TWO GODS filmmakers talk about the importance of sharing layered narratives about the Muslim American experience

TWO GODS filmmakers talk about the importance of sharing layered narratives about the Muslim American experience
In TWO GODS, a Muslim mortician uses the rituals of death to teach two young men how to live better lives. GOOD DOCS intern Nadeen Ibrahim met with Zeshawn Ali (Director) and Aman Ali (Producer) to learn more about the film.


What is your film about?

Zeshawn: It's a documentary film about Hanif, a Muslim casket maker and ritual body washer who lives in Newark. The film follows his journey as he mentors two young men, Furquan and Naz. When we meet the young men, Furquan is 12 and Naz is 17. The film follows the journey of Hanif mentoring them and teaching about his tradition of being a casket maker and body washer and how to live better lives. It really is about how they all navigate obstacles growing up and learning from the challenges that they face.


What inspired you both to make this film? And why did you think that you were the right team to make it?

Aman: Even as kids, my brother and I being Muslim Americans, felt fed up and frustrated because we didn't see people who looked like us on TV and in film. We did a project with some of our friends called “30 Mosques in 30 Days”. We drove to every state in America to tell stories about the Muslim American community. We were overwhelmed by how much love that project got and saw that people were hungry to hear these nuanced stories that added layers to the Muslim American experience. Because I think very often, a lot of the Muslim American stories you hear and see are very monolithic, like stories of 9/11, immigration, hate crimes. Those stories are very important, don’t get me wrong, but there is so much more to this vibrant community; there are so many cultures, people, narratives that we wanted to capture. So we had already been down that path, and I think death is just an interesting subject and not often discussed. For us, death is such a beautiful tradition in Islam; how much love and tender care and how the community comes together to support people. We wanted to capture that poetically because I feel like Islam is often discussed in a social-political context and not often talked about in a poetic or loving context. We wanted to capture the community the way we see them. We want people to see themselves in their narratives.

First and foremost, I think the film really came from the experiences of our subjects. We had goals of the types of films we wanted to make in terms of films that had layers, but we met Hanif and started to spend time with him at the casket shop. One day we were filming and in walks Furquan, and there's a scene in the film where Hanif teaches Furquan how to build a casket for the first time, and that was the first day we met Furquan. There was something really sort of powerful about how in the midst of this mankind of lovingly care for those that have passed, he's also a firm mean - like the beauty of mentorship and passing down to another generation. This juxtaposition of life and death was beautiful, complex, and not typical, but it felt so human and natural. In a way, that is what life is all about: the messiness and complications in the beauty of the moments of silence and prayer, like sharing a hug with somebody you love. We wanted to uplift all of those threads but found that as we continued filming, all these layers that we wanted to explore came from the moments we shared with the subjects.


What is the role of Islam in this film?

Zeshawn: It’s interesting because we wanted to make a film that explored ritual and faith and its role, but we did not want to make a film that explained what Islam was or its rituals or any of that to an audience. For us, we grew up watching films that when there was a Muslim character whose storyline had anything to do with Islam, it was political, negative, or it was like let me explain why Muslims are people too. That was the baseline, and we were like "we don't want to do that." We didn't want faith to have that sort of forefront, over-explaining nature narrative. We wanted it to be woven into the fabric of our subjects’ experience. So the rituals are not just about explaining what the ritual is. It's about showing how that ritual became a redemptive healing thing in Hanif’s life as he navigated coming out of his past and where he was going in his future. That, to me, was a more nuanced way to look at religion. We also wanted to show that a lot of times films about religion show that religion is practiced in a bubble, and faith is just like higher grounds that you strive for. But we found that faith is not about holiness or living a holier-than-thou lifestyle. It's about navigating the moment where you're at a crossroads in your life. What choices do you have to make where things get hard, where you know your life becomes unraveled like moments of grief, of sadness, of pain, of loss, of resilience. That's what faith is about. What we found was the case of Hanif, Furquan, and Naz. We wanted to make a film about religion, not about explaining to someone what it was.

