Date of Interview: 03/01/2011
Qasim Basir is the creative force behind Mooz-lum, a timely film about the contemporary Muslim American experience from an African American perspective. One decade removed from 9/11, Basir has crafted a visual masterpiece that aims to provoke a progressive discussion revolving around intolerance and the nation’s unnerving levels of stereotype-infused bigotry. Through the phenomenal acting talents of Danny Glover, Nia Long, Evan Ross and Roger Guenveur Smith, many Americans will finally have the opportunity to live vicariously through the familiar characters that are often overlooked as members of our cultural melting pot.
In support of Mooz-lum’s theatrical release, Qasim Basir managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on cultural politics, his favorite scenes, and the struggles independent filmmakers face in the present day.
Clayton Perry: I will be the first to admit: Mooz-lum is a film that is guaranteed to pull one’s heartstrings! As a screenwriter and director, what emotional weight has this film had on your conscience?
Qasim Basir: Oh, my God. That’s a heavy one to jump into. It’s cool because it’s much easier to talk about it and express it now that it’s out there. But initially, when I wrote this movie, when I shot this movie I had to go back to some issues and deal with things that I really did not even know still existed within me. You know, a lot of us go through life having had stuff happen to us when we were children, or at some point in our lives that we never really deal with. But fortunately, I was able to deal with this, and go back and really express it. It ended up being a very therapeutic experience for me to make this movie. For that, I’m appreciative.
Clayton Perry: Although the film is based on your personal experiences, the identity of the film’s source is never completely revealed. Any reason behind the anonymity? Did you have reservations about making upfront connections between yourself and the plot?
Qasim Basir: It was definitely conscious. I knew people were going to know it was me based on interviews, based on different things; but it’s not really customary in film to just put out there who it was about, so I didn’t do that.
Clayton Perry: In the process of creating mainstream America’s cinematic introduction to the Muslim-American experience, what personal responsibilities did you find yourself holding?
Qasim Basir: Well, initially that was sort of an issue. I got over that pretty quickly because my only responsibility was to be honest; be honest with myself, be honest to the art. I absolutely want approval from the Muslim community and we’ve been getting wonderful approval and feedback from the Muslim community. I’m happy about that. But I could not base my story upon that, because it wouldn’t be right for the audience. One thing that I wanted to do with this film is make it something that’s accurate, because I think that’s missing in the narrative of America. Most African-Americans probably have someone in some part of their family that probably became Muslim at some point, or someone in your neighborhood. It’s just something that never has been seen on screen, so my responsibility was to the truth.
Clayton Perry: When you examine the storyline of Mooz-lum, whose storyline coincides with 9/11, and the years that have followed in the “real world,” in what ways has our society changed for better or for worse – with specific regard to Muslims in America?
Qasim Basir: Well, I think it’s sort of been something that has been thrust under the rug, and not even really discussed; or not really discussed in a progressive manner. There are always discussions about Islam is evil, and this and that, and they’re going to take over America; but the discussion about the Muslim-American, the person that lives here – and to an extent has lived here for a long time – has not really been put out there in a way that is benefitting anyone. I think the talk and the rhetoric nowadays has been very divisive and accusatory and all types of things; but this is something that I feel can potentially help move us forward in a more progressive manner in that people will be able to look at Muslim people as humans, and people will be able to look at this character and his journey like this is just a regular kid who is trying to find himself, basically. Once people are able to look at it in that way, in the way of look, this is a regular kid. He’s going to college. He’s having issues about his identity. And he’s Muslim. Okay, well, people go through that kind of stuff all the time who are not Muslim, who have the same kinds of issues as Tariq had in the movie. I hope that people will be able to connect to this character and identify with this family, in the film, and be able to look past these things that are holding us back.
Clayton Perry: I think it was very interesting that you said there haven’t really been any public progressive discussions on this issue. When I think back to the movie, I was really taken aback by the relationship Tariq had with the Catholic girl that was in the school beside him. When you look at the current political landscape, what do you think is the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of teaching tolerance and combating ignorance?
Qasim Basir: The purpose for that relationship and those encounters in the film was I just wanted to show this point of innocence to these children before they were really indoctrinated with their parents’ beliefs. And you notice the girl talking about what her dad thought, and how innocent their whole encounter really was; but the things that this world or our society places on people in order to sort of make us divided. I don’t know if I was really answering your question…
Clayton Perry: You did touch on one part of it. Obviously your film has a purpose. Some people have discussions on what is the function of art. You are hoping that your film will change people’s lives and make the world a better place. I am curious about your feelings on how do we really go about getting people actively engaged in combating ignorance?
Qasim Basir: I cannot say that everyone will watch this. I don’t know who’s going to watch this. I don’t know what’s going to happen with this film. I don’t. My hope, obviously, would be that as many people could see it is possible; that the people in Tallahassee, Florida, who have never seen a Muslim person other than on Fox News as an extremist, can watch this. Just to offer someone a new idea can make a difference. And whether they choose to accept it or not, that’s on them; and who knows what’s going to happen with that. But I know that different things that have been introduced to me have definitely changed my view on certain things at certain times in my life. I know the power of film. It’s going to be a challenge to get it in front of certain people, but we will get it in front of many people and we’re going to do it in many different ways. Right now, the film is in theatres. We’re trying our hardest to get people to go out. We’re independently distributing it. We don’t have a big marketing budget. We don’t have anything, really, except the people. And if we can really get it out there, as people start to support this film, it’s going to spread, and it’s going to get in front of more people. And sometimes, people will go see something that they would not have seen once it becomes popular. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make it popular, and once it becomes popular and a lot of people that would have been like: “Oh, man, what is this?” and “Oh, cool. This is what’s hot right now.” That’s the plan. Then in the fall of this year, we’re going to be in universities showing this film. I’m going to be traveling around speaking about it, and that’s one of the best places to start these discussions, in universities, because those are the minds that are being molded to be the future leaders of our society. If they can be molded in a way that offers them this perspective, a perspective that they would not have had before, then maybe we could help them make a better, more well-rounded decision and assumption about a people or a situation. So, there is a lot of things we are trying to do. This is just the beginning, though, and I know, again, how much power this film is going to have, and I hope this one has that kind of power.
