Below is the unedited version of the review, published in MKJ and Farheen Jawaid’s column Animadversion, in Dawn Newspaper’s iMAGES on Sunday, Sunday October 03, 2010. Links to the Dawn version can be found at the end of this post.
Travelling Through Misconceptions
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid and Farheen Jawaid
Akbar S. Ahmed’s “Journey Into America” – a primer for the book of the same name – opens in New York where the cries of “Allah-o-Akbar” sync with the restrained score by Kenneth Lampl. As a film mulling over Muslim’s place in present-day America, the word “restrain” matches well with its profile. For example, the filmmaking – credited to Craig Considine, a former student of Mr. Ahmed’s (like most of the principal crew) –isn’t as flamboyant or imperious as most documentaries. Count this as either a pro or a con.
Mr. Ahmed’s ground-crew comes in a small package of five: Mr. Considine, Jonathan Hayden, Frankie Martin, Hailey Woldt and Madeeha Hameed. During the documentary, Mr. Ahmed and co. travel across America on a nine-month expedition. Their itinerary extends to 75 cities, over a 100 mosques and very little controversy.
Mr. Ahmed, once an Ambassador from Pakistan to Great Britain, and now holding the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies in American University, Washington DC is perhaps better recognized in Pakistan as the executive producer and co-writer of the feature film “Jinnah” directed by Jamil Dehlvi (a part of a bigger project, much like “Journey” itself, that included two books and a documentary on Pakistan’s founder). A deeper bio can be found at the American University’s website, which backed Mr. Ahmed’s current undertaking.
“I had set out to learn about Islam in America, but I found I could not do so without understanding American identity”, begins Mr. Ahmed at the start of the film. He is at the Muslim Day Parade in New York City. On one side he walks with a melting pot of Muslim ethnicity. On the other side, protesters.
One woman yells “Defend freedom”. “If you love America, then preserve our constitution”. One board she holds above her head reads “Jevoha (is) God. Not the moon god of Mecca”. Her other board reads “Home of the FREE (Not Sharia), because of our brave constitution, baby”. “Mohammad was a child killer”, she persists at the top of her voice.
Like most Americans she continues to be in the dark.
In New Orleans the team talk to drunk Americans during Mardi Gras. Frankie Martin asks a woman what it means to be an American. Her reply, after a few expletives, is: “to have sex and eat hot-wings”. Her reason for not liking the Muslims is just as simple. “They don’t believe in our Jesus, they just believe in their Jesus” (say what?).
One missionary, heralding a big, white, cross was more sympathetic. “They’re not a bunch of lunatics, they’re following their books”. “Their book tells them to kill, that’s why they’re doing it”.
Another man, also high on alcohol, says “Muslims”, “Didn’t they fly the plane into the World Trade Center?”
“People had different ideas of what it means to be American, or who can be American” Mr. Ahmed narrates in the opening monologue. “How can people accept each other? Reflect the pluralist vision of (America’s) founding fathers?” – A point he emphasizes during the film. “Can the American identity, coming from Plymouth accept those who are not like them?” he asks.
“The experience of Muslim’s in America today challenges fundamental American features. Justice. Civil rights. Religious freedom”. This challenge, he concludes, will “define America in the future”.
Post a cliff-hanger opening, the big bang never happens.
“Journey” by the end of its first fifteen minutes moves like a travelogue (and a eulogy) from an America–based Muslim that asks safe, basic, questions. By the half-hour mark nothing changes, until one accepts the solemnity of Mr. Ahmed’s project.
This isn’t commercial fare, which means – in a subdued note – to explain the peaceful nature of Islam without going neck-deep in urgent xenophobic trepidations. It’s not that “Journey” doesn’t talk about racial intolerance at all (it is one of the film’s prime addresses); it just doesn’t push matters hard enough.
There are attention-grabbing bits like the racial dilemma of Somali refugees living in Grand Island Nebraska (they were fired for wanting a prayer break during Ramadan).
Mr. Ahmed also talks with famed intellectual Noam Chomsky. “From the very beginning, there was a strong element of fear” that goes back to the 18th century, says Mr. Chomsky. One theme, he said, embedded in the psyche was that the “Great enemy that’s about to destroy us, is somebody we’re crushing”. “In the early years the great enemy was the (Native American) Indians”, “now it’s the Muslims”, he explains.
During the film’s documentation, the narrative disassociates itself from any emotion making the films only human connection Mr. Hayden, Mr. Martin, Ms. Woldt and Mr. Ahmed (Ms. Hameed has less screen-time). Around the 50-minute mark they are lost somewhere in LA, hit by fever and finally their gear gets stolen.
In Arab, a town in Alabama, Hailey Woldt dresses up in an Abaya (a full-body robe) to get reactions from an all-white locality. Apart from a few glances, nothing happens.
“Journey’s” technicalities – roughed on amateur angles and low-budget conventionalities (the camera often zoom-in and most outdoor interviews are filmed against predominant light) – take a back seat to Mr. Ahmed’s trek. “This time I decided to film informally and casually, that way we would not attract attention and distract people in mosques and homes”, he said.
