INTERVIEW: EYAD ZAHRA

GIVING A VOICE TO PUNK MUSLIMS

As soon as he saw the words “punk Muslim,” Eyad Zahra was hooked. The filmmaker had stumbled across online descriptions of Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, THE TAQWACORES, about a fictional group of misfit Muslim Americans in Buffalo, and instantly recognized a gem.

“Something about those two words together took my breath away. It knocked the wind out of me,” said Zahra. “I had to investigate further.” Combining the Arabic word “taqwa,” or “piety,” with hardcore punk-rock, Knight’s creation had already begun spreading to young Muslims across the country.

THE TAQWACORES, showing at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Friday, April 30 at 10:00 PM at the Directors Guild of America, stays close to the raw energy of the original text. BUY TICKETS

The story focuses on Yusef, a shy Pakistani American college student who moves in to a household of Muslim Americans seeking out their own brand of spirituality. From the burqa-clad feminist to the perpetually shirtless skater to the straight-edge devotee, the housemates continually challenge one another about what it really means to be Muslim—all the while, engaging in a fair amount of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

“There were always these kids that felt out of place in Muslim America. Taqwacore gave them a name and a banner,” explained Zahra. “There are bands that formed, but it’s beyond music. It’s a subculture, and it’s growing by the day. It’s not just limited to Muslims, but a lot of people who identify and appreciate it as a form of honest expression. It gives voice to a community that didn’t have a voice before.”

Although Zahra was originally approached by major production companies who were interested in the story, he soon realized that he needed to make the film on his own. He was tired of hearing that the film was “uncastable,” or that there weren’t enough talented minorities to fill the roles. Further, he realized that the strength of the story was in its honesty, and he wanted to be able to maintain its unconventional edge.

“The casting was very challenging, but there were so many talented South Asian, Asian American, African American actors who we wish we could have featured,” he said. “I’m so proud of our cast, I would have asked for this cast even if I had a hundred million dollars.”

In the spirit of the film itself, the cast includes individuals who represent a wide spectrum of Muslim practices and beliefs. Zahra is proud that the film deals with the theme of inclusion, showing an alternative to the kinds of religions that push people away or distance them from their communities. In the film’s narrative, even the most radical individuals are asked to be part of the conversation as they search for their own religious identities.

“It was a very personal film for the actors,” said Zahra. “That’s why they came to the project in the first place. It was a film that had everything going against it, shooting in Cleveland in a dirty-ass bunk house when it was freezing and raining.”

Zahra recalled a particularly cold evening when seasoned actor Dominic Rains was shooting on the roof with no shirt on. As they finished the scene and came inside from the cold they realized that there was no heater, and were forced to warm themselves by turning on the gas flame on the stove.

“Here he is shivering, his hands over the flame,” recalled Zahra. “And he said, I feel so blessed right now, I would never want to be anywhere else but here. That was symbolic of the whole film. It was challenging physically, spiritually, emotionally, but we knew what we were diving into and it felt so right.” BUY TICKETS

-Lori Kido Lopez

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