Holen Sabrina Kahn: Exploring Ethical Acts and Ideas of Individual Agency

VCCA Fellow and Fellows Council-member Holen Sabrina Kahn was working on a script for a heist film while she was in residence. “I love heist films!” she says enthusiastically. For those of you who don’t know, Holen has carved out quite a reputation for herself as a serious documentary filmmaker and visual artist whose work creatively explores ethical acts and ideas of individual agency. Her A Quiet Inquisition, which she made with collaborator, Alessandra Zeka, follows an obstetrician at a public hospital in Managua, Nicaragua, as she contends with a recently enacted law that prevents the termination of any pregnancy, even in cases where a woman’s life is at stake.The film focuses on the fatal impact of this law in the context of the political, religious and historically complex national identity of Nicaragua. 

Hailed as “One of ten films every human rights advocate should see" by the Huffington Post, A Quiet Inquisition had its premiere screening at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center in New York last June and has been shown to great acclaim internationally on four continents. The film, which won a Vaclav Havel Jury Award at the ONEWORLD International Human Rights Film Festival in Prague, has just been released for rental and VOD.

Holen studied experimental film at the Art Institute of Chicago. All along she has also been deeply interested in socially engaged documentary work, as well as fictional and imaginative practices. Over time, all these things have melded together into a kind of hybrid. In addition to a traditional film practice, Holen also produces gallery-based film work, large-scale installations and photography. Though she works across media, she believes that certain qualities travel from piece to piece and that can be recognizable as hers, “The idea is always the instigator for me. It forms the basis more than the medium—the medium follows naturally what the idea needs to come to fruition.”

While a playful heist film is not necessarily what you’d imagine Holen to take on as her next project, after the seriousness of A Quiet Inquisition, she promises it will still have a critical context. She’s looking forward to exploring a different way of telling a political story. “I liked the idea of doing something that was very formulaic where I could play inside the form. The film, set primarily in London, appears from the outside to be a charismatic trope-filled heist film, but there’s a serious discourse happening inside of it.”

Holen is enjoying the writing phase and not worrying about the nuts and bolts of getting the film made right now. “I just have to show up, sit down, focus on the story and write.” And fiction is providing a nice break for her too. “Documentary is hard” she says. “I don’t mean that in a bad way, but you live with material that is other people’s real lives in a deep way for a long time and there are lots of questions around the relationship between the director and the subject and the ethics involved and ideas of participation. There’s a freedom in fiction. You can work with some really deep content, but in a way that doesn’t ask everybody else to participate in what can be dangerous work. The weight of that is hard to carry around.”

Holen has held post-graduate fellowships at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University. holenkahn.com quietinquisition.com


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