Additional Questions & Answers with Mara Ahmed

Here are some additional questions that we posed to Mara and her answers...

1) Talk about your approach to the film. You describe the film as a "personal" documentary. How do you distinguish it from something your might produce less personally? 

The documentary is personal because I myself become the mediating subject of the film. The idea is for me, the filmmaker and an American Muslim, to take the audience by the hand on this adventure, on this journey into the Muslim community. Although people hear a lot about Islam and Muslims, most of them lack direct access. This is where film becomes an immensely powerful medium. It enables people to “experience” this rare interaction with a small Muslim community in an intimate way.  

A less personal documentary could embody a wider sample of Muslims. It could be a more extensive survey rather than a micro-study, but it would lack that personal touch, that sense of familiarity and comfort, like you were invited for tea at someone’s home.

2) Where do you feel your own points of view were most clearly apparent in the film?

My own point of view is not necessarily embedded in the film. However, because I choose to interview my friends, family and the Muslim community in Rochester, which is where I live, you are in effect exposed to people who are somewhat similar to me, in their views, their life-style, their hybrid identity. I make it very clear in the title of the film as well as in the first few minutes of the documentary that I do not pretend to speak for all Muslims. In fact I would go on to argue that no one should be able to speak for a quarter of the world population – for people who live in countries and cultures as old and diverse as those in the Islamic world. The media do that all the time and that is simply a fallacy.

Also, the purpose of the film is rapprochement and dialogue. It is a fact that extraneous factors (such as how people dress, whether they have beards or not, and what their houses look like) can have an alienating effect on people. The audience can fall back into their comfort zone of seeing the people on the screen as the "other". By eliminating those superficial differences, all that's left is the humanity of the people portrayed in the film. People like myself who “look” like everyone else can bridge this gap. But the point really is, that all Muslims, even the ones who choose to wear the hijab or dress differently, are really, at the core, just like everybody else. They are not the “other”.

3) The film focuses on the Pakistani-American community in Rochester, NY. You juxtapose scholars with Rochester-based young people to tell the story of what it's like to be a moderate Muslim in a medium sized American city.  How is this story playing out in other communities?

The film is a micro study and it focuses on a small Pakistani American community in Rochester, NY. I chose the micro study approach because even though the sample of interviewees is small, some of the truths that emerge from dialogue with this group have universal resonance.

Also, the micro study approach made it possible to establish a certain level of intimacy with the Muslims interviewed in the film and with their world. This familiarity helps debunk stereotypes because it now becomes impossible to view the people in the film as a bland, generic aggregate. They become doctors, teachers, mothers, fathers, children. They acquire a distinct identity in our minds. For example their experience of being unnecessarily body searched at the airport suddenly seems more real, more relatable.

I can confidently say that the Rochester community showcased in the film is very similar to other Muslim communities in America.

4) What did you learn from making the film that you previously did not know?

At a very personal level, making the film led to a shift in my own self image. In fact before 9/11, I never thought of myself as being a Muslim first. Religion was part of my identity but something I took for granted. As people began to talk about “Muslims” and lump them into one monolithic category, I was forced to become more educated about what it means to be a Muslim. Making this film was part of my education. However, I have to say that even now my relationship with Islam is personal and perhaps unorthodox. I screened the film at University at Buffalo last year and The Spectrum (UB magazine) did a story on me entitled "Fighting for religion through documentary". It took me a while to take that in. It didn't jibe with my self image or what I was trying to accomplish. That's an interesting side effect of the film's approach!

Another thing I learned by making this film was just how generous and wonderful Americans are. The film is totally self-financed. All the money came out of our savings account. Filmmaking is a costly enterprise. However, many people who came together to make this film possible showed such generosity, such compassion, such commitment, that I was totally taken aback. For example, Thom Marini who is the film’s main cinematographer, Jae Wilson and Adam Richlin who helped with camera work and editing, Chuck Munier and Dave Sluberski who did post production and Teagan Ward who wrote a beautiful song for the film and whose amazing voice lends such heart and magic to the material. Rochester Women in Film and Television is also a terrific organization to work with and they helped tremendously with the film’s premiere at the Dryden. I cannot forget my friends Sarita Arden and Ruth Peck who promoted the film as if it were their own. It’s very cool to be American and be surrounded by all these spectacular people!

