An Interview with ‘The Secret Life of Muslims’ Creator, Joshua Seftel

Airing right before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The Secret Life of Muslims became a viral sensation. The series of videos shared the stories of about a dozen Muslims across America, including MuslimGirl founder, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. With a Goldziher Award and a Peabody Award nomination already in tow, the series now has an Emmy nomination for outstanding short documentary and is continuing for a second season.

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We had the chance to speak with Joshua Seftel, the Emmy nominated filmmaker who created, directed, and produced The Secret Life of Muslims, to discuss the series and its success.

MuslimGirl: So, first of all, how does it feel to be nominated for an Emmy?

Joshua Seftel: Well, it’s always an honor. This is the sixth or seventh time, but this project is a special one because it has such relevance to our times and urgency. So, this one is particularly exciting.

What was your inspiration for The Secret Life of Muslims?

Six years ago, I came across a statistic, which said that more than half of Americans have an unfavorable view of Muslims, and I was shocked and disturbed by that. It reminded me of my own childhood, as a Jewish kid growing up in Upstate New York, facing discrimination and antisemitism – people calling me names, throwing pennies at me. Someone once even threw a rock through the front window of our house. As a result, I connected with this issue, and I tried to create this series.

It was really tough going at first. We had a lot of trouble getting funding and getting people interested. Once the 2016 presidential campaign really geared up though, funders became really interested in what we were trying to do, and we were able to get the project off the ground. We launched our first episode right before Election Day, and since Election Day we’ve had 34 million views and counting.

Once the presidential campaigns started up how did you approach funders and grow interest in the project?

We had been talking with a few foundations. One foundation passed, but we went back to them and perseverance paid off. I think the timing was just right. When Trump started to get seriously vitriolic about Muslims, it set off alarm bells for a lot of people, who realized that talking about Muslims in that way was not okay. It was then that one group came forward, followed by a bunch of others.

Shifting now to the series itself, how did you choose who was featured in the series?

It’s essentially like casting a movie. We thought really hard about who should be in the series, who would be interesting, and how they would all combine together. We had to make sure we were representing enough people.

How do we represent 3.3 million people by telling 15 stories? 

We actually have a wall in our office, where we put up head-shots of the people we were thinking about. It was a big wall filled with faces. It was a little bit like Claire Danes in Homeland, except it had the opposite purpose. And we asked ourselves: How do we represent 3.3 million people by telling 15 stories? It’s impossible, but we tried to think about how we could come closest to that goal.

Do you think the series accomplished what you wanted it to? Were you happy with the response?

Well, we got thousands and thousands of hateful comments, which surprised me a little bit. It felt very tangible and frankly weird, but it also became clear to me how important the series was.

I’ve never met a Muslim person, but after watching your films, I feel like I have, so thank you.

In terms of the success of the series, our distributers were Vox, USA Today, CBS Sunday Morning, and Public Radio International, so reached a broad cross-section of people. Reaching such a large audience is something that I think was fairly innovative and pretty effective. It was exciting, for me, to be part of such an wide distribution network. It’s hard to  exactly know the full impact of a project like this, but we do get a lot of positive comments from people across the country. One woman from the Midwest wrote, “I’ve never met a Muslim person, but after watching your films, I feel like I have, so thank you.” That response was exactly what we were hoping for.

What did you personally take away from creating the series?

I got to meet a lot of cool people, though that’s generally true on any project. Well, having all those negative comments come in and to see all that hatred directed towards the series gave me a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to be a Muslim in America today. Someone even sent us a package, which was kind of scary. It ended up just being a book about how Muhammed was supposedly a murderer, but it was upsetting nevertheless. Though on the other side of that, those 34 million views and the fact that we were Peabody finalists is much brighter and more meaningful. It gives me hope. It gives me a positive feeling that hearts of minds can be opened, and we’re going to keep going. We have another season.

Can you speak a little more about season 2 of The Secret Life of Muslims?

We’ve raised about half the money for the second season, and we’re doing a crowdfunding campaign in a few weeks, where we hope to the rest.

Great! Do you have any advice for people hoping to create their own videos?

Pick an interesting topic that people will want to know. If you can, be an influencer or involve influencers. And then just make something really good, something that people want to watch and share. It’s hard to do, but if you make something good about a topic people care about, then you can succeed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.