Nausheen Dadabhoy’s documentary “An Act of Worship” has lofty ambitions, collapsing over 40 years of Muslim American history into 82 minutes. It is not, however, a linear informational relay, so it meets most of its goals through impressionistic portraits, archival footage, and images of modern activism, in an attempt to paint a multifaceted portrait of the pain caused by systems of bigotry and abuse. For the most part, it succeeds, even if its artistic highpoints — its transformative use of home videos — are rarely matched by its contemporary chronicles and re-enactments.
Framing its interviews as long-overdue confessionals (sometimes through one-on-one interviews, other times through therapeutic workshops), the film strings together a timeline of the pre-9/11 era, before the world’s biggest flashpoint for Islamophobia, but the image it paints is far from rosy; racist assumptions about American Muslims didn’t suddenly spring from the ground in 2001. Dadabhoy collects a handful personal family histories, contextualizing them along a timeline of several major landmarks — the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, the election of Donald Trump, and so on — as she threads the needle between global events and American policies, from immigration crackdowns to the PATRIOT Act.
As a broad collage of the “what,” “how,” and “why” of modern anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s an informative collection of stories. However, as a psychological exploration, it can’t help but feel scattered. The film offers hints (usually, through voiceover from various subjects) about the personal impact Islamophobia had on their lives, whether it made them suicidal or nudged them towards addiction, but these ideas are brushed aside quickly and often, as if the narrative’s purview has grown too wide and needs to find new focus.
For the most part, we follow a trio of young Muslim American women — a 26-year-old community organizer whose father was deported, an 18-year-old Sudanese immigrant and activist, and a civil rights lawyer — weaving in and out of their stories through candid moments that verge on vivid portraiture, but never quite get there. The footage shot specifically for the documentary never finds the right rhythm or visual approach, beyond its sense of removed observance. There’s a simplicity to it, but also a blandness. Capturing the three women’s daily challenges and conversations is a detailed act of witnessing and unburdening, but it pales in comparison to what the film does with its decades-old collection of home videos.
Aided by the eerie musical compositions of Mary Kouyoumdjian, subjects’ voiceovers are often matched (and mis-matched) with found and archival footage. Their personal recollections not only help frame widely-publicized events — from a much-needed perspective — but they also add emotional layers to each other’s stories, as if Dadabhoy and editor Ben Garchar were waving, in real time, a deeply meaningful tapestry of shared trauma and shared culture, shared joy, and shared resistance.
These images, of children playing in lively drawing rooms, or families gathered in celebration, or unremarkable teenagers simply enjoying their downtime, soon begin to take on a more turbulent quality as the collective timeline approaches 2001. As a widely broadcast event, September 11th had an indelible impact on global societies; “An Act of Worship” wields its analog video clips with a similar immensity, through shudders and static that, in tandem with the subjects’ voiceovers, unearth the pain lurking beneath these unassuming pictures, and the horrifying burdens some of these subjects were forced to bear from a young age. While the film attempts to extrapolate their struggles — often intellectualizing them — it never does so as precisely as when its very fabric feels invaded by violence.
Placing conventional modern footage alongside video memories turned volatile, “An Act of Worship” casts a wide net across the lives of American Muslims, dividing its attention between the bureaucratic and the intimate. It never quite strikes a meaningful balance, but in the moments when it becomes an aesthetic encapsulation of social and psychological struggle, it is undoubtedly effective.
“An Act of Worship” premiered at 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.