The Importance of Muslim Representation In The Movie Industry – An interview with Filmmaker Ali Abbas

Ali Abbas is an American filmmaker of Lebanese descent, who grew up in Chicago. He moved to New York to attend grad school at NYU after finishing his undergraduate degree in philosophy. He has lived in New york ever since. This year he started living and commuting between New York and Chicago to work on The Ridge in Brooklyn and The Girl Deep Down Below in Edgewater. He recently found out he is one of the 2017 Diversity Fellows, an ongoing initiative with major networks to push for diversity on broadcast television.

How did you become interested in filmmaking?
I’ve always loved television. I’m a total morning person, so everyday I get up around 4:30 AM to watch new episodes of shows broadcast the night before. I go through every possible show, starting with my favorites and ending with the ones I dislike- usually shows about domestic security like Homeland, Tyrant, 24, etc. I explicitly make it a point to watch shows that misrepresent Muslims and Arabs because I think it’s important to fully understand recurring tropes in popular culture before subverting them.

Whenever I host a comic panel or lecture at a university, I usually give a spiel about representation in pop culture using a bunch of clips pulled from currently airing shows. People aren’t at all shocked to find shows like 24 and Homeland are problematic, but they’re usually a little shocked when I start covering popular fantasy shows like FX’s Legion or DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Those kind of shows are loved by “woke,” white, upstanding, liberal people, so pointing out radically problematic patterns of orientalism or racism tends to make them uncomfortable with what they watch. Film and television are powerful ways of communicating philosophical and political ideas through entertaining stories and memorable characters. I love it but it also terrifies me sometimes. Misrepresentation of brown people didn’t start with the Trump administration. It’s been a lucrative practice in film and television since the earliest silver screen depictions of the Orient. That’s why it’s as important as ever for Arabs and Muslims to get involved in the industry. So I decided to work with what I love.

Tell us more about The Ridge and your journey
The Ridge started off as a short story I wrote while studying at NYU. I penned it to make sense of my family’s history with the FBI and US surveillance program. In 2007, three agents showed up at my home while I was a freshman in college. They questioned me about buildings in the area, asked to go through my belongings, and topped off their search by threatening to call immigration (I am and was a citizen…) In 2011, my mother and father were simultaneously approached by agents while the former was at home and the latter was at work. The agents questioned my parents for hours, playing random tapes of innocuous phone conversations between them that must have been stolen by taps. My parents payed lawyers thousands to respond to a grand jury summon, only to find they were mistakenly targeted based on wrong information. That’s when I had the idea of creating surveillance officers that weren’t too good at their jobs. The cases they spent years working on proved to have nothing to do with us. They wasted their time, taxpayer money, and invaded the most private moments of our lives for nothing. And this all happened during the last year of the Bush administration and midway through Obama’s presidency. I created the main characters, a group of egocentric millennials living in the Muslim community, as a response to our offensively problematic representations on television. I don’t recognize any of the Arab or Muslim characters on TV in my own life, and that is alarming.

I pitched the show to our first producer to secure a small amount of funding, and held a round of auditions at the UCB.  We shot the first four episodes as an origin story to our series and found an agent to help us get distribution through Amazon. They recently made their Prime collection available to people without Prime, so it’s been a great way to distribute our work. We toured the origins series at comic conventions and universities, and finished a $70,000 Kickstarter to complete our first full season. We’ve got a great cast and we’re welcoming some really talented new additions this upcoming season (Fall 2017).

Along with The Ridge, I am currently developing my series The Girl Deep Down Below (debut of the teaser right here) – a millennial horror mystery about Sehir (Islamic black magic) and community paranoia in a Chicago Muslim community

Were there any difficulties while directing The Ridge?
Getting our show produced was gruelling.  When you’re pitching this kind of material to producers and people in the industry, it feels like you’re trying to convince them that the earth is flat. There are only two kinds of Muslim and Arab narratives that sell scripts: bad brown people playing terrorists or helpful brown sidekicks/love interests. Ridley Scott, the father of contemporary American science fiction, said he couldn’t hire “Muhammed so-and-so” because he wouldn’t get his work funded. He said that two years ago and he’s already releasing a new Aliens film and Blade Runner remake. That’s the kind of soul-crushing discouragement you work with as a person of color in this industry. 

