Guest Post: Jennifer Fischer, Co-Founder, Think Ten Media Group
Given how prevalent media is in our daily lives, challenging Islamophobia through film is an important and urgent matter. But doing so requires careful curation of the media that we consume. Nuanced, complex and authentic media representations do exist, but deliberate efforts are needed if we truly want to broaden our understanding of both Muslims and Islam.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, the television and films I watched were dominated by villains often drawn from one of two regions: the Soviet Union or the Middle East. This meant that many of my generation grew up with Islamophobia being both normalized and accepted. Sadly, not much has changed in the ensuing decades. This reality needs to change.
The Power of Media
Muslims around the world represent themselves and express their identities with significant breadth and diversity. Unfortunately, in dominant mainstream Western media, Muslims remain woefully underrepresented in both the film and television industry. As a result, misrepresentation and base stereotypes of Muslims and Islam prevail.
Fortunately, more and more Muslim filmmakers and writers are getting opportunities to tell their own stories – to represent themselves and their communities on screen in powerful and nuanced ways. Still, greater change is needed. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, but Muslim representation in film and television does not even begin to reflect this. Without authentic representations, with Muslim creators at the helm, it is easy for Islamophobia to take hold.
This is especially true in the U.S. where many individuals believe they have never met a Muslim. Media can be a powerful tool of hate, but it can also be an equally powerful force for empathy and understanding. We need to lift up media that combats Islamophobia while also calling on the industry to bring more of these stories to the forefront.
Scripted Film Recommendations
This starter list of recommended films is an invitation to expand our understanding of Islam and to support authentic representations of Muslims on screen. By engaging with this media, we can begin to identify negative, stereotypical representations and remove those from our media diets. This, in turn, will allow us to build empathy and positive understandings instead of bolstering misrepresentations and hate. The film and television series referenced below offer authentic representations and some important educational opportunities for learning about Islam.
Children of Heaven
Available through Hoopla, Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube, Children of Heaven showcases both modern and traditional Tehran through the story of a loving family trying to do their best amidst many challenges. Anchored in the relationship between a brother and sister who must share a single pair of shoes, this film reflects the universality of both family struggles and love. Journeys in Film created a free 10-lesson curriculum guide for this award-winning film.
I’ll Meet You There
I’ll Meet You There premiered at two film festivals in 2020 and was released throughout North America in 2021. Offering an authentic look at a Muslim-American family in Chicago, it’s a moving story about the power of music, dance, and family amidst the backdrop of governmental efforts to target Muslim-Americans. Director Irvam Parveen Bilal’s heart and passion comes through in this film, and I had the honor of interviewing her for Video Librarian. I’ll Meet You There is available through Tubi, Roku and most pay per view services.
Also available through Tubi, Roku and most pay per view services is Jinn, written and directed by Nij’la Mumin. It is a coming-of-age story about a Black Muslim teenager who converts to Islam in the wake of her mother’s conversion. At its heart, it’s a story of both faith and discovery. So often, mainstream media’s representation of Muslims features Middle Eastern and/or South Asian Muslims. But African-American Muslims are an important part of the Muslim community, and authentic stories representing their experiences need to be seen.
Wadjda is a narrative film directed by Haifaa al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first woman director. It follows the story of our lead character, Wadjda, and her desire and struggle to earn enough money to buy a bicycle. Her struggle is compounded by the fact that bicycles are typically reserved for boys and men. Journeys in Film has also created a free curriculum guide for this film, which includes a lesson on the Quran and a profile of Haifaa al Mansour. Wadjda is available on Amazon.
Documentary/Educational Film Recommendations
An Act of Worship
An Act of Worship is a documentary currently streaming on PBS with in-person screening events taking place in Poland, Canada and Minnesota in November, 2022. This compelling documentary is a counter-narrative, told from the perspective of the Muslim-American community itself, with the goal of offering healing in response to Islamophobia.
America Inside Out (National Geographic’s Race Issue)
America Inside Out/National Geographic’s Race Issue, available through Disney Plus, is a documentary exploring the diversity of the United States. Journeys in Film created a Discussion Guide for this film with a component focused on “The Muslim Next Door.”
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman is another National Geographic documentary (available through Disney Plus). It highlights the world’s five major religions, including Islam. Journeys in Film’s curriculum guide includes lessons for each of the five religions. A discussion guide is available, as well.
Bonus Feature: The television series Glitch Techs, on Netflix, was highlighted in a Variety article featuring Eight Inclusive Shows for Families. The series features a Muslim lead character, along with an Indian-American lead and British characters of color. This fun series is about youth keeping video game monsters from coming into the real world. But, the series also counters negative stereotypes and gets children excited about STEM education.
More Progress (and Resources)
In addition to films and TV series, the industry, itself, is now offering helpful resources for non-Muslim creators who want to represent Muslims and Islam more authentically.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council – Hollywood Bureau makes several important contributions. They are a valuable resource for media recommendations, and they host an annual Media Awards gala to recognize positive and authentic representations of Muslims in film and television. They have also recently released the Obeidi-Asultany Test. This tool helps content creators assess representations of Islam and Muslims in their work.
Additional media recommendations can also be found online. For example, journalist Saeed Saeed shares his list of films with positive and accurate portrayals for a United Arab Emirates paper. And Sarah El-Mahmoud put together this list of 11 great portrayals of Muslim characters in television for Cinema Blend. It includes a write-up on Disney Plus’s popular show Ms. Marvel.
Finally, there are also educational resources to counter Islamophobia. I recommend Countering Islam from Learning for Justice and Challenging Islamophobia from the Zinn Education Project. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network also created this talking sheet on Islamophobia and Hate-Based Violence.
Western mainstream media certainly has a long way to go regarding Muslim representations in film and television. The good news is that efforts are underway to promote change. Hopefully, this list will help you enjoy more positive, authentic and nuanced representations that you can also share with your family and friends. Do you have other favorite resources that might be helpful? Please feel free to share them in the comments.
About the Author
Jen Fischer is a writer, film producer, and teaching artist whose work focuses on highlighting shared human experiences to cultivate empathy and understanding. Her films have screened across the United States and abroad and have been featured by NBCLatino, ABC, Univision, Fusion, NBCBLK, Vice News, etc. with her film “THE wHOLE” premiering at Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary Human Rights Conference. In addition to Video Librarian, you can also read her work in Edutopia, Ms. Magazine, and Parents Magazine, among other sites. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Journeys in Film. She has also developed curriculum for LA’s BEST, the Metta Center for Nonviolence, and AcadeMe+ and has worked in conjunction with the Outreach Center for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where she received her M.A. She holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. You can find her on Twitter @IndieJenFischer.