Interview: Director Eyad Zahra Talks TAQWACORES, Q&As This Weekend!

October 20, 2010

While surfing Wikipedia one night a few years ago, filmmaker Eyad Zahra stumbled across influential American Muslim writer and performance artist Michael Muhammad Knight. Intrigued, Zahra picked up Knight’s novel The  Taqwacores, a story about a fictional group of misfit Muslim Americans living in Buffalo, NY. Taqwacore, a term that combines the word Taqwa (the Islamic concept of “God-consciousness”) with (hard)core punk-rock, describes Knight’s imagined culture collision of Muslim punks…which in response developed a real life art scene!

Reading The Taqwacores was no less than a life-changing experience for Zahra, setting forth the novel’s film adaption. Along with the inevitable financial restraints of independent filmmaking, The Taqwacores had to overcome being told that the film was uncastable. Against all odds the film debuted at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was called one of The Ten Best Films of The Sundance Film Festival 2010 by Time Out London!  We are proud to present The Taqwacores this Friday, October 22nd at the Village East Cinema along with special Q&As with the cast and crew.

Q&A Friday, October 22nd following the 8PM Show: Eyad Zahra (Writer/Director), Michael Muhammad Knight (Writer), Volkan Eryamn (Actor), Allison Carter (Producer)
Q&A Saturday,October 23rd following the 8PM Show: Michael Muhammad Knight (Writer), Volkan Eryamn (Actor), Allison Carter (Producer)

Eyad, congratulations on your feature length debut! In your own words can you explain the taqwacore culture and what drew you to it?

EZ: Thank you! My first encounter with the taqwacore culture was through the novel. After reading it, I reached out to the author, Michael Muhammad Knight, and he told me how the novel had snowballed into a real life artist scene. As we were developing the novel into a film, the taqwacore music had started to really come to life, with bands like The Kominas and Al-Thawra starting to tour. Now the taqwacore scene goes beyond to include various types of activists, bloggers, photographers, etc. Taqwacore is not religious specific, and people of all faiths and no-faiths have supported it.

When did you first get your hands on Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores of which the film is based?

EZ: After randomly coming across Michael Muhammad Knightâ??s wikipedia page, I discovered the book. Iâ??ll never forget when I read the description of his novel, as being about â??punk rock Muslims.â? Everything stopped right then and there. I called my local indie bookstore on the spot, and asked if they had it on the shelf. They did. I picked up the novel that night, and after a few readings, I finished the book. It was nothing short of a life-changing experience.

What was the process of writing the screenplay with author Michael Muhammad Knight like?

EZ: When Knight and I first began to work on the screenplay, I was very intimidated. First, this was the author of the novel, and who was I to suggest things that he might not agree with. Second, and more important, I really admired Michael a lot. I placed him on a pedestal way above me. Thankfully though, Mike saw our collaboration as mutual, and I became less intimidated to work with him over time.

The Taqwacores focuses on the fusion of two very different cultures and lifestyles, punk culture and Islam. Was it a difficult task to make sure each was represented accurately (on film)?

EZ: Yes. The last thing we wanted to do was make a film that presented a pseudo depiction of Punks and Muslims. Going into the film, I had more of a Muslim angle on things, so I had to do a lot of research to get the punk side of things understood.

Thankfully though, Mikeâ??s book gave us all the ingredients to give both communities justice. In order to keep the film a Muslim story, we kept Mikeâ??s strong use of Islamic vernacular, without the use of subtitles. On the punk side of things, we shot the film at the Tower 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio, which created an authentic punk setting for the cast and crew to work in. There were many other things we did to keep it Muslim and Punk, but these are just the first two examples that come to mind.

Have you experienced any backlash?

EZ: To many people’s surprise, no signs of backlash have been received. Although this film is not for everybody, there are people who really champion it, specifically within the Islamic community. The Taqwacores is a complex tale, trying to be as honest as possible with the American Muslim experience. Muslims and non-Muslims who have seen the film have truly respected our efforts.

I find it fascinating that the Muslim punk scene developed in response to its fictitious inception in Knightâ??s novel. How did you approach the making of the film in light of this fairly new subculture?

EZ: We tried to incorporate the real scene as much possible with this fiction film. Every song, except one, are from taqwacore bands. Characters in the film constantly reference the read bands in the film too. Last but not least, our production designer was the lead singer from Al-Thawra, Marwan Kamel.

I read in a previous interview that an industry casting director called your film â??uncastable.â? How did you overcome that challenge?

EZ: We hired an incredible casting director, Ryan Glorioso. Ryan did a nationwide talent search with peanuts as a budget. Through this efforts we locked in most of our cast. I cannot recommend Ryan enough to any indie filmmaker out there.

This film has truly had an incredible journey, from Sundance we played around the world, including Spain, Russia, Poland, and in the coming weeks Switzerland and India. The ability for our film to get out there shows that indie cinema is alive and well.