In Sundance flick, punk rock meets Islam
A gritty movie about young Muslim punk rockers may cause audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to squirm a little in their seats.
"Gender equality, homosexuality, freedom of expression, sometimes these things are sort of slipped underneath the rug when they are brought up in the American- Muslim community," said Eyad Zahra, director of "The Taqwacores." "People just don’t know how to deal with them."
"The Taqwacores" is based on the novel of the same name, which some have called "The Catcher in the Rye" for Muslims growing up in America. The film is an official selection at Sundance 2010.
"I came across information about the book on its Wikipedia page," Zahra told The Park Record. "I read about it and I was blown away. Everything sort of stopped."
The film depicts a group of Islamic youth in Buffalo, N.Y.
"’Taqwacores’ encourages you to express what’s on your mind and talk about it, versus putting it on a shelf and dealing with it later or sweeping it under a rug," Zahra, 27, said in a telephone interview.
Young American Muslims and punk rockers have more in common than they might think, he said.
"The punk and the Islamic communities are always what people outside the communities want them to be perceived as," Zahra said. "But if you destroy all those symbols and meet these people for the first time you’ll see things differently. It allows you to throw everything in the air and lets you sort of look at things from a very different perspective and hopefully from your own perspective."
Growing up Muslim in Cleveland, Ohio, Zahra admits he did not often listen to punk music.
"I’m more the nerd in the film, Yusef, the main character," Zahra said. "If you found me on the street you’d see that I don’t have a Mohawk. I’m a guy in a sweater."
But Yusef, an engineering student, discovers lots about himself when he moves into a building off campus. During the day the house doubles as a mosque.
At night it’s a site for raucous punk parties. And it is a massive understatement to call Yusef’s Islamic roommates unorthodox.
"That character is pretty much the average Joe," Zahra explains. "We’re all willing to give everyone a chance and I think Yusef not running out of that house after he figured out what was going on, it showed that he wanted to see different expressions of what it is to be an American Muslim."
Growing up Muslim in America was difficult after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.
"Some people had to change their name from Jihad to Jim. That’s the reality," Zahra said. "A lot of these people were sort of pushed to another place because of their background and what people linked them to being."
"The Taqwacores" was published about three years after the attacks.
"When I finished the book I felt really good about me being an American Muslim and my identity," Zahra said. "These issues that barrage us every day in the media and on the news, as an American Muslim you have to take these on and deal with them."
For its Islamic actors, "The Taqwacores" was an opportunity to portray somebody besides terrorists.
"They saw this as an opportunity for not just playing a dynamic colorful character, but rather putting a piece of themselves into the character," Zahra said.
Still, some Muslims who see the film may call it "haram," an Arabic word meaning forbidden.
"But at the same time I really feel just as many people are going to champion it and say that it is not haram," Zahra said. "When you are a kid growing up as a Muslim, I remember specifically there was this book that I found at an Islamic convention and it was called, "The Haram List." Pretty much every single food that I liked was haram. Bubblicious, Starburst, even those pretzels with the cheese in them."
Actress Noureen DeWulf plays Rabeya in the film and said she appreciated acting in such a controversial role. She wears a Muslim burka throughout most of the movie partly as a satirical statement about Islamic society.
"I just love the idea of making your whole life a testament to the very thing you oppose," DeWulf said about the character. "It’s not easy being a Muslim woman in this country post 9/11 and everybody has the right and the ability to create who they are."
"People like to associate Muslims with a certain type of behavior and that is usually not punk rock behavior," she said.
"The Taqwacores" screens Jan. 24 at 5:30 p.m. at Prospector Square. The film also screens at Holiday Village Jan. 26 at 11 a.m., Jan. 28 at 11 p.m., Jan. 29 at noon and Jan. 30 at 3:30 p.m.
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