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Arts and Identity

An interview with Omar Majeed, a Pakistani- Canadian Filmmaker

By Alex Wells, Program Coordinator

This interview has been edited for concision

 Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Majeed. To start it off, it’d be great to hear a little bit about your background and how it’s influenced you, what different identity factors you have negotiated to become the artist you are.

Well, technically I’m what you’d call a Pakistani-Canadian, but there’s so much more to tell. I grew up in a small town in Canada, then we moved to the big city – Toronto and later I went to high school in Lahore, Pakistan.  Eventually, I attended University in Canada, and now I reside in French-Canadian Montreal.  

So, to the Pakistanis, I’m a freak: a man from a Pakistani family, not fluent in his mother tongues (Urdu and Punjabi).  I was the teenager who wore long hair, and Pink Floyd T-Shirts.  I was never particularly religious.  I even made many schoolmates angry when I defended Salman Rushdie in the high school newspaper. When I pray alongside other Muslims, it’s obvious that I lack experience, mouthing the words incorrectly, my movements clumsy and uncoordinated.  

In Canada, on the other hand, I grew up with most of the world not knowing what Pakistan was.  “Are you from India?” I’d get asked.  When I replied that my parents were from Pakistan, they’d blink in confusion. “Is that part of India, then?” People would assume I’m Hindu, Buddhist, a hippie yogi, or just ‘spiritual’—whatever that means.  Although most of this was benign, it still had the effect of making me feel like an exotic outsider.

But then, of course, 9/11.  After that when you grudgingly admit you’re from Pakistan, people immediately think “Terrorist.”  “Taliban.”  “Muslim.” “Suspicious.”  Even if they smile and say something reassuring, it’s hard for me not to imagine people thinking it. Going to the airport is hell since then.  

[If you were a person like me, someone who loved Pink Floyd and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with equal passion — who had all his teenage markers (first kiss, first inhalation of hashish, first time performing on stage with a newly formed rock band) in Lahore, Pakistan, and then later went around discussing Salman Rushdie and Punjabi folk music over beers in Toronto—you could see the mass contradictions of my life.  Does the hybrid ‘Pakistani-Canadian’ encompass the complexity of my identity?  No, but I guess it will do for now.]

In the end, I’m simply an outsider and insider in both worlds.  Both camps marginalize me in unique ways – even while they both validate me as well.   Sometimes, I wish I was something altogether different…

But for now, I’ll accept all the labels that come my way:  Pakistani, Punjabi, Desi, Canadian, Anglophone-Québecois, Muslim, artist, rebel, professional, middle-class male, whatever sort of fits.

And yes, of course, they all inform my sensibilities as an artist.  Constantly. 

 Looking at your oeuvre—from Queer Television and SexTV through Inside Lara Roxx and of course Taqwacore—you seem to be very interested in sub-cultures, or at the very least in cultures that don’t usually see the light of day. Why is this?

Why?  Good question.  I think “sub-culture” is another one of those slippery terms.  I believe we live in a globalized “dominant” culture that is forced down our throats these days.  And it’s a one-size-fits all list of popular bands, tv shows, brands and fast food joints.  The culture of Planet Earth is McDonalds, Michael Jackson, American Idol, Levis Jeans and Michael Jordon, right?  Our standards of beauty are thin, tight bodies—youthful men and women oozing innocence and sexuality right?  Politics?  Whether you’re left or right, you’re probably some sort of capitalist in the end (myself included). The more money and objects you collect determine your place in society.  

According to these broad—and somewhat exaggerated—dictates of dominant culture, who truly fits the bill?  Not the majority.  Aren’t most of us awkwardly placed in these ill-fitted moulds?  I think the vast majority of us are aligned to some sort of subculture.  More and more, it seems the norm, rather than anything radical.

