by Claire Darby
In October, we welcomed filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, director of New Muslim Cool, to screen her film and conduct a filmmaking master class with American University students. We also grabbed some time to talk about the film and the challenges of making it. The interview, as well as clips from the master class and the post-film Q & A, are below.
Tell us how this film came to be. Where did you get the idea for it?
So New Muslim Cool began in the post 9/11 climate as an “idea film”. So often, when you’re beginning a documentary, you have a kernel of an idea that makes you think, “I want to explore this.” Maybe you’ve read something in the news, maybe it’s something you’ve observed, maybe you see a subject that’s just not been covered well or sufficiently enough by the existing media, and you want to explore it. Maybe you’ve actually met the person whose story you want to tell.
In the case of my work, and in a lot of circumstances, I had an idea. You know—“I want to talk about X social issue.” So the question is how do you deal with that social issue, or how do you deal with the content of whatever you want to explore. So in the case of New Muslim Cool, I was actually assigned some post-9/11 reporting at the public TV station where I work in San Francisco.
I was doing some research and reporting at the public TV station where I work about Muslim, Sikh and Hindu youth in the Bay Area. And this was, of course, part of the flurry of post 9/11 reporting that came out; suddenly a lot of people in the media realized wow, we know very little about Muslims in the US and other groups. And I knew nothing about the subject whatsoever, but I often do stories about younger people, and about people whose stories have not been explored fully enough or accurately enough or deeply enough in the mass media, so this kind of aligned with my interests. And I did pretty copious research for the station, and they were paying me to do it which is always a nice thing, because you should really do deep research. That’s going to mark how well your entire project is going to go.
So I did a bunch of research, and discovered something that I didn’t know anything about, which is that in the American Muslim community, hip-hop music and culture really have a lot of cultural currency. It’s almost analogous to the way that a lot of Christian youth use rock and roll music to talk about their beliefs and to share cultural experiences. A lot of people in the American Muslim community are using hip hop in a similar way. And moreover, a lot of mainstream hip hop artists in the U.S. are Muslim. I didn’t know any of this before I started the research, but I realized, once I had this information that this would be a great way to tell a story that would in one way or another give us a new viewpoint on a community about whom we know very little. And perhaps deal critically with the “clash of civilizations” paradigm, that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we were being told exists.
So I decided to make what I thought would be a survey film about young American Muslims engaged in this hip hop culture, looking for a way to bring together all of the pieces of their cultural and spiritual selves. And my initial idea was that the film would have 4 characters who would cover the spectrum of folks in the Muslim community, representing people who’ve come from immigrant backgrounds, people who’ve come from convert backgrounds, different ages, different ideological points of view. And the film would be following these 4 characters as they traveled around the country, kind of representing how the community itself is coming of age. This was the first set of ideas I had after doing about 3 months worth of research. I also pre-interviewed people –probably about 50 people; some times they were professors, sometimes they were community leaders who could tell me in a global sense what the community was dealing with, and sometimes it was people speaking to me on a very personal level. After I had done this research, I shot about 15 hours of footage and out of those first 15 hours I cut a fundraising trailer. For what I thought would be a survey film.
So how did it morph into being the more personal story of Hamza Perez?
I couldn’t get anybody at a broadcast level to commit to the project based on this concept. They wanted more. They wanted a character-driven piece, where characters would really have a story that would have a real personal connection for the audience. It needed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, an arc. So partly based on that feedback that I got from the people to whom I was trying to sell the project, and I think also just partly out of my own sense of curiosity, I had to keep digging.
So during my pre-interviews, one guy, Hamza, seemed really interesting. He and his brother. In their initial interview, they had talked about the kind of life they used to lead and how God made them change. It was interesting. So I had enough development funding left and a little initial production funding that I said “Can I come to Pittsburgh where you guys live and spend some time with you, and maybe dig into your story a little bit more?”
Because out of the 4 people, he seemed the most interesting. He was a performer and you could see—he had these flaming swords he used on stage—that he had a pretty harsh act that in many ways conforms to our worst fears of Muslims, and then off stage he was such a nice guy. And also he and his brother are just really funny. And often my work is about Latino and Latin American subject matter, so I think I just gravitated to them. So I said, “Ok I want to come to Pittsburgh and explore a little bit your lives there.” And I decided to really shoot verite material, so not do interviews, not really try to get them to tell me anything, just shoot observational material.
