Congrats to Eyad Zahra on his fictional film adaptation of Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel THE TAQWACORES getting into Sundance 2010. I’m lucky to be among the few who’ve seen this film, it’s an excellent adaptation, and is going to have an amazing impact on the culture and direction of Taqwacore in general. I urge everyone to seek out this film (and then screen it as a Muslim punk double bill with TAQWACORE: The Birth of Punk Islam, heh heh).
Sorry for late blogging…I continue to imagine web guru/digital impressario Brett Gaylor (director of Rip:Remix Manifesto), shaking his head sadly in my direction…but oh well.
Amsterdam had many powerful moments. There was smoking a cigarrette with punk director Julien Temple and talking about the Detroit auto industry (subject of his next project), and then having my film play before his excellent doc Oil City Confidential in the ROCUMENTARIES program. There were the sold-out screenings, and the various parties on the EyeSteelFilm houseboat, and the ready-to-order hash joints and all that fun stuff.
But what has been sticking with me is an encounter a had with a young Muslim man I met during a screening. A very cool cultural centre, called Podium Moziaek, in West Amsterdam (kind of a more ethnic, working class neighborhood, I gathered) held their own screening of Taqwacore. The building looked like a mosque, but used to be an old church. It now housed a cafe, restaurant, cultural centre, complete with stage, set up for film projection and more.
The audience that turned up that night were a mostly white, liberal dutch audience. One stand out was a young Muslim man, with a serious expression. He wore a prayer cap and had cultivated the sunnah trim beard. At first glance, I made the assumption that this guy was probably an observant Muslim. I introduced the film, and wished the mostly white audience an Eid Mubarek. The film began. As I rewatched the movie (for the millionth time), I felt a bit nervous. I hoped that my film wouldn’t offend the young Muslim sitting behind me. Despite myself, I began to think of the death of Theo Van Gogh by an angry Muslim, and how Muslims in Europe face deeper and darker discrimination in their adopted countries and are therefore more angry and sometimes more radicalized. I began to recall all the irratating encounters I’ve ever had with serious young Muslims at the MSA or other Muslim groups. In other words I allowed my mind to get out of hand.
I turned back to look at this guy, other people were laughing as Basim and the gang were getting into all kinds of mischief. This fellow continued with his serious stare.
Would he walk out? Would he declare a ‘fatwa?’ I knew my fears were ungrounded, and that I was falling prey to the usual bullshit stereotypes, but damn if it was hard not to conjure up all sorts of Muslim fanatical boogeymen nonetheless. I rarely feel scared, assured as I am that this film is essentially Islam positive, but I do worry how others might perceive it, and today the dial was turned up more than usual.
The show finished, and I got up in front of the stage to take questions. I answered a good dozen of them, all from the white, liberal dutch crowd. One woman asked why there were not more Muslim in the crowd. A good question to which I had no good answer. I glanced over at the young man, he sat silently, serious expression always on his face. After the crowd let out, he made his way to me. I admit that I recoiled slightly, ready for any scenario.
He introduced himself, and asked me what my intentions were in making this movie. I blathered something nervously about wanting to express certain feelings I had as a conflicted Muslim and opening up the discussion and showing the plurality and diversity within Islam…I’m not sure I made much sense. He thought about it for a second and said “Good. I worried that sometimes your intentions were merely to provoke.” I told him that this was not the case.
I then ventured to ask if he liked the film. He smiled for the first time and said “You know, I didn’t care for all the things I saw. I’m a believer and some of the stuff they did in the movie was offensive to me. But I also saw them praying and in prayer we are all brothers. I think that showed me that there was something positive in this film.”
I was speechless. And I felt, for possibly the first time, what it was like to experience a truly open mind. Isn’t it a tad easy to be open minded when you’re privileged and liberal? But to come out to see a film called TAQWACORE: The Birth of Punk Islam, and watch as many things you hold sacred are challenged, and then to conclude that there was positivity in it was the mark of true maturity and spirituality.
I walked away feeling a little bad for assuming so much at first glance about the thoughtful young man, but also feeling very empowered. It was possibly the most meaningful Eid experience I’d had in a long time.
So we’re at IDFA with TAQWACORE, already one great sold-out screening. Two more coming up this week.
Peter Wintonick, a mentor to many (myself included) in the Montreal documentary scene watched my rough cut awhile back and pointed out an interesting comparrison. One scene reminded him of the D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back – a milestone of direct cinema. In that movie, Dylan in a interview fast becoming an angry rant against the media, says “If I want to find out anything, I’m not gonna read Time magazine, I’m not gonna read Newsweek, I’m not gonna read any of these magazines. Beacause they have got to much to lose by printing the truth.”
In TAQWACORE: The Birth of Punk Islam, Marwan Kamel (of the Syrian-American Punk/Rai-core band Al-Thawra) is talking with the other Taqwacore musicians about how misrepresented they all feel by the Western media. At one point, he says “The problem with these media outlets — particularly something like Newseek – is that their interest doesn’t lie in presenting us in the ways we want to be presented. Their first and foremost interest is in making profit.”
I was floored at the uncanny echo to this film — and of course, I was flattered by the comparrision. Dylan, at the start of his career, had to constantly battle critics and a hungry media eager to codify his message. They wanted to make him a prophet of the sixties and then set him up for crucifixtion. Dylan took that on by playing the part of a shape-shifting performer, never letting his persona become too rigid before shaking it up, leaving fans and critics often bewildered.
For the shapeshifting characters in my documentary, TAQWACORE: The Birth of Punk Islam, the strategy is much the same. They engage Punk and Islam as one would try on various outfits at a costume shop. One minute they are merely fictional characters in a fictitious punk house in Buffalo, in another incarnation they are suburban desi kids forming a punk band in Boston, later they are Muslim Punk renegades on a big green bus with the word TAQWA spraypainted on the front, much later they are Punjabi ska punks trying to raise ’social issues’ in Lahore, Pakistan. All this transformation makes TAQWACORE a slippery concept – uneasy to categorize and certainly gives us, as filmmakers a challenge in terms of marketing and promotion. I often wonder if people can truly appreciate a film that is so hard to explain…
So with all this in my mind, I was stunned and hooured when D.A. Pennebaker and his collaborator wife, Chris Hegedus showed up to the U.K. premiere of TAQWACORE at the Sheffield Doc/Fest. Afterwards, he came up to me and producer Mila Aung Thwin and said “The first twenty minutes, I was asking myself, what am I doing here? I’m a jazz fan. Then I saw the light, and I got it. The film’s brilliant. All of a sudden Islam isn’t scary.”
Well, I was reduced to a bunch of muttering and blabbering utterances. After all, this is the cinema verite pioneer of films like Primary and Don’t Look Back…and as for me, I once did a soft-core erotica show for a literary channel with no audience. But as I reflected on all this, and took in the happy moment, I realized that TAQWACORE is very much about how truly subversive art, anything that is worth saying, has to insist on being hard to define.
I hope all of you check out The Taqwacore Webzine, as it’s actually quite awesome. As the official ‘uncle’ of the Taqwacores out there, I must admit to being very proud of Imran, Marwan, Basim, Shaj and everyone who writes on it for keeping it going and making it a truly inspirational webzine for all deranged Muslim freaks and geeks across the globe. Anyways, I wrote a piece for it back in the day (like six months ago), about lessons learned during the making of this film. I plan on writing more on this topic, but for now check it out: