Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero


A future warrior at play as a child.

(2015) Animated Feature (Vertical) Starring the voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia K. McWilliams, Jacob Latimore, Fred Tatasciore, Jon Curry, Mick Wingert, Dave B. Mitchell, Al Rodrigo, Andre Robinson, Sage Ryan, Quinton Flynn, Mark Rolston, John Eric Bentley, Keythe Farley, Sherrie Jackson. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal

 

Dubai’s first foray into animated feature films is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it boasts some truly glorious animation. On the other hand, the human characters are almost without expression throughout. It also focuses on a character from the very early days of the Islamic faith, of a figure who was part of the Prophet’s inner circle, although that is only tangentially referred to in the film and of course Muhammad isn’t depicted at all in keeping with their faith.

The movie is (very) loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a 7th century African man who in childhood was taken as a slave and became one of the first followers of the prophet Muhammad. He is in Islamic culture credited with being the first muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer reputedly because of his beautiful voice.

In the film, we see Bilal (Robinson) and his sister Shufaira (Robinson) watch horrified from a closet as their mother is murdered. The two children are taken as slaves and sold to the cruel idol-seller Umayya (McShane) whose son Safwan (Ryan) may be just a little bit crueler than his dad, although more cowardly.

Bilal grows into a man (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is prized for his singing voice by his master. Run-ins with Safwan to protect his sister has left Bilal discouraged and essentially accepting his fate as a slave, flying in the face of the wisdom his mother taught him as a child. However, there are others in Mecca who disagree with the idol-worshiping money-grubbing slave-oriented economy and atmosphere of the city. Hamza (Mitchell), a noted warrior and the Master of the Market (Gross) both see greatness in Bilal and gradually win him over to monotheism and freedom. However, despite Bilal leaning towards pacifism, they will have to fight for that freedom – in a place called Badr.

This is a very different kettle of fish for animated features. For one thing, it is a story of a Muslim hero and portrays the religion in a very different light than it is generally portrayed in the West. Few will remember this from their history but at one time the Muslims accepted Jewish refugees driven out of Europe and under Arabic rule they thrived and often worked in the great centers of learning established in the Arabic world.

Sadly, a lot of American viewers won’t be able to look past the rhetoric and will see this as Muslim propaganda and while it certainly leans towards a positive vision of Islam, it is no more propaganda than Christian faith-based stories and animations. Americans are sadly notorious for turning away from the unfamiliar.

As mentioned earlier, the animation is a bit uneven but when it’s good, it’s really good. Strangely though, there is an awful lot of violence and cruelty depicted in the film, much more so than in the average children’s animated film which might give some parents pause. However, those parents who wish to teach tolerance as a lesson should certainly high-tail it to their local VOD site of choice or their local DVD/Blu-Ray dealer because that lesson is certainly honed in on. Sure, the dialogue is a bit clunky (the characters rarely use contractions and end up all sounding like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and full of aphorisms which may drive the average adult batty but it is meant sincerely. I also question the title a little bit; how is a 7th century figure a “new” breed of hero?

The movie got a brief theatrical release in February, more than three years after it had been released elsewhere globally. Likewise, it is only now showing up on home video. This is a pretty solid animated feature which although flawed shows some potential for the studio that the directors established in order to make this film. Although perhaps Americans may continue to resist features that give the colorful and often brilliant history of the Islamic faith, I hope the studio continues to produce them. Learning more about the culture of Islam is the first step in learning not to fear it but rather coexist with it.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is occasionally breathtaking. The story is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: This is much too long for younger kids. The English dialogue is a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some surprisingly intense violence, child peril, some disturbing images as well as thematic issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the depiction of the Battle of Badr, animators brought to life 5,000 human characters and 1,000 horses – more than took place at the actual battle which involved 1,300 warriors and 270 horses.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up and Away
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Write When You Get Work

The Taqwacores


Rock versus punk.

Rock versus punk.

(2010) Drama (Strand) Bobby Naderi, Noureen DeWulf, Dominic Rains, Jim Dickson, Nav Mann, John Charles Meyer, Nicholas Riley, Ara Thorose, Ian Tran, Volkan Eryaman, Tony Yalda, Marwan Kamel, Denise George, Anne Leighton, Rasika Mathur. Directed by Eyad Zahar

Art imitates life, it is said but sometimes life imitates art. Michael Muhammad Knight wrote a novel about a fictitious Muslim punk scene and lo and behold, inspired by the novel, several bands of that nature sprung up. Taqwacore, which is a fusion of the Islamic word taqwa which refers to love, fear and respect for Allah, and hardcore, a sub-genre of punk which many of the Taqwacore bands reside, still is viable today. This indie film is based on the original novel.

