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DC Muslim Film Fest 2011

DC Muslim Film Fest 2011

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.

Inside Job Review

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is a trenchant, chilling expose on the2008 financial meltdown. Like his most recent documentary on the Iraq War, No End In Sight, it is taut, well-researched, highly provocative, and impressive in scope. Ferguson explained that the choices he made in the documentary were with the idea of making the seemingly highly esoteric subject of this particular economic crisis “accessible to all viewers” and he sought to not only narrate what occurred but also in a more current sense, “explain why America is still in such economic difficulty.”

The documentary begins with an apt case-study, Iceland, which Ferguson describes in the film as “one of the purest experiments” in the potential outcomes of de-regulation. The very grim statistic that, at the time, Iceland’s GDP was 10 billion, and bank losses were 130 billion gives viewers a keen grasp of the sheer enormity of the collapse. Inside Job posits that the de-regulation policies begun in 2000 had an adverse effect on both the environment and the economy.

Inside Job presents a well-researched timeline of the series of developments that combined to create the perfect storm. After the Great Depression, the United States experienced 40 years of growth with no economic crises. The landscape began to change in the 1980s. At the time, many investment banks went public. During the Reagan era, de-regulation under Rubin and Summers allowed behemoth mergers to take place, such as the creation of Citigroup, which would have been impossible under the older legal standards set by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act repealed part of that act, opening up the market for the existence of behemoth hybrid banking, securities, and insurance companies. Ferguson then touches upon the long-standing track record of nefarious activity by financial institutions—the litany of culprit banks who were fined for too many things to name and not the least of which for money laundering for corrupt politicians stretches far and wide.

Ferguson does a brilliant job of demystifying the often-heard during the crisis but rarely understood buzzwords of “subprime mortgages,” “mortgage-backed securities,” and “derivatives.” In interviews with a veritable treasure trove of who’s-whos including economists, business-school faculty, Justice Department officials, Federal Reserve chairmen, Congressmen, financial press members, foreign government ministers, he constructs a picture of a massive inter-relationship critical for the viewers’ understanding of why things got as bad as they did. To put it in the most basic terms, Inside Job diagrams that the historical chain of home buyers to lenders was essentially replaced by the home buyers-lenders-investment banks-investors chain, which allowed banks to make riskier and riskier loan offers because they were no longer concerned about the ability of the buyers to repay the loans directly to them. The creation of complex financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations [CDOs] came hand in hand with increasingly predatory lending since the interest rates on the subprime mortgages were the highest. As early as 1998, people like Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Future Trading Commission, feared the consequences of having a 50 trillion unregulated derivates market and lobbied for legislation, but Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan firmly objected to it and none passed. In addition, the relaxation of leverage standards, which passed SEC approval in 2004, allowed unheretofore seen shockingly high levels of borrowed-to-bank money, such as 33:1, having enormous implications for bank liquidity. Combine that with the fact that rating agencies continued to rate CDOs at super high grades [two days before its collapse, Lehman was rated as 2A] and later on washed their hands of this oversight error [to put it mildly] by calling their ratings at Congressional hearings mere “opinions.” In the increasingly complicated picture, the true testament to Wall Street greed was that investment banks were selling and betting against the same CDOs at the same time and routinely deceiving their clients about the quality of the investments. Inside Job also features interviews with the two leading voices of reason—Raghuram Rajan and Nouriel Roubini, who were sounding alarm bells as early as 2005. Rajan, IMF’s former Chief Economist delivered a paper, “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier” warning of the looming disaster. Other leading economists are also interviewed including Paul Volcker, Andrew Sheng, and Christine Lagard.

Ferguson does not shy away from tackling controversial issues and the courageous gusto with which he peppers his interview subjects with uncomfortable questions is amusingly droll. A major point that the documentary drives home is that almost entirely independent of political lines, the government remains a “Wall Street government,” as Ferguson put it. The fact that the financial industry routinely spends 5 billion in political contributions and the fact that most of the key government economics advisors are former financial industry honchos speaks to how deep this collusion is. Inside Job also delivers a searing indictment on the lack of criminal prosecution for the culprits, who not only walked away free but they walked away with staggering pay packages to the tune of hundreds of millions. Ferguson stated in the discussion after the film that, “the fact these guys are going to get away with this is a major public policy failure.” In further testament to the “structural corruption,” Ferguson also very smartly illustrates the ideological impact of having professors from the top business schools engage in blatant conflict-of-interest activities such as earning 80% of the their income consulting for the very same financial companies that precipitated the crisis.