Short comedic film about a hijabi

We recently interviewed the co creator of a short film called “Zoya”.

Watch the film and then read below for an interview with Kashif Pasha one of the co-creators.

Can you tell me first of all, how did the idea for this film come about?

The idea for Zoya primarily came from two places.

One was an article in Maisonneuve Quarterly by Rahat Kurd back in 2011 where she reflects on her time wearing and not wearing the hijab. It struck me when Rahat stopped wearing the hijab and then realized suddenly no one noticed her– I had never thought of the attention as a good thing that one might actually want. But in the fashion world, that’s exactly what you want. In a way– especially in high school– we all tend to want to be noticed. And so the idea came up of what would happen if someone saw the hijab as pure fashion?

This got me re-thinking about the reality of the massive difference between the representation of Muslim women that we tend to be fed in popular mainstream culture and news, and the actual Muslim women I know. Of course we all know this exists, but it’s easy to tacitly accept that media representations just are what they are, and I’m not comfortable with that in the slightest. Media is meant to reflect reality, and if it’s not doing so then it is failing. If there’s one thing in my experiences that characterizes the modern Muslim woman it’s an almost overwhelming level of ambition, intelligence, and oftentimes active engagement in creating their own identities. And if there’s one thing that we’re about at Dunya Media, it’s reflecting a more accurate image of the world back to itself; film is an incredible way to focus in on a single narrative to do so.

What motivated you to do a film with a focus on hijab?

Discussions about the hijab, Islam in America, or any number of “hot-button” topics often feel like they’re pre-written and rehearsed. People know where they stand and what they think and you can more or less predict what everyone is going to say. But looking at individual experiences, there’s no reason that the recycled discussions need to continue to be recycled. At some point, debates stop having a basis in reality and we just start speaking and thinking within a framework we assume is true, but is actually constructed.

Putting aside the spirituality, theology, and so on that are absolutely and incredibly important when it comes to hijab, ultimately every idea, emotion, discussion in news media essentially attaches symbolism and assigns meaning to what is literally a piece of fabric. What was exciting in terms of motivation was the idea of having a character who really only saw a hijab as a piece of fabric, allowing us to re-build the symbolism from scratch. Then her journey of understanding it as something more than fashion can start to be a story.

The hijab is also a great way to visually tell a story about identity and choices because in a way it is either off or on. As long as we’re careful to not make it too binary of a decision, of course. Someone can wear a hijab or not, want to or not, be conflicted about it or not, every combination of all of the above and more—and that can just be over the course of one day.

How hard was it to find actors?

The film was cast completely from our own friends and contacts, the only professional actor being Fiona Kut, who plays Zoya’s student council rival, Alison. Shyam, who plays Zoya’s best friend Akash co-wrote the film, and Aayla who plays Zoya had never acted before.

Casting Zoya herself was challenging, and deciding to go with someone we already knew involved some Facebook casting of literally just going through a series of our friends and trying to see who would work. Zoya’s a relatively serious character within the context of this film and everyone’s Facebook photos are of course only their absolute best, smiliest selves, but Aayla had a couple of vlog-style videos that she had made around the time that we were casting that both showed her serious and thoughtful sides, as well as showcasing a certain comfort with the camera that we really needed her to have.

Do you think more of these stories need to be told in film?

Absolutely. This little film is just one story. There are thousands and thousands, if not billions of stories worth putting on film.

Something happens when we can focus on a personal narrative like this. It’s like getting to know someone in real life, you can only hold onto your talking points for so long until you have to admit that there is nuance to an individual.

People’s biases and viewpoints, correct or incorrect, are based on the information they have been given. Give them more information.

There are structural problems in film and media and systemic racism and countless other very real problems. But there are also a lot of Muslims and pretty efficient, low-cost tools of distribution. That sounds a lot like a market opportunity. Build while the mainstream is sleeping.

How has the response been so far to this film?

Alhamdulillah those who have seen the film have loved it so far, I think the HijabTrendz readers will love it too, inshaAllah!

The best response came from a hijab-wearing girl in 11th grade at Tamanawis, the high school we filmed at.

So basically someone in Zoya’s exact situation, down to the actual classrooms she’s in every day. Her catharsis and response that the film really reflected her experiences was incredible for Shyam and I, because we were acutely aware of the fact that we were not girls, no longer in high school, and had never worn hijabs.

Telling our truths: trying to find a place in high school, creating your identity, direct issues we had being on student council in high school, etc. were things that anyone could relate to, and are exactly the sort of thing that a girl like that doesn’t get to see. If it’s a Muslim girl in hijab she has to be sad, we have to make it a clash of civilizations, and the name has to be some play on the word “uncovered” or “behind the veil”.

But the reality is that the hijab is just part of who someone is, not their actual personal story. Having someone who is like our main character actually relate to her meant a lot.

Plus, this comment was made on YouTube– even though I live within walking distance of the school this girl goes to, how else would we have ever communicated?

Any advice for Muslim women who want to get involved in this medium either as actors or film makers?

One of the most fundamental rules of storytelling is to show instead of tell. So create your own opportunities. Don’t tell the world that there should be more films with Muslim actors or stories, show the world what that would be like and why it’s interesting.

There just aren’t many roles out there for actors of colour, especially if you wear a hijab or turban. But you can make your own films, or write your own scripts, and make your own opportunities. And seriously work on making it economically sustainable as well. We don’t have the luxury of just acting or just writing or just directing, we have to find ways to make these our careers so that the next group of people coming up has a model to follow and people to provide the opportunities.

And just keep making things, because it’s going to take a while to be any good. Zoya has many flaws, but I’m committed to improving. It’s all we can do.

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the film in the comments section. And let’s discuss! 🙂