Iman Zawahry is one of the first hijabi American-Muslim filmmakers in the nation. She has worked on numerous films that have played at over 100 venues worldwide. Iman also collaborated with the non-profit Islamic Scholarship Fund to create the first-ever American Muslim film grant where she currently serves as director. Iman works to amplify the underrepresented female voice. She wrote and directed her debut feature film Americanish with a majority female crew. Here’s her Q&A with Asian Voice:
As a woman, are there any challenges associated with marketing your film or taking them to festivals?
Iman: Our biggest challenge has really been making a comedy, with three brown Muslim women leads, in an independent world that predominantly uplifts dramas. We’ve noticed that most festivals really want to see dramas of Muslim women dealing with trauma and oppression which is something that we are really trying to move away from. Showing that woman are strong, independent and funny is what our audiences and world needs to create more understanding and peace in our world. Finding the right home and place for the film to excel was the biggest challenge but once we found it, it soured. It’s been so uplifting that our own communities have been the ones to uplift our story and our voice. The Asian-American film festivals and other predominantly diverse film festivals recognized the importance of our story and how much it has impacted audiences. And we are forever grateful for their support.
What according to you is the future of women in filmmaking, especially in the new normal?
Iman: I am really optimistic about the future of women in filmmaking. We have always been here but have never been given the opportunities or platform. Now studios and organizations are uplifting women's stories more than ever. Moreover, more women are in leadership positions to create opportunities and uplift other women which I have seen countless times and how I see things really changing. I feel it’s going to continue to be a slow process but will continue to flourish.
You embrace your identity as a Hijabi with pride, which comes across as quite empowering for more women like you. What is your approach to being unapologetic and confident about who you are?
I think it’s incredibly important to form connections with others in order to create more of a peaceful understanding. This in turn creates less animosity and hate in the world. The only way to create these connections it is as true and real as you can be as a human. My identity as an American Muslim is the essence of who I am and is how I build stories and connections to my community and my art.
Aizzah Fatima - co-writer, producer and lead actor (South Asian specific) also spoke to us:
While creating south Asian characters, especially women in your film, do you go with representing the culture as it is, or, do you direct as the film demands? Where do you strike the balance?
Aizzah: As filmmakers and agents of change our job is to hold a mirror up to the society we live in. So we can all learn from where we are, and grow as people. For me, this manifests in the writing in two ways. First to depict female characters in all their contradictions and complexities so they aren't just dimensional which is how we often see them being portrayed when people outside of our communities tell our stories. When a group of people has never seen themselves portrayed authentically, it's important to create real and nuanced characters that are recognizable and relatable. Second, with Americanish there are parts we wanted to show that we hope to give our communities an opportunity to reflect on and to aspire to. Some examples of this are how Sam stands up to her male colleagues at her job including her boss. I think most men and women no matter their ethnicity would think twice before doing something like that.. Ameera and Maryam both choose a path outside of what is expected of them within their communities or society at large. This we know happens in our communities, but we also wanted to show the change of heart with Khala's character. Our parent's generation is also capable of change, and seeing things from a different point of view they may not have considered before.
Your film, Americanish is in some ways similar to Ms Marvel (2022), where women take their life into their own hands, whether it is about finding a groom or wearing a hijab. Comment on how this representation can change the way we view South Asians.
Aizzah: Representation of South Asian and Muslim women is pretty non-existent in mainstream media. Just showing a young Muslim woman who might choose to wear the hijab against her family's wishes turns out to be a radical act because the media constantly and inaccurately shows Muslim women being oppressed into wearing the hijab usually at the hands of a Muslim man. This is dangerous and toxic as Muslim women in the west chose to wear it for many reasons, and sometimes as part of their activism. Yet this narrative is missing from the media. South Asian women are often depicted as timid and voiceless. We wanted to change that narrative by showing characters who aren't afraid to go after what they want. What's also important here is to show the diversity within the South Asian Muslim community. That we aren't a monolith, and that's why the film is an ensemble with four South Asian female characters.
The European premiere of Americanish is at the London Indian Film Festival on 26th June at Picturehouse Central