I work for an arts education organization so you would think the importance of art would be clear to me and yet when I am confronted with someone who doesn’t see the value in creative expression I am speechless, unable to defend my belief that art can be powerful. As the child of two artists I was raised on a diet of Piero della Francesca with a side of Robert Smithson and spent a large chunk of my childhood surrounded by art whether in galleries or in my parents’ studios. However this unique upbringing left me unprepared for a pervasive misunderstanding of art and its relevance to daily life. As I grew up, I was constantly having to defend art’s value and importance to society. Yet, I had trouble conveying my intrinsic love of art. So, whenever I heard a story of art affecting social change, I stored it away for the next inevitable encounter with a Philistine. Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din’s work in Morocco is just such a story, one that beautifully demonstrates the great value of art.
On a Fulbright fellowship, Mohi-Ud-Din spent a year in Morocco introducing street children, orphans, and drug addicts in Kenitra, Tangier, and Casablanca to film, photography, and music through workshops. Mohi-Ud-Din gave these children, who left broken households for a life on the streets, a means and forum to express themselves. Having experienced great hardship and missed out on their childhood and an education, these children needed a way to share their stories. Under his guidance, the kids wrote, directed, acted in, and shot 17 short narrative, documentary, and animated films.
During a summer I spent in Morocco, I learned that there are thousands of children, typically aged 11-17, who have left broken homes and made a life on the streets of major urban centers throughout Morocco. Salé (Rabat's sister city) responded to the great number of children roaming its streets with L'Ecole du Cirque (The Circus School), which offers street children a typical state-regulated curriculum with optional instruction in circus arts. The school utilizes the excitement of dance, gymnastics, the trapeze, and the tight rope to entice these children to return to school, "resocializing" them to eventually return to living with their families if possible. The school’s students have performed as a troupe throughout Morocco and some have even gone on to join circuses around the world. This phenomenon of children living in the streets is not limited to Salé, and neither is the use of arts to combat it.
Convinced that music and art education could empower these children "to creatively express what they have inside of them, all these issues that they have to deal with" Mohi-Ud-Din exposed the children to art-making. Armed with artistic and technical skills, his students began to tell their stories through pictures, stories, and films. The children used their new found voice to address the many issues they face including poverty, broken families, lack of father figures, and drugs. While many of the films have a serious tone, others are more whimsical, comedic pieces.
When Mohi-Ud-Din screened the films at a cinema in Tangier in front of an audience of 300, including his students, their reactions reaffirmed his intentions for the program. He noted that the students "were beaming with happiness. They were beaming with pride and confidence.” Filmmaking had freed them to share their stories, hopes, and dreams with others.
While the goal of his project may have been to make a difference in the lives of these children, art lives on beyond its creator. As a conduit for understanding and communication, art connects people who otherwise wouldn’t understand each other or even come into contact. Mohi-Ud-Din’s work in Morocco reminds us that though we can never fully understand someone else’s experiences, art, as the most intimate expression of a person’s character, may be the closest we get to seeing the world from another perspective. The hardship that these children have undergone at such a young age is incomprehensible but their films allow us to briefly walk in their shoes.
You can bear witness to these children’s stories this week and next at the 2011 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Mohi-Ud-Din has partnered with Bright Light Theatre Company to produce All Places From Here, a multimedia performance based on the stories these children told through music, photography and film.
The Loading Dock, 1236 Frankford Ave., 8 p.m., through Sept. 17, $17. Tickets here.