When groups like Britain First and the likes of Donald Trump become the face of modern day Islamophobia, Muslims are told once again that there is no such thing anyway. But it seems that in one direction “Islamophobia” has become merely us playing a race card to distract people from exposing our flaws such as terrorism as so-called “Muslim-related crimes”. Yet, there seems to be a great number of Muslims who are paving the way by defining, exposing and indeed fighting Islamophobia.
And it is towards the direction of the big screen we discover a whole new and more hopeful image: The image of the first ever UK film to address Islamaphobia, “Freesia”. Directed and produced by Arakan Creative, which is an Islamic theatre company and is now hoping to establish itself as the first Islamic film production company in the UK, “Freesia” has not left viewers disappointed to not only address the issues of Islamophobia but also to provide a platform for minority groups in film.
Behind the foundations of “Freesia” and the establishment of Arakan’s new film division is Conor Ibrahiem, winner of The Brit Writer’s Awards in the Script & Screenplay category in 2012, and Mosaic’s Arts & Culture Award in 2010. Just to name a few.
We let him do the talking.
How did Arakan begin?
It was established in 2009 but the reasons for its formation were born a few years prior. It was during my time as a full-time actor that I began to see a distinct pattern emerging with auditions, in that as an Asian/Muslim, I was used for stereotypical roles like a ‘doctor’ or a ‘terrorist’. Along with not securing any major breakthrough roles or a regular income, I needed to think outside the box if I was to make a living in the arts. The lack of opportunity of course was to be a silver lining as it then became clear there was a lack of Islamic stories being told on stage, TV, and film. This gap in the market kept playing on my mind. Then in 2009 I decided to establish a new theatre company, called Arakan Creative, to help fill that gap and also put me in the position of an employer – and crucially – to tell the Muslim story from a Muslim’s point of view. The name “Arakan” is the former name of the state of Rakhine in Burma and a hommage to Muslims who are suffering in that region.
Describe Arakan in three words.
Quality, Truth & Positive Change (those are four words, I know)
What’s Freesia about? Why did you choose this title? And why did you make a film about this topic?
Freesia is a multi-narrative journey that weaves between three families living in present- day Bradford, where three worlds collide and leave a Muslim scholar fighting for his life. Now they must face the storm before the calm – and they call it ‘Islamophobia’. The title comes from the plant – Freesia – which florists suggest to be given to those who “cope well under pressure”. It perfectly reflects the struggles of the leading characters in each story, plus it is not a stereotypical title and makes people ask the question: “What’s with the title?” I was inspired to come up with something different, having watched a British film called “Tyrannosaur”, directed by Paddy Considine. It is not about dinosaurs, it’s actually about domestic violence, but the story does explain why this title was given. The question of why this topic, really extends to us as a human race. Why do we have prejudice in the first place? Why are differences viewed as a bad thing? What’s with this appetite to pick on a mass of people because of the actions of a few and make their lives hell? Why pick on ANY Muslim because a (relatively speaking) small number of nut-jobs go around killing and terrorizing innocent people? Islamophobia is an ugly state of mind and we must do our best to educate the ignorance before it turns into a crime. Film is an excellent method to engage audiences, form new opinions, educate as well as entertain, and thus sow seeds of positive change.
Were there any struggles during filming?
Yes, most films tend to have them, it’s just a case of keeping calm and carrying on. Now that’s the British spirit in me! Being creative helps you to think of new ways to scale the wall and our biggest problem during film was during the mosque scene when we lost half the footage! We used two cameras to shoot the entire film and on our third day, one of the memory cards decided to fail. Panic stations! We couldn’t re-shoot as it would have cost more money. And besides, we had a very tight schedule (thirteen days in total) and any change to that would have had serious consequences. By Allah’s grace the other camera had enough footage for me to save the scene when it came to editing. The wider struggle was making a feature film on only £27,000 and ensuring that this money was spent in such a way as to cover 34 actors, 15 crew members and location hire. Finding the right cast was a little difficult, namely the Iraqi family, but we were finally blessed with the right people.
