The best minute you’ll expend today is right here, in the manifestation of this one-minute short, “Commute.” Designed to poke and prod at society’s most explicit and implicit biases, “Commute” is the digital masterpiece we, as a society, need to draw attention to.
This brainchild of Julie Larah, and William Bradford, supported by a talented team of artists, brings to life the idea that we all have implicit biases, but that if we were to acknowledge and look beyond those biases, we may be surprised to find that our commonalities far surpass our differences. And through these commonalities, we are able to build impenetrable alliances against hate, bias, and bigotry.
In an exclusive sit-down with Muslim Girl, Julie and William open up about what went into the making of “Commute,” and it soon becomes clear that the journey to creation was just as fascinating as the end-product itself.
Julie, based in the United States, has spent the last decade working as a community mental health therapist for older adults. “I love working with people on their journey of recovery. It’s a challenging, but rewarding career which has allowed me to accompany others on the road to self-discovery,” Larah tells me. These past few years, she has also been spending a good amount of time using her art to weave stories of the Syrian Revolution. With a glimmer of pride and awe in her voice, she tells me how honored she feels that people in Syria have used her art on posters carried during protests.
“If something that I do can place an artistic visualization on the experiences of such a revolutionary people, then I’m proud of that,” Larah states. It’s clear from her Facebook page that she does indeed take great pride in telling the stories that she tells, through her emotive artwork. So perhaps her involvement in “Commute” should come as no surprise.
This brings me to William Bradford, a Canadian animator based in Vancouver. Having just come off an intriguing chat with Julie, I eagerly jump right into asking William what his inspiration was for creating “Commute,” a tale so obviously relatable by many facets of society, particularly Muslim women. In response, William lets out a small laugh and rewards me with, “honestly, it stemmed from wanting to see if I could handle something bold, so perhaps not the most noble of reasons.” Perhaps not, but the end-game certainty yielded a narrative that deserves the spotlight!
William decided that to tell his story authentically, he needed to seek help from someone who knew the realities of being a Muslim woman in this time and space. tweet
William goes on to tell me that in the initial days of planning “Commute”, he revealed his storyboard to an acquaintance; this story of two women on a bus, one fully-veiled, and one scantily-clad and munching away on a snack that she eventually shares with her visually Muslim seat-mate. The response?
“That wouldn’t work because Muslim women can’t eat in public.”
This response rendered William bemused, and who can really blame him? “I thought to myself, ‘That doesn’t sound right.’” And so, William decided that to tell his story authentically, he needed to seek help from someone who knew the realities of being a Muslim woman in this time and space. “I can only have authority over the old man in the short,” William tells me as a way of explaining why he needed outside input. A truly woke sentiment from a gentleman who repeatedly claimed he may not be as aware as the story of “Commute” may make him seem.
Enter Julie Larah. “I got a message from a random, American-sounding name, saying that someone had given him my name, and said that I was a Muslim artist who could help him with something he was working on.” Julie confides in me that she gets messages like this from time to time, so she wasn’t sold immediately. What caught her attention, however, was William’s openness in admitting that he wanted guidance on a typical Muslim woman’s attire and behavior, admitting that his privileged, white, cis-gendered self wouldn’t equip him to have authority over the Muslim character. From the very beginning, William was clear that animators try not to push a narrative or message in their work, because entertaining an audience, and informing an audience on a topic are two separate skill-sets, ensuring Julie’s role remain integral to this story and the process.
…behind the scenes, “Commute” brags of the unbridled magic we are able to create when we transcend arbitrary differences and misinformation, by opening ourselves up to those beyond our own communities. tweet
So, with my curiosity well and truly piqued, I inquired how it was for these two creatives, separated by several states and an international border, to work together? Without missing a beat, Julie notes right away how open William was to her suggestions, how determined the animator was to use his privileged platform to craft every aspect of the characters in his story.
“He valued my advice, approaching this project with unexpected humility, and went out of his way to ensure my observations were implemented,” Julie recounts. When pressed, both individuals recount the same tale: that while the storyline of the short remained as William had scripted it, a few details, including the appearance of the Muslim character, were re-imagined.
Initial artwork depicting the niqabi character with matching embroidery on her veil and handbag.
“Still Not Asking For It”: A message of acceptance in spite of differing standards of modesty.
More specifically, in his initial storyboard, William had depicted the young niqabi woman with matching designs at the end of her niqab, along with a matching embroidered purse. Julie was quick to point out that this type of appearance was an older Muslimah’s game. “The ‘Not Asking For It’ character was amazingly crafted, but the niqabi was a different story. I was amazed by William’s openness to craft the niqabi character to accuracy, down to the way the two character’s exchanged glances.”
…this piece about two women with differing standards of modesty brings attention to how divided we are, and how when we allow that to happen, we miss out on the chance to align ourselves in the fight against hate tweet
Surely it couldn’t have been that easy, right? The camaraderie and teamwork between William and Julie depicted a comfortable professional partnership indicative of years of working together. Could it be that they didn’t disagree on anything at all? When I commented so, Julie laughs and exclaims, “Nougats”! Evidently, the one thing William was determined to keep the same was the snack ‘Still Not Asking For It’ was munching on. “The original script had ‘Pocky’,” William tells me, but he was determined to have it be pistachio nougat, given that pistachio is a popular flavor in the Middle East, and the pistachio nougat sweet William was referencing, locally known as ‘Gaz,’ is a popular dessert there. Julie laughingly recounts, “I found it so funny, that this is the one thing he was bent on, he was willing to change everything else, he was malleable on all else, but this minute detail is what we disagreed on. Incredible!”
Incredible, indeed. For woven throughout “Commute,” and the making of it, is an extraordinary tale of alliance and teamwork amongst two members of a community that might not ordinarily have any reason to cross paths. And while at every avenue, William insisted that he wasn’t as woke as his involvement in the short made him seem, it’s become crystal clear in the duration of this conversation, that his willingness to acknowledge his gap in knowledge regarding a Muslim woman’s behavior and attire, followed by his eager acceptance and implementation of a Muslimah’s guidance, is the true spirit of what it means to be an ally. And for this reason, “Commute” itself is multi-dimensional masterpiece. Sure, the short itself depicts the idea that demonizing each other based on our differences weakens us in scenarios where we could be building networks of support, but behind the scenes, “Commute” brags of the unbridled magic we are able to create when we transcend arbitrary differences and misinformation, by opening ourselves up to those beyond our own communities.
So, in the concluding words of William and Julie, this tale of “two girls having a moment” begs the question, “can’t we all just get along?” A naive and tired message perhaps, but one that clearly needs to be told repeatedly, and relentlessly. William, after a thoughtful pause, says, “I don’t expect the message of this film to get through to old white men, but perhaps to girls who may judge each other based on artificial differences.” Julie adds, “this piece about two women with differing standards of modesty brings attention to how divided we are, and how when we allow that to happen, we miss out on the chance to align ourselves in the fight against hate.”
How wonderful a thought, that two diverse individuals have aligned in a real-life interpretation of the values ensconced in “Commute”, with William using his privileged platform to elevate a story of togetherness, and partnering with Julie to ensure this visual representation of societal norms is told authentically. No doubt, the world is better for having this visual masterpiece out there for all to learn from.
Image courtesy of William Bradford