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CIFF: Mooz-Lum (2010) **

October 20, 2010

Written by: Qasim Basir

Produced by: Samad Davis and Dana Offenbach

Directed by: Qasim Basir


99 mins

U.S. Release Date: TBD

Every year at film festivals across the globe, filmmakers use their approximately two-hour platforms to speak to audiences about the topics or stories that they are passionate about.  Whether it’s politics, religions, personal life stories, or just practicing the art of storytelling, festivals give artists the chance to share their views in a way they may not have been able to without the festival system.  Qasim Basir (he goes by “Q”), a first-time feature filmmaker from New York, brings the film Mooz-Lum to the Chicago International Film Festival to share a partially autobiographical story about the hardships and stereotyping that American Muslims face today.  While the film has a good bit of publicity from national media outlets, are broader audiences ready to digest a film about the negative effects of stereotyping that may be using stereotypes itself?




Tariq (Evan Ross) – who goes by “T” – is a college freshman that was brought up in a very strict Muslim household.  His father, Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith), spent most of “T”’s life enforcing harsh guidelines and rules upon his children and his wife Safiyah (Nia Long), much to their detriment.  Hassan wants so desperately for his family to be a textbook example of a devoted Muslim family that his judgment is often clouded into damaging his family’s trust– including sending “T” to an all-boys Muslim school that turns out to be a scarring experience.  Now, finally out of his father’s immediate grasp, “T” can experience real life on his own at college.


Upon arriving at school, “T” finds that his father specially requested a Muslim roommate for him, which constantly puts the image of his past in his face.  Every day, he faces the internal battle of fully embracing the ideals he was brought up believing and practicing, or diving headfirst into the college scene – parties, drinking, etc.



“T”’s internal struggle gets flipped on its head, however, on one day early in the semester.  The day happens to be September 11, 2001, and the twin towers have just crashed down as a result of the terrorist attacks that we’re all so familiar with.  Being a Muslim, and having close Muslim friends and family on campus, “T”’s faith and loyalty are put to the test as his religious community becomes the focus so campus-wide attacks and hatred.


The film serves not only as a view into “T”’s current life in college, but as a window into his family’s past.  Along the way, Tariq runs into people who embody good and bad aspects of Islam.  The physical examples here are Muslims, but the theme of this film can be attributed to any religion or just life in general: good or bad experiences should not definitively shape your view of an entire culture or group.  Your life is your own, and only you can control the effect of a person’s wrongdoings in your life.


While Mooz-Lum brings a good message, there are core aspects of filmmaking that are lacking in the execution of this film.  First of all, the look of the film has less production value than most independent productions across the festival circuit this year.  While the budget of independent filmmaking is extremely restricting, many filmmakers seem to squeak a good aesthetic out of their small wallet, but Mooz-Lum leans more on the side of made-for-TV.



As a feature filmmaker for the first time, “Q” was able to secure several fairly well-known actors to take roles in his film, but the acting isn’t quite up to par.  With such a strong personal tie to this story, it appears that the directing was a bit heavy handed as actors seemed squished into a strict mold.  It was the virtual unknowns that played the most convincing parts in the movie, possibly because they played characters so close to their real-life selves.  Actor Evan Ross showed a lot of promise as the lead role of “T” and had to do the bulk of the heavy lifting in most of his scenes.


Again, while I understand the message of the film (and a very uplifting and positive one, at that) the sculpting of the scenarios that these characters get put in comes across ham-fisted at times.  Basir wants us to understand his worldview and to understand his culture so badly that he spells out ideas or themes that could be so gracefully inferred, like a package that he allows his audiences to open and discover later.  Instead, actors externalize their actions and motivations, leaving little room for interpretation.


Thematically, my only qualm with Mooz-Lum is the fact that nearly every non-Muslim white character in the film is bigoted and intolerant.  Tariq has a pleasant experience as a young boy with one kind white girl, but that interaction is quickly shot down by her close-minded and seemingly insane father, who screams at a 10ish year-old “T” to leave his daughter alone.  The only other white characters were an angry mob of students looking to brutalize any Muslims they can across on campus after the 9/11 attacks.  Granted, outside of the mostly negative interactions with non-Muslims, there were a couple glimmers of hope, but the overall outlook did not seem good.  In “Q”’s defense, Danny Glover’s character – a non-Muslim – was pretty jerky and close-minded as well.


Overall, the message and room for discussion surrounding Mooz-Lum are greater than the film itself.  Writer/director Qasim Basir’s film offers up many introspective questions to the audience, such as, “Do I have prejudices in my heart against other groups of people?” or “Do I strive to understand other worldviews or walks of life?”  Unfortunately, the more artistic aspects of the film leave room for improvement.  If you are interested in learning about other worldviews and religions, or would like to see the work of a new up-and-coming filmmaker, some of the hang-ups in execution should not stop you from seeking out Mooz-Lum.

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