The Muslim Film Festival held in Washington, D.C. from April 19th to 27th, 2011 and organized by the American Islamic Congress and Project Nur presents a diverse group of five films under the general rubric of Generation: Muslim. Considering the fact that an estimated 65% of the world Muslim population is under the age of 30, the films embody a youthful, vibrant ethos and offer a glimpse into a world that is quite removed from the plucked-from-the-headlines “angry young Arab man” stereotype—simply put, they show that subversive is not equal to “angry mob.” The protagonists in the films break dance, play in indie rock bands, paint graffiti, throw punk rock shows and, in general, provide quite refreshing, nuanced, and trenchant answers to the question of what it means to be a Muslim. To an audience bombarded with images of the Islamic world’s troubled relationship with Western culture, the Muslim Film Festival paints a picture of diversity and narrates how Islam fits and lives within the social fabric of Western settings.
The 2009 Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize selection No One Knows About Persian Cats explores the difficulties Iranian youth face in trying to produce and perform rock music—it’s a breathless expose on a cat-and-mouse game but the movie does not take on a fatalistic, cynical view of that. If anything, it shows that even under repressive regimes, there is such a strong undercurrent of creativity—case in point, Iran has metal and indie rock bands, too, and even Sufi musicians who have to record their music underground.
The Tunisian Making Of is an interesting meta-approach-taking film-within-a-film about the making of a film about the radicalization of youth. It frames in a rather innovative way the question of just how that could take place.
The 2010 Oscar Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Un Prophete, screening on Wednesday, April 27, is a tour-de-force thriller of a young Muslim man’s experience in a French prison and his alliance with the Corsican mob.
The 2010 Sundance Film Festival selection The Taqwacores, directed by Eyad Zahra, depicts the electrifying underground subculture of Muslim punk-rockers in Buffalo, NY. Based on the Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 cult novel The Taqwacores, the movie does an incredible job of portraying the ultimate in-your-face punch of the mashing of two “counter-mainstream-cultural,” if you will, phenomena—being punk and being Muslim in America. Zahra’s direction is superb in showing us that the characters in the movie are not on some contrived faux-rebellion tip against society—if anything, they are simply living only as they know how and accepting in a sort of resigned, almost cynical way that simply being who they are by definition makes them subversive. As the pink-mohawked guitarist Jehangir (Dominic Rains) puts it, he is the embodiment of “mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures.”
In addition to the absolutely stunning cinematography [the movie’s cadence is really unique and true to its ’80s zine-punk aesthetic], the cast of characters is thrilling to watch—there is shy Yusef (Bobby Naderi), an engineering student, ever- angry, moral-enforcing straight-edger Umar (Nav Mann), and Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), a burqa-wearing feminist-of-sorts, whose attire baffles even her roommates but who Jehangir simply sums up as “must be the kind of girl who reads in a burqa.” When Jehangir decides to put on a punk show, hosting Muslim punk bands from “Khalifornia,” [the soundtrack of the movie features those real bands, btw], things get ugly in a good and bad [punk] sense. The Taqwacores is also full of clever, funny dialogue such as Jehangir’s description of the chastity battle as a “jihad against my nuts.” Ultimately, the theme is that even through the rebellion and struggle, there is an ever present thread of faith and spirituality–“Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.”
Director Eyad Zahra commented that, “I was not certain that this film would be ‘Islamically-accepted’ but there has been no negative response to it. It has seen nothing but good.” If there is any message, he expounded, it is that “the Muslim community is wide and diverse.” The paradigm of “big tent” underscores the very pluralistic nature of Islam and the DC Muslim Film Fest’s film selections showcase both the struggles and triumphs of being Muslim in a modern context. The take-away message from the Festival was that through the struggle of defining one’s identity in a subcultural vs. mainstream sense and even with the difficulty of discrimination and repression, the “performance” of a Muslim identity takes many different forms and in the process raises a series of incredibly interesting questions.