Muslim Stories Marinate Hawaiian Style

Posted on April 25, 2012

Filmmaker Justin Mashouf was one of six filmmakers invited to the Diverse Muslim Voices Exchange, hosted by the Doris Duke Foundation of Islamic Arts and ITVS. He offered BTB this roundup of the Exchange, held April 3-5, 2012 in Hawaii.


Collaboration is the best teacher and earlier this month, my classroom was a recreated 17th century Mughal garden overlooking the crisp blue ocean in Honolulu. Life is tough. I was fortunate enough to be included among the six filmmakers working on Muslim themed documentaries invited to fly to out to Hawaii for a 3-day meeting of the minds at the Diverse Muslim Voices Exchange. The event was hosted by The Doris Duke Foundation of Islamic Art at Shangri-La, the residence of the late Ms. Duke, which houses one of the world’s most unique private collections of Islamic Art. We were invited to workshop and pitch our stories to funders from Ford Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute, Black Public Media, and the Center for Asian American Media.  I had come to pitch a film I have been researching for four years about men who convert to Islam in prison and their journey transitioning out of incarceration.

This was my first experience among established non-fiction filmmakers, all of us pitching our projects to the same funders.  The group had no shortage of talent, such as Jed Rothenstein who had been nominated for an Oscar for a short doc, and Hemal Trivedi who was the editor of Saving Face, the 2012 Oscar winning short doc. How was I supposed to compete with that?

Then I met Emad Burnat, a quiet Palestinian farmer turned filmmaker.  He was invited to Diverse Muslim Voices Exchange as a case study of a successful non-fiction storyteller.  Emad directed a feature documentary called Five Broken Cameras, which chronicled an Israeli separation barrier being built in his Palestinian village.  He bought his first camera to capture the story, during which he was shot at, detained, and beaten up by Israeli soldiers and settlers. The film earned Emad the World Cinema Directing Award at Sundance this year. 

The night before I was scheduled to pitch my film, he invited some of us to swim in the ocean.  I asked him if he swam much back home, remembering mid-question that in the West Bank has no access to the sea for Palestinians. I tried to retract my question while he laughed a little.  After a long night of picking his brain, I finally told him that I was nervous about pitching. “Don’t be nervous.  It’s your story, so why should you be nervous?” His calm approach gave me a sense of ease. 

The next morning, as each filmmaker presented their projects, the vibe from the panel of funders was much more constructive and supportive than I had expected. I realized that the Diverse Muslim Voices Exchange was not meant to have us pitted against one another but to allow us to share our stories in a way that nurtured our respective processes in filmmaking.

As I sat with Emad after the pitch session, talking about our films and looking over the Pacific, I thought about my career back on the mainland. Coming from a television background in LA, where documentary concepts spark, fizzle, and are replaced in an instant, I often find the task of producing sincere stories about Muslims to be impossible. The Diverse Muslim Voices Exchange allowed us an opportunity to better produce these stories and to share moments of solidarity with one another as we face many of the same challenges. Collaborations like this are rare and I sincerely appreciate the efforts of ITVS in curating such creative people, and for letting me be a part of it. Follow Justin Mashouf on Facebook and Twitter

Photos: Courtesy of Idris Abdul-Zahir


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