Yusef (Naderi) is studying engineering at a university in Buffalo, New York. He is a fairly devout Muslim and feels uncomfortable in the dorms which he finds to be godless and where he is sometimes ridiculed. He decides to find off-campus housing that he can share with fellow Muslims.

Imagine his surprise when he found this house full of musicians and radicals who think that their religion is too strict, too structured. Yusef finds his horizons being widened by such as red Mohawked guitar player Jenangir (Rains) who says “Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.”

Yusef finds his mind broadening but his basic moral framework tested as his new housemates party like it’s 1999 and challenge the very meaning of what it is to be Islamic. Yusef begins to find that the punk ethos dovetails very nearly with that of his new found understanding of his religion.

What I like about the movie is that we get some insight into what it is to be a young man of the Islamic faith in the 21st century. That isn’t always an easy task – few Americans, myself included, really have much of an understanding of Islam. We either look at the lot of them as Jihadists (which they are not) or anti-Christians and particularly, anti-Jew (which most of them are not). I’ve known many people of that faith and you will not find a warmer, more caring and more family-oriented group anywhere.

That said, I like seeing that yes there are people within Islam questioning the things they were taught and told about their religion, very much like what has happened with plenty of Christian young people. I find the thought somehow comforting that questioning one’s faith is somewhat more universal than I first supposed. I don’t know why I would have thought that; it isn’t just a Christian thing after all.

Rains delivers a solid performance as the charismatic Jenangir. With the flaming red Mohawk and natural charisma, he captures your attention pretty much whenever he’s onscreen. I’m sorry I can’t say the same for the rest of the cast, but that isn’t necessarily their fault – their characters are written as fairly bland cliches that don’t really stand out. Yusef, experiencing a life-changing crisis of faith, never seems to change expression much. He may just as well be annoyed that the barista at Starbucks got his order wrong. But then again, his crisis of faith seems rather pat and kind of rote. I wasn’t convinced that he was upset with anything or anyone.

Not everyone is going to love the music here, although I must point out that I found it surprisingly compelling. When you’re aware that the bands that contributed songs to the film were bands that essentially were created because of the original novel this is based on, the songs take on a greater significance.

I would have liked to like this movie more but the rich tapestry of subject matter the filmmakers were given to work with turned out to be a store-bought throw rug. It’s not a bad film, not at all – it just doesn’t really rise far above what you might expect of a movie like this. I would have liked to see greater care in fleshing out the characters somewhat. I would have liked to care about them more.

WHY RENT THIS: Thought-provoking and occasionally informative. Rains delivers a standout performance.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Relies too much on cliche. Characters somewhat bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s rough language throughout and some violence in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is set in Buffalo, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,445 on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogs in Space
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Magic in the Moonlight

This Narrow Place


This Narrow Place

Sammy Sheikh and Jonathan Stanley affect Motor City tough guy poses.

(2011) Drama (Self-Released) Sammy Sheikh, Jonathan Stanley, Sayed Badreya, Anthony Azizi, Lonette McKee, Val Howard, Rita Khori, Oscar Brown, Mike Batayeh. Directed by Sooney Kadouh

 

Anger can only take you so far. When you are wounded as deeply as it’s possible to be, your first instinct is to lash out. Sometimes that may take you on a journey you never intended it to.

Hassan (Sheikh) is on a mission. His little brother died in a bombing in Beirut. He has entered the United States illegally to plant a bomb, using parts manufactured at the same plant where the bomb that killed his brother was manufactured. While stuck in an unsavory part of town, he meets Chris (Stanley), a drug addict who lives on his own in Detroit. Chris gives Hassan a ride to the home of Hassan’s Uncle Aziz (Badreya).

At the urging of his aunt, Hassan invites Chris over for dinner and weaves a tale about his attending Wayne State, where Hassan’s sister Nadia (Khori) is also attending (Nadia has been staying with Aziz for some time). As Hassan spends more time with Chris, he begins to see a side to America and Americans that he hadn’t planned on. The drug addict and would-be bomber begin to form an unlikely friendship, to the point where Hassan begs Tina (Howard), Chris’ drug connection, to “let him go.” Chris also develops affection for Nadia, not a welcome thing to her conservative Muslim family.

However with terrorist Faoud (Azizi) breathing down his neck, Hassan must make a choice between carrying out his plans and avenging his brother, or letting his rage go and perhaps creating an entirely different legacy for his brother and himself.

There are a lot of “fish out of water” buddy movies out there but this is unusual in that both the main characters are fish out of water, as it were. Hassan is from a completely different world; the life of a suburban Detroit family is like an entirely different planet to him. He is conflicted by his need to avenge his brother and by his own decency. He genuinely wants to help Chris kick his habit and uses the fasting of Ramadan to help him find some self-discipline.

