Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Define 'American Muslim' -- You Have Five Minutes

The Muslim American organization One Nation is hosting an online film contest about American Muslims. Sponsored by Link TV, the contest features animation, music, comedy, documentary, drama, and films by youth. The short films seek to educating people about “the American Muslim experience,” in all its forms.

It’s a great idea. Of course, with twelve pages of entries, you have to sift some clich├ęd and stereotypical films. Many explain, “Islam is peace” or “I wear hijab so that I'm not judged by my appearance.” Certainly these are relevant message, but at least for a Muslim audience they’re nothing new. What interested me the most were the films that investigated the issues of American Muslim identity at a deeper level.

Some films set out specifically to break stereotypes. The contest as a whole does so naturally, due to the diversity of its entries. Entries feature Muslims of a variety of races — including multiracial, such as a half-Chinese, half-African-American Muslimah featured in at least two videos. A significant number of films show Muslim women without hijab (and without hijab being an issue). On the other hand, some films were disappointingly non-diverse in this regard. One film, a collection of individuals saying, “I am Muslim,” showed Muslims of a range of ages and occupations but not one woman without hijab.

Beyond the male American Muslim identity, many films explore the lives of American Muslim women. I loved the film that showed the struggles of a college Muslim student, who, uncomfortable with praying publicly outside, searches for a private place to make her prayer. I appreciated seeing some films about convert women — not just the strange fictional ones with troubled pasts — but also those whose real-life drama involves worrying about how their families would react. I know I could relate when 23-year-old convert Laura Miller said of the parents she hadn’t yet told, “They probably think I'm betraying my culture, my family, my religion.”

What’s great about hearing a multitude of Muslim voices is that you hear more than just what you’ve heard before, from Muslim snow boarders to the story of a Muslim teenager who impregnates his girlfriend. I saw two interesting films exploring the Iranian-American identity: one that showed Iranian culture through the eyes of an American-born woman and another that showed the attitudes towards an Iranian-American woman in Texas who switched between identities. Some films are sobering; some are heartwarming.

The contest is currently in the finalist stage. Unfortunately, much of the discussion in the comments sections is about rating discrepancy and accusations of cheating. I guess that’s what happens when a contest offers $5,000 per finalist and much more for the grand prize. Besides the finalists, I’d recommend checking out the videos that didn't make it that far, even if it means sorting through long lists of films to find the ones that make you laugh, cry, or think differently.