Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Mooz-lum" Filmmaker Qasim Basir
From Muslims, A Different Message
And Representation On Film

Qasim Basir, the director of the new film "Mooz-lum", which opened in
ten U.S. cities this weekend. 
Ameena Sky Media

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Sunday, February 13, 2011

OVER THE TELEPHONE recently the filmmaker Qasim Basir recalled an encounter.

"He was a government official.  When I met with him he was just retired.  He was still a very intelligent man and all that.  But somewhere during that conversation he said, 'I have a son your age.'  I said, 'really?'  He said, 'Yeah, my son...all of a sudden he went out and became a MOOZ-LUM.'  He said it just like that.  He went off on a five-minute rant.  And I'm sitting there in his presence, and he's having no idea that with my fairly Arabic name that I'm Muslim as well."

From this episode several years ago, the title of Qasim Basir's debut feature film was born. 

Qasim Basir (pronounced Kass-em Ba-seer) was born, raised and remains Muslim.  "The proper pronunciation is Muss-lim," the director said of the word, describing the ways that many people often say it incorrectly.  Mr. Basir is from Ann Arbor and Detroit.

"Mooz-lum", of which Mr. Basir also said the title described a misperception of the Muslim faith, opened yesterday in ten U.S. cities, including New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The film tracks Tariq (Evan Ross, son of the legendary Diana Ross) as he finds himself an estranged figure on a Michigan college campus.  Trapped between the rigidity of his father's doctrinaire ways and the secularism and tensions on campus, the young Tariq must find his own home in his heart.  It won't be an easy journey.

Nia Long stars as Safiyah, Tariq's mother.  Her astonishing performance departs from the work she's done in less heavy-toned dramas like "The Best Man", "Love Jones".  Safiyah is depicted as a confident, resolute and positive Muslim woman, an image that typically doesn't make its way into films about the Muslim faith or Muslims in general. 

"It wasn't so difficult for me to have Nia Long portraying a strong Muslim woman because that's how they've been in my life," said Mr. Basir, talking via phone from Dallas minutes before a screening late last week.  "That's how my mom is.  And that's how her friends are.  My sister -- I mean, so that wasn't a stretch for me.  That was honesty.  When Nia came on board she recognized that.  She took on that role.  And that character was her personal story, you know, the relationship she has with her son.  And she found things that were very common about this character rather than different, you know?"

Actress Nia Long and director Qasim Basir on the set of his debut feature film "Mooz-lum".  Ameena Sky Media

Mr. Basir's mother served as a consultant on "Mooz-lum", talking to Ms. Long and emphasizing to the actress the importance of playing Safiyah in a serious way, Mr. Basir recalled.

The evolution of "Mooz-lum" can be traced to Mr. Basir's short film "Glimpse" back in 2007, which the director described as a "short film based on scenes from the actual screenplay," which was still being crafted and finished after a two-year journey, in 2009. 

After entering "Glimpse" in a film festival where it won a prize, Mr. Basir got the backing and some financial assistance to make the full-length feature film that would become "Mooz-lum". 

Danny Glover happened to be on the festival jury and the actor volunteered his services both in front of and behind the camera to Mr. Basir.  Mr. Glover plays Dean Quincy Francis in the film, a top school official who sets at best a poor example for the unnamed university's students.  "When you've got someone of his stature and presence supporting your efforts, it definitely makes things easier," Mr. Basir agreed.

"Mooz-lum" was shot in 25 days in Michigan beginning at the end of 2009.  Including post-production, "Mooz-lum" was completed last July.  The University of Michigan and East Michigan University served as shooting locales for much of the film, specifically the campus scenes, which occupy about half of the film.

"Mooz-lum" also stars Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley in "Do The Right Thing") as Hassan, Tariq's father.  Summer Bishil (Alan Ball's "Towelhead") plays Iman, and Dorian Missick plays a professor who challenges the students in his class.  Tense and absorbing, "Mooz-lum" was made on a shoestring budget.  Its authenticity and power are undeniable, as is its stirring message.  Parts of the film bring "Do The Right Thing" to mind, and one scene forces audiences to debate whether the right thing -- or the realistic thing -- takes place.

Brain trust in San Francisco: "Mooz-lum" producer Dana Offenbach (left) and line producer James Yi flank director Qasim Basir. Omar P.L. Moore/

Mr. Basir's film follows a young man trying to come of age and find himself amidst such a volatile and hateful atmosphere before, during and especially immediately after September 11, 2001, in America's most populous state for Muslims (Michigan, and its city Dearborn.)  The film is based on a true story, although the opportunity to find out exactly whose true story went unasked.

"Mooz-lum" proves to be a strong litmus test as it chronicles relations between Muslims in America and non-Muslims.  The film presents an even-handed portrayal of all groups, chronicling the good and bad in each.

The film has relied heavily upon the Demand It! campaign to get the word out about its release, and Mr. Basir hopes that the public will respond.  Films like "Touching Home" and "Paranormal Activity" benefitted, but it remains to be seen whether "Mooz-lum" will follow in its footsteps.

Mr. Basir spent Friday in New York City, Saturday in Dallas and today in Los Angeles, each time appearing at the respective AMC theaters showing the film in each of the ten U.S. cities.

There are many things that Mr. Basir hopes for with his feature film debut, but above all what follows was the most heartfelt as he spoke a few days ago about "Mooz-lum":

"I hope that we can contribute in a positive way to the discussion, the ongoing discussion, of the place of Muslims in America, and the state of our society right now as it relates to that.  And I hope that we can add an extra layer to it.  I hope on that end -- that would be incredible if we could foster certain discussions that could lead to some sort of influence and change.  I would also hope that people are able to look at this movie about a young man who's on a journey towards discovery and maybe reflect on what's inside themselves.  And possibly begin that journey for themselves if they have not already.  And a journey, in general, to becoming a better person."

"Mooz-lum" is now playing in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C.

Related: The Popcorn Reel Movie Review - "Mooz-lum"

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