When I was attending university at UC Riverside, I worked at a place on campus called the Middle Eastern Student Center, where I met and befriended (as you can imagine) students from all different Middle Eastern, South East Asian, and North African backgrounds. The best part of that experience was the opportunity to converse with people about their cultures, their interests, and their ambitions, both career and otherwise.
What didn’t surprise me was that as a film student and aspiring filmmaker, I was surrounded by students who would go on to become lawyers, engineers, doctors, dentists, businessman, and if I’m missing any other super impressive occupation, you can mentally fill in here. And while I was generally met with a “Good for you for following your dreams” or a “That’s interesting…” kind of attitude, one day one of these students sat across from me and asked me honestly, “Why film? I don’t understand what you think you can do with film, so why pursue it?”
Film, whether we are conscious of it or not, is influential in more ways than we give it credit for, and these influences shape our society on social, political, technological, and humanitarian platforms. tweet
These aren’t the words he said verbatim, but it was the gist of the question that really struck a chord with me because he genuinely seemed to be confused as to what film could possibly accomplish, let alone what a Muslim could accomplish with film. So I thought it would be worth my time to illustrate the power of film, and why I think it is imperative that the Muslim community start building their own image using their own voices, instead of allowing others to build our image for the public in order to serve their own agendas. Keep in mind, I am focused on the word film, but in truth this message applies to media across the board, from television to children’s books and further. It ALL matters.
Film, whether we are conscious of it or not, is influential in more ways than we give it credit for, and these influences shape our society on social, political, technological, and humanitarian platforms.
For example the 2002 film Minority Report influenced the rise and development of some of the tech we take for granted these days. Children of A Lesser God was the first film to feature a deaf actress since the 1920’s, and discussed issues found within the deaf community, influencing a rise in hearing students attending Gallaudet University (a university created for the deaf and hard of hearing), and a rising demand for American Sign Language courses to be offered more widely. The documentary Blackfish, which focused on the treatment of a killer whale held captive in Sea World, damaged the reputation of the famous aquatic park so much that it’s stock price plummeted 60%, and soon after, we saw politicians introduce legislation in state government challenging the status quo of sea parks, and the mistreatment of animals.
These are NOT small things. In essence, what we are seeing is that film has the ability to influence small revolutions that become significant changes.
And yet, we still have not seen the Muslim community make the strides within the film industry that must be taken in order for us to take control of our own narrative. There is a reason why the stereotype of the violent and angry Arab man prevails, and the weak and oppressed hijabi/niqabi is the image at the forefront of mainstream understanding. There is a reason why Islam is seen as violent and archaic, and why people believe that only Arabs are Muslims.
The reason is we have not taken it upon ourselves to educate the masses through the art of storytelling that has the most reach: Film.
There is a reason why the stereotype of the violent and angry Arab man prevails, and the weak and oppressed hijabi/niqabi is the image at the forefront of mainstream understanding. tweet
Now, I’m not saying that nobody has done any work within film. But I am saying that not enough of us have dedicated ourselves to creating this work. And here’s the tragedy of the situation. If we are being honest with ourselves, 95% of the youth in our community were not born to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. There is not enough of a balance on the human level to justify such numbers. The amount of artists, and filmmakers, and writers, and actors that I have met within the Muslim community that refuse to go against their parents wishes in order to follow their dreams, and have committed themselves to the occupation that will please their parents the most is really one of the most heartbreaking — but also silent — tragedies I have ever witnessed unfold.
Or course, I do not encourage disrespecting our parents in any way, but I also do not condone the erasure of an entire generation of artists and storytellers strictly for the pleasure of our parents’ pride. A story told through film has just as much, if not more potential, to change the world as the healing hands of a doctor and the calculating mind of an engineer.
So, for our parents and elders, do not destroy the artist simply to gain the doctor you wanted. And to our youth, do not shy away from your passions and what you are best at because Allah (swt) made us all different for a reason.