Pakistani-American Cinematographer Nausheen Dadabhoy Reps Her Community Through Film
By Alyssa Klein
Ms. Marvel, the 16-year-old Pakistani-American and Muslim superhero from Jersey City, is exactly the kind of story Nausheen Dadabhoy wants to see in comics and on screen. It would be a dream come true for this Pakistani-American cinematographer and filmmaker to work on a Ms. Marvel movie in some capacity when it inevitably heads to Hollywood. In the meantime, Dadabhoy is documenting real-life Muslim women superheroes.
Her forthcoming feature-length documentary looks at the recent wave of young Muslim-American women activists. An Act of Worship, its working title as well as the name of a 2017 short, is a film “by Muslims, for Muslims, about Muslims,” Dadabhoy tells me. She began working on it shortly after the election of Donald Trump.
For Dadabhoy, it’s high time for Muslim-Americans to tell their own stories, and more diverse stories at that. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Dadabhoy was born and raised in Orange County, California. She’s the first to admit that her experience is hardly representative of all Muslim-American experiences. She hopes to see greater Muslim-American representation both in front of and behind the screen to capture the full nuance and three-dimensionality of being Muslim in America.
I caught up with Dadabhoy for this week’s Storyteller Spotlight. When we spoke, she was anxiously awaiting news on whether or not the Supreme Court would rule in favor of Trump’s Muslim ban. Hours later, SCOTUS announced its decision to uphold the ban.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity and readability.
We Have Stories is all about storytelling. What is your story?
I’m a Pakistani-American filmmaker. I live in New York but I’m originally from Orange County, California. My focus is in cinematography. I normally do camera and lighting for fiction and documentary, but since the 2016 election, as a Muslim-American, like people from so many other marginalized communities, I felt angry and upset. I needed some sort of healthy outlet for all of that emotion. And so I started directing a film about Muslim-American civil rights activists.
How did the idea for your new film, An Act of Worship, come about?
For me, this project really starts with my sister, Fatima Dadabhoy. She used to be the senior civil rights attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations Greater Los Angeles Chapter (CAIR). After the 2015 San Bernardino attack I got to see my sister at work and CAIR’s response to what was obviously a horrible crime, but also the sort of fallout that happens in the Muslim community every time these kinds of things happen. Part of why I wanted to work on this film was I kept remembering my sister and how that image of this strong Muslim woman, and Muslim people working as activists and attorneys, just doesn’t exist in our society. Immediately after the election I contacted CAIR and said I think you’re going to be really busy in the next few years, so I’d love to follow their work and just sort of see what happens.
What happened next?
We started filming with CAIR, and we were with them right when the ban was announced in January 2017. I was at LAX filming and my producer, Sofian Khan, was in New York at JFK. We made a short film out of those first few days of the initial response to the ban. It follows CAIR Los Angeles’ Executive Director Hussam Ayloush and another Muslim-American woman activist, Ameena Mirza Qazi,. Working on that, I realized this story is obviously bigger than what’s happening in California, and the community in California isn’t representative of all the challenges that Muslims in different parts of the country are facing. Once we completed the short we went into research mode. Our objective was to highlight the racial and ethnic diversity of the community, but we also knew that Muslims were facing different challenges based on where they were geographically in the country, and we wanted to capture those nuances.
During the research phase we realized that most of the activists are young women. And a lot of that is because Muslim women are sort of pushed out of traditional spaces, and so they find their space in activism and organizing in the community. We decided to focus on young Muslims who are coming of age in their activism in this moment and this political climate.
Why is that a story you feel particularly inspired to tell?
I was 19 when 9/11 happened, and it was such a defining moment for me. It put me on the trajectory to do this work of being a filmmaker and representing my community through film. I wanted to know what it’s like for people who are young in this moment, and how this political climate is going to define them.
How are you going about making the film?
One of the things we’ve been actively doing is making connections with different Muslim communities across the country. Part of that is to start developing an audience, and part of that is just because if there’s some sort of breaking news event, we have contacts in those communities to go in and film with them. I talk about the film as two layers. One is the real-time following the activists. The other is sort of like recreations of hate crimes or government policy that has impacted the community. We do this to put a face on the community and to put a face on Islamophobia, which unfortunately a lot of people still think is not a real thing. For example, some of the stories that we’ve been collecting are people that were initially detained at the airport when the ban hit, young kids that have been bullied in school, families that have been victims of FBI raids. So we’ve also been reaching out to communities across the country to help us locate people that are willing to share their stories. I really want to have as much diversity in the film as possible. Islam is not an ethnicity, and it’s not a race. We have people of so many different backgrounds, and we hope to capture that.
What inspired you to pursue a career as a filmmaker?
