Diplomatic Pouch / November 20, 2014
By Larry Luxner
A glamorous Pakistani actress, an acclaimed British film director, an outspoken Saudi journalist and a company that makes hard-hitting documentaries all shared honors at a recent gala banquet organized by America Abroad Media (AAM).
AAM’s 2014 Awards Dinner, held Oct. 30 at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, brought together hundreds of dignitaries including the Washington-based ambassadors of Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
AAM, led by founder and president Aaron R. Lobel, promotes the free exchange of ideas through the development and dissemination of radio and TV programming from South Asia to the Middle East and Africa.
“Our awards dinner this year takes place during a time of mounting global challenges, especially in the greater Middle East. The media, in various forms, is demonstrating its power to shape attitudes and behavior — too often with negative and even destructive consequences,” Lobel said in a welcome address to guests.
“This evening, we are so proud to recognize a group of honorees whose work embodies those same values, addresses serious issues of international importance and fosters a deeper understanding of the complex world we live in today,” Lobel continued. “I hope all of you leave here tonight inspired by the tremendous accomplishments of our honorees, and convinced of the need to harness the power of media in the pursuit of a more secure and peaceful world.”
The event, whose premier sponsor was Turkish Airlines, featured a performance by the 35-member Civilizations Choir of Antakya, Turkey. The choir — composed of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish members who are priests, imams, nuns, teachers, students and seniors — performed three religious songs: Tala el Bedru Aleyna (Muslim); Yah Ribon Alam (Jewish) and Praise to the Lord (Christian).
Other key sponsors include Carnegie Corp. of New York, Chicago Media Project, Etihad Airlines, Levant Investment Bank, NBCUniversal and the embassies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The evening’s first honoree was Reema Khan, winner of this year’s AAM Partner Award. A beloved film star from the Pakistani city of Lahore, Khan has appeared in more than 200 movies and TV shows since her debut in 1990.
Evan Ryan, assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs at the State Department, introduced her as “someone who devotes a great deal of time on social issues” and “an exemplary cultural ambassador” between the United States and Pakistan. An accomplished actress, director and producer, last year — in partnership with AAM — she starred in the Pakistani documentary TV series Reema Khan’s America.
“While some Pakistanis have come to study and live in America, there are tens of millions of people in Pakistan who have never had this opportunity. They rely on third-party sources to form their opinions about the United States,” Ryan said. “Reema is public diplomacy in action. To have one of the most trusted Pakistanis lead this journey is invaluable. Reema, thank you for your integrity.”
In accepting the award, Khan praised the United States as “the only place in the world” for people of all backgrounds and religions to pursue their dreams.
“Pakistan has a lot of talent. A 17-year-old girl who recently received the Nobel Peace Prize has shown the world that Pakistan has a lot of courage, too,” she said in reference to Malala Yousafzai, who was nearly murdered by the Taliban for defending her right to an education. “Most importantly, I am pleased and honored to receive this award in the company of so many accomplished people.”
Next to be feted by AAM were Dan Cogan and Geralyn Dreyfous, founders of New York-based Impact Partners, which brings together financiers and filmmakers to make documentaries that address pressing social issues. Impact’s films include “The Cove,” a 2007 exposé of dolphin hunting in Japan, and “How to Survive a Plague,” a look at AIDS activism that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2013.
Although Impact has financed more than 60 films, it won recognition from AAM for its penetrating documentaries on the Middle East, South Asia and U.S. foreign policy. These include “Hell and Back Again,” an analysis of the war in Afghanistan, and “The Glass House,” which follows the lives of four Iranian teenage girls at a Tehran rehab center as they struggle with drug addiction, sexual abuse and other social ills.
“When you see one of our films, hopefully you’ll be moved to tears, or laughter or outrage, and through that, a determination to make a difference,” Cogan told his audience. “Once you’ve suffered through other peoples’ struggles and gloried in their triumphs, you’re not the same person you were 90 minutes ago. Your perspective on life is broader. The more documentary films you watch, the better a person you become.”
AAM also recognized Turki Al-Dakhil — a prominent Saudi broadcaster and one of the co-founders of Al Arabiya News — for his courage. Earlier this year, Arabian Business magazine named Al-Dakhil one of the world’s 100 most powerful Arabs. Al-Dakhil accepted the prize in memory of his mother.
“He’s been called the Charlie Rose and the Larry King of the Middle East,” said Egyptian-born Dina Habib Powell, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, in presenting the award to Aldakhil. “He challenges Arab viewers to think critically about their own societies. He’s confronted extremism and given a platform to civic leaders calling for political and economic reform.”
Paul Greengrass, the final AAM honoree, is the best-known of the bunch.
A globally acclaimed filmmaker, screenwriter and former journalist, Greengrass, 59, specializes in the dramatizations of real-life events. The AAM recognized him for two such dramatizations, “United 93,” which chronicles the fate of a United Airlines jet hijacked by al-Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001, and “Captain Phillips,” a 2013 thriller starring Tom Hanks as Capt. Richard Phillips, whose container ship was hijacked by desperate Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.
The real Capt. Phillips was on hand to salute Greengrass for his work, while Barkhad Abdi — the Somali-American actor who played hijacker Abduwali Muse — sent video greetings from Minneapolis.
“Paul, I’m happy to be here tonight to help honor you,” said Phillips, who got to know Greengrass during production of the thriller, which went on to receive six Academy Award nominations. “You care about people, and you are a brilliant director who manages to convey so authentically the raw human emotions that we feel during our difficult experiences.”
After an equally emotional tribute to Greengrass by families of some of the 40 passengers who lost their lives in the terrorist hijacking of United 93, the famous British director thanked AAM for inviting him to Washington and praised the creativity of the actors and technicians who worked with him on both docudramas.
“As a filmmaker, you want to find ways to tell the truth about the way you see the world, as honestly as you can, without fear or favor,” said Greengrass. “We try and make sense of the dangerous and difficult world that we all inhabit. In making these two films, it was about telling real stories — and that gives you a responsibility. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong.”
In the end, he said, it’s the relationships with the men and women whose real-life stories he portrays that are most important for him. “If the films have their consent, if the films tell the story that they recognize, then this is the greatest privilege in my life.”