5) Please discuss your visual theme for the film. Talk about your use of vox pop and elaborate on your thinking behind the transitions in the film.

Because I always intended the film to become an ice-breaker and initiate conversation, it was very clear to me that the film had to include non Muslim voices. Hence I used vox populi (interviewing people at random and asking them the same question) in order to develop the framework of the film. The question I asked over and over again was: “if you could ask anything you wanted about Islam or Muslims (without being politically correct) what would your question be?” We interviewed people all over Rochester and their questions pretty much determined the issues we were going to discuss in the film. You get to see some of those vox pop interviews but many more are incorporated in the film though the issues we address.

The transitions in the film are light and airy. They include music, dance, a football game, a love song, colorful footage from the streets of Lahore in Pakistan. I wanted to use the transitions to imbue the film with life and color but also with some depth. This was done by showing you Pakistan in a different light, by showing you quotidian scenes from the lives of Pakistani Americans – scenes which are immediately recognizable.

6) What are your hopes for the films in terms of dialogue?  Do you see this film as sparking discussion among people of different religions? Different age groups?

I think that the film is a great ice-breaker. It starts dialogue. It has also been able to effect a paradigm shift in some audiences. I have screened the film on many university campuses and the response has always been tremendous. It was also screened at Nazareth College’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, which was a perfect setting for this type of film.

7) What are your thoughts about having the film broadcast on television. Many film makers "save" their films for theater screenings. What made you want to work with public television on this project?

The day the film premiered at the Dryden Theatre on June 8th last year, I was asked by someone what my dream was for this documentary. I immediately said PBS. Ideally I would want every American to see this film (and this is what my audiences have said as well: “every American should see this film.”) PBS’s reach is obviously incomparable and its mission (trying to showcase voices which would otherwise remain silent) is a perfect fit for this documentary.

8) Please tell us a little about your own background as a filmmaker, and as a Rochestarian.

I am an economist and financial analyst by education and training. In order to make this film I went back to school and learned filmmaking. I took classes at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester and also at RIT. I think of myself primarily as an artist (Robert Rauschenberg is my hero), and you might see some of that influence in the film’s audio-visual style.

We moved to Rochester about 6 years ago. Before that I lived in Connecticut for 7 years, in New Jersey for one year and in Long Island for about 2 years. I have also lived in Brussels (where I grew up) and in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore (in Pakistan). I have a special love for Lahore – a 2000 year old city full of history, vibrant culture and even more vibrant people. And I have a special love for Rochester – it truly feels like home to me and for someone who has traveled as much as I have that’s a big thing – this sense of feeling at home. I love Rochestarians – they are some of the finest people I have ever met. And the city itself has so much charm. It has a lot of culture and beauty. When filming I made it a point to shoot in some of my favorite places in Rochester, because I wanted to share that with other American audiences, people who might not know that much about Rochester.


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Thank you Mara for your

Thank you Mara for your gratitude, I'm so please that your film has gotten such positive responses.
But I was confident it would if people had the opportunity to view it!
Peace & Love, Sarita

the muslims I know

Mara ia a dear friend who has produced a fine documentary we are proud of. As a fellow American with Pakistani connection and background, I feel she has 'broadcast' our thoughts, opinions, frustrations and anger to the mainstream Rochestarians in a very non threatening way. She has successfully attempted to clear a lot of misconceptions about Muslims and Islam. Having lived in Rochester for 43 years and first hand witnessing the portrayal of Muslims and Islam in our country by the main stream media and by the enemies of Islam and Muslims which I, as a Muslim, find not only emotionally traumatizing personally, it marginalizes and dehumanizes all Muslims. Mara has done a great service not only to the Pakistanis and Muslims but to the community et large, as they see can through the evidence she shows in the film how much the spread of a more radical Islam in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is because of our foreign policy. Please listen to Mrs Hillary Clinton's comments on YouTube regarding our foreign policy and her admission how our foreign policy has contributed to the present situation in Pakistan. We all need to take a stand on our foreign policies which are supported by our hard earned tax dollars which are detrimental to our image abroad

Muslim viewpoint has not been heard in the past to make a difference with our foreign policy. I am hoping this is the begining of a better understanding of Muslims and Islam.
All fair minded people after watching this film would begin to question our foreign policies which are creating a gulf between the Muslim world and the west, not withstanding recent recanting of his remarks by the pope and the Vatican