Mara Ahmed is an activist, artist and filmmaker based on Long Island, New York. She was educated in Belgium, Pakistan and the United States and has an MBA and a Master’s in Economics. She worked in finance until 2004, when she resigned from her corporate job in order to focus on art and film. She studied art at Nazareth College and film at the Visual Studies Workshop and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Mara’s artwork has been exhibited at galleries in New York and California. Her shows are multimedia fusions of collage work, photography, graphic art and film work.
Mara’s first film, The Muslims I Know, premiered at the Dryden Theatre (George Eastman Museum) in 2008 and started a dialogue between American Muslims and people of other faiths. Her second film, Pakistan One on One, opened at the Little Theatre in 2011 and is a broad survey of public opinion about America, shot entirely in Lahore. Mara’s third film, A Thin Wall, explores the partition of India and possibilities of reconciliation. It premiered at the Bradford Literature Festival (in England) in 2015, won a Special Jury Prize at the Amsterdam Film Festival in 2016, and has been screened worldwide, most recently in Taiwan.
These three films can be streamed on Vimeo on Demand.
Mara is interested in dialogue across both physical and psychological boundaries. In 2017, she gave a Tedx talk about the meaning of borders and nationalism entitled “The edges that blur.”
In 2023, she was awarded a NYSCA grant to complete her short film, Return to Sender: Women of Color in Colonial Postcards & the Politics of Representation. The film, which pushes the documentary medium in unexpected ways by opening with three contemporary South Asian American women who recreate British colonial postcards from the early 20th century, premiered at Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, NY, on Sunday October 1st, 2023.
Mara is now working on The Injured Body, a documentary about racism in America, focusing exclusively on the voices of women of color. The film is being fiscally sponsored by NYWIFT and is slated to be completed in 2024. Her production company is Neelum Films.
Mara on documentary filmmaking:
From an artistic standpoint, I love film because it’s a multi-media art form. My artistic work is rooted in the idea of collage. I like to bring incongruent and contradictory elements together in a way which enhances or changes their beauty and meaning. Film is the perfect medium for that process. It’s a coming together of art, photography, music and writing, of image and sound, of serious content and aesthetic pleasure. It combines many facets of art and literature in order to produce something powerful and complete.
From an activist standpoint, I find film to be extremely effective in breaking down barriers and starting important conversations. We live in a very visual culture where if we can’t see something, it’s like it doesn’t exist. Film allows one to witness for oneself, to meet people one might never come across in real life. It permits dialogue and exchange which is bounded and safe yet can provoke thought in unpredictable ways. Documentary film is especially suited for recording and analyzing microhistory, the personal narrative, the individual testimony. People talk about objectivity and how that can be compromised in film vs news media. The fact is that history (whether told in many personal voices or one aggregated collective voice) is always subjective. It cannot help but be seen, told and parsed through a particular lens, the experiential lens of its raconteur.
Documentary filmmaking is particularly suited to stories that one cannot find in mainstream media because they are either too complex or too obscure. At a time when American mainstream media have metamorphosed into a bland oligopoly, such that the line between media, government and corporate interests has become incredibly blurred, documentary filmmaking has taken on the important role of investigative journalism.
Documentaries are flexible enough to make the exploration of truth not only possible but also engaging. My first film, “The Muslims I Know” was a reaction to post 9/11 stereotyping of Muslims. By giving American audiences an opportunity to meet American Muslims in their own homes, surrounded by their families, and responding to questions that had been posed by non-Muslim Americans, I was able to humanize the “other” in a very direct and effective way. Such is the power of documentary film.
I like to play with the documentary form and make it more pliable artistically, richer, without compromising the reality that it engenders. For example, in “A Thin Wall” we used animation to recreate the past and evoke a certain nostalgia for pre-partition India. We also featured Pakistani artist Jimmy Engineer’s large-scale partition paintings and the lyrical writing of British poet John Siddique. I see the film as a layering of art and music and culture on top of people’s memories and a shared history that we must remember in order to be whole.