So we went to Pittsburgh and did some exploratory shooting, and the story suddenly made itself very obvious. And that was discovering that Hamza and his brother were living in this community of young people, most of whom are Muslim converts, and most of whom, but not all, have some form of criminal record. And they were living in this part of Pittsburgh that to me was just utterly exotic And it was during Ramadan when we went to visit. Of course it’s the most important time for Muslims, and they were basically fasting all day and praying all night, and then after they would pray they would have dinner—eating take out food and orange soda—and then talk about playing touch football the next day.
So it was just this really interesting mix of contrasts. And Hamza suddenly seemed to me a very interesting character because I realized he had a conflict. And his conflict was that he was a kind of harsh guy on-stage, but off-stage he was a very nice person. And so, I was thinking, I need a story, I need a conflict, I need something to drive this bus of a narrative that I’m going to try to create. Can I make it about this guy? And so that’s what I decided to do, but I still did not have anything that would be considered an initiating incident. I didn’t start this film with getting to document some kind of really dramatic thing that happened to these guys. I was approaching it very cerebrally. Very topically. And even when I started deciding I would film Hamza in his community, there was nothing to set the story off. So I was still really searching for a narrative thread.
Once you’d decided you wanted to pursue making a film about him, can you give us a sense of how you got to know him and how you built trust with him?
I had met Hamza a couple of times in the very initial phase; I met him once during the R & D, while I was mostly doing off-camera interviews and site visits; and I had seen him and his brother perform and with a friend of mine we had just done a day of test shooting. So I learned a lot on the test shoot. One thing was that they were going to be two hours late for anywhere they said they’d be, that they were going to talk all at the same time, and they were going to use a lot of words that I had no idea what they meant. And they were actually pretty nice guys. So that was the first time I met them.
The second time was when I interviewed them on this shoot. When we went to Pittsburgh, the other producers and I and consciously decided to change our production methodology a little bit. We said we’re not going to focus on interviews and we’re not going to focus topically, we’re just going to try to absorb what is happening. So we went to Pittsburgh the first time and I think spent about 4 days with no camera crew, no shooting, and really just kind of hung out. One thing I did is I showed him the trailer I had cut. A lot of people told me not to do that, but I felt that it was essential to build some trust with Hamza and his community, to show them “Look I made a first, little short piece about you guys that really tries to capture all of your complexities and doesn’t have anything pejorative.” It had utility in showing that I would honor the complexity of these guys’ story, and also that I would make it look pretty good.
So that I think was a turning point, showing him this clip. He actually started crying, and said he was really moved that we were trying to tell the story a different way. I think he liked the aesthetics. He was really on board at that point. It was a real turning point. And it could have failed horribly.
So I think that was useful. I’ll say one more thing about establishing this relationship. We did this a lot at the beginning and we did it all through the production phase: we were very clear about when we were going to film and when we were not. And that may run counter to what some verite filmmakers are able to do. There have been moments that we missed. But at the same time, what we gained was that these guys knew that they had some boundaries. They had a sense of some kind of agency with us. We would say ok we’re going to take three hours and have lunch. You can rest, we’re not going to shoot . Let’s just eat and talk. And we spent a lot of the time at the beginning, hanging out, eating, which was a big thing—just having meals, telling jokes. Having meal time with the crew I think helped us all develop a tremendous amount of rapport.
We had a sound guy who was from Pittsburgh and knew a lot of folks that they knew, and that really helped too. They could we weren’t going to do a hit and run. We tried to give them some sense that we knew people in common, that we were going to be accountable, that if the sound guy who lives in Pittsburgh has friends in common, we weren’t going to burn them.
One of the challenges of creating a verite film can be having a good answer to the question “Why should the viewer care?” since you don’t know beforehand what’s going to happen. What did you think the film was going to be about and what do you think is the initiating incident in the film?
Well, I think that that’s a very good question. I think at the beginning, once I started to personalize the story a little bit more and decide that it would be about him, I thought that my initial set of conflicts would be the personal conflict that he had between being this very harsh character on stage, and being this very nice guy off stage, and how he would reconcile the two. But the truth is that’s not that interesting. I mean, it could be, but it’s not very dramatic. So when their mosque got raided—it was terrible for them personally, but dramatically, it was good. If that hadn’t happened maybe the film would have just totally been boring, I don’t know.