For us, it was about having that immersive experience. We wanted to make people feel like they were in the room washing the body and hanging out with us and Hanif. That was the most exciting thing that I saw. When we brought Hanif out, people met him, and they felt like they had known him their whole life. That’s what we want, and we want people to feel as immersed in this community as possible. We feel that when you over-explain things, it creates this distance and barrier. I guess you may be more informed, but you don't feel this urge to hug someone or hang out with them. We make people feel as welcome as we were as filmmakers in this community. For us, it was just a natural extension of the community that we spent time with. That kind of love, that kind of warmth, is something that we wanted to capture so people could feel like they were a part of that community as well.


Why do you think Hanif’s job as a casket maker is significant to the message that is being relayed in the film?

Aman: What I like about Hanif is, yes, he's doing good in this world, and he is human. He works hard, and like anybody, has shortcomings and downfalls, but he's a person who continuously puts in the work. He continuously puts in the effort, and I always tell people that we all had a Hanif growing up and maybe it's our big brother, maybe it was somebody down the street, or maybe some organization that looked out for us, and I think we need more people like him out there. I know it sounds corny, but our world would be a better place if we all had a Hanif in our lives to check in on us and to keep us in check. We are there to support him and support what they do. Hanif is a person that, I can't say it enough, he goes above and beyond literally. Every single day this man texts me or calls me to tell me that he loves me. Every day he is like, "I love you, I appreciate you, I miss you bro." I don't have anybody in my life that does that. That man is truly special.

Zeshawn: I think the casket making and his work as a casket maker is crucial because when Hanif met that tradition and found casket making, he was at the lowest point of his life and will say that often. He was coming from a period in his life where he was struggling, and nobody saw him as capable of being the person he knew he was capable of being. That is society and the people around him. If you are a black man coming from the system of over-incarceration and over-policing, society does not look very favorably upon you, which is unfortunate. Hanif found this tradition where he provides the resting place for somebody who just passed, and he saw such respect and honor in that. Hanif will say casket-making saved my life all the time, and that little nugget was like such a spark for us when we were like it reframes our film. Often, when people see our film, they think it is about death, but it's really about how these rituals have saved people. It lets them reimagine themselves. Hanif learned through these rituals through this redemption. Through this care that he can give to other people, he can lift himself when others will not. That’s why the casket shop was such a beautiful space of daily care. It was where people in the neighborhood would stop by and check on each other and have snacks. Hanif always had his door open, and that is how he met Furquan. He was a kid that had nowhere else to go at the time. That is why casket-making became such an important focus. I think narratively on the film because it was such a critical turning point in his life when he found it.


Much of the film is about mentorship and love and community, the world would be better if we had more hands. Why did you choose to focus on this? Did you have a Hanif in your life?

Zeshawn: From my personal experience, having a family that took care of us in such a critical way like our father was sort of a mentor figure for us and the Muslim community we grew up in. Mentorship was a part of our upbringing, and in many ways, it was about teaching. It was about love and respect. It was about making sure that somebody was always fed when they came into your home. We were in an immigrant Muslim Community in the middle of Ohio, so we had to care for each other like the elders had to care for the children, because no one else would care for us in that kind of way. I think that was important for us going forward, but I think it's clarified how we've navigated storytelling. Those stories are about care and vulnerability, and this is a film about these young men, but it's asking about emotions and stealing and hugging and touching. It is intimate because those are the environments that we were raised in, in places where we were taught to be emotional and to show love. I think that’s why we naturally gravitated towards Hanif because he's the same way. I look up to Hanif like he is one of my older brothers because I think we have similar viewpoints about the world. I think mentorship has been huge to our experiences and our upbringings.

I often think, especially in communities of color, we hurtfully oversimplify people, kids, people’s struggles and upbringings. We have all these hateful ways to minimize people, and what I love about Hanif is that he cares about people. There are kids going through tough times, and if you really care, you have to hug them and show them that you love them, and let them know you think everybody deserves that. Many people are fortunate to have that, while some people are yearning for that. We get so exposed to everything and we go numb to people's struggles. I think that is why we gravitated so much towards this story because Hanif gravitates towards people and he truly selflessly goes above and beyond to invest in people. I find it inspirational and something that I want to be better at in my own life; to take the time to understand people to feel connected to people to feel that empathy, and I think it's something that everybody deserves.


I noticed that Hanif is passionate and patient when helping those around him, specifically the two young men that were guided out of trouble by him. Did he mention why he was determined to help those in need? Why do you think Hanif chose these two young men to guide?

