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Sundance '10 | Rookie Director Eyad Zahra's "The Taqwacores": "A Muslim Film"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 22, 2010 at 4:12AM

For his first feature film, director Eyad Zahra sought out to make a film in which "Americans can truly see Muslims as Americans, and Muslims can truly see themselves as American".
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For his first feature film, director Eyad Zahra sought out to make a film in which "Americans can truly see Muslims as Americans, and Muslims can truly see themselves as American".

Oh, to be young, beautiful, Muslim—and punk rockers! Here’s one story of disaffected American youth we haven’t seen before.

Yusef, a straitlaced Pakistani American college student, moves into a house with an unlikely group of Muslim misfits—skaters, skinheads, queers, and a riot grrrl in a burqa—all of whom embrace Taqwacore, the hardcore Muslim punk-rock scene. They may read the Koran and attend the mosque, but they also welcome an anarchic blend of sex, booze, and partying. As Yusef becomes more involved in Taqwacore, he finds his faith and ideology challenged by both this new subculture and his charismatic new friends, who represent different ideas of the Islamic tradition.

Adapted from the influential novel by Michael Muhammad Knight (cowriter of the film), "The Taqwacores" marks the energetic directorial debut of Zahra, who creates a wholly original spin on the identity narrative and invests the filth and fury of Islamic punk with humor and humanity. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

"The Taqwacores"
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Director: Eyad Zahra
Screenwriter: Michael Muhammad Knight, Eyad Zahra
Cast: Bobby Naderi, Noureen DeWulf, Dominic Rains, Rasika Mathur, Tony Yalda, Nav Mann, Volkan Eryaman, Ian Tran
Executive Producer: David Perse
Associate Producer: Nahal Ameri
Composer: Omar Fadel
Editor: Josh Rosenfield
Co-producers: Allison Carter, Michael Muhammad Knight
84 Minutes

Director Eyad Zahra on his background and Sundance project "The Taqwacores"...

I'm a Cleveland, Ohio native, who now lives and works in Los Angeles, California. I am a filmmaker and I received my training at the Florida State University Film School (undergraduate program). It's hard to explain what lured me into filmmaking. It's for a number of reasons that I chose this craft, and those reasons shift and change as years go on. All in all, it's just something that I felt drawn to do for a very long time.

I fell in love with a novel that spoke to me, and I felt that its story needed to be shared with as many people as possible. It was as simple as that really. And when I reached out to the author, Michael Muhammad Knight, we connected in a very strong way. The rest of the thing just snowballed after that. We ended up building the script together, and Mike was a creative producer on the film from start to finish. I know most people get scared when authors are that involved, but it was just the opposite for me. It was thrilling to work with Michael Muhammad Knight, and I can't imagine making the film without him.

Director Eyad Zahra. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

In dealing with "The Taqwacores", we realized that we were dealing with the depiction of two communities that would scrutinize the hell out of us... punks and Muslims. We didn't want to make a movie about punk, but rather we wanted to make a punk film. Just as important, we didn't want to make a film about Muslims, but rather we wanted to make a Muslim film. We understood that the way we crafted this film would prove either our success or failure.

With that in mind, we chose to do the following:

- Shot the film on as cheap as a budget as we deemed possible
- Casted mostly Muslim-American actors
- Worked with local punk/indie artists
- Adhered to the strict English/Arabic dialoge that was originally presented in the novel

Although there really is no such thing as a 'pure punk' or 'pure Muslim' film, we gave it our best shot. Whether we succeed or failed will be determined by audiences.

Zahra on the challenges faced by the production...

Every step along the way seemed impossible, but if I had to pick the scariest challenge, I would have to say casting. We had a lot of roles to fill, and we needed the perfect actor for each one. Other then a few actors I had in mind, we casted the film entirely from scratch--with help from our amazing casting director Ryan Glorioso. We did it mostly online, as Ryan masterfully setup an all digital audition database out of his Shreveport, Louisiana office.

Casting a young, vibrant, all minority cast was daunting. In fact, one industry casting director told us that our film was 'uncastable'. Thank Allah for Ryan Glorioso in taking on this film. Even if we had a thirty million dollar budget, I wouldn't trade a single member of my cast for anyone.

What Zahra hopes audiences will take away...

Ultimately, we hope that this film can generate new kinds of discussion within America, for both non-Muslims and Muslims. This film is trying to crush all social barriers that have been thrown up in recent years. The hope is that Americans can truly see Muslims as Americans, and that Muslims can truly see themselves as American. We are tired of the ultra politically correct, sugarcoated community bridging that been going on lately, and obviously, we aren't fans of the disgusting Islamaphobia that has been projected on the other side of the spectrum either. We want things to have more honest discussions about this kind of stuff, because that how things will really change for the better.

Zahra on films that inspired him...

"Easy Rider" and "Chronicle of a Disappearance" to name a few. These films were made by first-time filmmakers who were rebels with their craft and story. That's obviously something that we tried carry forth with "The Taqwacores".


[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

This article is related to: Features, Interviews, The Taqwacores