Our show is about egocentric 20-somethings in a Brooklyn Muslim community. Our characters are bad but they aren’t terrorists. They’re just egocentric millennials. When they’re “good” it’s usually self-serving. Muslims aren’t afforded the luxury of self-interest because we’re usually only inserted into scripts to make a point or antagonize. I refuse to make “good” Muslim characters or reinforce the good/bad Muslim dichotomy. During the protests against the Muslim ban earlier this year, friends kept sending me memes about how all Arabs and Muslims are doctors and engineers. My dad is a used car salesman and just came back from haj, and I think he’s pretty awesome. So I don’t like to perpetuate the idea that Muslims need to be extra nice or discover the cure for cancer to get treated like human beings.

In an industry where shows like Homeland, 24 and Tyrant can be laughably offensive and still get picked up and renewed, the oddball story we are telling are not considered good bets.

We’re also a science fiction show, which is a space in which Arabs and Muslims are still absent outside of orientalist depictions like in Gods of Egypt. It’s been an uphill climb.

What’s the most beautiful moment you’ve experienced during your journey in creating and acting in The Ridge?
Working with a cast and crew that’s majority POC, women and LGBTQ is awesome. We get to talk about the issues we have while working on professional network productions- the stupid accents we’re told to do, the audacity our agents have when it comes to telling us how to racially present ourselves, and the horribly offensive roles we’re asked to play. Our work has become a great way for us to discuss what’s problematic about the industry and work solutions into our own projects. We also help each other to prepare for auditions/performances and create our own independent material. It feels like we’ve become our own little production collective.

Can you tell us why it left such an indelible impression on you.
I think the show resonated with a lot of people because we appeal to our audience through fantasy. Our special effects are cheesy and whizbang, we trust our audience enough to cut belittling exposition, and our characters are so flawed it’s hard for them to stand on a soapbox for too long. Last year I gave panels about diversity in science fiction at Comicpalooza in Texas, and the audiences were incredibly white. After we showed a clip from The Ridge, our audience Q&A became a colorful discussion ranging from the tropes of superhero origin stories, to the politics of interracial dating in the Arab and Muslim community. It was very empowering and I think it’s because the science fiction elements, the strange events we present with a sort of indifference, help people open up to our world and characters. A lot of people check us out just because they are tired of the string of white superhero narratives being released.  

Who inspires you the most – why?
I am inspired by my parents and Constance Wu. I think if I can keep those two components in my life, I’ll be in pretty good shape. When my parents first relocated our family to America, they didn’t speak english and worked at a 7-11 almost 24 hours a day. They really broke their backs to achieve what we used to call “the American dream.” When they worked overnight shifts, my brother and I would play in the store and sleep on piles of dismantled cardboard boxes in the backroom. My parents worked their way up and gave my brothers and I the tools to pursue the careers we wanted. Because of their perseverance, my parents beat incredible odds and made it in a system that shows nothing but disdain for their hard work.

Constance Wu is leading the charge in changing the entertainment industry by promoting Asian and other underrepresented talent. She’s unwilling to let sexism or racism perpetuate- like when she spoke up about Casey Affleck’s Oscar nomination after facing assault allegations and Matt Damon’s appropriating Great Wall– in an industry that demands people turn a blind eye is both revolutionary and inspiring. She just made Time 100 for her work. She’s proof that you don’t have to let anyone take your soul or your conviction to work in television.

What is your hope for our community?
I’d love for my work to impact our community. I hope brown folks start getting better roles and writing gigs on television. We have such limited representation that we spend half our time and efforts just fighting off the stigma of long-running tropes. I don’t agree that Americans need white faces to be moved or entertained. Every comic convention panel I’ve hosted has been majority white, and they’ve had no problem following along.

I also hope that more people in our community feel inspired to work on fictional material. I recently gave a talk at DePaul University about representation in science fiction. During the Q&A, a young woman from the audience explained she was raised in an Egyptian-American family and was studying political science, but she really wanted to study entertainment journalism. Her parents discouraged her from pursuing something they find “useless.”  We have to take charge of our narratives in pop culture if we ever hope to change them. So shout out to all the brown doctors and businesspeople, my brothers included, but I would love to see more more encouragement and support for our artists. If we’re sick of seeing stereotypical representations of us on television, we need to start fighting for a voice in the writing room and on set.

Written by Alia Abdullah

Alia Abdullah

Alia Abdullah graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from Singapore Management University. She writes at www.aliaabdullah.com. The most popular section of the blog is ‘Ordinarily Extraordinary’ where she interviews seemingly ordinary people who are extraordinary in their own special way. Through her blog, she aims to inspire others to dream, to learn and to take action.