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Muslims on screen & Breaking Down Barriers, Raisah Ahmed

Raisah is a Scottish Asian Muslim Writer/Director based in Glasgow, Scotland working across film & television. She has made a number of acclaimed shorts, including Meet Me By The Water, which was commissioned by the Scottish Film Talent Network and premiered in competition at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and Magda, which premiered at the Glasgow Short Film Festival. She is currently developing Half Moon Camp, an original feature with Zorana Piggott and Film 4. Raisah has directed an episode of BBC 3's The Break, and is continuing to write on CBeebies series Molly & Mack.

We talked to Raisah all things writing, her experience as a visibly Muslim filmmaker, and her thoughts on the representation and visibility of Muslims and Islam in mainstream media.

What drew you to filmmaking and what was your experience of working in the industry?

I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller. For as long as I can remember stories have been such a key part of my life. As a kid I would read a book a day. In mosque my favourite class was Islamic Studies because we spoke about Islamic history and they were the stories that really helped me connect with my faith. So I think I always knew stories were important to me, I just didn’t realise back then that I could be the one telling the stories and certainly not for screen.

At university I studied literature and politics. I knew I wanted to do something that was about connecting with people, giving them a voice and the more I studied the more I realised that storytelling was something that was never leaving me. My master plan was to find a job that paid the bills and write novels in the evenings and weekends. However, I got lucky and found an apprenticeship focused on improving diversity within the film industry in the UK called ‘Second Light’. I applied, got in and once I was in the door I knew I was home.

Filmmaking has felt like the easiest decision in my life. The want to do it that is. The actual journey of becoming a filmmaker hasn’t been easy. As a visible Muslim woman in Scotland I really stood out, I still stand out. The imposter syndrome was strong in those early days and my place within spaces was questioned a lot. However, the good has outweighed the bad. What I’ve found is that people within the industry are excited that I’m here, they’re excited that more Muslims are stepping in and challenging the narratives we see on screen. It’s a journey, and we’re very much in the early stages, but I feel like change is starting to happen and we are seeing it in the conversations that are taking place and the make up of writers rooms.

Looking back now, having been in this industry for 11 years, I can honestly say it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. If I was to ask myself now why I do this job, why I push through the misconceptions and stereotypes, it would be because I get to give a voice to those communities, my communities, and tell stories we’re in danger of losing. I get excited about uncovering a different point of view of historical events. I love being able to put my Muslim experience on screen and show audiences how beautiful it is.

Has your faith as a Muslim inspired and/or influenced your creativity? On a subconscious level I think my faith is always with me. Those Islamic Studies classes as a kid absolutely sparked my love for story and the way in which history was so important.

Faith has been more important on a practical level though. The film industry is really chaotic, you never know when something is going to come through. You could spend years working on a project for it to fall at the last hurdle. Faith is incredibly important in these moments. It can be heartbreaking, and you have to feel that heartbreak. But the getting back up again and moving forward comes from knowing that whatever is planned is what will happen.

When I first entered the industry I would worry about almost everything. I’m at a stage now where I’ve gotten a lot better with that because I’ve just allowed myself to give in to what Allah has planned. I allow myself to create and be creative and believe that things will come into fruition as they’re supposed to. This helps a lot when I feel stuck or worried about projects as it reminds me that it’s okay not to have that control and just to focus on keeping on with moving forward and being creative.

Can you tell us more about Meet me by the Water and what was the most exciting part of bringing it to life?

Meet Me By The Water is a project that began as a feature film. It was actually the first feature film script I ever wrote. I developed it through a programmed called ‘The Nine’ which ran through the Playwrights Studio Scotland and Binger Labs Amsterdam. I was this completely newbie screenwriter, having only written one short film before, but I had this idea that was exploring the roots of my family and how we came to be in Scotland. It was also very much about creating that parallel between this huge journey my grandfather, and great grandfather before him, made in coming to a completely new land without knowing the language, and the journey I was making as a Muslim woman entering the film industry.

The film also came from a place of grief. I lost my grandfather a few days before I shot my first ever short film, Last Order. Meet Me By The Water is really a love letter to him and a thank you for giving me the opportunities I have through the sacrifices he made.

The feature went on to have some scenes be part of a rehearsed reading at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2012 and then was long listed for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2015.