I still don’t have an initiating incident though, because the raid is not the initiating incident of the film. But I found something that could wrap around the whole film dramatically. But it took a really long time, and it took me telling the editor to go away for two weeks. So I could cut beginnings myself.
When I was watching the film, I was really struck by Hamza’s opening line. He says “I would always have two consistent dreams my whole life. One, that I was going to experience death at 21, and the other one that I was going to be in jail. And then, both of them came true.” I got goose bumps.
Oh, thanks. Well that’s what the story becomes, what it’s about, because both will come true, in some sense. I won’t say anymore than that. As I said, I was so frustrated by the beginning of this film, and it just took forever to try to figure out how to open it. There’s a lot of exposition. The beginning of the film is actually a little talky, there’s a lot of explaining. But I just felt so trapped by the need to have it. I couldn’t figure out a way to get you to Pittsburgh without really giving you enough back story and figure out the pieces of who this person is. I think this is a truism, and it actually was the case in this project, is that I figured out the beginning once I knew how the film ended. And for him to say that little thing about being dead or in jail was perfect, because that is the thing that’s going to wrap around the entire film.
What’s been the response by Muslim audiences concerning the film?
Oh well for the most part people have responded to it incredibly well, and I’ve gotten just really astonishingly good reactions from people. When I first showed the final cut to a group of Muslim leaders—that whole scene with the swords, I was just freaking out. Because I was waiting for them to be angry that I showed this guy basically conforming to every worst fear you have. But it’s essential to the film. And it’s essential for him to conform to that a bit, because the whole film is about how this guy ultimately changes in some very profound ways. And if we started off the film with him being a perfectly evolved human being, than we’d have no where to go. But I was really scared.
But people have responded to it very positively. I just got back last night from showing the film all throughout Italy. In this really interesting, itinerant film festival of inter-religious films. And I started the week, last week, showing it in the Tyrol, up in the north of Italy, right by the Austrian border, in a town that’s had a lot of neo-Nazi activity. And it was really amazing how the people—I mean obviously the people who came to it were people who want to have dialogue with immigrants and religious minorities—it wasn’t the neo Nazis—but it was a phenomenal set of conversations.
How did you keep enough distance while you were filming, considering this took three or four years to film?
The key question is always how do you maintain a relationship with a subject, and I’m so glad you asked it in that way, because usually people say “how did you achieve that much intimacy,” and to me that’s actually easier than maintaining a proper distance. You’ve hit on something that was really important in this project. I had to be really strategic. And it’s never 100% perfect, and I should say my relationship with him and his brother has also continued in a very ongoing way; we’re showing the film together all around the world. He and I are going on tour both in the US and in Europe together to show the film and lead a series of conflict resolution workshops in jails and schools. And we’re also developing a video game together based on the anti-drug dealing curriculum that he has. So we have an ongoing working relationship that’s actually shifting now that we’ve actually finished the film. He knows much more about my private life than he did during the film. He knows a lot more about me as a person than during the film. But one thing, also, as I realized, when you’re filming people, they usually don’t want to know all that much about you. You know, they want to know a little bit, but so much of the relationship is about them that it’s kind of easy to keep the attention on them.
When you were first developing the project, at what point did you start planning the outreach component of the project? These workshops and video games and all of the other stuff you mentioned?
For me, it started the first moment I thought of making the film. Because—and I think this is probably the case for everybody now—you know that as you’re making a documentary, it must have an outreach component and it must have a new media component. And maybe your piece is even a new media piece. So that I think is kind of a given. And I have always worked with Active Voice, who are one of the organizations that helps people take documentaries and make them into tools for social change and conversation. So since I work in that model a lot, I was thinking at the outset this would have a robust engagement campaign. But what I didn’t know was what shape that would take. And the assumption I made was that a lot of our work would be interfaith. But the conflict resolution and some of the things that have more to do with young people and street life came out of the first few months of showing the film, and we saw that is what was resonating. What’s resonated with audiences by and large has not been as much the kind top-line interfaith story that comes out of the film, but more a story about kind of personal responsibility, personal spiritual growth, people taking responsibility for themselves, being good fathers, being good husbands. It’s actually a very socially conservative set of messages that come out of the film in some respect, and that’s what’s really been resonating.