Clayton Perry: As you reflect on the filmmaking experience, is there a particular scene that holds a special place in your heart?
Qasim Basir: Well, there are three in particular for me. Number one, the one where he sat in the hallway and began to recite the Qur’an. In real life, my relationship with the Qur’an and Islam, in general, has changed after those incidents took place. That was one. Number two was the scene where he danced with the girl at the party. That’s not exactly how it happened for me. That is sort of how naïve I was at a much later stage than most of my friends. And I remember having this awkward relationship with women in my life early on, and sort of being taken advantage of because I’d always have my heart on my sleeve. So just not knowing where to go with that. And he plays it out so well, the way he danced with her.
Clayton Perry: Yes, he did! [laughing]
Qasim Basir: And then obviously the scene in the room with his family, when he reveals his scars and all that built-up aggression and anger. That was a very important scene, as well. And while it never happened that way in real life, all that was part of the film. But it has significance, because for me, although it was on film, it was my resolution. Those three really stick with me.
Clayton Perry: In the middle of the film, Safiya (Nia Long) and Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith) share a very tense sense revolving around her clothing. Beyond clothing, however, what do you consider to be some of the most interesting contemporary conflicts in traditional Muslim culture?
Qasim Basir: Oh, absolutely. You know, it’s a big difference because a lot of my generation’s parents converted to Islam in the sixties and seventies, around Malcolm X days and that whole movement. So that was something that they chose to do, and they were very militant about it and very serious about it. And they took it on in a way that was sort of necessary for the time. The difference is that we were raised that way. For us, we never really had that choice. Our parents were just like, “Do this.” It was a very different experience for us. So for us, we started off being in it pretty heavily, and then once we got older, it kind of regressed a little bit. Where our parents started off not being in it at all, and then became very serious about it, it was like the opposite for my generation. And a lot of guys I know now have retained their Islam but are much more Americanized. We were raised in this country, man, and no matter how you look at it, it’s like we’re American and we’re Muslim. You definitely see that combination more so than you would see it in our parents.
Clayton Perry: The relationship between Tariq and Hassan is rife with conflict. Although Hassan Tariq’s father was mature enough to eventually ask for forgiveness, he never manages to say the following three words: “I love you.” Why do you think those three words are so hard to share within paternal and fraternal relationships, which are non-sexual in their nature?
Qasim Basir: That’s hard for me to say, because I’m not a father. I know a lot of guys whose fathers are that way, and it’s just hard for them to say certain things. Maybe it is a masculinity thing. But that’s one question that I cannot answer.
Clayton Perry: To my knowledge, the early premieres of the film have been shown exclusively at AMC theaters. As an independent filmmaker, what kind of challenges do you face to get your work into theaters?
Qasim Basir: Yes, we did a deal directly with the theatre. They have a program called AMC Independent, in which they work with independent films and slip them in theatres and do the whole thing. Obviously, it’s more ideal to have a distributor come in and take your film and do their thing with it. We approached the distributors about this film, but this is not a film that really fits into anybody’s business plan, if you will. It’s hard to say. I could sit here and come up with conspiracy theories all day about Islam and all this. Look, they’re businesspeople and as a business, they don’t know how these types of films perform. It’s hard for them to say, and it was hard for us to really go with that. So, we’re doing it ourselves, and that’s why stuff like me talking to you right now is huge for us, because we need all the exposure we can get. We feel like it’s an important film to be out there. And it is very difficult, man. I’m constantly going to different cities, all the time. Trying to meet with people and talk with people about the importance of this and that, and it’s tough. But we’re doing what we’ve got to do.
Clayton Perry: On your website it mentions that you had an interest in law prior to your actual transition into the film world. When you have a shift in your life, you still have to have those skills, but you have to have a certain skill set before you can jump into it. Before you made that abrupt shift, when did you realize your passion for film?
Qasim Basir: I had taken a film class in high school when I was seventeen, and immediately I became interested in making movies, because I made a few short films in that class, and it was great. I was like: “This is great.” But people often put limits on themselves. I know I used to, because where I’m from, I didn’t know anybody who had ever made a movie before. That was just beyond anything I would ever imagine. It’s like Obama becoming president. It’s beyond anything any of us would have imagined in our lifetimes. But now that it’s happened, a lot more people probably think they could be president. But for me, after my car accident, it was just like the limits were sort of out the door. After living through something like that, I was like: “Man, if I’m going to live here; if I’m going to be blessed enough to survive through this, I’m going to make it real, man, and I’m going to do what I love.” That’s when the hobby turned into something real. That’s when I began making films for real and it became my career. There were several years of being a starving artist, and struggling and doing that whole thing, which is horrible, but it’s necessary if you want to do this. I mean, not everybody’s a starving artist. Some people have parents who can pay their rent and stuff like that, but that wasn’t my case. I was a starving artist and it was difficult, but at the end of the day, I appreciate it all.
For more information on Qasim Basir, visit his official website: http://www.qasimbasir.com
For more information on Mooz-lum, visit the film’s official website: http://moozlumthemovie.com