MAERES 2015 Graduate Produces Documentary Film Exploring Everyday Experiences of Sexism in the US and Turkey

By: Sarah Radomsky, MAERES 2016

Audrey Jane, MAERES 2015, directed and produced Her Hashtag, a documentary film that explores everyday experiences of sexism in the US and Turkey by looking at the #yesallwomen and #sendeanlat movements. Watch the entire Her Hashtag film on YouTube and learn more about the project on the film’s Facebook page or blog.


How did you become interested in this topic of exploring everyday experiences of sexism in the US and Turkey?

Our topic actually came out of my research for the capstone project at CERES, building on my general interest in Turkey as a country and my interest in gender issues. But, as an American woman looking at Turkey and the Middle East, there is always this specter of Orientalism. So I wanted to look at these issues in the context of what I experience in the United States and from the perspective of what we have in common. That fed into my capstone research, which was about portrayals of foreign women in Turkish television dramas. While I was doing that research, Ozgecan was murdered.

Ozgecan Aslan was a 19-year-old Turkish student who was assaulted and murdered while I was doing this research. How Twitter responded was really interesting, and so that developed into a project that was unrelated to the capstone but shared the same underlying themes. After going to Turkey for my capstone research, I then said, “Well, this is also a project that I want to pursue,” so I started working on that.


When you started exploring the project and looking at the responses on Twitter, did you already know that you wanted to make a film? Or did that come later?

Our initial interest in Twitter and in hashtags – #sendeanlat in Turkey and #yesallwomen in the United States – was an existing interest. We were already engaging with these issues, we were interested in and invested in women’s experiences in the United States and elsewhere.

The idea for a film actually came from an interview with an actress in Turkey. I approached her because she was one of my case studies for my capstone course, and I wanted to speak with her. She thought I was making a film, and I was like, “Oh, no, I’m just writing a grad thesis, it’s actually not that cool.” But then I thought, “Actually, that’s a good idea. I should do that.”


Who is your intended audience for the film?

That was actually a really big question. Having an audience in mind and knowing who you are trying to address obviously makes the film much more effective. The intended audience for this film is mostly American, to address misconceptions. I frequently come across misconceptions about Turkey and misconceptions about the region more generally. So it’s for an American audience, in order to address those sorts of stereotypes and specifically, how these underlying stereotypes of the region are gendered.


Did you or your partner have any experience in filmmaking before you set out to make this film?

We didn’t have a film background. We had the research background; we had the Turkish studies background. We had the feminism background; we had the social media background, and we had the American background. But we had no film background. I bartered for a camera that shoots high-definition film. I have a brother-in-law who has a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts who lent me a textbook about film production. I have very patient friends that were willing to just sit and do strange things while I filmed them to practice, leading up to the actual filming. We started out with test shooting, basically street interviews, just asking women “What do you think feminism is? What do you think sexism is?”. It was a learning process. It took a while to actually get usable film – and even then, there are parts of the final product that are not in focus and a lot of poorly back-lit shots.


From the short film you made, it’s clear you did a lot of interviews that never made it into the main documentary. So how did you go about deciding what to feature in Her Hashtag?

We interviewed over 60 people total between March 2015 and January 2016. We also went to a lot more places than were represented in the film. In the film we feature four cities in Turkey and four cities in the United States, and four institutions in Turkey and four in the United States. In both counties we have an academic from a university, in both cases we have news agencies – ThinkProgress here in DC and then Jihan in Turkey – and we have women who are just active in general. We wanted to make sure that there was diversity represented, so we wanted to make sure that we were conscious of not just interviewing a bunch of 22-year-old girls who think feminism is awesome, and we wanted to be conscious of not just interviewing women, because gender issues affect men and women.

In the film itself, that diversity is underrepresented, but we did have a dialogue with a diverse group of people. In Turkey, we had people representing different ethnic groups and we tried to embrace, embody, and project what the Turkish hashtag is really about. The Turkish hashtag is “You tell your story too”. It’s not about who that individual is or what they’ve done or how they identify. With #YesAllWomen, “women” can be a problematic word, and “all” is very problematic too. So in the film we were trying to embrace this #sendeanlat  impulse, and then narrow it down into something that we felt was representative of who we talked to and why we talked to them.


Because #yesallwomen can be so problematic, in the film there is a lot of discussion on the US side of how these issues affect different people in different ways. What did you find on the Turkish side? I assume Kurdish women may have different experiences, for example. Did you explore those differences in your interviews?

