When I think back on the films of 2009, I’m forced to contemplate what I believe are the key ingredients that create a truly solid year. Let’s see - vampires (check), werewolves (check), British detectives (check), and George Clooney (check). Looks like 2009 was a home run! But, as usual, there is something missing in this million dollar equation for Hollywood perfection, and that, naturally, is Islam.
This year, we’ve seen more good than bad, with the great reception of “Amreeka,” and the ever-growing festivals in Muslim-majority cities around the world such as Doha, Jakarta and Cairo. These feature films portray Muslims in a more nuanced light of humanity, not only sharing a glimpse inside the lives of Muslims with the rest of the world, but also doing an amazing job of making us laugh and cry. If this year was a measuring stick for the future of Muslim cinema, then the future looks very bright indeed.
While we’re sure there were many others, below we have highlighted four of the great portrayals of Muslim culture in cinema this year. Some of the most notable films of the year not only celebrate life, but take a firm stand on improving the human condition. Take a look and let us know your comments, especially about films that we may have left off:
‘Amreeka’ - The setting of this poignant tale about a Palestinian mother and her teenage son coming to America is 2003, in the US State of Illinois. Written and directed by up and coming talent Cherien Dabis, the film begins in Palestine as Muna, a divorced mother and bank teller, struggles with the rigors of life under occupation. She often runs into her ex-husband at Israeli checkpoints and is increasingly isolated in her own homeland. Muna makes the fateful decision to move to America with her teenage son, Fadi, to start a new life living with her sister Ragdha in the Suburbs of America. She soon discovers that life is not necessarily greener on the other side, especially in an America forever changed by 9/11 and embarking upon a war with Iraq. Not only are Muna and her son detained for 3 hours at a Chicago airport, but all of the edible gifts she has brought for her family are confiscated, including the small parcel of cookies that she hid her life savings beneath. Once settled in America, Muna can only find work at a White Castle fast food restaurant as her son struggles to learn the ropes as a teenager in a strange new land and facing a new brand of racism, more ugly than what she dealt with in Palestine. Previously reviewed by Elan, the story is a celebration of the trials, tribulations and victories that immigrants face when coming to America. The film has been nominated for a coveted Independent Spirit Award and is a crowning jewel in Dabis’s rising star.
‘Made in Pakistan’ - This film is a witty documentary that opens a window into the lives of four Pakistani professionals (a lawyer, journalist/mother, politician and PR Manager) and depicts how they coped with the political upheaval orchestrated by then-president Pervez Musharraf and the subsequent “state of emergency”. Filmed in 2007, during the peak of the crisis, the documentary breaks the stereotypes that are often propagated in the popular media about Pakistanis in general. According to the film’s director, Nasir Khan, it was the widespread racism that struck a chord with him and served as a catalyst for the film, “Whenever I saw any coverage of Pakistan on foreign news channels, it felt like an extremely myopic and stereotypical representation of our people. The Pakistan they repeatedly covered was only showing a part of the story. Pakistan and Pakistanis were often labeled as dangerous pariahs who should be secluded from the world stage as we know it. As Pakistani filmmakers, we felt that their conclusions were amateur and racist. We felt we could easily negate them even if we showed a glimpse of Pakistan through the eyes of Pakistanis.” The documentary reveals that Pakistani youths have the same wishes that most the rest of the world has, to live in peace and prosperity. “Made in Pakistan” is the first documentary to be made and released in Pakistan. Now playing to a global audience, including America, the documentary won the Audience Choice Award during the South Asian International Film Festival 2009.
‘New Muslim Cool’ - This documentary aired on PBS earlier this summer, depicting a young Muslim-American rapper who gave up a life of drug-dealing and embraced Islam. In a previous elan review, our blogger states: “What makes Hamza so memorable is his ability to come across as completely relatable, a rarity in media depictions of Muslims. Just as comfortable in his Kufi and Jalabiya as in his oversized T-shirt and sideways cap, Hamza, a Puerto Rican, American Muslim rapper, relates himself to many different types of people through his music”. The film has won “Best Documentary” awards at both the Al Jazeera International Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, in addition to many other festival awards.
‘Zero Bridge’ - Shot with a digital camera, this film has already put its writer and director, Tariq Tapa, on the map. The story is complicated and at times grim as the lead character, a teenage Kashmiri boy named Dilawar, struggles against all odds to raise enough money to travel to live with the adoptive mother that abandoned him. Dilawar works as a brick mason alongside his rigid uncle whom he also lives with. Life is unbearable with his uncle and Dilawar looks for any way that he can to make cash, from doing math homework for his former classmates to picking pockets from unsuspecting pedestrians. One day he picks the pocket of a young college graduate, named Bani, who has just returned home from studying in America, and both their lives are changed for the better and the worse. Already airing at the Venice Film Festival and also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award along with “Amreeka”, this film depicts the real life hardships of a people who have sustained years of war and destruction, yet still manage to hang on to hope by whatever means necessary.
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