Shot in a Cinema vérité style, there are no animations or C-Span interviews (there is one by Riz Khan at the beginning of the movie, but that doesn’t count).
“Journey into America” is presented by Mr. Ahmed. Shot and Directed by Craig Considine; Edited by Robert Krupa; with the research team starring Frankie Martin, Jonathan Hayden, Hailey Woldt and Madeeha Hameed.
The film is unrated. It features few out-bursts of religious xenophobia.
Asking the Right Questions
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
When I saw the documentary, the film intrigued me on many levels. I was attracted by its simplicity yet I was skeptical about its distance with more hard core matters. Akbar S. Ahmed, the principal force of the movie, was more than glad to get back to us with some answers.
MKJ: When you basically look at it, “Journey” was a primer – a 101 – on anyone outside America to get a feel of Muslims life in the United States. Sometimes it looked like a eulogy to both Islam and American and sometimes like a tour dairy. Was that feel intentional or were you just following your gut feeling of talking about something relevant?
Akbar Ahmed: One of the purposes of the “Journey into America” project, which included a book and a film of our travels, was to explore the common bonds between Muslims and non-Muslims in a time of great misunderstanding. The project was not a eulogy as much as an ideal of both America and Islam. I was keenly aware that the Muslim community in America was being talked about in the media often but most of the time by non-Muslims. As an anthropologist, I saw an opportunity to study a community that had not been studied in this way before.
I realized that a study of Muslims in America would not be complete without understanding America. We had to look though history to get a sense of what it means to be American. In the process, I rediscovered my respect and admiration for the Founding Fathers of America who, I believe, define American pluralism. As a Muslim, I was thrilled to discover what the Founding Fathers thought of Islam. Few people know that President John Adams called the Prophet of Islam “one of the great truth seekers of history” that Benjamin Franklin called him “a model of compassion” and President Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Quran and hosted the first Iftaar dinner at the White House.
MKJ: You mentioned at the beginning of the documentary that "Journey" was made with your own finances – and intentionally restrained to a zero-budget. In an industry where everything relevant, even documentaries, is preferred to be shot on big expensive equipment, wouldn’t the reliance on low-budget filmmaking hamper its market potential?
AA: The project was indeed zero-budget. We had minimal finances and were given a camera by my friend Jean Case and the Case Foundation to support our aspirations to make a film. We had discussions with some professional film companies about filming our travels and making a more conventional documentary but thought that large cameras, crews and lighting would be too disruptive. We wanted to capture spontaneous conversation and larger cameras would not allow us to do that. The subject, Islam in America, was so sensitive that a small camera, we believe, made for better content.
The film was part of the larger project and was meant to show us aspects of the journey and to be seen in tandem with the book. I believe in dialogue and the film has been a tool for starting conversations. We wanted the film to be easily available for anyone to see and to show to larger audiences.
MKJ: I thought "Journey" was a very safe project. Safe in the sense that it didn’t dig deep enough to unearth delicate questions that would have hyped the subject. The film did talk to people, like Abdulrahman Zaitoun, who suffered American cruelty, but that was just one case.
The Idea, while novel, about Hayley Woldt dressing in an Abaya when you visited Arab was just utilized once. Was it that you didn’t find the opportunity again or simply didn’t exploit it?
AA: The film was a sort of primer for the book. It asked many questions that the book answered and is to be seen as part of the larger project. The book goes much deeper into the subjects raised in the film like the case of Mr. Zeitoun, and what that means in terms of American identity.
In Hailey’s case, we did the “experiment” several times but were only able to include one in the film. The book goes more in depth on the experiences she had and what the rest of the team witnessed. In editing the film, we had to make many difficult choices on what to include. We have hundreds of hours of film from about 9 months of travel and had to edit it down to just an hour and a half.
I’m sure Pakistani viewers will appreciate many things in the film for example the street in Chicago named after Quaidi-Azam. M.A. Jinnah. This is a great tribute to the founder of Pakistan and I was delighted to see it.
MKJ: With the limited publicity that the documentary – not the novel – is getting at the moment, how successful is it at film festivals?
AA: (We) have been delighted by the response to the film. It has been shown in film festivals in France, Egypt and across America. Almost every week, we are asked to send the film to a University for showing to a class or event at a community center of Mosque. My team, or myself, are constantly asked to come to an event to talk about it.
We were thrilled that we finished the film in time for a special event showing at the Islamic Society of North America annual conference. ISNA is the largest Islamic organization in North America. The screening was completely sold out.
MKJ: Since this started the wheel, any plans for a follow-up feature or another project?
AA: We have now completed two projects—the first was “Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization” where I traveled with largely the same team, throughout the Muslim world. The second, of course, being Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam. At this time, we are fully involved in the discussions, publicity, reviews, etc around the Journey into America film and book projects.
The links to Dawn are: