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Sundance 2010: Islam, Sundance Style

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2010-01-29 -

If there’s anything that a good film festival should do—indeed, that good art of any kind should do—it’s to introduce you to worlds and points of view you hadn’t contemplated before. Even more compelling is when you think you have contemplated a word before, but realize that there much more to it than you though.

With Islam such a sensitive subject for so many Americans—Do we equate it with terrorism? Is the “radical” version the real version, or a perversion?—it’s particularly valuable to get a few lessons in alternative perspectives from Sundance 2010 movies. Consider it a bonus that they do so with vitality, intelligence and occasionally even a pitch-black sense of humor.

If I could understand more of the references—and make out more of the dialogue in general through the accents—I suspect Four Lions might be a comic masterpiece. As it stands, it’s pretty damned terrific for nearly every thoroughly inappropriate minute. Director/co-writer Chris Morris tells the story of a group of British Muslims trying to carry out their own personal vision of jihad—which is complicated by the fact that in general, they’re incompetent morons. Morris and company don’t have much of a political agenda in mind, other than perhaps mocking the inevitable schisms in any movement. Mostly, they’re out to turn their set-up into some gaspingly hilarious set pieces: the failed attempt by two of the lads to succeed in a Pakistani training camp; using a children’s online community called “Puffin Party” as an organizational tool; the “anti-surveillance” head shake. Some viewers are bound to conclude that there’s no comedy to be found in terrorism, ineptly executed or otherwise. But Morris and his remarkably deft cast provide perhaps the only response to crazy extremism that really makes sense: recognizing its inherent absurdity.

In his adaptation of Michael Muhammad Knight’s funky, gritty, singular underground novel The Taqwacores—co-scripted with Knight—Eyad Zahra delivers a funky, gritty, singular underground movie. Yusef (Bobby Naderi), a Pakistani-American Muslim, starts college at the University of Buffalo and moves into a house with fellow Muslims as a way to “stay focused.” But his housemates aren’t like any Muslims he’s ever known before—a collection of punk rockers, Straight Edgers, pot smokers and burqa-wearing feminists. Zahra maintains the fairly episodic nature of Knight’s book, holding on to the friendship between Yusef and super-punk Jehangir (Dominic Rains) as the centerpiece. And while some episodes work better than others, Zahra and Knight never lose sight of the singular notion that unites these characters—taking at face value the idea of Islam as an unmediated relationship with God that almost by definition rejects orthodoxy. Radical manifestos should all be this energetic and entertaining.

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