Culture, Identity and Muslim Youth – An Interview With Filmmaker Tariq Elmeri

Tariq Elmeri is a Libyan filmmaker, currently living in the UK. The subjects of his movies are mostly about culture, identity and Muslim youth. Some are for television, others are posted online or for festivals. He has his own Youtube channel where he shares his filmmaking experience and tips along with covering issue/events he cares about. When Elmeri is not working, he enjoys teaching his one-year-old daughter how to walk and making her giggle or he’s busy challenging -and getting challenged by- his wife. Recently he has been enjoying his blog and Instagram series “Identification Able” in which he interviews and shoots people that he finds interesting in a pursuit to find out what identity means in the modern, multicultural, diverse and complex world.



How did you become interested in filming?

When I was eight years old, I remember my dad pulling out his Sony 8mm Camcorder to record every birthday, Eid, holiday and whatsoever, and I remember me trying to steal his camera to try it too. It made me feel like I have a voice; I could see the world through my lens. I was fascinated by the power to document memories and experiences. And that stuck with me until later, when I went to university, I took classes on filmmaking as I was finishing my computer engineering degree in the US.

I did work in computer engineering after going back to Libya in 2007 but I had the constant urge to film and make and share stories about what life is like in Libya through YouTube. And as cameras got better and cheaper with Canon introducing video for DSLR in 2008, I got really interested in filming.  During the Libyan revolution, people were very excited to share their stories especially in the beginning in 2011/12.   I started a filmmaking collective called 212Group with creative friends. We made short films to make up for the lack of media coverage, especially in the crucial early months of the Libyan revolution.  Then I started my own production company producing films for NGOs and our own awareness campaigns as well as freelancing for international broadcasters like the BBC, France 24 and Aljazeera.

After a while, I became really interested in expanding my film making knowledge/skills and with the encouragement of my wife, back then my fiancée, I applied for the National Film and Television School in the U.K.  I was accepted as one of eight students for their exclusive Masters in Documentary Directing Programme. I produced five films in two years including Forest Gate Girls and The Cave, both focusing on Muslim youth identity issues.


What do you find important when filming?

The most important thing for me is creating an environment where the characters I’m filming and my production team feel comfortable and able to be themselves. This is about building trust where the characters feel safe that you’re going to portray them in the best way possible. Everything else comes with time and with practise. Collaborating with the right people for the project also makes a difference by finding people who are sensitive and interested in the topic. Also, it is important to be patient with the process and accept that things might not work as planned, to be able to see another approach and to try not to lose sight of the goal as film making is a long, turbulent process and requires much more than skill to get through the journey of making one film.


What do you want to achieve with filming?

Story telling in general for me is an amazing tool to bring people together, to make a difference in people understanding one another. I believe in positive stories of role models to inspire as well as highlighting issues that spark productive debate. Much like what Mvslim does in terms of engaging communities to see things differently, I aim to shed light on dark parts of the world and illuminate dark places in people’s minds, especially in our heated environment with the U.S. elections as well as the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I try to do that more frequently with my online presence through Youtube and Facebook. A recent example is my Burkini debate coverage.  I filmed the first demonstration in front of the French embassy in London, highlighting various voices, and trying to make it light and entertaining for different people to engage in the conversation.

How did you develop the idea of you documentaries?

I always start my films with a question, which serves as guidance to keep a narrow focus on what the film is about. In the process of filmmaking, I try to answer the question or discover something I didn’t know before starting the film. My films satisfy issues that I’m curious about such as identity and youth culture.

If possible give a short summary of what they’re about and why you chose those subjects

In the case of The Cave, the question was “Is there room for individuality within faith, can you be an artist and still have faith?” and I wanted to solve the question through tackling the topic of music and the debate around it within Islam. My research led me to a little youth centre in London called “Rumi’s Cave” and in it I met Faisal. His story and journey were a perfect fit to answer the question and make a strong character based film. As for my last film, Forest Gate Girls, it was early 2015 and I wanted to make a film that was relevant to the British/European audience and in that period there was a lot of attention and coverage in the media around Muslim teenagers in the UK escaping their families and going to Syria. That generated a question in my head: “why would a British born Muslim girl leave her family, home, school and the only place she knows to go into the unknown?” And my motivation was to understand a bit more how Muslim teenagers see themselves in Europe because I had just move to the UK two years before and I was expecting a baby daughter and wanted to be well equipped on Muslim identity and issues.

I embarked on a journey to meet and talk with as many people as possible and then realized that the best place to do a film about teenagers is at school because schools are where they spend most of their time and get to know about life and learn. And out of the many schools I talked with, only one was excited enough about the film idea which was Quwwatul-Islam Girls school in Newham in London. My team and I spent three months going to the school every day and spending time with the year 10 class of 25 girls who were 15 years old. We got to access and film how they go about their day and what they care about and how they see the world and how they think the world sees them. It was an amazing experience and I learned many things including that teenagers are very interesting slice of society that we easily overlook. They can be high maintenance at times but in the right environment they can be inspiring and inspired to achieve big goals.

Make sure to follow Tariq Elmeri on:

Written by Hayat El Khattabi

Hayat Jamal is a 22-year-old History student. She likes to read, write and practice sports.