Lights, Camera, Inclusion S2E5: Bahija Essoussi Gagnon and Samuel Gagnon

The business and life partners discuss their partnership and complementarity, the North African and West Asian Lab (N.A.W.A.L.), and the pitfalls of orientalism.

To conclude this second season, we meet producers Bahija Essoussi-Gagnon and Samuel Gagnon. Objectif 9, their production company, highlights a number of stories from diverse voices. Bahija also co-founded N.A.W.A.L., a laboratory that supports the screen-based industry artisans from North Africa and West Asia.

*Interview filmed late September 2023

Nothing predisposed Bahija Essoussi to becoming a film producer, and even less in Quebec. She had a career as a high school economics teacher in her home country, Morocco, when she crossed paths with Samuel Gagnon, who is a producer and comes from a cinema family in Quebec. “I was the type of person who never thought about leaving Morocco or giving up my teaching career,” she confides. Twenty years after this meeting, the couple is working together more than ever.

Their production company, Objectif 9, has been focusing on stories and creators from diverse and under-represented groups for several years. “That doesn't mean that we won't work with people who don't come from diverse backgrounds, but it's true that in terms of our active search for new talents, new creators, we look a lot at people who come from this diversity,” explains Samuel Gagnon. With a particular sensitivity for filmmakers from the vast geographic region often called the “Arab world,” the couple has always been attentive to the Montreal community of artists and creators from this region.

It is this informal grouping of artists which is at the origin of the official creation of the N.A.W.A.L. association in 2022, propelled by the couple's meeting with producer Ania Jamila, based in Toronto, who is the other co-founder. The trigger, however, came from director Sarah El Attar, the director of the association's first mentoring and training program, entitled Volumes. “She had an incubator project for creating a mentoring program for young female filmmakers from the region,” mentions Samuel Gagnon. Inspired by this project, N.A.W.A.L. was born a few weeks later and quickly obtained funding to get the program on the road.

For Bahija Essoussi Gagnon, it was important to bring knowledge and awareness in order to challenge the general perception of “Arabs”: “We are put in a single category, it’s like Arabs or Muslims. They don't know that there are countries that are not Arab, others that are not Muslim. In Morocco, we have Jews, we have Christians, we have Amazighs, Kabyles. It’s quite diverse.”

What does not help to combat those clichés, says Samuel Gagnon, is the phenomenon of orientalism in cinema, which corresponds to a partial and biased idea of what the stories from this great region should look like, according to the West. Thus, there will often be a focus on the projects focusing on poverty, veiled women, terrorism… “This is not the reality of the Arab world. I'm not saying that this reality doesn't exist. It exists, of course. [...] Even if we develop lots of projects that are not orientalist, if it is always those that are orientalist that are funded, we just continue to perpetuate the problem. For us, it’s something we really want to work hard on, on this perception,” insists Samuel Gagnon.

Gaëlle Essoo
Gaëlle Essoo works for the Canada Media Fund as the Lead Editor for the Now & Next editorial platform, and as the French market liaison for the organization's Growth & Inclusion team. Prior to joining the CMF, she worked as a producer for international news channel France 24 where she focused on programs dedicated to women’s rights across the world. She also worked as a press counselor for the Embassy of France in Canada.
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