The journey of the film brought it to a space where questions were being asked about who would direct it and I realised that I had to be the one to do it. The feature is still very much a work in progress, but what I was able to do was develop a short film from the essence of the feature - a story about a Grandfather and Granddaughter who both have had to face big decisions in life.

The short film ‘Meet Me By The Water’ was commissioned by the BFI Net.Work programme through the Scottish Film Talent Network in 2015. It premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2016 and went on to be picked up by BBC Scotland as part of the Next Big Thing programme of films. It’s the first Scottish film to have Punjabi as the main language.

The most exciting part about bringing it to life was actually having my family on set. My sisters were extras, my parents made lunch for everyone on the last day of filming and my mum helped design the dress the lead character, Amara, wears in the party scene. Having my parents watch me direct, command a room full of people, was the most daunting thing. On reflection though I think it’s maybe a moment that really made then realise what I was doing and what a big deal it actually is.

How do you develop ideas for films and what are you working on at the moment?

Ideas are strange creatures that come to you in the strangest of ways. I’ve got projects have come from personal experience, others that have come from newspaper articles and some that are 3am thoughts that I just need to sit down and write. I absolutely have to talk out my ideas and I find talking to friends helps with this a lot.

Another thing that helps is flash fiction. Little pieces of writing that often focus on characters. I’ve got a project that actually started as lot of pieces of flash fiction over the years and it’s only recently I’ve realised that it’s all part of the same world. Sometimes the ideas find you before you know you’ve found them.

I’m working on various different things at the moment. A Feature film project that’s in development with Film4 about Indian Muslim soldiers in WW1. Another feature project that’s about a Gran and two of her granddaughters driving across the world. Some tv projects including a family crime drama, a Muslim romcom and a book adaptation.

I’ve also done work in children’s television and am currently in a writers room on an animation project and have just directed on a show for CBBC.

Which films have inspired you and what did you watch growing up?

This is one of those questions that I could answer differently depending on my mood or what day it is. Growing up most of my film viewing was what was on television. My earliest memories include films like ‘Labyrinth’, ‘Neverending Story’, ‘Hook’, the Superman films and also Supergirl. We also watched some Bollywood that would be rented from a South Asian owned video rental store on VHS tapes. There’s this one film that was called ‘Laal Pari’ that I was obsessed with because it was about a mermaid, I barely remember it now but I think it was a remake of ‘Splash’.

Films and filmmakers that inspire me now are people like Nadine Labaki, Wong Kar-Wai, early Terrence Malick films, Ava Duverny, Lulu Wang, The Wachowskis.

The film ‘Le Grande Voyage’ from ‘Ismaël Ferroukhi’ completely changed the way in which I saw Islam represented on screen. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen and stays with me. The Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ is a favourite. Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Trilogy’ is something I could watch over and over again. I watch ‘Practical Magic’ almost monthly! I love the way it combines so many themes into a film that’s actually really fun. Paweł Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ has really stayed with me. I loved Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Parasite’ and Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell’. I have watched Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘My Blueberry Nights’ endless times. And then there’s the bigger blockbuster films like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Black Panther and some of the Marvel movies have been really good in terms of storytelling. I also have a huge list of films from the 90s that are total guilty pleasure films but they also remind me of the escapism of film and being transported in that way.

I’ll no doubt remember a hundred more films the minute this is over!

What do you think of the representation and visibility of Muslims and Islam in mainstream media?

According to a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative nearly a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, but only 1.1% of the characters portrayed in the 100 top-grossing U.S. films from 2017-19 were Muslim. The report also found that Muslim females are even more invisible than their male counterparts in the films surveyed, accounting for less than 24% of all Muslim characters and only 25.5% of Muslim characters. Does more need to be done around ensuring the inclusion of Muslims in mainstream film and especially women?

I don’t think it’s news to anyone that Muslim’s on screen have been represented terribly. The dominant narratives have been negative and Islam is an easy target as the religion of the ‘enemy’. It’s been pretty common that when we’re visible it’s for all the wrong reasons.

I do believe things are starting to change, slowly, but change is happening. A lot of this change is due to Muslims in the industry and these Muslim creators being from a spectrum of experience. That’s important. We’ve not even begun to explore the stories that Muslim creators have to tell - be these very clearly ‘Muslim’ stories or be they stories that feature characters who are Muslim. We need both versions of this.

