“I wanted to create a short vignette that made people feel uncomfortable and awkward”: Filmmaker Aisha Sultan Talks “33 and Counting” and “Other People”

by | Apr 6, 2022 | News

An online screening and talkback of the documentary “33 and Counting” was held on April 4 via Zoom. The film documents the story of a 70-year-old grandmother from rural Missouri serving a life sentence for a murder she says her rapist committed.

The event was held as part of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival in partnership with the Park Center for Independent Media. Aisha Sultan, director and executive producer of the documentary, sat down to discuss the film with PCIM Director Raza Rumi.

“33 and Counting” is an investigative documentary that reveals the significant problems with the investigation and prosecution of Patty Prewitt’s case, along with the role gender bias played in her conviction. The film looks at the toll her imprisonment has taken on her surviving children, the tremendous impact she has made while in prison, and why lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are fighting for her release.

“I knew when a story gripped me and compelled me, and I knew when there was something of value in it for the world to see,” said Sultan, describing what compelled her into documenting Patty Prewitt’s story.

Aisha Sultan is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her work has appeared in more than a hundred print and digital publications, including The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Quartz and runs weekly in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She described her experiences making this documentary and how different it was from her usual work as a journalist.

“I can report on a story entirely myself and then craft it the way that I want to tell it … and then it appears in the paper in a relatively short amount of time, but a film is far more collaborative, and you cannot make it in isolation.”

Sultan also discussed her short film “Other People,” which was made prior to “33 and Counting” and was Sultan’s first foray into the world of independent filmmaking.

“Other People” is a short film that depicts a South Asian Muslim father as he navigates a princess party with his daughter, leading to awkward moments with the white moms in attendance.

Sultan talked about what inspired her, as a journalist, to make a narrative short film. She described feelings of displacement and anxiety upon Donald Trump’s election in 2016 as a person of color and a Muslim woman.

“I wanted to create a short vignette that made people feel uncomfortable and awkward … and there is no neat or tidy resolution to it because there is no neat and tidy resolution to how people of color find our space or negotiate predominantly white spaces.”

Sultan asked moderator Raza Rumi how he felt whilst watching the film.

“I think the film personally spoke to me,” said Rumi, who moved to the United States from Pakistan in 2014. “I have been asked these types of questions: ‘How come your English is so good?’ or ‘Your English is good, but your accent is a bit…’ so as I was watching your film I thought about how the other [white] characters would feel if they had to undergo the same kind of rigorous questioning.”

Sultan argued for the value in talking about microaggressions in a society where more major acts of aggression take place against Muslims and South Asians regularly.

“I would argue there is value in having people experience and feel something. Perhaps there’s some people who will watch [‘Other People’] and have a feeling of discomfort and have an understanding of what it feels like to experience that feeling of awkwardness and discomfort your entire life.”

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