read the story on your blog and am interested in turning it into a film.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m open to that.” Unfortunately, she could not get the funding to take the project on. When I got married to my husband, he was reading my work and he was interested in directing. From that point on, we worked on it together, along with our team. We took the story and turned it into a screenplay. Most of the work for me has been after post production where we’ve been trying to reach different audiences, submitting to specific festivals, and showing it within different communities that sparks conversations with different people.
MARTIN: How involved were you with the casting process?
JACK: The main actress, Mariama Colley, was also the production manager for the film. Casting was led by her, and she has a company called Casting Studio 411. We also had ideas about different people that we wanted to include. It was really a collaboration to see who was the best fit for the different speaking roles. For the woman who played Mariama’s mother, it was her first time as an onscreen actor. We were able to bring in a mix of experienced actors and people who didn’t have any acting experience at all.
MARTIN: How did you put the world of that film together?
JACK: This is a world that is familiar to me. It’s the world I’ve grown up in, it’s the world that I’m still living in. Through the work that I do, we’re still supporting girls who are trying to run away from that. We’re still working with girls who are at risk of child marriages. It’s a reality for me. And it may not have happened to me, but working on cases of child marriage, working on supporting girls who may be at risk, places you in a position where you’re able to understand what that world looks like, even if it’s not yours. That’s really what we brought into the script. It also took a lot of research because we had a team we consulted with about our script to make sure it was authentic. All of that feedback is what we put together to be able to create that mood, and to be able to tell the story in the way that we feel is best to tell it. It’s also not just doom and gloom, we try to cover the different aspects to that world. It’s also the culture, the costumes, and all of those things we were very deliberate about. We’re telling one story, and we’re basically asking our audience to pause at the end of the story and ask “why have we allowed this to be normal?” And then we go further to ask “what can I do to make sure this stops?” For us, that’s what it was about.
MARTIN: What do you hope people see in your film?
JACK: What we hope people see is simply the humanity of women. Because that gets forgotten really easily. When you live in a patriarchal society like ours, it’s easy for women to just live their lives based on what other people’s expectations are, based on what other people’s demands are, and based on what boxes that have been created for us. When you watch the film, you realize it’s not just the girl, it’s also her mother who doesn’t really even have a say in what happens in her daughter’s life. Even though the film focuses on child marriage, we are also showing so many different aspects of our culture that continue to make sure that women are always in the background.
What we’ve done is present a story. So many other stories are involved within this one story, but we’ve presented a story that we hope will get people to pause and think ‘this is not right.’ We need to do something. But it’s not just about the fact that we need to do something, but it’s also a question of what can I do as a person? What role can I play? Because we can easily get lost in the collective and then nobody does anything. But I think when we bring it down to a personal level and ask ourselves what can I do, then we can take a step to make a difference. If you’re making a difference, even in the life of one girl, that’s the difference that counts. That’s the difference that can make a difference, which goes beyond generations, because then that girl could represent a breaking of a cycle in one family or in one community. With “MÉBÉT”, that’s what we want to do.
When we’ve hosted the screenings in schools, we’re mostly targeting adolescents. We may not be able to change the past, we may not be able to change what has happened, and we may not be able to save those girls who’ve already been made victims of child marriages, but what we can do is stop the trend. We can focus on the young people who can make pledges, who can decide today that, “I’m going to break the cycle. Even if it happened to me, I will make sure it stops with me. If it did not happen to me, I’m going to make sure it does not happen at all.”
My favorite screening experience is when we screened at the school for the deaf. My worry was that they would not be able to connect with the film. But we had subtitles and they did connect. The conversation was rich and animated, and they got the message. During these school sessions, we were getting pledges from young people talking to us about decisions they would make. We talked with them about how they would go about it and engage with their families, because some of the students came from families that practice forcing marriage on their daughters at young ages. We are now seeing a shift where the conversations they are having with their families could save their sisters who could have been at risk.
This is really what we want to do with “MÉBÉT.” We just want to take it into communities, show it to people, have conversations with them and allow people to come to decisions around what they want to do, because that’s how we see sustained gains.
Watch “MÉBÉT” until 2/28 on our festival platform, and stay tuned for a Q&A with Jama and the “MÉBÉT” team on 2/21, LIVE on our YouTube channel, see below!