In some respects the work really begins when the film is done. And then you’re tired and then you have no more adrenaline rush, and you feel like “I already climbed the mountain,” but the truth is you get up there and you realize there’s a whole other one behind it. If you’re been in school and made the investment in school, or if you’ve decided to go on the odyssey of making a film, it’s an enormous investment of resources and time. But what you have in the end is something so useful. Because unlike a performance or a dance piece that’s truly ephemeral, you’ve got a product that can now be used. And in many cases, especially with multi-platform opportunities and opportunities to re-purpose your material, you can use that for a long time. Probably at least a couple of years after the film is done, and 5 more in active use.
The film came out very early in its life on PBS. We went to broadcast very quickly, and that was a decision I really wrestled with, when POV made the offer to let us open the season. I thought OK, that’s a great slot to be in and it will get us good press, but it also gives me almost no window for festivals, and it means I have to hurry up and get as many deliverables finished as I can. And there’s no way I can get them all ready, because we have the soundtrack album that we’re still just finishing right now, we have a book, we have this game, so that stuff is rolling out slowly, and whether or not I’ll be right that we’ll have a long tail, and keep adding people to the film’s community remains to be seen. I could have made a horrible mistake.
But the minute you start making a film, you should be thinking about where do you want this to go, if you want the investment of your time and effort to be worth it. The best advice I got was from my partner, who, when I was bemoaning that I didn’t get x grant, she said “You know, this has nothing to do with you.” If you embark on making a documentary film, especially about somebody who is alive, it’s THEIR story, so you have to keep that in mind. It’s not about you, it’s about telling the story responsibly, and that means shepherding it through its entire lifespan. And it’s really hard to do that.
The first feature doc I made was about 10 years ago, and my co-producer and I just exhausted every resource we had, and we were totally wiped out. We had made a feature length film, but we didn’t plan ahead to make a 56 or 53 minute version that we could sell more easily. You know we made every single mistake you can make. We gave it to a distributor that didn’t do anything with it, and that was dumb. At it was also just before the advent of all of these new platforms, and now you can really take advantage of them.
But even on this film, I struggled with was the whole multi-platform thing. A couple years ago I had a conversation with this guy from Current TV, and I described the film to him. And at that point, the FBI raid had happened, and we didn’t know the resolution of the film yet, and I said I’m making this film and it’ll probably take me another year to make. And he was just like, “You have so missed the story. The story happened a year ago, you should have put that stuff up in 10 minutes on YouTube. It’s dead.” And I was like, “Oh. Oh dear.”
But you know the thing is if I had put my material up while my character was still under surveillance, at least in my book, that wouldn’t have been ethical or smart. It would have gutted my film. And the other thing is, I didn’t want him to see himself. He’s already too media savvy. Everybody that you’re filming—everybody knows reality TV, and everybody knows to act, right? And my guy is a performer, and I had to really really really work to get him to not perform. And that meant actually ignoring him when he was performing. It was really—it’s a difficult thing to do, but the last thing I wanted him to do was watch himself on YouTube and change the way he would act. So that’s a tough one. So I waited until the picture was locked until I put anything up.
Last question: How do you make a living as a filmmaker?
It’s a question I’m actually asking myself right now. And I’ve been doing this for 10-15 years. In my case I’ve been able to kind of eke out a living by working at a public TV station, although I’m not there right now because there have been huge cutbacks. But that’s how I’ve been able to maintain my work, and also doing things like for Link TV. I just got a call from a museum that wants to know if I can do something for them, and I’ll probably do it, because that’s what you have to do.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer. It’s a really hard thing. And we’re going through a really big shift right now, with there’s a lot of content out there. I’m having trouble getting people to pay for content. I mean the film has been downloaded 40,000 times illegally. And that’s great, but even if I got $1 from each of those people, I’d be in great shape. And I think there’s an ethos that’s increasing that content should be free. I mean I find myself all the time now infuriated when something I want isn’t free on YouTube. But I think that’s a challenge that we have to meet. Acquisitions are going down in price. So this film, I have a sales agent and we’re hopefully closing on a few sales soon in other countries of the short version of the film—the 53 minute version—that this time around I knew I HAD to cut. But they’re not going to be that big, because everything is going down. So I can’t answer it very well. Marry an investment banker.