A Jewish-American filmmaker takes viewers deep into New York’s Muslim-American neighborhoods, and hopes his new film will inspire interfaith discussion, action and empathy.
Adam Zucker’s “American Muslim” debuts here at the DOC NYC Festival on Nov. 10 and 12, with screenings followed by talk-backs with Zucker and his subjects (docnyc.net).
Explaining his inspiration for this project, Zucker tells The Jewish Week that soon after the 2016 presidential elections, he was invited to a Muslim-Jewish sharing circle at a downtown synagogue.
“I’ve lived in New York City my whole life. I met Muslim people but I was embarrassed to realize I had no Muslim friends, no Muslim connections. I felt like I had to go out and meet my neighbors.”
As a Jew and as an American, he wanted to “do something.” At first, he thought he would help make some advocacy films, or short films for the web. Instead, he spent 27 months making a feature documentary.
The film opens with President Trump’s executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. For many Muslim-Americans, this is a defining moment for activism. Viewers witness how personal the Muslim ban (which remains in place) can be. As in previous generations, the men often immigrate first hoping to save enough money to bring over their families, “chasing the American dream just like everyone,” as one Bengali-American says. As Zucker explains, these are patriotic American citizens whose parents and children can’t join them.
“They speak very eloquently about things that I had the luxury of not thinking about,” Zucker says.
He takes viewers to their neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, inside their mosques and homes; to an Indonesian wedding; a refugee’s apartment being fixed up by neighbors who had immigrated previously; to an outdoor prayer service in a huge parking lot in Ozone Park. His New York City looks beautiful in its diversity.
The main participants are Mohamed Bahi, an Algerian-American who founded Muslims Giving Back, embracing and mobilizing others to follow Islam’s mandate to help those less fortunate; Kobir Chowdhury, a Bengali-American who leads a mosque in Ozone Park; Aber Kawas, a young Palestinian-American woman involved in mobilizing Muslim youth; Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni-American educator and prominent activist; and Imam Shamsi Ali, an Indonesian-American who heads the Jamaica Muslim Center. Imam Ali says, “Religion is not what you do in the mosque; it’s what you show to the people around you.”
Zucker, an award-winning independent filmmaker, serves as director, producer, cinematographer and editor. Skilled in listening and getting people to trust him, he went out of his way to let his subjects know that he is Jewish, and says that “it was never an issue at all.”
He adds, “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism seem very closely aligned.”
Zucker’s most recent film, “The Return” (2014), documents young Jews in Poland today discovering their Jewish identity. He says that he thought he was doing something very different with this film, shooting it on his own, and close to home, but similarly to his work in “The Return,” he employs individual stories to tell a larger story.
While he does not show the scene in the film, Zucker invited mosque leader Chowdhury to Rosh HaShanah services at the New Shul in Greenwich Village. Chowdhury expressed some trepidation beforehand about how he would be viewed, and Zucker assured him “that he’d be a rock star — and he was.”
Zucker is also initiating the American Muslim Interfaith Project, and hopes to bring together different communities to see the film and have a facilitated discussion, for instance, for a synagogue group to travel to a mosque for a screening. He’d like to extend the project beyond the progressive Jewish community, where some of these meetings are already taking place. Interested groups can contact him at the film’s website, americanmuslimfilm.com.