Just a few days ago, the news broke that writer and producer Lena Dunham had been chosen by Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams to adapt “a tale of survival”. That’s all well and good – except it’s the true story of Doaa Al Zamel, a Syrian refugee stranded at sea.
Responses came in thick and fast. Alia Malek, an American author and civil rights lawyer born to Syrian immigrant parents, wrote: “I appreciate @lenadunham @jjabrams Spielberg using their high profile to highlight #Syria stories. But why not enable Syrian storytellers? There are so many Syrian writers/directors who have lived a version of these stories or are at least way more intimately acquainted with them”. Meanwhile, Neha Shastry, a journalist at CNN tweeted: “Anyone else take issue with a person who has shown very little regard for the importance of representation in her work writing a Syrian refugee’s story? I do. Come on, Hollywood.”
The issue that comes through again and again is that Dunham – alongside co-producers Spielberg and Abrams – have taken it upon themselves to re-tell a story that doesn’t belong to them. It is yet another example of white people in a position of privilege insisting that they should be the leading voice on a narrative that they have no lived experience of.
Dunham believes that she is now in a position to “support this truth with these people”. However, an even greater show of support would’ve been to acknowledge that she is not in a position to provide this project with the authenticity it needs. A true “ally” would’ve passed on this opportunity to someone with the lived experience of being a refugee to tell their story. She would’ve amplified their voice, not her own.
By accepting this offer, she positions herself as the right person for this job. As the writer of this piece, she will be deciding which parts of the book are deemed important or not important enough for the feature film – she will be the authority on what is taken across to the final project. It also doesn’t help that the book itself, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea is written by Melissa Fleming, the head of communications and chief spokesperson at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and not an independent journalist or writer. It further demonstrates that this is a project that truly needs a person with actual experience of being a refugee to guide it.
By centring herself in this story that is not hers, Dunham exhibits white feminism, a concept that she is no stranger to. Feminist blogger and author Cate Young defines white feminism as “any expression of feminist thought of action that is anti-intersectional”. White feminism is believing that it is your right to lead dialogues and conversations, even if they relate to specific forms of marginalisation that do not affect you. White feminism is believing that you know what is in the best interest for others and that it is your duty to tell their stories, even if that means drowning those same people out.
The last few years has demonstrated how important it is for people from marginalised backgrounds to be able to tell their own stories, especially in white-dominated industries like the film industry. The likes of Moonlight and Crazy Rich Asians stormed the box office and resonated with people because they were written and directed by people from those particular backgrounds. They were able to provide representation and elevate the voices of their communities in a way that someone who isn’t of that background could never do. And if A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea gets passed onto someone with that lived experience, it could do the same for the Syrian refugee community.
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