CultureFilm & TV

Top Arab and Muslim filmmakers to watch out for in 2023

It’s promising to be a big year for Arab and Muslim Filmmakers! Here are the top ones to look out for!

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It’s promising to be a big year for Arab and Muslim Filmmakers! Here are the top ones to look out for!

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us stayed at home and spent more time deciding what kind of films we wanted to watch. Due to the limitations of the pandemic, Hollywood blockbuster productions were at a minimum so many of us decided to look at films and filmmakers from outside Hollywood. That interesting period brought my attention to some creative and talented filmmakers with Arab and Asian backgrounds who have produced captivating and absorbing films and documentaries. Some of the movies that stood out for me were the ones I wrote reviews for; Bilal, Captain Abu Raed, Life Without Basketball and Valley of Saints.

After watching these movies, I wanted to speak with their makers and understand what inspired them to turn their stories into influential films. Some of the stories behind the production of these movies are more unusual and extraordinary than I would have imagined. I had the privilege to discuss some of these films with the filmmakers who produced them and other filmmakers who are behind excellent films and documentaries you can find on USHUB.

Here is a quick profile of the six filmmakers;

Amin Matalqa (AM) makes films that bridge the cultural gap between East and West. His first feature, Captain Abu Raed (2007), won the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Audience Award in 2008 and became Jordan’s first Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

Arif Jilani (AJ) has spent the past 20 years bringing his production expertise to various studios, resulting in the delivery of award-winning feature films, series and theme park content. His animated feature film Bilal: A New Breed of Hero (2015) was about hope and self-discovery, nominated as “Best Animated Feature Film” at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) and screened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, USA March 2017

Iman Zawahry (IZ) is one of the first hijabi American-Muslim filmmakers in the nation. She has worked on numerous films that have played at over 100 venues worldwide. She’s an Emmy award winner, Princess Grace Award recipient, a Lincoln Center Artist Academy Fellow, and Sundance Momentum Fellow. She is also the co-creator of the first American Muslim film grant with the Islamic Scholarship Fund, where she currently serves as Director of Film Programs. Iman works to amplify the underrepresented female voice and frequently consults and speaks on Muslims in Film across the nation. Her debut film, Americanish, is currently touring the festival circuit and has won twenty-five awards, including best director and best film. She is currently faculty of film production at the University of Florida.

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Jude Chehab (JC) is a Lebanese/American filmmaker whose early career work has landed over 20 international awards screening in film festivals worldwide, including Best Picture at CMF, Best Mediterranean Film at TISFF and Best Documentary at the Dubrovnik Film Festival. Jude has led documentary filmmaking workshops in the UK, Lebanon and Croatia.

Justin Mashouf (JM) is a filmmaker and artist based in Los Angeles. His award-winning film, The Honest Struggle (2017), tells the story of an ex-gang chief turned devout Muslim re-entering society after 24 years in prison. Mashouf’s documentary Warring Factions (2009) focuses on his journey to Iran to find break dancers and bridge the rift between the US and Iran with hip hop and traditional Persian martial arts. Warring Factions has received numerous international film festival screenings and over 20,000 digital downloads and was nominated for Best Documentary and Best Original Story at the 2008 Noor Film Festival.

Khurram H. Alavi (KA) is a director and screenwriter with over 15 years of experience as a creative in the animation industry. He hails from the prestigious Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture in Pakistan. Khurram made his directorial debut with Bilal: A New Breed of Hero (2015), an animated epic based on one of Arabian history’s most revered personalities.

We discuss the hopes and aspirations of these filmmakers as they share some fascinating stories behind their biggest successes and how they envision the future for Muslim filmmakers in the West.

Q: A common question for filmmakers is what inspired them to begin making films and documentaries?

AM: One day, when I was in college, I wrote Michael Kamen a fan letter to express my love for his music (in films like Brazil (1985), Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) and, of course, Robin Hood (1991) he called me in response and invited me to attend one of his concerts in London. I couldn’t believe that a legend like Michael Kamen would take the time to call little me living in Ohio. And we became friends over the years. He made me realise that dreaming of making movies is tangible.

IZ: My main goal as a filmmaker is to tell nuanced and authentic real stories, particularly of Muslim women and just kind of the story that I’m used to seeing every day growing up, that gives you this kind of feel-good feeling, so Americanish (2021) is my first feature film and is very much like that. It’s a rom-com led by three Muslim brown women figuring out love, life, and career.

JC: I grew up being told that Muslims have only one filmmaker who tells our stories, and that was (Moustapha) Akkad. He gave us pride in our history and captured it so beautifully. My mother would always tell me, “Jude, we have enough doctors and engineers; we need more filmmakers. You are an Arab, a Muslim and a woman; you have a lot to be angry about, do something about it.”

