A Discussion with Alex Kronemer, Executive Director of Unity Productions Foundation, Washington, D.C.
March 7, 2018
Background: In March 2018, undergraduate student Casey Hammond interviewed Alex Kronemer as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Kronemer is the co-founder and executive director of Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) and the executive producer for all UPF films. In this interview, Kronemer discusses UPF’s founding, mission, and history.
To start off, I would like to hear the story of UPF when it was getting off the ground. How did you enter this field, and how did you get to where you are now?
That is actually quite a long a story, but for your purposes the most important part of it is through a process of speaking engagements and writing I did about 20 years ago. I came to the realization and recognition that when it comes to Muslims and interfaith dialogue there was very little of that happening. There were very few active projects that engaged Muslims. There was a book that I read around that time called Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen that really illuminated and identified the idea that Muslims and Arabs were generally portrayed very negatively, in often heated, prejudicial, and stereotypical ways that only serve to raise fear, raise a certain amount of disgust towards Muslims and Arabs.
This was largely a media phenomenon because very few people knew Arab Americans and Muslims at all in any personal interactions. This was also fed by political events, but political events also often get interpreted in the context of a prevailing negative narrative circulating in the popular culture. For example, the narrative of drug lords in South America and Mexico is a narrative of victimization. That is, the innocent people in Central and South America who become the casualties in the drug war are the focus of the news reports. Bad guys are then identified as individuals—like Pablo Escobar or someone like that.
But if the narrative is that Islam or Arabs, in their DNA, are somehow violent, if a similar kind of story happens, it isn’t a story of victims. If a bomb goes off in a mosque, it is not a story focused on the victims who are Muslims. The story is a story of the perpetrators who are generally not identified as individuals but as Muslims. So, it’s the narrative that drives the reporting. It isn’t just events happening in the world that feeds these concerns. Prevailing narratives drive the way we report and tell stories, not only cultural stories but also stories that go into the press that go forth to reinforce those same fears and stereotypes.
So, we felt that there was a need to change this narrative for the sake of peace. Because these same narratives were driving policies that were counter-productive to United States national interests, in as much as they exacerbate tensions and conflicts that include American citizens. Therefore, it seemed increasingly to be an urgent need to change the narrative.
There are many ways, but I chose to address these issues through storytelling, specifically telling stories through film. Film has the unique power of conveying the information through emotion, which makes the ideas sticky. You can go to a lecture and the person can talk to you for an hour, and you can leave that lecture feeling it was a brilliant lecture. It was so interesting but remembering what was actually said an hour later can be difficult. But storytelling, particularly storytelling in film, engages your emotions as well. Therefore, it makes the information you learn, for a lack of a better word, sticky. It sticks with you. It begins to shape a narrative.
If you take a moment in United States history where the narrative sharply changed, it was the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s when television became engaged. It changed the narrative because it was film. People had been telling in print for decades that these things were happening, but that was just information. But when large audiences saw these images with their eyes, they felt it, and it changed the narrative. So that was what the whole origin was: let’s start telling stories about Muslim peoples, histories, and cultures so we can begin to change the narrative as people begin to have their stereotypes corrected. Let show audiences Muslim heroes from history. Let's show everyday Muslims living and contributing to the American dream. So we made a film about a community that wanted to build a mosque. We did a film about a man who wanted to get a pilot’s license after 9/11 and the struggles he faced to do that. We’ve done big historical films too, like one about a Muslim woman who fought the Nazis and was murdered at Dachau. We made a film about a meeting between Francis of Assisi and a Muslim leader which helped end the Crusades.
That’s the filmmaking, and now we’ve been working in Hollywood for several years to again address the stereotype problem by providing a free resource for writers who may only know the stereotypes, but who may have enough self-awareness to know that; they have a place where they can go easily to get authentic stories, information, and resources about Islam and Muslims to create films, story lines, and characters. And finally, we use the convening power of film to do an enormous amount of education outreach and dialogue programs. We use the power of film to be a conversation starter between groups that often don’t talk to each other to provide information and dialogue guides and so forth to aid those discussions.
