— As told to Amani Salahudeen
Minhal Baig is both a writer and filmmaker. This talented young woman has written for a variety of Hulu shows, including “BoJack Horseman,” but our #MuslimGirlClique probably recognizes her as the well-regarded director of the Apple+ mega-hit, “Hala.”
“Hala” is about an American-Muslim teenager discovering her own unique identity within her faith, leading her to become a more authentic version of her own person. It premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and was a catalyst for a lively debate about the type of stories featuring Muslim women as leads that tend to garner attention.
Minhal sat down with Muslim Girl for an enlightening chat on what inspires her, and why the stories she chooses to tell aren’t up for debate.
Muslim Girl: What is your biggest inspiration behind the work that you do?
Minhal Baig: The inspiration for my work always comes from a place of character. I have to find myself invested in the world of an individual. Often, it’s an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, but sometimes it’s someone who’s on the fringe, those who are overlooked or misunderstood or whose perspective is underappreciated.
Stories come from a place of understanding an individual’s specific world and situation. I’m not interested in generalizing or depicting an entire group. To dig into that specificity, sometimes it can take years of research before a screenplay takes shape. For example, I’m working on one right now that required interviews and on the ground work in Chicago, where I’m from.
What has been the best lesson you’ve learned along your journey?
I have learned to trust my process and intentions. When I’m feeling stuck in my work, I remember that each story is a work in progress until it’s eventually a finished film. It’s a long process that often spans several years, and it’s a process that can’t be rushed.
What is the most important challenge you choose to overcome as a Muslim woman in your field?
One of the challenges I’ve had to overcome in my field is insisting on my individuality and refusing to become a spokesperson or avatar for a group. Just because I’m a Muslim woman does not mean that the Muslim community “owns” me and/or should dictate how I should make my work, and/or what images or stories are appropriate for me to put into the world.
When I left social media, it was a deliberate effort to take back my work, and make my process private. I acknowledge the anxieties about the lack of representation in media, but I am not solely responsible for the putting out “acceptable stories” about Muslim women. There are plenty of Muslim women working in film/TV and they’re doing great work. Support the work of Muslim women, and reject horizontal hostility.
What’s the one message you hope to deliver to the next generation of Muslim girls?
My message to Muslim women is simple. There is one God. And it’s His judgment that matters. Consider your actions and intentions with that in mind.
How different are you from your character, Hala, and how are you similar to her?
Hala is much braver than I am. The journey she goes on in the film is one that took me many years. I struggled for many years to communicate with my family, and I still do. She’s a lot further along in that respect.
What do you wish you could say to yourself 10 years ago?
I would tell myself, 10 years ago, to KEEP GOING. Be relentless. Focus on the work, and the work alone. Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something. Ignore the naysayers. Ask God for guidance.