#MuslimGirlTV

Meet the Guy Trying to Bring a Muslim Show to Netflix

Ahmad Hussam, 24, and his partner Nick Armero, 25, have made it their mission to bring Islamic history into the spotlight. They are the co-founders of Peace House, a production studio based in Tampa, FL that has been churning out powerful documentaries and viral social media video content highlighting important stories in an entertaining way for the masses. Now, they’ve re-released a new trailer for their flagship series “Salahadin,” which tells the story of the prolific Muslim leader during the time of the Crusades. And they’re taking it all the way to Netflix.

Since Hollywood’s rise at the turn of the century, religious and cultural histories have been immortalized in the entertainment business. We’ve glorified stories such as “The Crusades,” “Passion of the Christ,” and “Cleopatra.” We’ve even taken a closer look at individual stories within mass past tragedies such as “Schindler’s List” to search for the universal lessons that transcend time. Recently, even television has incorporated more religious context within their shows, like NBC’s 12-episode series “A.D. The Bible Continues.”

However, one thing remains consistent within the entertainment industry in regards to “acceptable” money-making productions: they can be exclusionary of the histories of other peoples, become melded into an oriental vision, showcase a revised history, or perpetuate a limited understanding of the people they claim to portray. Despite Muslim viewers of our globalized movie industry both in the United States and abroad, it’s safe to say that Hollywood has given Islam that very treatment.

Ahmad and Nick have made it their goal to change that – by taking their Netflix pitch for the “Salahadin” series straight to the public through social media, using the hashtag #NetflixListen.

Take a look at our interview with Ahmad about how this project got its start and their plans for success, below.

 

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Tell us about Peace House and some of the work you’ve been doing.

Peace House is the name of our production studio. After we created the “Salahadin” project, Nick and I decided we wanted to open a studio dedicated to telling stories with the intention of creating positive change. We’ve produced a number of short documentaries about various topics. For example, we traveled to Kurdistan with Al Jazeera journalist Ali Al-Arian and filmed a short documentary for the Al Jazeera English website. We also hosted an art gallery fundraiser where we featured our short documentary about Syrian refugees going to school in Southern Turkey.

One of our most popular videos was about a daycare that burnt down at our local mosque when an air conditioning unit overheated. When the news posted aerial footage of the fire, bigots took to Facebook to praise the tragedy and express support for the burning of Muslim American children. We thought it would be clever to have Muslim Americans read the hate comments and react to them. The video, “Muslims Read Hate Comments,” went viral online and garnered local and international media coverage.

We’re very proud of the work that we do to try and dispel stereotypes about minorities and raise awareness about different issues. “Salahadin” is our flagship project that we hope will promote dialogue and understanding through entertainment. While we work towards completing “Salahadin,” we also work on short videos and documentaries about various topics.

 

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We SNUCK into the Netflix headquarters and pitched our show. This has never been done before. Please help us make…

Posted by Peace House on Monday, August 31, 2015

 

What is the campaign you’re currently launching?

The social media campaign we’re launching is called #NETFLIXListen.

Our message is very simple: We want Netflix to listen to our idea. We want them to consider the idea of producing our show as a Netflix Original. We are organizing thousands of our fans and supporters to flood Netflix social media accounts with our campaign videos. It’s a very exciting campaign because I don’t believe anything like this has ever happened before. Traditionally, you get in the door of a network and pitch your idea through an agent. It’s very difficult to do that when you’re an outsider to Hollywood. We were very frustrated with the process and we were concerned that our fans would tire of the process as well. We decided to take matters into our own hands once again and try and reach out to Netflix directly through social media. It’s not that we don’t have respect for the traditional process; we just want to try something bold and just go for it.

We were very inspired by the story of Netflix as well. When CEO and founder Reed Hastings was hit with a ridiculous late fee at Blockbuster, he took matters into his own hands and created his own way of distributing content. Netflix was born and the rest is history. If you want something, you have to make it happen. There’s no reason why something like this can’t work in this day and age.

We believe Netflix is a great fit for our show because of their track record of telling great stories. Netflix is in the business of storytelling. They are producing some of the best shows available right now. Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos is responsible for finding new content. He has $3 billion to work with. Netflix has a plan to expand globally. By 2017, they plan to be available in 200 countries. They are looking for content specific to the new regions they are entering. Marco Polo is an example of a Netflix Original produced for a new region. While the show is available for people all over the world, it is specifically geared towards the Asian market, which they plan to be in very soon. If Netflix plans to be in the Middle East, we believe they would have a serious interest in our show, especially due to our partnership with producers willing to contribute funding.

 

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How did the “Salahadin” series come about?

I took a film course and became more interested in the art of storytelling. I wanted to work on something more serious than my silly YouTube videos. I attended a few acting lessons at a studio. I recall being offered an audition on a hit TV show the moment I stepped through the door. Apparently, I had a great look for a terrorist on the show “Homeland.” I didn’t feel comfortable supporting the negative stereotype that all people with my faith or my skin color are typecast as terrorists. When I shared that with the casting director, she very bluntly told me that this was my cast type and that embracing it would be the best way to get a role. I wasn’t upset with her for being so honest. I was upset that this was the current nature of Muslims in film and TV. I realized that it was important to start telling our own stories.

I recall being offered an audition on a hit TV show the moment I stepped through the door. Apparently, I had a great look for a terrorist on the show “Homeland.”