Chris lives on the fringes of society, shunned by his own family who have declared him dead in order to deal with his situation. As the family life he never knew begins to give him new strength, he begins to change – becomes less the hustler, less the hedonist and finding more important things to focus his attention on.

There are some grungy neighborhoods on display here, both in Detroit and Beirut – I suspect the filmmaker was trying to draw a line between the two. There are also some nice neighborhoods and families that are welcoming and caring. The two worlds are in the same city but completely alien to one another. It’s hard to imagine they exist so close together.

Both Sheikh and Stanley are engaging, charismatic performers. It is their job to carry the film and it is their relationship that drives it. I’m not familiar with either actor, but I would venture to say that not only do they have good chemistry together they also individually do striking jobs to make their characters memorable and realistic.

They have a surprisingly good supporting cast. Often in indie movies, the acting chops begin and end at the leads but here, it’s uniformly there from top to bottom. That’s simply gold for a young director trying to establish a reputation.

I was a little bit unsure of the kicking of Chris’ drug habit; it seemed a little bit too pat and too clean and as we all know kicking that kind of habit is generally horribly painful. I also have to admit the ending was a little bit to the Hollywood side, but that’s all right; I liked it anyway. Indie movies often try to go out of their way to make their endings dark and depressing, but this one would probably have made a studio marketing chief sigh blissfully – and there’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do think that they could have used a bit of a trim on some of the subplots – was it really necessary to visit Chris’ mother and discover that he’s literally dead to her? – but all in all this is a pretty well-crafted movie with enough strong moments to make it recommendable to anyone, even those who might not necessarily be indie film fanatics.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances from the leads and an interesting story. I liked the ending although it might have had some “Hollywood” overtones to it.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the subplots could have been trimmed or cut altogether.

FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, some foul language and a bit of violence.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeing in either venue.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Dog Sweat

Holy Wars


Holy Wars

Khalid Kelly tries on his best Jihadist pose.

(2010) Documentary (Smuggler) Aaron Taylor, Khalid Kelly, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad Fostok, Sam Harris, M. Shalid Alam, Dianne Kannady, Stephen Marshall, Don Taylor. Directed by Stephen Marshall

 

Extremism in any form is something to be avoided. When it is encountered in such hot button topics as religion, it can lead to bloodshed.

Aaron Taylor is an evangelical minister in Missouri who travels around the world to predominantly Muslim countries to convert the natives to Christianity. He believes in the rapture and the apocalypse and that both are right around the corner. His fundamentalism sees all non-Christians as evil and Muslims in particular as the enemy of America and thus of Christianity.

Khalid Kelly is a Muslim of Irish descent living in Britain. He is an Islamic fundamentalist, naming his son Osama after the Al Qaeda mastermind. He is vehemently anti-West, protesting the invasion of Iraq by Tony Blair, and touts the harsher aspects of Shariah law as means of controlling crime and dissent. His own personal transformation from a belligerent drunk to a sober family man he accredits to his conversion to Islam.

The two are as different as two people can be and yet they are flip sides of the same coin. When director Marshall brings the two together, something unexpected happens. While Kelly is articulate and clearly wins the debate, thereafter he slides further into fundamentalism and eventually leaves the UK for Pakistan, which turns out to be not radical enough for him and he is deeply disturbed to discover that his views are liable to get him arrested.

On the other hand Taylor takes a good hard look at his own views and finds that Kelly had made some valid points. He researches Khalid’s complaints and discovers that his own outlook needs some mending. He begins to preach understanding and reaching out, much to the puzzlement of his family who remain committed to their fundamentalism. The change of heart is unexpected and pleasantly surprising.

Taylor is far less charismatic than Kelly and yet he is the one who seems to have more understanding and a greater global view than his counterpart. Marshall wisely sits back and lets the two men tell their own stories. We do see their families and wives but only in a limited sense; for the most part, this is mano a mano, the two trying to espouse their faith and justify their narrow interpretations of them.

I’m not the most religious person on Earth, but I do consider myself to be spiritual. I am not a big fan of organized religion and to a lot of extent this movie tends to confirm my own objections to religion in general. However, it is comforting to know that someone seemingly so entrenched in such a narrow bandwidth can be inspired to open their eyes and see things from a different perspective. Maybe there’s some hope after all.

REASONS TO GO: Surprising look at fundamentalism and its effects on politics. Kelly is engaging and articulate while Taylor’s faith and outlook are impressive.

REASONS TO STAY: Religion and politics are two difficult items to discuss and they are both the focus here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and difficult subject matter.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marshall followed Taylor and Kelly for a total of three years.

HOME OR THEATER: While it will be difficult to find in a theater, it is worth seeking out at your local film festival if possible.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: This Narrow Space