To find movies that focus on Islamic issues and Muslim culture, independent films--especially the film festival circuit--is the way to go. The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which visited New York in June and will travel around the U.S. in the coming months, is generally a goldmine for these kinds of films. And this year's festival is no exception: It includes several insightful documentaries and dramas about Muslims.
Beliefnet Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali and editorial intern Hala Shah review seven films from the festival, which runs in New York until the end of June:
The Road to GuantánamoMichael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross, UK
What begins as one man’s trip to Pakistan to meet his future bride becomes an ill-fated journey as four friends out to enjoy the end of bachelorhood travel from Britain to Pakistan, and then to Afghanistan where the most unfortunate of circumstances brings them finally to Guantánamo Bay Prison in Cuba in the gritty docudrama “The Road to Guantánamo.”
Though you expect the re-enactment scenes and the men’s accounts of their motivation will explain how and why such frightful events took place, you still wonder how a group of young British Muslims could become tumble weeds in a desolate, war-ravaged country. In short, the men hear a Friday prayer sermon in Pakistan encouraging them to go to Afghanistan for humanitarian relief work.
Impulsively they decide, almost like tourists, to see what the country is like. However they soon learn that being British does not give them any sort of protection. After one of the men is supposedly killed by a U.S. bombing raid, the remaining three are accidentally rounded up with other supposed Al-Qaeda members, arrested by the Northern Alliance, and eventually flown to Guantánamo Bay Prison in the infamous sack-like, hoods.
The last half-hour of the film paints a grim, disturbing picture of the conditions at Guantánamo. The three British Muslims are tortured physically and emotionally, completely cut-off from their families, denied the right to a fair trial, and deprived of the right to pray. Though the men are eventually released, they return religious and aware that they can never return to their old lives.
The scenes of what they and the remaining Guantánamo prisoners--five hundred the film claims— suffer endure long past the closing credits. The “Road to Guantánamo” only strengthens the prison’s image as a perpetually lawless, corrupt, and inhumane death-sentence.
Iraq in Fragments
James Longley, USA
What makes James Longley’s “Iraq in Fragments” so incredibly special is the length of time (2002-05) he took to explore the effects of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the subsequent war waged in Iraq by the United States. For a country that is in the news on a daily basis, very little is known about what its people are truly experiencing at a base level.
This cinema verite-style documentary is the right antidote to the two-dimensional Iraq we usually see. Longley takes his camera into the most intimate and frenzied moments, allowing the viewer to be absorbed into what different Iraqis are living minute to minute. We see the country in three parts and learn that it is an amalgamation of religious sects, different ethnicities, varying poverty levels, and distinctive outlooks on the country’s situation.
This Sundance award-winning film echoes the way the country has splintered under Saddam’s rule and then the war by telling three stories: Mohammad, a young boy in Baghdad who works as an auto mechanic’s assistant, the volatile Shi’a movement led by Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, and two Kurdish brick-laying families in northern Iraq.
Each part flourishes without narration or editorializing by letting the individuals tell the story with examples and comments. From Mohammad’s struggles in school and with his boss to the footage of a brutal military raid against Shi’as in Nasiriyah to the thoughts of Mahmoud, who wants his youngest son to be an imam—each story spells the current situation of Iraqis: A fragmented country searching for something--religious, political, or economic stability--to give them some hope.
--Dilshad D. Ali