Filmmaker Jennifer Taylor: “There are so many things that surprised me”

Looking for a new Muslim cool

A little over four years ago, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Jennifer Taylor approached me with an idea for a documentary film. “I’m in the research stages on a new documentary film about American Muslim hip-hop,” she explained, “and how it relates to the shaping of American Muslim youth culture.” I did my best to connect her to the right people and to be a sounding board for her ideas, and she soon disappeared into her filmmaking. After resurfacing some time later, Taylor emerged with many amazing stories, including one that would take over the heart of her documentary film, “New Muslim Cool“, which will have its US premiere on June 23rd as the season-opener for the PBS POV film series. In this interview, Taylor gives some insight into the people at the heart of the film, talks about avoiding the typical traps found when telling stories about Muslims, and explains how labels become meaningless for a community that increasingly blurs the lines between ethnicities, beliefs, and cultures.

Tell us a little bit about what you were trying to do with this film. We’ve talked about it for years now and it had an original concept that was different from what you ended up with.

Jennifer Taylor: That’s right. When I first started the film, I was looking more at the hip hop culture question and specifically how young American Muslims were using hip hop culture to create a new generational sense of themselves as both part and parcel of American culture but also sort of the global hip hop community. That still became the context of the story, but once we decided to focus much more closely on Hamza [Perez, the film's protagonist] and his family and that whole community, the story took a much deeper turn than I had anticipated – a much more personal turn. And ultimately, one that I’m glad that it did.

He’s a fascinating person to cover. How did you settle on him, or were you going along your normal route in terms of your original plans until you discovered this very interesting person?

We first did some filming at the Taking it to the Streets festival that IMAN does in Chicago. I had a little opportunity to interview Hamza and his brother Suleiman. I had met them before, but I hadn’t really had a chance to talk to them. Once we sat down and did this interview, I was so struck by how different they were from their onstage persona. At the time, their stage act was pretty boisterous; it included the flaming swords and, sort of, a more aggressive stage presence. Offstage, they were just so funny and so sensitive and really, really smart guys. Which you can tell from their stage stuff, too.

Then, I asked if I could go and visit them in Pittsburgh where Hamza had just moved to and Suleiman was in the process of moving to. At that point, once my co-producers and I set foot in the Pittsburgh community, we knew that was the story. You see that first footage that we shot in the film, in the section where you first meet the Pittsburgh community and it’s Ramadan and they’re all in the masjid late at night doing tarawih and having a dinner and the kids are playing Ring Around the Rosie – that all was the very, very first stuff we shot.

You’ve covered a very interesting couple of years in his life where so many things happen. What surprised you the most about what you discovered in that community and that slice of Muslim Americana?

There are so many things that surprised me and, in a way, it’s hard to pick the one because, of course, when I started the project, I knew virtually nothing about Muslims or about the American Muslim community. I did, of course, do initial research prior to starting filming. So I did have about a year where I was interviewing people off camera and also made a short piece about American Muslim hip hop culture for [San Francisco PBS affiliate] KQED, the TV station where I work. And so, that was the initial piece of the project.

I think the main thing I came away with – I’m not sure if it’s much of a surprise – was that a lot of the labels that we use so much in media, where we say “moderate” or “fundamentalist” or “conservative,” etc. – I felt that those labels became more and more meaningless. What Hamza’s community was doing was something, kind of, defying labels in the sense that maybe some practices they have may be very traditional, some ways they’re looking at their faith is oriented toward inner learning. At the same time, they’re so part and parcel of American culture and, specifically, Latino-American and African-American culture.

You’ve also captured something that, I think, is new to a lot of immigrant Muslims who may not be aware of this whole subculture and sub-community that exists nearby that they may not have contact with. As eye opening as is going to be for the general audience, it’ll be eye opening for Muslim communities in this country that haven’t been exposed to that.

I think you could very well be right. What’s been interesting so far in the screenings that we’ve done is we have a very strong generational reaction to the film. So regardless if the viewer is Muslim or not, or if the viewer is Muslim or immigrant or convert or what have you, there’s this resonance that the film seems to be having with people of a certain age – I’d say 30 and under. It’s transcending the faith and ethnic lines.

Some of the split that we see with the immigrant community, not knowing very much about perhaps African-American and Latino Muslims, that is less so with the younger generation.

You’ve kind of captured a generational divide.

Yes, and I actually think that’s why the tagline for the film is “A man, a family, and a generation come of age.” Because I do think that while it has been a very interesting three years in Hamza’s life, I also think that this has been a very interesting period in general in the American Muslim community.

Here’s what I wanted to capture at the beginning of the film – sort of the sense that here’s a generation that’s beginning to really coalesce and name itself. And, I think, the work you’re doing, the work so many folks are doing on all of these different cultural levels is really claiming the space.

Kind of a fused new American Muslim culture that’s equal parts African-American, Arab, whatever.

Absolutely.

And you can see he moves between those lines very fluidly as well.