JM: It’s difficult growing up when you do not see your experience represented to you in the stories that you see told on the greatest platform in Hollywood and big-budget films; you don’t see that and especially right around the time of 9/11, there was just such a misunderstanding about who Muslims were.

Q: How do your ethnic background and religious identity impact how you make films?

KA: I cherish my Muslim identity. Growing up in Pakistan, I was surrounded by wonderful examples of what a good Muslim is. I have a lot of exciting Muslim stories to tell, but the question is whether or not I will find the right powers to help bring them to the big screen.

JM: The themes of fighting against injustice, the themes of standing for truth, the themes of the oneness of mankind and anti-racism. Asilah bayn nas (peace between people), building bridges, bonds, resolving hardships resolving quarrels of people are all themes of my work, and those all come from that Islamic ethos; those are all Islamic values.

JC: On a foundational level, every film is attempting to say something. As artists, we have a feeling, a thought we want to express and convey that we put into film – in order to do this correctly and justly, I must know who I am. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “He who knows himself knows God.” This process doesn’t exist outside of film but rather within—the two work hand in hand. I must know Islam’s past, and my land’s past to understand the present and work towards the future.

IZ: My identity is a huge part and is the biggest part of my storytelling and my activism because my goal is to use comedy and film and art for social change.

Q: Working on feature films is always hard work, but it can be gratifying and be the source of amazing stories and experiences. Do you have any cool stories from working on feature films you like to share?

KA: The sound design and final mix (Bilal, 2015) were done at Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand. By the same team that worked on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. I once asked them how they felt about our movie and their response was, “We haven’t seen anything quite like this before.” I took it as a compliment.

JC: A scene (for the documentary Q (2022) between my mother and my grandmother in which they had an in-depth conversation. Later on, my mother told me that conversation was one of the only times my grandmother told her she loved her. She was so grateful for the film. If it weren’t for the camera she said, they wouldn’t have had that conversation. It was a reminder of how powerful cinema is.

AM: When I was 15, I spent the summer in Jordan, and my father, a pilot, had the cast and crew of Son of Pink Panther (1993) flying with him from London to film a few scenes in Amman and Petra. It so happened that one of the cast members was Nadim Sawalha. He had a career playing small roles in films like The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), The Wind and the Lion (1975), and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). My father invited him to the cockpit and told him how his teenage son wanted to make movies when he grows up. So Nadim invited me to visit the set and he was so warm, kind and generous to me. I never forgot that, and we all went our separate ways. 13 years later, when I wrote the script (Captain Abu Raed, 2007), I called him up in London, and he immediately remembered me. “You’re the son of the pilot!” he said, with his big hearty laugh. And so I told him, “I’ve written a film for you.” And the rest is history.

Q: I asked the filmmakers what stories are important for them to turn into movies or documentaries?

JC: I’m interested in the east and the west; I’m interested in the space in-between, what was lost, what was found, what remains and what needs to re-emerge.

KA: I love dreaming about all of the stories in the Quran. I would love to find a way to take them into the future in the form of animated content. I also like creating stories from scratch since the element of fiction makes it easier for them to be accepted by international audiences. What’s important for Muslims heading into the future is to see content that pays respect to their faith and inspires them to exceed their potential in all areas of life.

JM: Stories that I’m interested in are shedding light on the lives of artists of the past and even contemporary artists who have put such beauty and love into the world.

IZ: I want to tell a mainstream or direct a mainstream studio film and hope that it could be in the realm of what I’m talking about in terms of comedies with Muslim women and stories that really kind of impact and create change in some way.

AJ: We have been working on many stories in Barajoun Entertainment. We are about to finish our first high-end sci-fi animated series from the Middle East. This has already been scheduled for release on the major platforms from mid-2022 with the name “Ajwan”.

AM: I’d love to make a World War 2 film, and I would love to make a Western.

Q: Do you see a future for Muslim filmmakers and their stories in Western cinema?

IZ: I see a strong future for us as Muslim filmmakers because the industry is noticing more and more the importance of our stories and how we’re a part of the fabric of America and of our community and it’s important for us to be a part of the change.

AM: Now more than ever, we’re seeing diverse content being made in Hollywood as well as imported from around the world, being made more accessible thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

JM: It’s looking like we’re coming to a point where people are making distinctive choices about the type of films they want to see, we see platforms like USHUB. There has to definitely be a prioritization I would say on perhaps different institutions and foundations to make sure that these initiatives are actually supported properly.

JC: Work that is watered-down or framed purely through a lens of relativism remains colonialist. I think we are in a dark period as Muslims, but I believe with film and the return of appreciation for art and culture, we can emerge from this unscathed.

KA: We need an infrastructure to support the growth of animation in the Middle East, not just as a production service but as a medium for storytellers. Muslim stories must come from the Muslim regions of the world. That is where the real value lies.

You can view many of the films produced by these filmmakers on USHUB.