THERE are moments in life when a story strikes a chord with people.
It can be anything – but for debut director Eyad Zahra, it was Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores.
The story of a young muslim – Yusef (Bobby Naderi) – who, during a year at college in Buffalo, New York, moves into a house inhabited by fellow muslims. But there’s a difference – they love punk rock and they’re not afraid to explore different aspects of life.
It was this part that Zahra felt echoed a life he had lived.
He said: “The story resonated with me on a number of levels. The log-line of the novel had my head spinning. I finished it after a few sittings and it really expressed so many things I had grown up with – but it done it in such a creative and fun way.
“I was compelled to tell the story in a bigger way and let others see it.
“Yusef was kind of like me. I grew up in a strict household, was sent to private school and my parents tried to protect me from certain things going on around me.
“Then I went to college and seen things differently.
“That’s the trajectory for a lot of US muslims. They get sheltered by their first generation parents and don’t get the chance to explore things on their own.
“The beauty of The Taqwacores is it takes something internally and flips it in a creative way.
“If you’re part of any dogmatic religious community or part of a culture that holds you back, this is a form of self-expression that allows people to break through any wall.”
Given the subject is based around religion, it would have been understandable had Zahra been worried how older generation muslims viewed his film.
Not so, says the director.
“People are surprised at the reception. The reality is some people are perturbed by the content but we haven’t had to deal with any real negativity,” says Eyad.
“The film shows how wide-ranging and accepting the Islamic community is at large.
“Sometimes in the media you see people like the Pastor in Florida trying to burn the Qur’an or the things going on in Afghanistan but it’s twisted for people’s advantages or blown out of proportion.
“However the Islamic community has open conversation – like any religious community.
“They might not agree with everything but it’s a strong, robust community that has room for this expression.
“The Taqwacores is the same story told in a different way. If you look at punk it has gone through different generations. So has Islam.
“This story is looking at it from a different angle. It’s nothing new and conversation is there if people want to have it.”
Zahra admits that while the main focus of The Taqwacores is Yusef (Naderi), Dominic Rains‘ character Jehangir was quite possibly the most important to cast.
He reveals: “I felt comfortable casting him (Dominic) because I remember we were finalising the cast and he walked in. In a relaxed manner he sucked all the air out the room and held our attention.
“That’s the qualities required for Jehangir. As things progressed his character was magnified by Dominic. He had the respect of the entire cast and crew and you see that on screen.”
One of the more talked-about roles is that of Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), who spends almost the entire film in her Burqa.
Eyad insists that despite her being covered head-to-toe for the duration, she brought something to the role that created an intensity.
“Her character was magnified but on set it was intense. She’d own the room and capture the moment and hold everyone’s attention.
“She outshines the Burqa. When I see it now, I don’t see the Burqa, I see the person. She knocked it out of the park.”
And what about the hammer-blow shock ending?
Zahra said: “People are saddened or confused by the ending. They ask what the point is of it. When Michael Muhammad Knight wrote the novel it was reflection of history with what happens to the characters.
“It’s not trying to say these things can’t happen but we can stop it.
“When Jehangir does what he does there are repercussions for his actions.”