Totally. Totally. And I think it’s a very post-modern existence, it’s a very global existence. It’s one in which all of us know how to honor multiple affiliations that we all have. Regardless of our faith background, I think we can see something in that story that, ultimately, I hope is speaking to all of us as Americans or even, more broadly, as global citizens.

One of the things I thought was really refreshing about it – and I don’t know if this was your intent or not – but even though the typical themes of terrorism and so forth that Muslims go through are there, they are really in the background. You’ve brought forth a very personal story.

That was by design. I wanted to explicitly not frame the film in any reference to 9/11 or post-9/11 America, even though I know our film description ultimately kind of gave in and said this is a post-9/11 story. I very much wanted to not make that any kind of framing device, a) because I thought it was too reductionist and b) the events of 9/11, I don’t think personally had anything to do with Hamza’s community.

There’s somebody in Hamza’s community whose cousin was in the Pentagon that day working. It would have been a false and reductionist thing, I thought, to imply that his community has any responsibility or connection to that. Which is, I think, what happens a lot in media depictions. And also, I just felt that I wanted to do something fresh. I felt it would poison the water immediately.

It’s neither defensive nor offensive in that way.

Yeah. And then of course, ironically, the frame found us. (Laughs)

You can’t escape it.

No, I tried as hard as I could to keep the thumb on the quotidian and on the personal. Yes, I couldn’t escape it.

But then, of course, once the FBI thing happens – and this to me as a filmmaker was what was so challenging – was actually the fact that it didn’t turn into any kind of drama, per se, that was the typical, sensationalist drama. You know, I keep joking that I waited for the “Erin Brockovich” moment.

They took it in stride, which was also refreshing.

I was out in the [California] Central Valley today and I was listening to some Christian radio. This guy was talking about the Book of Job and about how Job had all these horrible tests from God and he doesn’t lose his faith.

I wasn’t raised particularly religious, so I didn’t have a lot of touchstones as I was making the film. And Hamza and Luqman and Rafia and all the people in the community would keep insisting to me over and over, “No, this raid is ultimately going to be good for us. It’s a good test for us. It’s going to bring us closer together. God loves us because we’re being challenged.”

It took me probably about a year and a half to really believe that.

It’s easy to say that jihad means struggle. But by the end of the film, the subjects have defined jihad in the clearest way possible just by going through these things that maybe would have provoked more dramatic responses in other people. They were so calm through it all, through losing the security clearance, all these little things that happened which, together, could make someone really feel oppressed.

Absolutely. You could take to… “I’m going to give up.” Or I think the expectation many people have – and I admittedly tried to play with that a teeny bit in the way I cut the post-raid scene. What path is he going to take? It’s hard to tell a gangster to turn the other cheek. Obviously I was playing a little bit on people’s expectations of, “Oh, now they’re going to do something terrible.”

Of course, they choose the most constructive path that they can. When I was listening to this thing about Job, I was thinking, “That’s the same thing. He was being tested.” And ultimately, it was because God loved him. I’m can’t say that I 100% in my own personal theology understand that, but I understand it a lot better. That was the hardest part of the filmmaking for me, thinking “You guys are really not more upset?”

I drove them crazy because I would call them every two weeks and say, “Did you get a lawyer yet? Are you making the placards? Are you going to march on City Hall?”

A lot of Muslims are going to find it so refreshing to see a response to these things that is so at ease and so confident. He never loses his confidence through all of this. “Things are going to get better. Things are going to get better.” He has this unsinkable optimism.

I think for Hamza and his community, it’s absolutely rooted in faith. And as they discover when they meet Lynn, the Christian lady in the jail, she’s coming from a very similar place of having given up her former career to become ordained as a Methodist minister and then go work in the prisons. She’s buoyed by that same sense of optimism that you see in Hamza and that you see in Carol.

There’s definitely something about faith that, having come from a very secular background, its been very illuminating in that way to delve into, not just Hamza’s experience, but all of these people’s experiences with what is motivating them to just keep going and to try to make things better. And to find that there’s so many commonalities with them.

The other thing to me that was very important to make sure we tell was that Hamza’s mom was obviously the rock. Faith is obviously such a huge part of his life, but I think without his mom… clearly she put the right ingredients in him at a young age.

Switching gears for a second, how difficult was it to make this film?

Of course financing is always the difficult part for anyone making an independent film, and that continues to be a daunting task at every turn. But that’s nothing unusual. Actually, we were really lucky because we got really significant support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a number of private foundations, and from the NEA. We’re grateful to those funders.

To me, the other big challenge was how to keep a sense of storytelling that would work in a film medium when so much of what was happening was internal. Back to the “Erin Brockovich” thing: documentaries can be as formulaic as narrative films. This one was getting set up to have a great formula where the raid happens. Of course I was horrified for them when the raid happened, but there was another part of me that was, “Ooh, drama.”