The more Muslims we have in the industry the more we have people that can speak up, challenge misconceptions and misrepresentation, but also the more people that can be part of the conversations and creative circles. If you don’t know someone from a community then you rely on what the media tells you about them, sadly that’s been hugely negative in the UK and America for a long time.

Are their challenges of being a visibly Muslim filmmaker in the industry? Have you had to break down barriers to get to where you are today?

Challenges absolutely exist. I was my biggest challenge/barrier to begin with. The fear and imposter syndrome I felt as I was entering the industry - I was constantly questioning if I was being let in because I was talented or because I was a box that needed to be ticked. So there’s those mental barriers that some of us have to overcome, and actually we may find these come up throughout our career.

Then there’s the fear of community and what people will think. For the most part I’ve had such positive reactions to being in the industry - there’s excitement around the fact that we have Muslims feeding in on stories, creating positive representations and exploring Islam and Muslims with the nuances we deserve.

Being a visible Muslim woman makes you stand out so you have to go in knowing everyone already knows you’re from a minority. But then there’s also the set up of the industry and the networking over drinks culture. This was a big one for me as it’s not the most comfortable space to be in. What I realised very quickly is that the world isn’t done over drinks, the work is done when people are sober. So it’s good to go to some events, be seen and have some conversations, but leave when it gets silly. I always do this and I find that often my non-Muslim friends end up leaving at the same time as me. I’d rather have a meeting over coffee than try and pitch my projects at a noisy networking event. But this is also where faith and the belief in what is meant to be will be comes in.

Anyone from an underrepresented background will tell you that stepping into a world that has demonised your community is a daunting thought. I’ve definitely had moments where people have, often innocently, been surprised by who I am or that I’m ‘cool’. So you often have to take moments to take that in, process it and come to the realisation that it’s really not you, it’s them.

The barriers we break down are the barriers of misrepresentation. It’s really frustrating to still see the industry get it so wrong. But the difference is that as someone in the industry you can start to have conversations about this and you can push to be in the room with the people that are getting it wrong and engage in conversation. It doesn’t always work, but for the most part I think people want to learn.

How can you determine what makes a great film?

I don’t think you can! Everyone will say something different. For me it’s about connection and emotion. If you’ve got me emotionally then I will watch that film over and over again. I’m also drawn to characters and stories about some sort of relationship. I think good films have something to say - they leave you with questions and you want to talk about them afterwards. But again, it’s taste and what I like might be what you hate.

What do you enjoy most about being a Director?

Working with actors is one of my absolute favourite things about directing. I love getting the script and then spending time with the actors and getting to the heart of the characters and story. Much like my watching, with my directing it’s about emotion for me and it’s about creating that connection with the audience.

Being on set with a crew, the amount of collaboration that directing involves. That speaks to my love of working with people and feeling like we’re all in it together to make something as good as it can be. I’m absolutely a ‘we all made this’ person and am in awe of the amazing crews that I’ve worked with.

Then there’s the absolute fear that comes in that first edit and then the excitement of seeing it all take shape and trusting the process. Funnily enough that again comes back to having faith in yourself that you’ve done everything you can and waiting for things to come together as they should.

There’s also something about doing a job I never in my wildest dreams imagined I could do. I’m always nervous before a shoot and then by the second day I’m in it and we’re doing it and it’s so exciting. You’re running on adrenaline for much of the shoot so you forget how little sleep you’re getting or how little you’re seeing the people you live with.

What role can filmmaking play in telling the stories of Muslims and Islam in the future?

Stories are how we connect with the world. Regardless of what form your storytelling takes, we communicate through stories and emotional connection. Film has been used to create negativity towards us because we’ve been painted in 2 dimensional misrepresented ways. We need to take control of that and put our truth on screen. To put it in the most basic way - we’re human - we feel in the same way regardless of faith or any other differences. So the first thing for me is to create that human connection.

We need stories that have Muslim characters in every day situations or in genre films. We need to see how the foundations and ethos of our faith help shape the people we are. We also need stories that tell us about Islamic history and re-tell moments in history that have erased Muslim communities from it.

Film is about connection and learning. It’s an insight into communities you might not have engaged with before, it’s a way to spark interest, ask and answer questions. It’s why it’s the perfect space for us to tell stories about Islam, about Muslims across a spectrum of experience and about the world we live in.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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