Around three years ago, US based Jordanian filmmaker Leen Karadsheh began working with The Othrs, the New York-based film production house that brought us the blockbuster documentary, The Square about the Egyptian uprising in 2011. With a Bachelor’s degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University, Karadsheh has worked with The Othrs to produce a new documentary, Flight/Risk, which aired on Amazon Prime this past September. eniGma’s Rawya Lamei spoke to Karadsheh to find out more about Flight/Risk, and how it came to life.
Leen Karadsheh cares about storytelling and about people. She began working on Flight/Risk three years ago because she passionately believed that this was a story worth telling, and that people needed to know about it. The documentary explores the two Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 which shook the world and exposed the corruption within Boeing which allowed this plane to fly despite insiders having full knowledge of the risk it posed to passengers.
Zipporah Kuria was one of the people who lost a family member in the Boeing 737 Max airplane crash in 2019 and whose story we follow in Flight/Risk. “Zippy would always say that if you’re not able to watch this film fully, then share the story. If you care about the people in your life then you need to share this,” says Karadsheh.
Karadsheh recounts how it all started for The Othrs when Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, producers at The Othrs, met with Mary Inman, one of the world’s top whistle-blower lawyers at a conference in Washington D.C. Shortly afterwards, Inman told them that one of her clients, a former Boeing employee named Edward Pierson, was going public about details surrounding the Boeing 737 Max crashes and was going to testify in front of Congress.
In less than 24 hours, Karadsheh hopped on a plane to Washington D.C. to film Pierson’s testimony and do press with NBC News and the New York Times while waiting for his Congressional hearing. “We spoke to Pierson and found his story extremely compelling,” says Karadsheh. Little did they know at the time, however, that many of the families of the victims of this fatal plane crash had also flown in from all over the world to attend the hearing. One of them was Zipporah Kuria, a Kenyan who had lost her father on that fateful day. “Her father had a very interesting story that showed the disparity between Westerners and Africans, so we just dove in from there!” says Karadsheh.
It was clear that Boeing employees knew very well that speaking out against any issues plaguing the company was not encouraged, to say the least. “Ed was the first person to do so,” says Karadsheh about Edward Pierson, adding, “And he is the best example of retaliation by Boeing.” Pierson’s concern for people’s wellbeing and safety was not welcome by the company and he faced heavy retaliation. Soon thereafter, The Othrs found out that Pierson was not the only employee who had decided to talk. They learnt that Gerald Eastman, another Boeing employee had also spoken up, but had later committed suicide. “Eastman was extremely troubled with Boeing’s behaviour and its inaction when it knew of the risks surrounding their plane. It was very important to us to highlight the fact that Ed Pierson wasn’t the first person to come out and speak out about this. And he shouldn’t be the last either,” says Karadsheh.
Through their film Flight/Risk, The Othrs celebrates people like Pierson who are proactive and who put their careers on the line for the sake of people’s safety. While they were able to find a considerable number of witnesses willing to speak up, the threat of retaliation from Boeing limited the ability of retired company employees to speak on camera for fear it would affect their pension. “At the end of the day, for those who are worried, we like to be as accommodating as we can be, but it’s not like we’re going to force anyone to tell their story,” says Karadsheh.
Karadsheh stresses that they had made sure to reach out to the company very early on in the filmmaking process. She and her colleagues were well aware of the huge importance of Boeing to the American economy, and their goal with Flight/Risk was certainly not to take it down and disrupt the world economy. “Boeing is the U.S.’s largest exporter; it has the highest number of American employees, and it’s the pride and joy of the United States, which we at The Othrs share as well,” she says. That’s why they chose to dedicate an entire portion of the film on the accomplishments of the Boeing company, with its long history spanning World War II and multiple U.S. presidencies. Karadsheh notes that most Boeing employees are heartbroken that, after having earned an amazing reputation for its exceptional performance and for the breakthroughs it made in aviation technology, this is where the company is now, putting profit over human safety. She describes Flight/Risk as an attempt at a wake-up call. “Let’s open our eyes and redeem ourselves, because we can do better,” says Karadsheh.
During the making of Flight/Risk, one of Karadsheh’s biggest concerns was to make sure they did not end up producing a horrour film. “We didn’t want to be afraid of going on planes ourselves, and we didn’t want to produce a film that would leave people feeling terrified, either,” she says adamantly. Thus, she was very pleasantly surprised by people’s response during the film’s screening in London. “The comments were things like, ‘I’m in shock!’ or ‘I’m outraged!” says Karadsheh, adding that it was important to channel fear into anger, since this brings you one step closer to acting upon it. “The action that can be taken within this dynamic is to do whatever you’re capable of. It could be as simple as sharing the movie or even sharing posts with friends. It’s all about being more inquisitive and not taking your right to safety for granted,” she explains.
Generally, Karadsheh and The Othrs, are attracted to stories that are timely and have a zeitgeist that must be looked at. They like to present their stories in ways that spark questions and inform viewers on how they could help build a better future. “The Square, our 2013 documentary about the Egyptian uprising in 2011, was all about how Facebook was able to change minds and spark a movement. Then with The Great Hack, our 2019 documentary about Cambridge Analytica, we got to expose the flip side of what tech can do. The Great Hack raised the question of, ‘how could we champion something so well and not acknowledge its pitfalls and how it can be used against us?’ It came to symbolise the dark side of social media in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” says Karadsheh.
Karadsheh believes that the takeaway from Flight/Risk is to never underestimate the power of your own voice when faced with injustice and tragedy. She points out that there were 32 different nationalities, including six Egyptians, on the Boeing 737 Max crash in 2019. The lives that were lost on that flight had incredible promise, which only makes this tragedy even more heart-breaking. She expresses her frustration, however, that this tragedy became a scandal on an international scale only because there were Westerners on the flight. She concludes, “If there’s one takeaway that I hope you get from the film, it’s that you shouldn’t ignore the possibility that it could be you. We have power, and we should use that power and use our voice.”