Fresh off premiering his film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Eyad Zahra’s directorial debut “The Taqwacores” hits theaters in New York this Friday, October 22. In anticipation of the film’s release, Zahra shared an exclusive clip of his film with indieWIRE.
“The Taqwacores,” based on the novel by Michael Muhamamd Knight, is about a Pakistani-American engineering student who moves into a house full of punk Muslims. Each housemate represents a unique combination of Islam and punk, ranging from a strait edge Sunni, to a riot grrrl Muslim feminist. The engineering student, whose name is Yusef, slowly comes-of-age by living at the house, especially as the ideas of “Taqwacore” begin to influence his life. Taqwacore is the punk-Muslim scene that the housemates belong to — “taqwa” meaning consciousness of the divine, “core” being the basic suffix for any hardcore movement.
All in all, “The Taqwacores” deals with the trials and tribulations of today’s American Muslim.
In this scene, the gender shy Yusef enters Rabeya’s room for the first time. At what seems to be a dating lesson at first, the conversation soon turns into a discussion of blasphemy, as Yusef notices a crossed-out verse in Rabeya’s Quran. In a subtle way, this scene embodies the entire ethos of the film.
This is probably the last scene I would ever want to choose for this kind of assignment, but that’s precisely why I ended up picking it for this. This scene was the most challenging scene to place into the script, and the most challenging to deal with in the editing room. Although it was probably one my favorite moments in the novel, I didn’t want to put it into the first draft of the script. As most know, the Holy Quran is a book that is very sensitive to Muslims all over the world, as it is considered to be the direct word of God.
Ultimately Michael Muhammad Knight and I wrote the scene into the film. We of course then shot it, and as seen in the clip, kept it in the final cut. If we were to shy away from these kinds of moments, we would have abandoned the main spirit of the novel, and deviated from Knight’s whole purpose of writing “The Taqwacores” to begin with. It took a few conversations with Dr. Laury Silvers, a Muslim professor who specializes on the topic of Islam and gender, for me to finally be okay with showing the crossed-out verse on
screen. Dr. Laury Silvers not only found the scene acceptable, but she strongly encouraged us to do it as well.
SHOOTING THE SCENE
My main concern was to shoot this scene from a place of sincerity, and not from a place of indictment. This kind of balance was challenging to achieve, and it ultimately caused a lot of back and forth in the editing room. I have to pause here and thank Joshua Rosenfield for helping finesse the scene into being the thought-provoking and dynamic discussion that it ultimately became.
We shot this scene towards the end of our shoot, and by that time Bobby Naderi (Yusef) had mastered his characters’ timid physical expression. Bobby and I came to the conclusion early on that Yusef would be played as a boy in a big man’s body. This decision plays in perfectly with the narrative of the film. As Yusef matures over the course of the narrative, his physical stance becomes more assured as well.
Noureen DeWulf (Rabeya) on the other hand, had to be animated and bold at all times, as she wore a face-covering burqa throughout the entire film. Being stripped of the use of her face, Noureen took on the challenge with incredible skill. Done wrong, this could have been an actor just saying lines behind a sheet. Instead, Noureen made the character come to live with vibrancy, to the point of which you eventually forget she is even wearing a burqa.
The scene was shot in a few hours with no previous rehearsal, as the case with most scenes in the film. As always, I never referred to dialogue written in the script. I allowed the actors a lot of freedom in letting words come out as they did. All I cared about were the objectives of the scene to come through.
Last but not least, I want to talk about the crossed out verse, one final time. We chose to show it in a very natural and out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye kind of way, through Yusef’s perspective. We had a few other takes of it, some that showed the crossed out verse in a more direct way. Those shots didn’t work, and it was quite jarring to see them actually. The final choice was best fitting in trying to achieve the previously mentioned goals of this scene.