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Terrodies: Her Comic Take

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    Her Comic Take With her zany, satirical films, Canadian Zarqa Nawaz wants to be a Muslim Woody By Carol Eisenberg STAFF WRITER July 30, 2003 Zarqa Nawaz aims
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 2, 2003
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      Her Comic Take
      With her zany, satirical films, Canadian Zarqa Nawaz wants to be a
      Muslim Woody

      By Carol Eisenberg
      STAFF WRITER

      July 30, 2003


      Zarqa Nawaz aims to set the world straight about one thing: Just
      because a woman wears a head scarf, doesn't mean she has no sense of
      humor.

      The 35-year-old Canadian filmmaker describes herself as a
      conservative Muslim who covers her hair, prays five times daily and
      is active in her local mosque. But she is also a quirky storyteller
      whose madcap farces about North American Muslim life have created a
      huge buzz in the Muslim community and on some college campuses in
      Canada and the United States.

      "I make 'terrodies,' or comedies about terrorist themes," Nawaz says
      with the deadpan delivery of a practiced stand-up. "You have
      dramadies. And these are terrodies, a new film genre which I feel I
      have created."

      And with her own shoestring company, FUNdamentalist Films - its
      slogan is "putting the fun back in fundamentalism," - she says she's
      working toward her breakthrough as a Muslim Woody Allen.

      "The time is right," she says. "The marketplace has never been this
      curious about Muslims."

      Nawaz's first endeavors -film shorts "BBQ Muslims" (1996) and "Death
      Threat" (1998) were well received for novice efforts, though she did
      get a few complaints from foreign-born Muslims who didn't get the
      humor.

      Now she's seeking a producer for "Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance,"
      a full-length comedy she is convinced will be her crossover hit. The
      screenplay is about a Muslim couple whose lives collide when the
      groom, a struggling actor, takes a job playing an Arab terrorist so
      he can afford an engagement ring. Things fall apart when his fiancee
      is hired by a Muslim advocacy group trying to shame the film's
      investors into dropping the project.

      "I believe it's going to catch everyone by surprise the same way
      that 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' did," she says.

      Say what you will about her work, Nawaz has confidence, or what her
      hero, Allen, might call chutzpah.

      In many ways, she represents the other Islamic revolution: a movement
      of second-generation North American Muslims, who were weaned on
      Western popular culture as well as the Quran, and who are assured and
      well educated. Many are now making waves in the worlds of art and
      academia. Nawaz, for instance, has also been a commentator and online
      diarist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and a frequent
      participant in interfaith dialogues, in addition to her film work.

      "She's a trailblazer," said Sheema Khan, chairwoman of the Canadian
      office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "You don't see
      too many Muslim women filmmakers. But she's a second-generation
      Muslim who is thoroughly familiar with the North American experience,
      and who has maintained her Islamic identity and thrived in it. And
      she is creating new narratives about Muslim experiences in North
      America, using humor and social commentary."

      Of course, other artists have mined ethnic heritage before her. Nia
      Vardalos rode the juggernaut of "Greek Wedding" straight from her
      native Winnipeg to Hollywood. And comedies set within particular
      subcultures, like "Bend It Like Beckham" and "Monsoon Wedding," have
      been sleeper hits in both the United States and Canada.

      But Nawaz's work is edgier because it serves up social criticism
      alongside satire at a time of undeniable curiosity - but also
      paranoia - about all things Muslim.

      "She splits open cultural issues and stereotypes, and throws them up
      onto the screen, says Anita Doran, a former Soviet Jew and filmmaker
      who worked with her in Canada's prestigious Women in the Director's
      Chair Workshop.

      "Even though she's a traditional Muslim woman and her community is
      very important to her, she's not afraid to tackle issues in a way
      that make people laugh, but also make them think."

      Whether Nawaz's work will find a wide audience, however, remains to
      be seen. She is still largely unknown in the United States, and the
      competition for money by independent filmmakers is intense.

      "I think she has a good possibility of commercial success because
      there's such an interest in Islamic issues," said Canadian filmmaker
      Robin Schlaht, a member of the Canadian Film and Television Producers
      Association. "My guess? She might not be famous in five years, but
      she'll certainly be well respected."

      Nawaz's first film, "BBQ Muslims" - inspired by her anger at the
      finger-pointing at Muslims following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing -
      was about a pair of Muslim brothers suspected of being Middle Eastern
      terrorists after their backyard barbecue explodes. "This bombing has
      all the markings of Muslim fundamentalists: a large hole in the
      ground, charred grass and dead animals," says a radio news announcer
      at the film's start.

      Next came "Death Threat," inspired by the religious edicts against
      writers Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. That film is about an
      aspiring Muslim novelist who fakes her own death threat in an effort
      to generate interest in her first novel, a pulp romance, "The
      Unquenched Wench of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan."

      Both films skewer not only Western stereotypes of Muslims and
      extremist interpretations of Islam, but also the conventions of
      middle-class Canadian Muslim culture. And though filmed on minuscule
      budgets - or in the case of "BBQ Muslims," a virtually nonexistent
      one (it was a student project, shot in Nawaz's parents' home) - both
      were crowd-pleasers when they premiered at the Toronto International
      Film Festival in 1996 and 1998.

