American documentary on new Muslim communities reaches Maldives

Independent American documentary New Muslim Cool was screened at the American Center on Male’ last week. The film follows the efforts of former Latino-American drug dealer Hamza Pérez, now a Muslim convert, to integrate into a Muslim community on the tough north side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Co-producer Hana Siddiqi, who attended this week’s screenings, said the film addressed one of many versions of Islam in America.

“We were looking at how the youth are creating a new American Muslim culture for themselves, and how arts and music is a big part of that,” she said.

Considering its impact in the Maldives, Siddiqi identified the film as a conversation starter in more traditional or orthodox Muslim communities.

“I think people have a general lack of understanding of Muslims in America because there just isn’t much in the media,” she said. “What you do see is quite negative and political, so I think just the fact that Muslim communities are seeing a film from America that has a Muslim as the main subject is enough to spark their interest. And it just opens up their minds I think to see some people who practice like this.”

New Muslim Cool was produced and directed by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor. Released in 2009, the film has been shown on public television in the United States, at festivals across Europe, Russia, Angola and now the Maldives.

Siddiqi said audience reception has been “quite good” worldwide, and noted that most audiences are curious about the different types of Muslims in America. “I let them know that this is just one story of one individual, and there are so many different types with different backgrounds and experiences and they follow different interpretations of Islam as well,” she said.

Hamza Pérez associates his conversion to Islam with his success in drug rehabilitation.

To contribute to his community, Hamza spoke to social groups and prison inmates about overcoming the drug-dealing culture and discovering faith. He also produced rap albums with his brother under the band name ‘Mujahideen Team’, or M-Team.

In an interview, the Pérez brothers denied the violent connotations of ‘jihad’, a word often translated as ‘holy war’ and associated with ‘mujahideen’. But their promotion of their music walks a fine line between suggestion and interpretation.

In one scene, Hamza distributes copies of his music to Pittsburgh gang members while inquiring after gang activity in the area. When he is told that most are Mexican and few get along, he tells them that Latinos never turn the other cheek but that the city gangs should work together to protect one another.

During a M-Team concert, Hamza takes the stage with a flaming machete in hand. When asked about the weapon’s role in Hamza’s message, Siddiqi said it served several purposes.

“We made a point to have a conversation with [Hamza and is brother] about illustrating that the machete is part of their Latino ethnic history and culture, and that it symbolises the struggles they have faced. When people ask, we make sure we let them now what it really symbolizes.”

The machete is also an attention-grabber.

“A little bit of it is just entertainment to them, they think it’s fun, that’s part of being a stage performer and they always make that point as well,” Siddiqi said.

Partway through production process, the FBI raided Hamza’s mosque during Friday prayers. Siddiqi said that although the raid was disturbing and questions went unanswered, it gave the story direction.

“This is one of many FBI raids to many mosques where there were children present and while they were in the middle of their Friday services, which is something that would never happen at a church or a synagogue. So it’s one of those things that people just need to see is going on in our community.”

Siddiqi said reactions to the film in the Maldives had been positive, but admitted that its relevance was unclear. The US Embassy representative, who was preoccupied with her iPad, waved away questions regarding the agenda.

“I think the work with drug rehabilitation in the Maldives is a factor,” Siddiqi observed. “The film could be a good place to start a dialogue in the community, because the film shows how Islam fueled Hamza’s own rehabilitation. The emotion and energy connected to his conversion basically was his rehabilitation.”

Recently, Dr. William Silcock spoke to Maldivian journalists about the value of public involvement in contemporary news. Siddiqi said journalism was critical for developing and developed communities alike.

“Journalists have one of the biggest responsibilities for getting information to the people. And if that’s not happening in a society then there’s a lack of awareness, and I feel a lack of growth as well.”

New Muslim Cool was awarded the Feature Film Freedom Award at the 5th Annual Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha, Qatar. It was also an official selection Lincoln Center Independents Night, co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Correction: Previously this article inaccurately stated that Hamza Pérez had been convicted of rape. It should have stated that a man involved in the FBI raid on Hamza’s mosque held a police record involving accusations of rape. The inaccurate information has been removed from this article and Minivan News apologises for the error.