A generation coming to terms with itself – Rendah Haj on Youth Misinterpreted Rendah Haj is the founder of Youth Misinterpreted, a social change movement based around the idea of connecting young people through an exploration of identity. Rendah caught up with the Aware Project in Melbourne and talked about her passion for filmmaking, why she started Youth Misinterpreted and youth issues abroad.
Aware: What were you doing before you started Youth Misinterpreted?
Rendah: I was at school at Melbourne Girls College, and was working at a youth community radio station called SYN. I was really focussed on global politics and the media industry and I wanted to be a part of it and understand how it worked.
Aware: So where did your interest in filmmaking come from originally?
Rendah: I’ve been interested in films ever since I was five or six, I loved foreign films and I loved films from the ‘60s and ‘70s, so basically all my life I was interested in film. I just didn’t really think of it as something I could pursue, because I think when you’re young and you see film, you think big Hollywood blockbusters and that’s just not what I’m interested in.
Aware: So Youth Misinterpreted provides a platform for young people to express themselves freely and show a side of youth which doesn’t really exist in the media. Was there one key moment or experience of seeing young people misinterpreted or misrepresented in media that made you decide to start Youth Misinterpreted or was it a build-up of seeing this in the media?
Rendah: It was a build-up, 100%. I mean, firstly I guess growing up I’m surrounded by all my friends and people around me all going through the same experiences but feeling like they’re just not understood. When you’re a teen you see a lot of heartbreaks from your friends and you see a lot of people that are depressed or they’re just not happy with things and I feel like they’re just not taken seriously. I felt like even with films, as much as I’m influenced by film, I’ve definitely felt like youth are not portrayed realistically, and they just don’t take enough time to understand young people and how they feel. It’s kind of like ‘this is how I felt when I was that age and this is what I’m being showed’ but it’s not like how are the youth of this generation, of a modern society, how do they feel?
Aware: And it wasn’t only in media that youth were misrepresented, it was also in school?
Rendah: Yeah absolutely. I think a lot of young people don’t actually realise it, because for some people, the educational institution works for them and is suited for their needs, especially if they’re into science and all of those kind of subjects. But then to people who are very artistic, it’s sad to see when they finish Year 12 and they’ve been pushed so far, and they think that this is the only way they can continue in real life, to be a doctor or to be a lawyer. And that’s fine if that’s what you want to do but if you’ve been pressured and pushed away and you feel like you’re bound to just be one thing it’s hard to break out of that and learn how to find your own identity.
Aware: So, in Youth Misinterpreted, the young people you’re filming talk about a variety of social issues in Australia. Which social movements do you personally find to be the most important for Australian society?
Rendah: Well definitely politics is one, specifically in Melbourne because that’s what I see every day, that’s what is around me, there are so many young people who are inserting themselves into so many social issues and they’re coming out and being like, we actually care about this, we do know about politics, we know what’s going on in our government and what’s happening in different countries around the world and we want to be heard, this is what we think and this is how we feel. So it’s not like we’re oblivious to all these issues. Also, there’s a lot of young girls who are outgoing feminists these days which I think is really great, but I don’t think there are specific movements. It’s just about how people feel and what people do, and a big thing about this project is judging people not just by how they look. You’ll see there’s this subculture in Melbourne; the cool arty people that’ll hang out in Brunswick. A lot of them are my friends, and it’s really interesting when you come and sit down with them and they’re really interested in philosophy and politics and things that are happening in Africa and Asia, things that are really important so I think it’s more about focussing on that point of view.
Aware: So you’ve recently returned from the Middle East and Europe to do some work for Youth Misinterpreted, what have you found to be unique to Australian youth culture which you haven’t found to be similar anywhere else?
Rendah: Well, I mean, I don’t know if there’s a specific element or aspect that’s much different but definitely the lifestyle is so much different. We have so much opportunity in Melbourne that we take for granted and we actually don’t know how lucky we are, even compared to somewhere as thriving as Oslo, which a lot of people don’t really see or know about, or somewhere like Istanbul where there’s so much happening, in terms of young creatives we have so many more platforms to be able to express ourselves and to do things that matter and be as creative and artistic as we want, and I think that’s the most prominent thing that’s unique in Melbourne.
Aware: For sure, the platforms that we have.
Rendah: Exactly, especially when I’m talking about creatives – so music, art, film, whatever it is, whereas definitely in somewhere like Egypt, in Cairo you don’t see that at all – it’s buried and just swept under the rug. There are people who are trying to but it’s an underground movement, it’s not something that the government would support. I don’t think the government fails in any sense, that’s not what I mean. I just think that they’re only just beginning to support young creatives, which I think is really important, but it’s just getting them to understand them instead and actually support them in their differences rather than just ‘here’s a space and here’s money to do this’, but actually understanding who they are and what they want to do.
Aware: From the people you have interviewed overseas, I know that attitudes vary with different people, but were there any attitudes that you found to be the general overall attitudes towards youth issues?
Rendah: So when we were overseas we didn’t really interview that many people, it was more working with collaborations, but in terms of just speaking and having conversations with people. I think, to be very honest, especially in the Middle East they were very close minded. Not because it was their choice to remain ignorant, but more they were just oblivious to a lot of things, and they didn’t know that they were able to express themselves. I’d ask them a question, and they would answer very generally, so I’d have to say ‘no, tell me honestly, there’s no one hear watching you, just tell me how you feel’, and from there you can see them opening up and it’s the biggest revelation to them, because they’d never really had that platform to talk freely. And there’s a lot of people who you’ll talk to, and you find that if you just talk to them and ask them questions they will tell you everything, because it’s like they’re just bursting with it especially the young kids in Cairo, because I spent a lot of time there with my family. I’d meet all these young people, even little kids and they’d run up to you and just want to tell you their whole life stories, and they’d tell you about their family – ‘I’m really sad I don’t know what to do, my family won’t help me go to school, they won’t do this for me’, and it’s really sad to see that, but also sad to see that no one sees that side of them.
Aware: And what impact do you want to see from Youth Misinterpreted?
Rendah: Well I mean; I definitely want this project to become a movement for youth, so I’m trying to connect a diverse range of young individuals and as much as I’m trying to show society that young people are more than they are being given credit for, I’m trying to show that it doesn’t matter what society you live in or what lifestyle you’re leading or if you have an iPhone or not. I think that so many different young people from all over the world can relate to each other in ways they probably never thought they could. They’ve been experiencing the same things, whether it’s that they’re trying to come to terms with their sexuality or trying to come to terms with what job they want. I think that’s the biggest and the most important thing, because we are the leading generation and we need to make a change and define what we stand for ourselves instead of the older generation defining who we are for us. So, I think that this project aims to reach to as many people as it can, and help people to understand that they’re worth more than what they’re given credit for.