Islam on Film: Discussion with a Muslim Film Director
This area should have been for Da’wah and Tabligh more than a hundred years ago. But we have been very slow. Farzad W. has more than a decade of media production knowledge, including newsroom experience. He is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Missouri in St. Louis teaching cinema, digital editing, and other media aspects since 1995. He was the winner of the 1996 Emmy Award – Mid America Chapter for producing and directing “Plight of the Refugees”.
Many of us may remember seeing his video on YouTube, a black and white production with an American Muslim woman sitting in front of the mirror. On one side of the mirror, she’s dressed in Hijab, and on other side she’s without it, as she “discusses” wearing Hijab. It is inspiring and true to the experiences of the Muslim woman and her veil. I sat down with director Farzad W. to discuss his inspiration for this video and the state of Muslims in the media.
What was your inspiration for your video “A Discussion”?
This piece was based on an article that I wrote on Muslim Writers Society’s website a few years ago. The dialog is based on true discussions between different women and also based on discussions with some Muslim women who explained their struggle about wearing Hijab. What “inspired” me was the strength of Muslim women who wear the Hijab. Hijabi women have always been on the defensive, and due to their kind nature (generally speaking), they tend to be patient with all the crap that they get. This video was meant to show that a woman who wears the Hijab does so by her own will and it’s not an easy choice, and it explained the socio-religious reasons for wearing it and for not wearing it.
How is studying and being a practicing Muslim in the film and video industry?
Being a “practicing Muslim” or a Muslim who cares about Islamic laws is really challenging in this field, at least in America. Studying it had its own challenges. For example, I don’t shoot kissing scenes or nudity, and I am careful with profanity and sexual contents. But at the same time, I received a lot of respect and support from non-Muslims and less from Muslims. This was really surprising to me. But I have to clarify something: even if I were not a Muslim, I would still stay away from sexual scenes because they are not creative at all, and I see them as a cheap shot to get artificial audience…audience who are interested in the nudity but not interested in the core message of the film.
What do you see for the future of Muslims in film, both in front of and behind the camera?
More Muslims are joining this field in America. At our time, whatever and whoever Muslim that makes it in this field would be considered a “pioneer” in my opinion. Because other than Moustapha Akkad, God bless his soul, we had no serious Muslim filmmaker with good intentions of making a good change. There is also a Muslim dichotomy in this field. On one hand you have Muslims who stick to the traditions and want to use this field as a Da’wah (propagation) tool, while another group of Muslims want to use this field to modify the understanding of Islam through “reform”. What these folks don’t understand is that Islam needs no reformation, but Muslim do need reform.
Despite the fact that American Muslims have joined this field too little and a little late, I still see the future good and bright for Muslim filmmakers.
How do you think film will change the way Muslims do Da’wah? Do you think this area is the next major area for Da’wah and Tabligh?
This area should have been for Da’wah and Tabligh more than a hundred years ago. But we have been very slow and not so smart about using film for a good cause. Film is the most powerful form of art, no doubt, but I yet have to see a good Da’wah film other than Akkad’s The Message. There are many independent films and videos for Da’wah purposes, but are mostly low-quality or have poor marketing. “Muhammad: the Last Prophet” directed by Richard Rich is an example.
What future projects do you have in the works?
I have mostly done documentaries and educational videos. Currently I am working on my last documentary that is about the role of propaganda in persecution. I have two other shorts in the works as well, but I am focusing on children’s shows insha’Allah.
What do you thinks lies in store for Muslim directors and producers?
Muslim directors and producers and Muslim media artists in general have no community support in America. At a typical mosque you will hear the elders speaking and complaining about how the media is out there to get Muslims, but then they will chastise their own kids if they choose to go into this field. Millions of dollars are spent on fancy mosques, but little is spent on any Muslim media outlet. We don’t even have a serious cable channel. Yes, there is Bridges TV, but that goes to back to what I said previously: we only have low-quality stuff. So Muslim media artists have a huge challenge ahead of them. Perhaps it’s the will of God the Almighty to filter the sincere from those who just want to get rich quickly and really fast? I don’t know. But whatever it is, it is a huge challenge to be a Muslim and to be in this field. Mainly because any serious production will cost money, and Muslim communities rarely support any production effort with money.
How do you suggest young Muslims get started in media?
Start in high school if you can. Grab a camera and start shooting. Or if you like print media, grab a pencil and start taking notes on events, publish your own print newsletter (don’t just do blogs, but do print to get the experience of reaching masses in the physical world).You can then major in communications or journalism, depending on the university that you are going to. Best way to start also is theater and photography. The more experience with theater and photography, the better you will be off when handling film projects.
Is it a wise career choice? What opportunities are available for students?
It really depends on the individual and the circumstances. In the Muslim communities, there is little to no support for youngsters to seek careers in this field. We push our kids to become doctors or engineers, and if we are very tolerant, then maybe lawyers. But liberal arts is beyond the imagination of many parents, especially immigrant parents.
Opportunities in this field has no limits. One can do so many things in a film production, just look at the credits at the end of any film. Those are all the opportunities out there. Now for Muslims, sky is the limit, because this is an untapped field by Muslims, especially Shia Muslims. One major suggestion that I can give is this: if majoring in media, make sure to take some business classes, because this is the type of a field that you need a lot self-management skills.
What do you suggest to those who would like to be involved in film and production but do not have access to the high-tech and often costly equipment?
Rent or lease equipment. But most important of all, it’s not the equipment that matters, it’s the talent. You can have a golden pen with golden ink, but will you be able to write like Shakespeare? However, give charcoal to Shakespeare, and see how he writes with it!
I have seen many communities and mosques who spend tons of money on great sound systems, fantastic cameras, and cutting edge computers, but then there is no one who knows how to use any of those. If you have the passion, you have the talent, then the equipment will eventually come or that you can raise money or get grants for your film project to fund the equipment.
What do you think is the most rewarding aspect of having a career in film?
Film is among the most powerful forms of art. Getting the message across via film and seeing the crowd understanding a message in 90 minutes that hundreds of book could not achieve in 90 years is very rewarding.
Zaynab Herrera is community activist and student at the University of Toronto. When she’s not busy chasing after her two-year-old daughter, she’s busy blogging at SoCrunchy.wordpress.com.