As a college student it’s easy to forget how often we segregate ourselves by race, religion and ethnicity. It’s not necessarily something done consciously, but our views of the world undoubtedly shape the relationships we hold. In the 34-minute short documentary film “Of Many,” directed by NYU Vice Chancellor for Global Programs and University Life Linda Mills and executive-produced by Chelsea Clinton, the friendship between an NYU rabbi and imam are explored.
I got the chance to speak to Clinton and Mills, who along with Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif are co-founders of NYU’s Of Many Institute, a multifaith organization that strives to create and enhance relationships between students on campus. The film, appropriately titled “Of Many,” premieres later today at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and is only a small part of a larger effort to bring communities together on and off college campuses.
“I met Khalid and Yehuda now more than four years ago and was not only tremendously compelled, but impressed by what they had created at NYU,” Clinton said about her initial involvement. “[I] really believed that [‘Of Many’] could be even more impactful if there was institutional support behind it.”
Clinton’s association with NYU dates back to when she was first pursuing a doctorate degree. Although she ended up completing her studies at Oxford, she became highly committed to the project and wanted to support the work of Khalid and Yehuda “more than anything else.” Considering that 7,000 of of NYU’s students identify as Jewish and Muslim, a dialogue bringing the two groups together was essential.
Mills, on the other hand, already had filmmaking experience, having co-directed the documentary “Auf Wiedersehen: “Til We Meet Again,” which explored trauma that afflicted the offspring of Holocaust victims.
“What was clear to me having made a film before was that we needed and wanted in such compelling ways to tell [Sarna and Khalid’s] story beyond the opportunities that NYU gave us,” Mills said. “And I think that’s really what compelled me as a filmmaker, to ask and answer the question, ‘can we put this story on film in a way that’s compelling and will actually advance the conversation and the work around this important effort?’ And I was convinced of it. I convinced my friends of it.”
For me, it was an unusual experience watching a film that takes place on the grounds of the college I attend. Especially in the opening moments, where shots of student-run protests — both by Jews and Muslims — are seen. And although animosity still exists, “Of Many” helps make the work Sarna and Latif achieved pretty impressive.
“Of Many” takes a look at the tension that arose against the Muslim population both at NYU and around the world following 9/11 and the subsequent attempts by Sarna and Latif to create a multifaith community that encourages students of different religions to interact. More importantly, the film illuminates the burgeoning relationship and understanding the two religious leaders developed through this campaign.
“I think one of the most memorable moments in the film is when Yehuda and Khalid are talking about their wives and how they met their wives, all the stories associated with that,” Mills said. “I asked myself a question, because I wasn’t entirely sure we had any material here for a film, but it was so enjoyable and profound in terms of the ways in which the boundaries had been so deeply crossed that I think we all walked away thinking this was deeply special.”
Both Sarna and Latif live in the Gramercy Green dorm at NYU as Chaplains in Residence. They’re neighbors. Their wives are friends. Their kids are growing up together. That’s what “Of Many” does: it takes a glance at everyday human interaction and ignores international politics.
Clinton agreed with Mills on the importance of this relationship, highlighting the fact that even with such a serious subject matter, “laughter is a critical component of life.”
Being in the public eye, Clinton also acknowledged how her involvement with the project and film in general can bring about certain expectations. “[Linda] made a film that could advance the work we collectively care about and hopefully help again demonstrate that there are other models than those that are too often burdened by history or antagonism,” she said. “So for me I would hope that whomever would watch the film for whatever reasons–whether it’s because they’re curious about multifaith work or because they are curious about me, it brings someone to the film.”
I also asked Clinton about whether she had plans in the future to venture in the film world again. She emphasized that the process of making “Of Many” wasn’t so much about making a film, but of “telling a story I deeply believe in.”
The documentary is an insightful and lighthearted exploration of the way two young men raised with different ideologies can abandon preconceived prejudices and focus on what really matters: respect and understanding. It also makes me proud to be an NYU student.