There are different theories on this, but there is growing evidence that when people hear stories and view them in film, read them in novels, and listen to them being told, it is more than simply taking in information. There are neurological processes that are still being explored to better grasp social understanding, but our brains process those stories has if they are happening to us. If someone says something including a positive or negative stereotype, that is information. But if you were to tell a story about it, a person relates and remembers it.
What does interreligious dialogue mean to you personally and professionally?
You know, the idea of interreligious dialogue has been shifting for the last 20 years I have been engaged in this work. I can’t say it is just in a positive direction. It is something that takes steps forwards and backwards, somewhat driven by what is happening in the world and the prevailing narratives. Right after 9/11, there was a moment that didn’t last long but lasted several months where it seemed that interreligious dialogue was moving in a positive direction fast. There were so many events being held at mosques that invited the general community, so many churches and synagogues and others who wanted to understand other faiths better. There was an enormous demand from communities for information. There were people who didn’t know much Muslims or much about Islam but wanted to know more, so there was demand for connectivity. During the first Ramadan after 9/11, many people fasted for a day and broke fast with their Muslim neighbors. There were reports of women in headscarves being harassed, so there was a movement of women wearing headscarves out of solidarity. Out of the tragedy of 9/11, there was a great moment of interreligious dialogue where people were appreciating one another. A feeling of that time was not just learning about the other but learning more about their own faith.
Then, there was a huge shift with the second Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Suddenly we were in a war. In theory, it was a war against the "bad Muslims," but for a lot of people they did not make those distinctions. Much of the stories coming from the war were war stories of casualties and death happening because of "Muslims" doing different things. The narratives then became stories of American war heroes fighting ruthless enemies that were Muslims, identifiably praying and so forth. It did not only stop interreligious dialogue, but it was also a massive step backwards in America. Suddenly the mosques were closing their doors. The churches and synagogues were not interested in discussion anymore. People were turning away from recognizing what was positive in their faiths and focusing on the negative in their faiths. Then groups, which are now identified as Islamophobic groups, were being funded and going on their "we told you so" campaigns about Muslims and Islam. There was a lot of pushback followed by a negative period for interreligious dialogue.
Abu Ghraib happened and messed up the narrative again—people started questioning what we were doing. It was not just about American heroes fighting the ruthless Muslims. There was more sensitivity to Iraqi civilian casualties. There was a shock. In some cases, people were hardening their harsh opinions, and others were opening their doors for discussion again. The conversation then felt more serious, which made it more difficult. Difficult in the sense that the earlier conversations that happened were easier because it was only the surface level. These other conversations demanded more expertise, which reflected in UPF’s film projects. We began creating more websites then. We always had been working with teacher groups to develop teaching materials, but we pressed that a lot harder. We started making shorter, social media-friendly films. In other words, we really tried to support the dialogue by creating tools that people could use. Not just let’s come together, watch a film, and have a surface level conversation, but rather try to derive a deeper conversation.
That’s where we were during the entire Obama Administration, and now in the Trump era that we are living in, it has changed again. Interreligious dialogue is urgent again. The whole phenomenon of the Trump era is that it demands that people pick sides. It is the abandonment of any kind of middle ground. In the case of interreligious dialogue, the middle ground is indifference. People don’t care to learn about another faith or their faith. For the hundreds, maybe thousands of dialogues or conversations that I myself was involved in the last 20 years, I often left feeling, “‘Gee, people are only interested in their own faiths.” People didn’t care. The middle ground, in the case of interreligious dialogue, was not really a good thing. And now, and this is for the pain that many people feel on both sides of the Trump phenomenon, the one thing that is indisputable is that Trump is forcing people out of indifference on many issues and forcing them make choices and affirm their beliefs. I think the #Metoo movement may never have happened had Hillary Clinton won the presidency. I think the Never Again movement that we are seeing is another example. There were school shootings—terrible school shootings—during Obama’s presidency that didn’t drive things to this point. The so-called Muslim ban has also served to drive interfaith dialogue with Muslims, as people decide where they are on this issue.