Aman: When we went into this film, we thought this is a story about this guy helping these kids. Then we started learning about Hanif's life and his ups and downs. He sees so much of himself in a lot of the kids that he works with and has their best interests. We thought it was him helping the kids, but it is also about the kids helping him and giving life its purpose and meaning. This is truly a bond that they're building. They’re all going through their respective adversities together, but I think he sees so much of himself in these kids; not in a shameful way and not in a “these kids are lost.” He has seen this dance before and knows when to apply pressure and when to back off to help the teenagers. He still lets kids be kids because he understands a lot of that.

Zeshawn: On a personal level, Hanif gravitated towards Naz and Furquan specifically. Naz was a kid in the community that became very close to Hanif, and he was close with Naz’ family. They bonded because he knew complex things like grief, especially after Naz lost his grandmother; it was a challenging time. I think Hanif felt close to him and gave him a lot of guidance. He was like his older brother, and Naz didn't have any siblings to go to. He didn't have people that he could lean on in that sort of way. I think Hanif saw a lot of himself in Naz. Furquan, what I love about him and just like when he was a kid where he had such captivating energy to him, you wouldn’t want to follow this kid around and wonder what he was doing daily. Hanif wanted to spend time with him. It was such an odd couple in that way, like everything about them is the polar opposite. Hanif felt close to him because he knew that Furquan had more potential than even Furquan realized. I think Hanif knew that beyond all of these layers, Furquan was a kid worthy of love and care and could give that to other people. Now that Furquan is older, we see that kind of coming to fruition in a really beautiful boy. Hanif is always like, “I told you, I told you like Furquan had a big mouth when he was a kid and was funny and silly,” but he always knew this kid has such a good head on his shoulders and a big heart. I think Hanif has such a good eye for that.


There is a lot of pain and difficulty that your subjects endure. What was it like for you both personally, as you filmed Hanif as he taught the two young men?

Aman: With documentary filmmaking, I come from a journalism background of workers reporter for years. When you're a reporter, you get taught this notion of objectivity, where for us we care about people. Us, human beings, were filmmakers and these are the people that were filming. Still, we care about people as humans, so there are tough times when people don't want to talk about things, and that's okay. We're here to capture their story the way that they want to capture it. You have to care about people beyond the film, and we weren't just trying to make a film on these people. It’s difficult to see them go through these things, but it’s difficult because we are their friends. We don’t have these moments of  “Oh, I have to keep this distance from you. I can't feel any emotion, I can't hug you.” No, he's going through a tough time, and he's talking about things, and it's very hard for him to do. You have to acknowledge that and do right by them. Them being so vulnerable and telling quite frankly some ugly parts of their life, we wanted to make sure it was purposeful and that it wasn't just exploitative. There is good to come from humanizing these words for them to be courageous and vulnerable, so I think it comes down to caring for people as people and not just as subjects.

So many of the difficult moments in the film are things that we could never have imagined would have happened. Our subjects obviously couldn't have imagined that these events would happen, and so the twist of filming certain moments and how we found it and how we captured it was really like a constant conversation that we were having with our subjects. Often, they were the ones that were like "I need to talk about something that just happened, I need to get something off my chest." I wanted to make sure that this is reflected in the film. Some of the hardest moments were with Hanif especially. The one that most hurts me to watch is when Hanif gets the news that he can't build caskets anymore. He's working on his car, and it was a tough day, and it was after he got the news about Naz. He had just had a breakdown, and it was like this moment where Hanif was like, “If I just showed the good moments in my life, people wouldn't know the struggle or how I pulled it through from that.” We made sure to frame our subjects in the most empathetic lens. The camera was never objective in this film; it was always empathetic. We were always going to tell this with as much softness and care as possible because the camera wasn't there to just be an observer. It was also their tool as much as it was ours. That was the most important thing; making sure the subject was okay. A lot that happens in the film. The cameras weren't rolling because we were just there as humans making sure that they were okay. That these are people we care about and formed very close relationships with.

 Hanif, featured in TWO GODS

Why did you title the film "Two Gods"?

