“American” dreams come true: UF professor launches film about American Muslims


Iman Zawahry

For filmmaker Iman Zawahry, cinema is about creating nuanced narratives that more faithfully reflect real life than the stereotypes perpetuated by mass media. In short, his art is about pure storytelling, and Zawahry recently showcased his approach with his latest film, “Americanish,” which screened at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival from November 4-21.

The film debuted at Regal Cinemas Celebration Pointe in Gainesville in September, in a private screening for Zawahry’s close friends and colleagues at the University of Florida, where she teaches at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

The Panama City native, a graduate of UF and Florida State University, spent about eight years directing the film, which depicts around three Pakistani women living in New York City. Although the three women share a nationality, they each have very different histories and struggles that mirror those of not only Muslims, but anyone. Every woman has her own version of the ‘American dream’: one wants a career, the other wants to find romantic love, and the other is finding it all. The common thread is that they all want to be successful, which underpins the American Dream, Zawahry said.

The title of the film, she explains, is a cover of the ABC television show, “Black-ish”; the “ish” refers to a fan of blacks. Likewise, the “ish” in “Americanish” refers to the range of women depicted in the film. If its themes – love, success, family tensions – are universal, the film also reflects the specificity of the American-Muslim experience and the struggles they endure.

Zawahry said part of it was her awareness of Islamophobia that led her to make the film. “Where does all this hatred come from?” Zawahry asked in an interview, not hesitating to answer his own question: “The media and how we educate people.”

She has done her part to shatter some of the media portrayals of Muslims in a course she teaches at UF called Islam, Media and Pop Culture, which is offered jointly by the departments of journalism and religion. Zawahry has three goals with his class. The first is to show the hypocrisy of the media, especially with regard to the way Muslims are portrayed or altered. The second is to get students to meet Muslims, and the end goal is for students to be able to tell the story of someone from a background they don’t know when they graduate. their diploma. “Not just Muslims,” she explained. “But in general.”

The students generally loved the course, and a handful of former students in her class ended up working on “Americanish.” One of Zawahry’s goals in directing the film was to break into Hollywood and start filling the diversity quota that’s often talked about there. “Yes! Fill it in! We have to make sure we’re there,” Zawahry said, adding that a group of 10 white people in America will not have the same creativity as a group of four to five people of color. who can each bring a different perspective to the table due to their marginalized experiences.

Zawahry encountered many problems during the filmmaking process, and thanks the film’s cinematographer, Chloe Weaver, whom Zawahry calls “the senior member of the Hollywood crew” and its executive producer, Ann Chaudhary. , for making the film.

Zawahry says she owes Chloe for taking her aside and helping her focus on completing the project without any worries.

“‘Make sure that this happens!’ she said.” And they did.

After four years of writing the screenplay, a year to shoot the film and another three years to edit it, the all-too-familiar phrase entered the scene. As Zawahry puts it, “And then COVID hit. “

Zawahry said she didn’t want to premiere during COVID because they knew this movie was meant for a human connection “and you just don’t get it through a virtual screen.”

They kept the film for a year and continued to polish the piece until it was ready to be sent to festivals. At first it was difficult to get the film accepted at festivals, Zawahry said, explaining that many festivals want foreign films with a high drama content like Roma. “The story of American Muslims is never told. It’s never heard, ”she said, adding that the fact that the film was also a romantic comedy made it even more unusual and difficult to place at festivals.

But several festival acceptances followed, along with rave reviews. The film has been accepted at the New York Asian Film Festival, Asian American International Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival, and La Femme International Film Festival, among others.

The film also had sold-out performances recently at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and it won three Audience Awards in just three months, “which really doesn’t happen,” Zawahry said. “The reaction to this is incredibly surprising to me. “

About Monty S. Maynard

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