      "Her films elicit visceral laughter," said Brenda Anderson, a
      religious studies professor in Saskatchewan who uses Nawaz's films in
      her classes. "Then, the students are embarrassed as they wonder, Am I
      supposed to laugh? Am I being racist? Then they realize, oh yes, 'BBQ
      Muslims.' It's supposed to be funny. And, oh look, Muslims can laugh
      at themselves, too."

      But while Nawaz's films are popular in some circles, they have also
      provoked strong negative reactions.

      Nawaz describes how an older man from South Asia stormed up to her
      after a screening at a meeting of the Islamic Society of North
      America in May.

      "'In my eyes,'" he said to me, 'You're no better than Salman
      Rushdie,'" Nawaz recalls.

      He was livid that she had portrayed men dressed as pious Muslims
      holding what appeared to be a large gun.

      "I said to him, 'No, but don't you see? The gun turned into a coat
      rack,' Nawaz recalls explaining. "'I was playing with that stereotype
      and, literally, turning it upside down.'"

      Eventually, she was able to calm the man down.

      "But it was a real eye-opener to me," Nawaz says. "He didn't get the
      humor at all. It was partly a language problem and partly a cultural
      problem. I'm finding that I'm a real novelty in my own community.
      There just aren't a lot of people in it who've gone out and made
      satirical comedies."

      Even her own parents, who are Pakistani-born, watch her films without
      cracking a smile, she says.

      "For my parents' generation, this type of humor is difficult to
      understand because it's satire. And I'm finding that satire is very
      culturally defined."

      Nawaz has traveled a long way from her immigrant parents' world.
      Once, she had planned on becoming a doctor - "every immigrant
      parent's dream for their child."

      "I tried," she recalls. "I really did. I applied to medical school at
      least twice. But no school would let me in. I was devastated."

      Inspired by a close friend studying journalism, she applied and was
      accepted into the journalism program at Ryerson University in
      Toronto. "The writing came naturally," she recalls. "It was clearly
      where my talents lay."

      After working for a while as a writer and producer for the Canadian
      Broadcasting Corp., in the summer of 1995 she enrolled in a three-
      week workshop in filmmaking at the Ontario College of Art. She has
      never looked back.

      "Norman Jewison, a famous Canadian director, said that 'film is the
      literature of this generation,'" she says. "That really resonated
      with me. My dream is to make a film significant enough to change
      someone, even in a small way."

      While Nawaz's filmmaking style is satiric, her personal manner is
      anything but biting. Speaking by phone from her parent's kitchen in
      Toronto, where she is visiting with her four young children, she
      radiates warmth and wit. And the stories keep tumbling out - about
      her mosque, her marriage, and the time all four of her kids came down
      with chicken pox just as she was leaving for a prestigious directors'
      workshop. (Her husband, a psychiatrist, took care of them on his own.)

      Asked where her humor comes from, she is momentarily nonplussed.

      "I guess it's Canadian," she says hesitantly, noting her country's
      rich tradition of satire. "I think it comes from watching Canadian
      situation comedies and listening to CBC."

      Her friends, however, suggest another view - that she developed it as
      a survival skill to disarm others and to defend herself in a world
      that was often hostile. They tell how she was often taunted with
      cries of "Paki" when her family moved to Canada in the early 1970s,
      when she was 5. At one point, her parents were so worried about her
      safety they gave her karate classes.

      "The jokes became like a big exhale - a way to laugh about the things
      that could otherwise make you feel very isolated as the only Muslim
      girl in your class," says her best friend, Rahat Kurd, now a writer
      in Vancouver.

      "We used to egg each other on, finding the humor in situations that
      you could get into as a Muslim. Like trying to explain the five daily
      prayers to someone at school. Or looking for a place to pray and the
      kinds of comic situations you could get into. . . .All the material
      from our daily lives became fodder for humor."

      In that sense, Nawaz has simply transferred that lifelong habit onto
      a much larger, more provocative canvas.

      For instance, she is working now on a documentary about the role of
      women in mosques. The project grew out of an agonizing dispute within
      her own community about whether to have a segregated prayer area for
      women. The final decision in her own mosque, which she opposed, was
      to create such an area. Despite the contentiousness of the subject,
      she swears this film, too, will be funny.

      "People have said to me, 'Why are you exposing divisions in the
      community at a time when we are under siege?'" Nawaz says. "But I
      want to show people that we are not a monolith and that we don't need
      to be rescued by the West. I want to show how Muslim women are
      arguing from within Islamic discourse to get their rights back."

      On a lighter note, she is also developing a television series
      revolving around a young Arab-Canadian who takes on the role of an
      imam in a Saskatchewan mosque - a sort of "Northern Exposure" about
      larger-than-life Muslim characters. The stories revolve around his
      efforts to navigate among the different perspectives of Pakistanis
      and Arabs, first-generation and second- generation, and men and
      women - in short, all the stuff of her own experience in Regina, a
      city in Saskatchewan.

      Ultimately, Nawaz said, she wants to establish herself as an artist
      exploring universal themes, rather than as an advocate of a
      particular community.

      "My goal is not to make Muslim films," she says. "It's to make really
      amazing films. . . that have the power to transform."
      Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

      See photo at:

      http://www.nynewsday.com/entertainment/local/newyork/ny-
      p2cover3392171jul30,0,2963094.story

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