Yes. The majority of our interviews and our time spent in Turkey for filming was spent in regions that are predominantly Kurdish. But because of how politicized the situation in Turkey is, if we gave any more precedence or priority to some of the ethnic dimensions, we would lose a lot of credibility with a lot of people in Turkey. So we had a very cautious policy when approaching some of those issues because they are very political in Turkey on both sides. There are arguments that certain things are underrepresented and certain things are overrepresented in the film – no matter what we did, someone was going to be unhappy. That’s the main thrust of polarization, right, there’s no central space. And as someone who is not from Turkey, who has no particular investment in one side of the other, other than a general passion about liberal democracy and human rights perhaps, when it gets down to the finer points it’s not really my place to say.

So we did spend a lot of time talking with Kurdish women, with Kurdish organizations, with Kurdish women’s organizations. At a certain point we thought that would merit its own film; it still might. We have a lot of footage we shot specifically for a film on Kurdish women because we spent so much time with them. But, it didn’t seem appropriate given what Her Hashtag is about. It comes off as tangential. We’re trying to situate two movements in their different contexts but also look at the commonalities between the two, and that part is very specific to Turkey and its near neighbors.


What do you think was the biggest challenge you faced in the process of making the film?

I think a lot of it was trying to do every individual justice. We sat down with people for anywhere from 15 minutes to days, and then tried to do them justice in the film. That was difficult, because you feel like all of these people are so special and we should talk about all of them. But nobody is going to watch 200 hours of film. And then on the technical side, not having that film background was a challenge.


What surprised you most while making the film?

I was really surprised about the engagement men have with these movements. Twitter gave voice to a lot of men who were active in these movements. I was really surprised to see the scope of that. It was also something that consistently the women who were working in and studying these movements noted. It was one of the major underlying themes, that men are actually very involved as well. It doesn’t mean that all men are excited about this – there are still cases of harassment and trolling and men’s rights activists that are harassing people online and offline – but in both countries you have a strong sense of solidarity among genders, which was nice to see and which I was not expecting to see to the extent that we did.

The other thing is that we’re talking about these really sensitive and difficult and awful issues, but the majority of people working on these issues in both Turkey and the United States said that they were hopeful. That was a pleasant surprise.


You made a shorter film, A (white orientalist upper middle class) hipster guide to feminism in Turkey, to follow up on what has happened since you finished your interviews in July 2015. Can you talk about what motivated you to make that film and what the film discusses?

Specifically in the Turkish context, we were traveling in the region directly following the June 7th elections, which brought a record number of women into parliament and was also the most representative parliament in the history of the Turkish Assembly. There were a lot of political firsts for women, for minorities in general, and there was a sense that there was movement in a different direction in Turkey. People were taking note. Some people were happy about this, some people were less happy about this, but there was a sense of change that was very distinct through these elections.

Two days before I left Turkey, there was a historic bombing and a massive deterioration in the security situation. Since July 2015, over 240 civilians have been killed in Turkey, and Turkey has had a record number of terror attacks with a record number of civilian deaths. Our short film came out after the Ankara bombings on October 10. That was the largest terrorist attack in Turkish history, and the emotional response to that was very strong in Turkey and also for people like myself who have invested a lot of their lives in Turkey and the region. To assume that people we talked to in June would give the same answers in October or today just seemed a little bit short-sighted.

Her Hashtag represents that period of time in Turkey, and when we were doing final edits we were aware that the situation in Turkey had changed. So the short film was designed to talk about these issues. It’s not like we went there, and we left, and suddenly Turkey stopped changing. With A (white orientalist upper middle class) hipster guide to feminism in Turkey, we were trying to point out how things had changed and developed since June.


What has the response to the film been like?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive but that doesn’t mean it’s been without critique. We’ve had very constructive critiques. It can’t represent everyone, so some people feel that they aren’t represented or their views aren’t represented. I’ve had conversations with people about that. But that’s the thing – it sparked conversations. We screened the film at an international education organization and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. People are interested in these issues and feel like they have relatable problems. We had men and women talking about their experiences in a variety of other countries – in Venezuela, in Pakistan, in Nepal, in Palestine, in Sudan. It sparks a conversation. In general, it’s been a really dynamic and engaging response. And that’s the ultimate goal: to have a bigger, broader dialogue and have this film be something that can spark these conversations.


Since you have all of this other footage, are you planning to move forward with the project? If so, how?

There are still a couple of loose ends to tie up, like putting subtitles on the film so we can have a Turkish release at some point. But I do hope to do something more with the footage that we have. Some of the work is archiving, just going through and finding what might be of interest to someone, even if it’s that one graduate student that really likes Turkish women’s issues. It does absolutely no good sitting on my external hard drive.

In the future, I do want to continue to do things with film, at least as a hobby. I want to pursue a PhD and incorporate media studies into that. I am still interested in doing regional studies and focusing on Turkey and in looking at media, communications and technology, specifically through film, digital culture and Twitter.