So interfaith dialogue has meant different things at different times, and therefore it has meant for me different things at different times, particularly because our work has been mostly caught up in all of what is happening in this changeable period. It has meant at times simply to bring people together, at other times to bring information, and not to try to drive a deeper engagement and conversation.
I’m curious, then, what social justice means to you, in particular how your own faith and beliefs have shaped your understanding of it.
I can only speak for the Abrahamic traditions because I don’t know so much outside them, but lodged deeply in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–in fact, almost the central idea—is a notion of social justice, even though the approaches are different.
Islam holds that society is perfectible. A lot of emphasis therefore is put on institutions, which are seen as more perfect than the society they are meant to perfect. So it is a top-down approach.
Christianity with the notion of original sin takes a more skeptical view of political institutions, which often can be corrupted. So the great advances in social justice in a Christian context happen through popular revolts against corrupt governments–think the Civil Rights Movement, for example. So here it is a bottom-up approach.
Judaism has its approach, with a focus on the law. All these religions place social justice at the core, at least at the earthly mission. In Islam, working for social justice is an aspect of worship. You are worshipping God by working for social justice. One of the five pillars of Islam is a social justice pillar: paying for the care of the disadvantaged in society, leveling the disparities between rich and poor, and creating scholarships and educational institutions to help raise the lower class upward.
So, it is a religious duty to work for social justice. However, speaking for myself personally, if I am being completely honest, I would say that some people—whether because of brain wiring or socialization or a combination of those two—are more inclined to feel the pain of others. Other people are more accepting, indifferent, or not focused on it. I have always been somebody that has been impacted and felt those inequalities and injustices. I have always done this work. One of my first jobs was working with refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam helping them resettle and restart their lives in America. I did that out of a great sense of feeling that justice was due to these people who we abandoned in the Vietnam War. I felt an obligation to help. I can’t say it is because I am this or that religion, but because social justice is a key part of how I view the world as far back as I can remember.
You’ve shared some stories about how interreligious dialogue has helped, aided, or enabled a social justice issue to create change. Could you could you illustrate another picture of how, through UPF or your earlier work, interreligious dialogue was used as a vehicle for change?
The key to dialogue being able to impact change is the fact that dialogue humanizes the other. That’s how change occurs. I was listening to an interview last night with Sarah Silverman, and she was talking about when Treyvon Martin was killed and thought to herself that there seems to be an epidemic of violence against black people. But then she realized, there wasn’t a sudden epidemic of violence; that had always been happening, she just wasn’t tuned into it. She wasn’t talking to African-Americans about that, so she wasn’t even seeing it. When we share our stories through dialogues with others, we are humanized in the eyes of the other person. Before, we are black holes of knowledge or stereotyped in the eyes of others. If someone sits across from you and listens to your story, a personal story or from your faith tradition, this simple act humanizes you in their eyes and change begins to happen. Once the person across from you recognizes you as a human being, then it forces you in turn to treat the other in a positive light.
A very interesting thing we discovered in our research for one of our films Prince Among Slaves that is really fascinating and speaks to this point: when Africans were first enslaved and brought to America, at the same time a lot of white people were also enslaved as indentured servants. There wasn’t a sense at that moment that Africans were lesser, less human, than whites. They were just part of this social class idea—the class of slaves. So it was just a class—landowners, workers, slaves. That was their social status. The enslaved Africans were non-Christians, though. Many were Muslim; others followed traditional African religions. There was an early movement to convert them to Christianity, but many slaveholders opposed it, because there was a concern that once they Christianized them wouldn’t they have to free their Christian brothers and sisters? How could they justify slavery?
