Movie Mix

My Big Fat Muslim Movie

Zarqa Nawaz's films counter North American apprehension over all things Islamic with wit and warmth.
There's no shortage of comically inclined filmmakers for whom ethnicity plays a major role in their creativity. A recent successful example is Nia Vardalos of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" fame (and interestingly, another Canadian from the prairies.) But Zarqa Nawaz, a Muslim, thinks she can break new ground. Through her production company FUNdamentalist Films (motto: putting the fun back in fundamentalism), she's already made two short comedies -- "BBQ Muslims" and "Death Threat," both of which counter North American apprehension over all things Islamic with wit and warmth. Nawaz is currently seeking financing for her first feature, "Real Terrorists Don't Bellydance."

Best of Both Worlds

Born in England to Pakistani parents in 1967, Nawaz moved with her family to Toronto in the mid-70s. "Canada was looking for educated immigrants, and my father was an engineer. Plus with all the rain my mother's health was poor. So the Canadian climate looked good," says Nawaz. Nawaz grew up in Toronto, then married a Regina man.

While Regina's Muslim community, which numbers between 150-200 families, is much smaller than Toronto's, Nawaz, who has four children, feels comfortable there. "The community's not as insular. My two oldest kids are in French immersion, and they go to the mosque after school. So they're fully integrated in both their worlds."

"For Muslims who immigrate there's a fear that their children will lose their faith," says Nawaz. "But because my husband and I are second-generation raising third-generation, we've been through that and know it's not true. There's a danger of losing the language, because neither of us speaks our native language. But that's not the priority. To have a rich spiritual life is far more important than being able to cook a good pot of curry. Given the way the political world is changing, Muslims are going to be viewed with a greater degree of suspicion. I want my kids to have the necessary social skills to handle that. I want them to have a good understanding of their faith, but to have their loyalty to Canada, where they belong."

Nawaz's first taste of this paranoid mindset came with the Oklahoma federal building bombing in 1996. Muslim terrorists were initially blamed for Timothy McVeigh's crime. "BBQ Muslims," in which two hapless Muslim brothers are suspected of being terrorists after their gas barbecue explodes, was Nawaz's response.

The fallout from 9/11 has been much greater. Following the tragedy, Nawaz did a daily diary for CBC in which she articulated her apprehension at how Muslims across North America would be impacted. Because she wears a headscarf, she was worried about being targeted for abuse. Fortunately, while scattered attacks against individual Muslims and mosques were reported, her experience was generally positive. Complete strangers approached to say that they didn't regard all Muslims in the same light as the terrorists. She was also invited to speak at a number of schools.

Today, between the war on terrorism and a second war with Iraq looming, Nawaz feels things are increasingly tense. Not helping matters was a December demand that male Muslim immigrants register with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and be fingerprinted. While the program will eventually be extended to all immigrants, critics charge that signaling Muslims out reinforced in the public mind that every Muslim was a potential terrorist.

"As a community, we're realizing that rather than sit back and complain about our representation, we have to be proactive in creating our own image. Become filmmakers, become journalists, own our own newspapers, participate in society," Nawaz says.

While some commentators, drawing on a long history of conflict between the West and Islam that dates back to the Crusades, have suggested we're embroiled in a "clash of civilizations," Nawaz feels the conflict is driven more by economics than ideology -- in short, it's about oil. She has no problem describing Saddam Hussein as a war criminal, though. "Yet how do you get rid of him without causing an enormous humanitarian disaster?" asks Nawaz. "I don't feel the Americans should be the ones to do it, because they have their own agenda."

The Movie Is the Message

It's through her films that Nawaz feels she has the most power to counter negative stereotypes about Muslims. "I think people are surprised that someone would make a comedy [about such serious issues]. But that's what I like doing. Instead of hitting people over the head with something."

Her second film, "Death Threat," involved a Muslim woman author who, in an attempt to attract a publisher for her schlocky pulp-style novel, tries to "pull a Salmon Rushdie on purpose" by outraging Muslim clerics so that they'll issue a fatwa against her. Hilarity ensues when the Muslim community desperately tries to accommodate the author's increasingly erratic behaviour.

Her current project, "Real Terrorists Don't Bellydance," concerns a struggling actor named Amir who's engaged to a high-powered public relations consultant. With his finances dwindling (his most recent job was as a belly-dancing mango at a fruit juicer's convention) he agrees to take a role in a movie being financed by a group of dentists without reading the script. Too late he discovers that he's to play a terrorist/bank robber. Meanwhile, a Muslim organization has hired his fiancée to shame investors into withdrawing their support because of the film's negative portrayal of Muslims.

"It was inspired by movies like 'True Lies' and 'Executive Decision'," says Nawaz. "I feel like I've created a new genre of film," Nawaz says, describing the cross between a terrorist flick and a comedy. "I call it a 'terrordy.'"

Nawaz feels there's a market for her terrordy. "Since 9/11 the level of interest in the Muslim community has skyrocketed. Even in the U.S., where there's a very high level of fear. I got a frantic call right after 9/11 from a U.S. distributor saying we have to represent you because there's no one else making films about these issues. And when I got my royalty check, there were all these U.S. colleges that were incorporating (the films) into their religious studies courses."

"I'm not making films that are overtly political," she insists. "My priority is to make a very funny, entertaining film that will get a broad audience like 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding.' That film did well not because it crossed religious boundaries. It did well because there are very few well-written, smart, funny romantic comedies out there. What I've done is take a traditional theme, why we marry the people we marry, and [give it a Muslim twist]."

If funding isn't forthcoming, Nawaz plans to go to the Sundance Festival and the Canadian Film Centre (Toronto) to network. "I'm hoping there'll be a courageous producer who's willing to take a chance on a film like this, and that it'll be a crossover hit. My goal's to make it in Regina, and to do better than Porky's [the highest grossing Canadian film of all time]!"