MUSLIMS, MUSLIMS, EVERYWHERE (in film and TV)

Your representation-starved go-to Muslim rounds up films and shows that make them feel seen.

Muslim representation in the media is hindered by the curators of film festivals. Only those whose work gets greenlit and get funding get made into film. This limits which stories get to be told.

Even as a slight trickle of films and television shows with Muslim characters start to slowly appear, there is a very specific story that is allowed to be seen. It’s often about a brown Muslim, Sunni man, who is not practising, or is currently struggling with his faith.

This character is usually in love with a white woman, who his parents will not allow him to be with. You might be laughing, because this has become such a trope. This sanitised version of a Muslim – one who is so far removed from his Muslimness and his cultural identity, and therefore closer in proximity to the norm: white, Christian etc – that we see on our television screens. And while this is certainly the experience of some Muslims, this single story cannot represent all Muslims in race, in sect, in gender and sexual orientation, in expression of their faith, in culture.

We need as many representations of Muslims as there are Muslims. Representations of different types of Muslims need to be programmed at film festivals, supported when debut filmmakers release their films, marketed to audiences that would not normally watch those films, and be given the funding to be initially made.

So to temporarily remedy this, here’s a list of films and shows that expand what it means to be Muslim: and also need your support. Vote with your eyes folks!!

  1. Ali’s Wedding

This film, based on the creator Osamah Sami’s real life, is about Ali, a kid who does not get into medical school, but decides to lie to his parents and tell them that he did get in. This leads to hilarious attempts to cover for himself. He ends up involving Diane, a girl who attends the same school, in his sticky web of lies. Love blossoms.

This one is brilliant, and my parents enjoyed it too, so double win there. The film itself is an example of Muslims not often seen (not even in the media) from the ‘Muslim world’ –  Iraqi-Australians, that are also Shia, and we get to see the different ways that a Shia mosque is set up and how their beliefs are practiced. This is of course just an element of the film, but one that is incredibly necessary to portray on screen.

I love all the little details, the adhan, the comedy, the oud playing, the entire farce of medical school, oh, and the spiritual guidance from his father, an imam, is the most incredible, adorable thing I’ve seen.

  1. Barakah Meets Barakah

This is a hilarious comedy from Saudian director Mahmoud Sabbagh. Just the insults alone are tear-jerkingly funny, and they do not get lost in translation.

This film is about, Barakah, a man who works for the Saudi religious police. Essentially his job is to stop whatever the government sees as haraam. However, he ends up falling for a woman, also called Barakah, who he has a hard time trying to get with because of the religious police. It is ironic and hilarious, and it makes a poignant point at the end, of how in Saudi, the elders fearing God have decided to become more religious despite being freer in their youth, and forgetting about the youth of today and letting them make the same mistakes they did.

I think this is an incredibly universal sentiment that a lot of young people feel about their elders, and I think it’s brilliant commentary about Saudi in general. When it critiques it critiques fairly (i.e. does not slip into islamophobia). It’s clear the character of Barakah is only doing what he thinks is right, and we see him struggle with his own moral compasss and what is imposed on him by the government.

Jinn

This debut film from Nijla Mu’min, a Black Muslim filmmaker, is a beautiful coming of age tale of an African-American girl whose mother converts to Islam. It follows high-schooler and dance lover Summer who struggles with what faith means to her. She also falls charmingly in love with a Black Muslim boy. This film lovingly documents the carefree, joy-filled experience of a young black Muslim girl.

It also, skilfully navigates the double-bladed misogyny Muslim women face who are policed for not wearing their hijab within the Muslim community, and policed for wearing it by the Western world. Out of all the films I’ve seen this was one of the few that, earnestly treated the Qur’an with the beauty, esteem and place that Muslims hold it in.

When Summer’s mother does explain why she has chosen to become Muslim, she talks about the  personal impact Islam has had in her life. Mu’min hands the narrative back to Muslims, by allowing them to explain what their Islam means to them. Usually in the media, representations of Islam having any positive personal benefit are rare and far between. Either they’re wide-eyed zealots, forcing their worldview on everyone else, or they’re incredibly disenchanted with the religion they’re forced to uphold because of their parents. We never see Islam, almost as its own character, just exist in a film without it being vilified in some way. Watch it!

  1. Skam

Season 4 of this show features Sana, a North African teenager in Norway, who refuses to reduce her Muslimness, and her own identity, whilst still being a part of her high school culture. Often this doesn’t work, but what I like most of all is her sense of conviction. She makes consistent attempts to pray, even whilst going to parties. Obviously, there is still a generational divide between her and her parents. But whilst Sana rebels like most teenagers, she does not rebel against her faith, but rather against what is considered conventional in Norway. Also, Sana doesn’t care at all for white boys.

She still struggles with her faith when it comes to more theoretical issues, but never the key tenets of her faith. Her faith is incredible personal to her, it is not a grand sweeping statement about all Muslims, and I know that this was important to both the creator of the show, and the actress who herself is Muslim. The American remake of Skam also features a Muslimah who’s Black (score!), but we’re yet to see her character develop further.

Man Like Mobeen

This BBC show, created by Guz Khan, centres on Pakistani-British Muslim Mobeen who is left to look after his younger sister, with the help of his friends. It’s a hilarious show that is very critical rightly of our current government. Mobeen takes care of his sister and comedically side steps many of the issues that come his way, dealing with the topics like knife crime and drugs with nuance, sensitivity and comedy.

The series also features a lot of run-ins with the police, who constantly racially profile Mobeen and his friends, and are comically the antithesis of  them. Of course, the creator of the show Guz Khan acknowledges the relative privilege of being brown rather than being black, as his black friend takes off the second he hears sirens. But, the funniest thing about the police is the brown police officer, who is more racist than his white counterpart. Mobeen baits him, into flying into a fury that he often needs to be calmed down from. The traitor to the race thing is an in-joke within brown and black communities, which was incredibly funny to see on screen.

Mobeen and his friends never get into any massive trouble because it’s a comedy, but even in the scrapes that they do get into they always have the upper-hand – which in one word is refreshing.

Honorable Mentions: The Hounslow Diaries and Ramy.

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