That’s when a theologian named Reverend Smiley, from Mississippi, wrote the theological basis for Jim Crow and the notion of blacks being inferior. He argued that no, we can make them Christian, but we don’t have to free them because (a) they are cursed by God and (b) they are inferior. He used a story from Genesis about Noah where Noah is seen naked by his son, Ham, who is said to be dark-skinned. Noah curses him and says, “you’re going to be a servant of all nations.” Smiley argued that God has cursed people of color and said that people of color are slaves to the whites and that they are not fully like us in substance. Therefore, we can Christianize them, we should because it is our duty, but we have no obligation to free them under God’s word. That changed the way Africans were viewed at that point. They were viewed as not equal in their substance and being to white people. Very quickly within 20, 30 years, white slavery ended because it was difficult to enslave people when you regard them as fully human, but enslavement of African-Americans persisted and continued. Really through the Jim Crow era they were viewed as inferior and in some way unequal to white people.
It is fascinating because it was a story. He went and found the story of Noah and his son, popularized it, and it changed the lives for millions of people for 200 years. It became the prevailing narrative. It really wasn’t until people came into dialogue with one another and began to understand that African-Americans are not less: they don’t feel less, aspire less, want less. It was when they began to see their humanity and see themselves in their plight that began to change that narrative. That is the same way with interreligious dialogue in all its aspects.
Back to UPF’s films, I am curious how you envisioned UPF’s impact on people. What are the deliverables? How do you measure the success of these films and their impact on their audiences?
We use a couple different measurement techniques. One is audience. Is this reaching a large audience? What is the size? One of our big outreach dialogue efforts was called 20,000 Dialogues. The goal was in the title: to organize and promote 20,000 dialogues about interfaith actions. When our films are broadcasted, including one called The Sultan and the Saint, there were almost four million households that tuned in. That by itself was an impact statement. To have that many people come and watch the film is a measure of impact. We also have created evaluations that gauge people’s attitudes and understandings of the film. The best way is when we conduct pre- and post tests before and after the film. A person in the audience will fill out a questionnaire before the film, and then fill out another form after the film with similar or questions.
Then we compare the difference in change of attitudes. There almost always is a change. Sometimes it is a remarkable change, but other things less so in terms of opinion, but there always is change. So that is another metric we use and sometimes we can apply both. We can know from five audience screenings that these changes can happen. Then we know four million people watched the film. Nevertheless, we can extrapolate somewhat confidently that change happen.
Another way was in Hollywood. When we first worked in Hollywood, there was resistance. Not hostile resistance, but they didn’t feel like they needed our resources, that their work didn’t need to change. What do you mean our stories are stereotypical? There was even amusement. I remember being at a meeting with a group of several major movie writers we invited for a roundtable. One of the writers wrote a very popular movie and was listening with a smirk on his face the entire time. That’s where it started. Until today our biggest problem is trying to handle the amount of calls and requests for advice we receive. The reason we developed an online resource called Most Resource, which is visited by thousands of writers on a regular basis, is to promote better writing. We are seeing the changes in stories. Muslims are being portrayed differently. Now, we see so many more nuanced stories.
Could you share an example where a UPF campaign or another organization did not meet your expectations? What did you learn from this experience?
From my point of view, I don’t think we’ve ever done a campaign that has disappointed us so entirely that we could call it a failure. We’ve always learned something that we apply to something new we are doing to improve. I will say that for the work we do, the area that we’ve been less successful in is chasing events. Meaning, to make a film, or launch a well-thought-out campaign, or create a website that meets the needs of a group takes time. In some cases, a lot of time. Every time we have felt that there is an urgent moment that we need to try to get engaged in, those are the places that we didn’t succeed like we hoped we might because we came late. The biggest lesson we’ve learned that others could benefit from is: don’t lose your strategic focus, and don’t let events take you away from your focus.