I think a lot of the reason I did my undergrad in film and video is because when 9/11 happened I was in college. That’s when I did stupid things, like I got a star and crescent tattoo on my body, and I was trying to figure out what it means for me to be Pakistani. Was I accepted in America? And I was trying to also figure out how to celebrate and represent the way I practice Islam. I became obsessed with Pakistani culture and understanding Pakistan, and whether I fit into that culture and country.
After I graduated from undergrad in 2005 there was a massive earthquake in Pakistan. I moved there for a year and I directed my first documentary, The Ground Beneath Their Feet. It’s about two young women that were paralyzed in an earthquake in the north of Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir. It talks about the role of women in a society, especially in the rural parts of a country, where women can only be homemakers and caretakers. These young women can’t fulfill that role anymore, so what kind of place does society offer them?
While I was working on that film, I applied to grad school and I went to the American Film Institute. My experiences in Pakistan, and my post-9/11 identity crisis and everything, it was all sort of still there, so when I graduated from AFI I really sought out projects that were about marginalized communities, about women, about people of color, with an emphasis on Muslims and South Asians. One of the first projects that I got was set in Pakistan. I moved to Karachi to film that, and I ended up staying there for five years. I was the only woman cinematographer in the country. One of the projects that I did in the middle of that was a short Swiss film, La femme et le TGV, with a producer that I went to undergrad with. We shot it in 2015 and then in 2017 the film was nominated for an Oscar. It was definitely a surprise.
Why does representation matter to you?
When I was younger I would write a lot of scripts that were about somebody like me, about a young Pakistani girl. But I always thought that if I needed to make a story that was supposed to reach a larger audience it had to be a white protagonist. I thought they were “neutral.” I thought they don’t have all the baggage like we do. Obviously now I understand why that’s so problematic. It always puts people of color into just this one framework. So for instance, for somebody like me, I could never relate to a white character in a story because I’m a practicing Muslim. Something as small as the clothes that I’m wearing, or the fact that on a daily basis I have to try to find somewhere to pray five times a day, these characters are never going to have to think about stuff like that. And sometimes I think about that when I’m watching a movie. I’m just like “How nice to just go about your day and not have to worry about prayer times?”
I’ve been an avid comic book reader since I was eleven. I’ve always loved the X-Men, especially when I got older and I understood what the X-Men represented and that they were always sort of a stand-in for minorities. They were fighting for people that hated and feared them. In 2013 Ms. Marvel was introduced. She’s a Pakistani-American superhero. Reading the first issue, I couldn’t believe it was somebody like me in that comic book. She actually goes to the mosque and talks to the imam about issues that she’s having. Her parents talk like my parents. They didn’t try to whitewash the culture, and they also made sure not to give it an overly ethnic or religious lens. We’re not just those two things. A big part of that was the fact that the writer, G. Willow Wilson, is a Muslim convert, and the co-creator and editor, Sana Amanat, is also a Pakistani-American woman. She’s bringing her own experiences. Representation matters not just on the screen or on the page, but also behind the lens.
What, to you, is the role of storytellers in combating the Muslim ban?
One of the challenges that we’re facing with our film right now is that the Muslim community has been so badly represented in the media for so many years. We’re also dealing with government policy that has been violent towards the community. FBI raids and surveillance programs are still happening. You have a community that’s so fearful, and so scared of saying anything that will make them look “un-American,” or that will make people doubt their allegiance to this country, whatever that means. It’s been hard for us to try to capture their story given all of those circumstances. Sometimes we have to push our community to a place where they’re a little more uncomfortable. If we’re not going to do it, somebody else is going to do it for us. We see how it’s happening, and it’s not being told well. We have to come out of the shadows and tell our own story. We have to take charge of the narrative.
I don’t like the idea of building empathy because we want people to recognize our humanity, but that’s almost where we are right now as a nation, where we just have to say “these people are human. They love their children too. It’s hard for them to be in a cage, in a detention center.” So part of it is that. And then part of it is just having ownership of what our story is and being able to tell it ourselves. Having the courage to do that is what’s been really difficult.
Is there anything that’s been on your mind lately?
One of the things that’s also been a frustration is when we talk to funders they’re like “oh there’s this one Muslim movie and now there’s not space for another one.” Well, I’m not representative of everyone that’s in this community, and even the people that we’re filming, no matter how much diversity we have, aren’t representative of everyone. We need to have space in order to be able to tell lots of our stories, and different ones. We need to have space for other Muslim filmmakers or comic book characters or whatever it is, so that we can start to work on the representation of this community, and obviously other communities, so that it’s nuanced and three-dimensional and all of the things that we see with white characters in stories, especially white men.
I come from a privileged background. My parents weren’t fleeing a war. They just came here for a better economic opportunity. I grew up in Orange County, which is a fairly wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. All of those factors allowed me to become a filmmaker, which is not an opportunity a lot people have. I’m not representative of all of us. I try to bring a lot of diversity onto our team, but there needs to be more of us.