Zeshawn: It's interesting because we intentionally did not want to explain the title in the film itself. The idea for the title came from a conversation we had with one of the funeral directors in the community. She said that many people who are passing away now or coming through her funeral homes are not just people dying of natural causes. She mentioned that they are younger and dying from violence, addiction, struggles with mental health and all these other things that are reflections of larger societal problems. She had a really beautiful reflection point; at the end of the day you can’t worship God in a spiritual sense and worship the “god” that might be in the streets - you can’t invest in this higher spiritual power while also trying to think of your own daily survival. At a certain point, you have to make a choice. That was a really fascinating juxtaposition because it really frames the spiritual crossroads we all have to make as human beings. The most human thing that we all encounter is that we face struggles and choices on a daily basis. To be religious does not mean you practice your faith in a vacuum- you’re practicing faith out in the world where you have to make choices on a daily basis. Sometimes that aligns with faith and sometimes that aligns with survival and oftentimes those two choices come in conflict with one another.  I think when it comes to the film, we see these  personal and spiritual crossroads that our subjects face at some point in their life's journey. We’re not trying to prescribe one path being “better” or “worse” than the other- but we’re framing this experience as part of the process of getting older or navigating complex challenges in our lives- the bigger choices we have to make as people every day.


Any updates on Naz, Furquan, and Hanif?

Aman: With Naz, it is very frustrating and almost makes no sense, but he hasn't had a formal trial. Every day that goes by, his mom and family are fighting for justice. He has been denied bail and has just been awaiting a decision for three years now. It's been very hard on his family, friends, and those close to him. He has incredible support from his mother, Keerah. It has been hard during COVID-19 for her to see him in person every day but she still calls him whenever she can, as does Hanif. Naz’s current situation is a reflection of the soullessness of our criminal justice system; even waiting for “justice” can take away so much of your life. It can be years of someone's life that they're waiting for a decision from a court. It's a really difficult situation, but he's surrounded by so much love and support, which is not the case for many people. I think in that sense, he has so many people showing up for him and being so supportive of him every step of the way.

Aman:  With Furquan, he’s in North Carolina doing well and building a real future for himself. We couldn't be prouder of the man that he's becoming and growing into. For Hanif, it has definitely been quite hard. The pandemic has put a huge burden on funeral workers. I can only imagine how hard it is to be making caskets and grinding away especially with the volume of death we are dealing with it's been really tough for them for sure. But Hanif is still persevering- mentoring people whenever he can, staying active in the community, and still involved in both Naz and Furquan’s lives. 


What message do you want this film to send to your viewers?

Zeshawn: There's a thread in the film about how one of the purest gifts we can give to each other is just caring for them and showing up for them. I also think the most significant messages from the film comes at the end when Hanif has a reflection that serves as a metaphor. He's talking about things that fall like a leaf falling to the ground and then coming up and having a life again. Everything that ends has some other beginning.  It's like during your most challenging moments in life, you'll get an opportunity to find yourself again and will get a chance to redeem yourself.  I think the other big takeaway is the intimacy of these rituals. The reflection point of grief is hard, and it's challenging, and death is something that is incredibly hard to navigate. These rituals are so important to hold because of how we can provide care for each other, even through death. I think in this film, in our communities, and in many communities of of color we have to find how we care for each other in all stages of life. Through that care comes the most foundational forms of community. All of these spaces in which all this care is happening - like a casket shop, a mosque, a street corner on a summer day, are all so important to hold with such a high regard that I think they deserve. I think this film is our love letter to these rituals, the subjects and to this community.


How do you think this film can be used to teach students and communities?

Zeshawn: My brother [Aman] and I were just talking about the importance of mentorship in communities, especially when talking about communities of color. There are many important emotional moments and moments of reflection for the audience. Most Muslim American communities and communities of color are misunderstood in a lot of ways. I think there are a lot stigmas about what it means to be in a Muslim community. There's so much beauty, tenderness, and honesty that has a lot of people being vulnerable. And that vulnerability is so foundational to what makes our communities feel like home. I think these spaces are critical to explore and uphold. And hopefully, as students and communities watch this film, they can get a lens into a religion that I think is misunderstood in this country and to see how care and mentorship within communities play pivotal roles. How stories like this reflect the necessary healing that these communities are going through in real time.  Narratives like this counter societal stereotypes of challenges that people face. It gives a human lens to understand what it means to navigate faith as a Muslim, to navigate over policing in a neighborhood and community like Newark and East Orange, and how funeral workers and people who care for the dead like Hanif are providing the groundwork for mentorship and the passing down of traditions to a new generation of people who will learn from these stories and examples being shared with them. 


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