New Muslim film festival ‘to showcase our stories’

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Noor Nanji,Culture reporter, @NoorNanji

Getty Actor Riz AhmedGetty

Riz Ahmed stars in Dammi, a short film which will be shown at the festival

A new film festival in the UK celebrating Muslim cinema will “showcase stories we don’t usually see”, its director has said.

Sajid Varda has told BBC News that too often there is a “negative portrayal” of Muslims in the mainstream media, “so this festival is largely to reclaim the words Muslim and Islam”.

The festival includes films featuring Oscar-winning actor Riz Ahmed and Informer’s Nabhaan Rizwan.

It runs from 30 May to 2 June.

Getty Nabhaan Rizwan attends the UK film premiere of 'The French Dispatch' at the Royal Festival Hall during the 65th BFI London Film Festival in London, United Kingdom on October 10, 2021Getty

Nabhaan Rizwan plays a struggling actor in In Camera

The festival will open with the London premiere of Hounds, a crime film set in Casablanca.

Directed by Kamal Lazraq, the film has already scooped up multiple awards including at Cannes.

There will also be a screening of In Camera, a feature by Naqqash Khalid that stars Rizwan as a young actor caught in a cycle of auditions and repeated rejections.

Other highlights include Dammi, a short film by French-Algerian director Yann Demange starring Ahmed as a man who travels back to Paris to reconnect with his estranged father.

Muslim International Film Festival Still from the short film Dammi, which features Riz AhmedMuslim International Film Festival

In Dammi, Riz Ahmed’s character Mounir is seen navigating his past experiences

British star Ahmed was the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor at the Oscars – a ceremony which has been criticised for its lack of diversity, leading to award rule changes.

He went on to win an Academy Award in 2022 for his live-action short, The Long Goodbye.

Ahmed has regularly spoken up about diversity on screen. The Riz Test, a set of criteria to measure how Muslims are portrayed on film and TV, was created by two film fans in the actor’s honour.

UKMF Sajid Varda, director of the Muslim International Film Festival, speaking with a microphoneUKMF

Festival director Sajid Varda is also an actor and producer

Varda, the festival director, says Muslims tend to get depicted in stereotypical ways in film and TV.

“The world changed a lot after 9/11,” he said.

“Muslims started to be portrayed as synonymous with terrorists. It’s one of the associations we think of when we think of Muslims.

“This negative portrayal has a real impact on our community.”

Varda, who founded the charity UK Muslim Film to champion underrepresented talent and voices, has said he rarely sees movies from the Muslim world at film festivals.

He said the festival aimed to spotlight these stories and also help emerging filmmakers.

“It’s about owning our narrative and showcasing beautiful stories from around the world, and also help mainstream audiences be exposed to our cultures and our faith,” he said.

“There’s so much more we have in common than divides us.”

Amaal Said Warda Mohamed on set of her short film MunaAmaal Said

Warda Mohamed on set of her short film Muna

Filmmaker Warda Mohamed, whose short film Muna is screening at the festival, said the UK’s diversity “needs to be reflected in what we consume”.

“We need to have access to films that challenge stereotypes and reaffirm the norm of Muslim stories,” she told BBC News.

Muna follows a British-Somali teenage girl navigating a confusing mourning period for her grandfather, a man she never really knew.

“I’m so proud of this short, it took a while to make but it’s been such a wonderful experience,” Mohamed said.

She said that she was positive about the outlook for Muslim film.

Things are “slowly changing”, she said.

“There’s an incredible group of filmmakers just wanting for their chance to create and I hope we usher in a new generation of Muslim talent.”

‘There’s a market for it’

Other programme highlights include the London premiere of Hesitation Wound, which scooped up an award at the Zurich Film Festival.

There will also be a screening of the British Pakistani filmmaker Moin Hussain’s offbeat sci-fi film, Sky Pearls, which tells the story of a directionless, alienated and lonely man who works nightshifts in a fast-food restaurant.

Its lead actor, Faraz Ayub, told BBC News the festival aims to highlight talent “from all walks of life”.

“It’s not so much about needing a Muslim film festival,” he said. “The Muslim International Film Festival is here because there is a market for it.

“And, as a film fan, it’s exciting to see. Storytelling is a huge part of Islamic culture.”

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