August 17, 2006
Jewish, Muslim Filmmakers Team Up on Documentary
With all of the negative images about Jewish-Muslim clashes in the world, it is nice to see a documentary, directed and produced by a Jew and a Muslim, about a Muslim son taking over his father's slaughterhouse business in Queens, N.Y.
"A Son's Sacrifice," which will be screened for one week at ArcLight Cinemas as part of DocuWeek's 10th annual International Documentary Showcase, follows the transition of a young Muslim American as he moves from an enervating job in advertising to a more spiritually enriching experience running his father's Old World business.
Though short even by documentary standards at 28 minutes, the film delves deeply into what 24-year-old director Yoni Brook, an NYU film school graduate, calls "primal rituals," and what his 22-year-old producer, Musa Syeed, refers to as a "story that embodies modernity vs. tradition."
The idea for the film may have begun years ago when Brook, as a student at a Jewish day school in Washington, D.C., visited a kosher slaughterhouse in rural Pennsylvania.
"It turned a lot of people off," he said, chuckling. "Eighty percent of us became vegetarians."
Even if Brook, who is not a vegetarian, admitted that the 80 percent figure is "hyperbolic," the experience of watching animals being slaughtered is not for the squeamish. In "A Son's Sacrifice," the camera shows us more than a little bloodshed, although that may be mild compared to other shots in the film, including one of a goat being incinerated and another being dragged away to its death.
But the filmmakers, who received financing from several foundations, including the Harvard Pluralism Project and the Independent Television Service, a nonprofit affiliated with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, do not pass judgment on this old-fashioned profession, which, according to Brook, is experiencing a "renaissance." He said there are now 80 or so ethnic slaughterhouses in the five boroughs of New York, including the halal poultry store depicted in the movie.
The film, which will air next year on PBS, grew out of Brook's senior thesis at NYU. Marco Williams, his professor and the film's executive producer, teamed him up with Syeed, and they began leafing through the Yellow Pages, searching for slaughterhouses on the weekends. Syeed said that it took time to "build trust," because some Muslim Americans are a bit wary of the camera and "feel that they are marginalized" by American media.
The protagonist, Imran, a sweet, burly man, who is now 28, goes through a kind of identity crisis in the course of the film. Lacking a full beard, he is questioned as to his Muslim bona fides by a few men who drive a van with a sticker reading, "Islam is the solution."
This question galls him, given how much he values being a Muslim. That is not to say that Imran is not a full-fledged American.
Where John Updike, for all his literary adroitness, renders his Muslim protagonist in "Terrorist" as a cliché, Brook and Syeed show the complexities of their young hero. Imran does not utter the kind of formal, yet standard-issue, Islam-for-dummies language of Ahmad in "Terrorist," lines like, "In a few minutes, I am going to see the face of God. My heart overflows with the expectation."
Instead, Imran speaks like an educated, yet streetwise, New Yorker, who collects "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" figurines in his low-ceilinged bedroom, wears baseball caps and uses spreadsheet software in his cubbyhole office.
The tension in the film comes from whether Imran will successfully prepare the small business for Qurbani, the holiday during which Muslims commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, not Isaac. Will Imran earn the trust of his father's customers, and will he be ready to slaughter an animal? These are the questions that preoccupy him and his father.
Though we never hear anyone address Imran by his name, the filmmakers humanize him, presenting him as one whose experience is "transcendent of being Muslim or being Jewish," Brook said. "It's a universal story. I almost thought I was talking to my own father," he added, referring to the "religious and immigrant tensions" that he, too, has faced as a first-generation American with an Israeli father.
To emphasize the universality of the story, the filmmakers show a shot of the Empire State Building looming across the river from the slaughterhouse, a subtle reminder that New Yorkers of all faiths suffered during 9/11, but they, like this particular iconic skyscraper, remain standing.
"A Son's Sacrifice" will be screened Friday-Thursday at Theater 9, ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.