What inspired you to keep going?
Passion. And because prejudice pisses me off. When there is a cause you believe in, you keep going until it’s over. Of course prejudice isn’t over so I will keep going. I plan to make a sequel to Freesia and then a third film, completing the world’s first trilogy on Islamophobia. And of course Allah’s blessings keep me going, as well as His expectation of us to do good on this earth and help our fellow man and woman.
Where do you want to be in five years?
To have firmly established the first Islamic film production company in the UK. To produce films in a range of genres that Muslims can relate to and to create an alternative, trustworthy, and of course halal entertainment company. I want to get to the point where stories are written purely because they are good stories, underpinned with good morals, that casts actors from all cultures and faiths. I want to encourage, nurture, and truly reflect the UK society we live in by launching the next Asian Leonardo DiCaprio, the black Kate Winslet, the Chinese Tarantino, and the Arabic Simon Beaufoy.
Are Islam and arts really compatible?
Yes, absolutely. What is art? It’s a form of communication. What is the first word Angel Jibreel said to Prophet Muhammad? “Read”. So clearly spreading a message is one of the foundation stones of our faith – some do it in a sermon, others may use a brush. I use theater and film. As people we learn in different ways (audio, visual, reading/writing and kinaesthetic) so there must be various communication methods for all learning experiences. So long as the tool that you use is not relying on sexual content, very bad language, excessive violence, or distorting the truth, then there is nothing wrong with Islam and the arts having a beautiful relationship.
Why do we need a Muslim presence in film production?
Because there is a lack of it – and I speak for all BME groups. The mere fact that in the UK alone BME representation across TV, film, and the performing arts is around 5% is a shocking testament to where the industry has failed. And don’t get me started on the Oscars – 2016 did not include one single BME actor in any of the acting categories. So in the spirit of thinking outside the box, I have decided to establish a film production arm to Arakan and use Freesia as the springboard. It will take a little time to skill up of course to become a professional film producer but once we get there I plan to produce a sequel and then continue to make more movies that are a platform for Muslim and other BME creatives. And yes, I also mean white actors and crew, because without them then, all we are doing is reversing the status quo where BME would be the majority and white would be the minority. This would not fix the problem. We should really strive for balance. Being more specific to the Muslim voice, today we are one of the most vilified groups on the planet. The media is a powerful tool, we carry it around in our pocket. It is so influential. We need more of us behind the camera and telling the story from our point of view.
Any advice to young Muslims who want to make a difference?
I think this is very important question. Remember this one thing, forget everything else I have said, but just focus on this one thing:
We tend to think that Islam can only be preached with a microphone, but look at the good Muslims in the world. They represent the real difference and so you must live each day in the way Allah expects of you. Be good and shun evil – do that and you’re making a difference, which in turn promotes Islam.
For those Muslims who want to get involved in film production?
Don’t wait for the door to open – kick the damn thing open yourself. “But I haven’t got the resources or knowhow,” I hear you say – but you have. A recent film called ‘Tangerine’ was shot on three iPhone 5s and has played in major world festivals and has won various awards! I mean isn’t that amazing? Look on YouTube on how to learn the art of filmmaking from A to Z. The most important thing of course is the story – you don’t need A-list stars, high-end equipment or fancy explosions. The story is the one thing that you can craft for free in your mind but make sure you write within your means. So if you have a £1,000 budget, don’t include a car chase. Use the resources you have and find like-minded people to realize your dream.
I hear there is a crowdfunding campaign?
Yes, there is. It is to help us skill up and become a professional film producing company. With Freesia currently on the film festival circuit – and I am pleased to announce we recently won an award and have also been shortlisted for ‘Best Original Screenplay’, ‘Best Original Score’ and ‘Best Director’ – we have also launched our first ever crowdfunding campaign to help us become the first Islamic film production company in the UK. We managed to run the first race on hardly any training, imagine what can be achieved if we are better prepared for the sequel? This requires support. So I would kindly ask people to donate something or please ‘share’ the campaign amongst your contacts.