And then to have it not unfold in that stereotypical way and for the story to take this other turn… ultimately, I think it’s a much richer film, but I also think it has made it a more challenging film. I think you can approach internal experiences better in writing, where you can be explicit and bring the reader into the thoughts of the character.

It’s a lot harder to do in film. At least it is for me, and I tip my hat to filmmakers who can do that. I find film a really hard medium to work in. You can’t just have someone tell you what that internal experience is. You can’t just have Hamza narrating for you. I had to in a couple of moments, but what I realised is that you had to look for manifestations of the ways in which he was changing and growing. Fortunately, his family made that easy because he’s got such loving relationships with them. Fortunately, he really was sincere in the ways he was beginning to open his concept of faith and friendship. What solves the challenge is that he and everyone in the film were so sincere about what they were doing.

I’m sure a lot of people will be asking this question after watching the film: How are they doing now?

You’re right, a lot of people have asked that – they’re doing great! We finished filming pretty recently, about 11 months ago, when he got his clearance restored. He’s still working in the jail, he’s got a second job now as the vice-principal of an Islamic school in Pittsburgh where his kids go and Suleiman’s kids go. Rafiah’s about to have another baby, at any moment. Both Hamza and Suleiman are performing a lot and we’ve been travelling around the country for four months showing the film, and so he’s been doing a lot of speaking.

I think they’re doing really well. Like anyone trying to work two jobs and keep your family going, surviving the economy is probably the big challenge that they’re facing. I’ve been lucky, we’ve gotten to see each other as our paths criss-cross showing the film. They were really happy with it and have taken ownership of it, which is, for me, the greatest honor.

There’s been a lot of discussion since Obama’s speech. Hopefully this film and other’s like it are coming along now that can just open the dialogue more, and they can be about all kinds of different subjects. But hopefully what they’re doing is letting people know that we all have a common humanity.

There is a great example, I think, in the relationship between Hamza and his mother, because his mother is very open about how strange it is for her that her son is Muslim but she accepts it and is trying to do her part to create a harmonious family. If that could be writ large to society as a whole, that would be a very good thing.

It would be fantastic! If we could say to each other, “I’m not 100% comfortable with this thing you’re doing, but you’re still the person I love.” I agree with you. Family can be a good microcosm for larger society. And certainly with this particular story because it’s a mixed family.

It’s so refreshing to see this not weighted down with the burden of being Muslim in America. I was worried that would be the gist of the film. It’s most definitively not a sob story.

Some trepidation would be understandable. I don’t think there has been enough good media about Muslims. I actually think the work you do was a model of how to approach things tonally. It’s just stuff that’s clever and regular.

Some of the early conversations we had totally affected the tone that I wanted to take, which is… it’s not ponderous, it’s not exotic. It’s a little different, but 40 years ago it was different to be Jewish. Now it’s not so different. 40 years from now it will be someone else. A humanizing approach is what I wanted to do. This film has been the biggest personal growth I’ve ever had.

As informed as I think I am about my community, I learned so much more about it [from the film]. I’m honored to have been a part of it.

You really were key. There were a couple of things you said really stuck in my mind at the formative stage. I wanted to bring the deft hand you have with your own work to this film.

One of the places where it’s so far having a lot of resonance is young men in particular. We showed it at UCLA and I had a funder there who sent me a note the next day saying she had never seen a documentary audience full of young African-American men.

There’s this whole other thing that’s going on here in that young Muslim men are trying to figure out what their identity is… role models, responsibility, things like that.

And people from other faiths [as well]. We showed the film in jail where Hamza works in Pittsburgh. We had a discussion with the inmates for about 2 hours. They were riveted, these men. I think they were probably 80% Christian, but they were asking him all these questions a young brother would be asking him if he was interested in taking shahada. The same questions coming from Christians as Muslims – how do I compose myself, how do I take responsibility for myself? What do I want to do when I get so angry, I want to smash somebody? Real survival questions for these young guys.

I’m going to hopefully make a version of the film that will be specific for jails, so jail personnel will learn about nuances and the differences between Muslims in their populations. Perhaps they could be more encouraged to welcome people with Hamza’s point of view into the jails more. And you know there’s so much shouting about Salafis in jail…

…and that’s a whole other dramatic thing that you avoided which you could have delved right into.

Yes, it actually didn’t come up in the film, which was good. It’s a film about a guy who goes into the prisons and he teaches Islam. Of course, that’s what people think. He is calmly trying to offer alternatives to some of hte established thinking by focusing more on mercy and inner change.

I think on many levels, the film will work for more multifaith engagement and public diplomacy outside the United States, or maybe some of these cultural exchanges. I also think it can have even a more specific change agent role in the lives of some young people who really are looking for positive role models. But who are [also] cool.

(New Muslim Cool premieres on Tuesday, June 23rd at 10:00 PM as the opening film in the POV documentary series on PBS in the United States. Check local listings)

Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com. He was an advisor on the “New Muslim Cool” documentary project.


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