All of us, from the soccer mom in Iowa, to a Bengali girl who works on a farm in India—all of us live our lives walking the line between conformity and transgression.  All of us have parts of our personality that don’t quite fit in.  How much a society tolerates its subcultures tells you a lot about the culture you are in.  The thing I admire most about the ‘Western’ world is its ability to sustain and nurture subcultures.  What I wish for most, for a country like Pakistan, is that subcultures that try to grow can find  and sustain roots in the dominant culture. 

How do your experiences in QT and SexTV bear on your current approaches to film-making? Talking of SexTV, as well, what do you make of Foucault’s hypothesis that opening private or marginalized matters up to public discourse can make them more vulnerable to the pressures of mainstream opinion?

First question.  Working on QueerTelevision and SexTV opened my eyes to the possibility of telling compelling narratives out of unconventional and even controversial material.  Though we often shy away from it in life, there is something that draws us towards our taboos from safe distances, and when you use the comforts of storytelling to explore such issues, it draws an audience into a safe space.  

So I saw much value in those shows and the light they shone on important issues regarding human sexuality from the eroticism of boy bands to the role of homosexuality in religion, and of course we explored a lot of current fetishes as well.  

I really believe this kind of programming helps break down barriers.  Any doubt that I ever had about working for these shows vanished when I met a girl from Pakistan, who was living in the States and had just come out as lesbian.  She told me that in Lahore she watched clips of QueerTelevision and it helped her cope with the difficulties of being gay in that society.  

Which leads me to your second question.  I don’t know Foucault’s hypothesis that well, but I think its an interesting point.  Subcultures can get appropriated by mainstream ideology, for sure, but I think dialogue  like this is a two-way street.  Sure, dominant culture can absorb and neutralize what is transgressive in a subculture, but doesn’t our exposure to those worlds (queer, punk, feminist, politicized) also subtly transform the dominant culture?  In the end, I hope the goal is some sort of integration, instead of everyone remaining locked in rigid identities, and niche camps.  

So, Taqwacore is a pretty radical idea. How did you find yourself making this documentary? Did you always have a soft spot for punk?

Yes, I’ve always had a soft spot for punk.  It is a pop-culture approach to ideas of resistance, provocation, rebellion and trangression, and for that I think its very valuable as an outlet of expression.  When I was seven years old, my older brother brought home the newly released album Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols.  I was mesmerized, though also quite frightened.  I also remember seeing the music video by The Clash for “London Calling,” and loving the dark—almost vampiric— feeling of them blasting out their aggression on a barge overlooking London.  I never became a ‘punk’, but it’s always had an imprint on my psyche.

I found myself making this film out of a yearning to reconnect to Islam in some way after 9/11.  Prior to that, I had basically written myself off as a ‘bad muslim’, who had no meaningful connection to Islam. But after everyone began hating on Muslims and the tension was palpable, I had a feeling of wanting to reclaim those connections.  After all, if I was going to be labelled ‘Muslim’ at every turn, I felt I’d better do it on my own terms.

That spark made me seek out an Islam where someone as confused and out-of-the-loop as myself could find something of value.  Seeking out all kinds of ‘alternative’ muslims, I stumbled upon Taqwacore and Michael Muhammad Knight.  This seemed to be expressing exactly what I was yearning for, and so I began filming and exploring.  That was six years back. 

 One of the most memorable parts of the film, I thought, was the argument in the parking lot, and its suggestion that Islam really ought to be down to the individual. Is that why punk is so well suited to what these blokes are trying to do—because it insists on the individual against tradition, against the mainstream, against authority? And I mean authority in general—like that great quote from the film, “giving the finger to both sides; fuck you and fuck you.”

That, in essence, is the spirit of Taqwacore. It’s not mere adolescent rage, it is a direct challenge to the confines facing young Muslims from all sides – from their adopted countries to their own backyards.  It’s a meeting place for disenfranchised, Desi and Arab oddballs who still yearn for some connection to Islam and their cultural roots.  Its a space where creativity, innovation, humor and critical thinking can flourish.  