Media and entertainment are very powerful tools. Ideas are shared with millions of viewers through entertainment. I wanted to create something that would promote dialogue and understanding of my religion and my culture. I got the idea to create a show about Salahadin when a friend and I watched an episode of “Vikings” on The History Channel. I am a fan of the show and I appreciated how well the writers shared information about Viking culture and history. They weren’t stuffing the information down your throat. It was a nice subtle way through entertainment.

My friend and I got to talking and we thought it would be cool if there was a historical drama about a popular Muslim figure. The first person that came to mind was Salahadin Al-Ayoubi. His story is epic history and it’s filled with lessons for everyone. There are many parallels between his time period and ours. The Middle East has been experiencing a period of division and sectarianism, a problem not unique to our time, and we believe that we can learn through history and especially through the story of Salahadin. This timely tale will offer both people residing in the Muslim world as well as those in the West a better understanding of various representations of Islam — in particular, its plurality as well as its historical tradition. Bridging these differences can be done usefully through the medium of entertainment — a language everyone speaks — that pervades cultures and societies.

 

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Why is it important that we see “Salahadin” get on a network like Netflix?

I think it’s important because it would prove that our community (Muslim Americans) is welcome in media. When the reality show “All American Muslim” aired on TLC, it received a lot of attention. Right-wing conservative groups began threatening companies with boycotts if they continued to advertise on the show. The Florida Family Association called on Lowe’s to pull funding because they were concerned that “the show did not portray Muslims as terrorists.”  CNN released an article where the group called the TLC show “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.”

It’s not Netflix’s role to promote or endorse any faith, but it would mean a lot if a major network would tell a story that includes Muslims without folding to the stereotypes that hate groups perpetuate. I want to make it clear that our show is not strictly about Muslims or for Muslims. It’s a very diverse show with diverse cultures and religions on full display. However, networks should not shy away from a good story because of the presence of a certain faith group. Netflix, and every other network, should approach our story as they would any other. They should ask the same questions they ask about other shows. “Is this a good story and will it resonate with people?” I believe that our show will and it’s finally time that it happens.

 

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What are your biggest challenges to getting “Salahadin” on the mainstream radar?

The biggest challenge for “Salahadin” to get on the mainstream radar is probably that it includes people from the Middle East. It’s a shame that it is that way, but it was also difficult for other minority groups like Jews and African-Americans to have stories told about them in the past as well. It’s not that mainstream networks are racist, because they also have to consider their demographics and determine whether money should be spent on a story that isn’t really familiar to their population of viewers. However, “Salahadin” takes place during the Crusades, which is a very popular time period that has many enthusiasts in America, and includes stories about European Christians. It’s a diverse show for everyone to watch.

If people think that “Salahadin” is foreign to Hollywood, it actually isn’t. Ridley Scott included Salahadin in the blockbuster film “Kingdom of Heaven,” starring Orlando Bloom.

 

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You raised over $80,000 with a crowdfunding campaign in 2013 for “Salahadin”. How has the project developed since then?

Our intention has always been to create “Salahadin” as a multi-season series. When we first began our project, we planned to raise money and produce a pilot webisode for our show. The plan was to make the episode, post it online, and see how it performed with viewers. We were planning to pitch the episode to a network along with the viewers. After we successfully completed our campaign, we began consulting with producers about the pilot. Everyone we spoke to advised us not to produce it. The concern was that the budget would not be enough to provide us with the resources needed to make the pilot at a high enough standard.

Obviously, we considered that our budget might not be enough when we launched the Kickstarter campaign, but we felt as though we could pull it off if we spent the budget on things we needed and saved money by volunteering our efforts. The issue became that it’s difficult for volunteers to pull off production for a lengthy period of time. It was okay for our trailer, but a full episode would be challenging no matter how exciting the project was. The risk of damaging the brand and hurting our chances were too high. We also realized that there was a lot of interest in the show already, so an episode would not necessarily be needed to attract fans.

We decided to save the money and focus our efforts on improving the story while working with agents and producers to pitch our show. We also worked towards securing more funding from angel investors and donors. We’re proud to say that we have put together a very exciting story and secured more funding at the same time. Now, we want to combine these resources with Netflix and take it all to the next level. We have been in the door of major networks like MBC and Dubai One, but we want to get in the door of a major American network. We plan to do that with this campaign.

 

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What’s the motivation behind your work?

I really enjoy storytelling and film production. I don’t consider it “work.” It would be such a blessing to make a living doing this. It’s always inspiring for us when we meet complete strangers in different towns and they thank us for our work. It’s also great that we aren’t just making entertainment, we’re trying to increase consciousness of different ideas that could help make the world a better place. We have a lot of work that we haven’t shared with the world yet, and we can’t wait until we do.

 

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Where do you hope Peace House will go from here?

We hope Peace House will become exactly what we want it to be: a place where people can come and learn about different ideas and enjoy their time while they do. It’s tough to say where we will end up, but we hope we will leave a positive impact wherever we go. mgheart

Edited and with contribution by Jenan Matari.

  • Fatima

    It’s good that we are finally (hopefully) getting a bit of media attention/representation, but I hope that they aren’t depicting Salahadin as the flawless epic hero of the story. A part of history that is too often left out is that Salahadin systematically murdered followers of certain Islamic sects. He burned whole Ja’fari libraries, massacred Fatimid peoples, and other horrible atrocities.

    • Just Saying

      lol. if you think these guys will ever put the real history in there you are crazy.