 How constructive do you think the provocations of punk music can be? The well-worn trope of claiming taboo figures for the voice of the artist—“I am an anti-Christ,” for instance, pops up in both the Sex Pistols and the Kominas—is certainly desensitizing and even charming, but how does all that open up possibilities for real identity creation?

The answer to that question is really a matter of “time will tell.”  

Does it have value when Johnny Rotten or Basim Usmani declare themselves the ‘anti-Christ’?  I think it does, because in both contexts, society had already branded them that in the first place.  The Kominas, in their first album, played up every stereotype the world throws upon young Muslims.  They are into Sharia Law; they’re terrorists for Al Queda; they’re suicide bombers; they’re Pakis on the run from racist skinheads—and on and on.  This appropriation of racist assumptions is walking a thin line, but aside from the politics of such statements, there is something else to consider.

It is liberating for the artist.  To be able to embody the very thing that you’ve been bullied about and throw it back at others is a delight.  For young Muslims, who feel shackled from all sides, to declare themselves an Islamist and an anti-Christ is a way of turning around the notion of being ‘the boogie-man.’  It is freeing.  And for The Kominas, now that they’ve gotten that out of their system, I see that their new music and writings are taking on subtler explorations.  I think it’s an important step in negotiating a’Muslim’ identity in the world today.

Sarcasm, irony and satire may have a limited scope in terms of real discussion – but I think its an excellent starting point, and a great way to channel aggression. 

In your own style of film-making, then, how do you work to credit the individual against the simplifying impositions of mainstream opinion? Or is it just a matter of visibility? And are there industry obstacles to that sort of project?

Difficult question.  I tried in my filmmaking to balance two concerns—could I make a film about Islam, featuring Muslims, that still had broader appeal and accessibility for non-Muslims?  In other words, could I make this specific time and context appeal to a general and wide audience?  At the same time, it was vital for me not to compromise the authenticity or integrity of Taqwacore and the subjects in the film or the subculture that responds most to this film—mainly other young disenfranchised Muslims.  

I’m not sure how well I succeeded. I certainly face criticism from all sides, but that is to be expected of any film I suppose.  In the end, I didn’t want to merely explain Taqwacore; I wanted the film to embody it.  I like thinking of the film as a Taqwacore artifact.  A piece in the puzzle of how young Muslims in this time and place dealt with their anxieties.

And yes, there are industry obstacles in this regard as well.  As of now, it is still difficult for us to find distribution in Europe, or to get into film festivals or doc circuits in the Middle East or Asia.  Many broadcasters felt that docs about Muslim issues had become passé—what is termed Muslim fatigue by some—and others felt tthat he subject matter was too controversial, too scary.  And, of course, there is the other side.  Some theatre owners have had threats and nasty letters and protests against such a film being shown.  I have got my fair share of hate mail. It goes beyond industry obstacles.

As a filmmaker, I think you have one sole responsibility: to take a position, articulate it well and demonstrate it with strong storytelling, then to let the project take off and find a life of its own. What most impresses me about the doc, and this continues as we speak, is the efforts of young Muslim around the globe organizing small, independent screenings of the film in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Israel, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and even Burkina Faso. People download the film from the torrents sites; they have small screenings in living rooms or cafés, and discussions ensue.  

As a career filmmaker, of course, I yearn to go to places like Cannes and Sundance, but the actual impact of these DIY screenings in so powerful and so exciting – it is the real and true reward of this project for me.  

 Is Taqwacore—or punk music, or rebellious music widely construed—going to be a big element in the Muslim voice or voices of the next generation?

Again, only time will tell.  I think, for now, we can say it is one voice amongst many in the Muslim world, seeking fresh answers to the political and cultural stalemates that most of us find ourselves in.  

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We are the Blogsphere Team of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. We are the interactive part of the web resources of ICD. We spread culture and mutual understanding among cultures through blogs.

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The London Art as Cultural Diplomacy ConferenceAugust 21st, 2013

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