Muslim filmmaker comes North for Available Light

When Zarqa Nawaz was young, she thought being a Muslim was fun. She felt at home in a mosque and was an active part of the local community.

When Zarqa Nawaz was young, she thought being a Muslim was fun. She felt at home in a mosque and was an active part of the local community.

As she got older things changed, as Islam’s attitude toward women appeared to change.

Mosques drew curtains and erected walls to separate the sexes and keep women from praying with men.

The resurgence of conservatism grew until Nawaz found herself praying behind a wall with a one-way window looking onto the pulpit — so the women could see the men, but the men could not see the women.

She began to feel unwelcome in her Regina mosque and chose to do something about it.

She picked up a camera.

“When this issue came up in my community, I thought I should combine my two skills of comedy and journalism to make a documentary about this issue,” said Nawaz from her home in Regina.

So the Saskatchewan-based journalist, with headscarf neatly tied in place, travelled North America talking to Muslim women and Islamic leaders about their experiences with the mosque.

Her efforts yielded a 52-minute colourful, light-handed exploration of women’s place in prayer according to modern Muslims and historic documents from the Qur’an.

At the end of the month, Nawaz arrives in Whitehorse to screen Me and the Mosque at the Yukon Film Society-produced Available Light Film Festival.

Nawaz’s parents are from Pakistan. She was born in Liverpool, England, and grew up in Toronto.

She earned a degree in journalism from Ryerson University and began producing dozens of pieces for CBC Radio.

In 1995, she began making short comedies. BBQ Muslims and Death Threat both premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Her website boasts that she is putting the “‘fun’ back into fundamentalism.”

The films are received surprisingly well considering they’re critical, said Nawaz.

“I come from a grassroots background within the community and because I know the sensitivities of the community I was able to honour those sensitivities and not alienate the community.

“I knew that was really key in talking to a community that feels it’s under siege — to acknowledge that feeling and respect it.”

She found this especially important when she began examining the role of women in Islam and how females are treated in the mosque.

In Me and the Mosque, Nawaz has a heart-to-heart conversation with her brother, who cautions her about criticizing the religious practices.

“Be careful,” he tells her. “You’ll make a lot of enemies.”

“When I first made this documentary a lot of people had that attitude,” said Nawaz. “They were very concerned about me and about the reaction.

“I put that (scene in the film) to let people know that I was aware that this was going to be controversial and I understood … that I wasn’t going to abuse their trust.

“A lot of people opened up to me who still live in the same communities they criticized. It’s easy to criticize a Muslim community when you don’t live in it.”

And her work has shown results.

Now Me and the Mosque is being shown in mosques and community centres across the country and, last week, Nawaz’s mosque hosted a town hall event and invited 200 Muslims to screen the film.

That’s a sign of its success, she added.

Now the film and Nawaz will make their first trip North of 60 to screen with 20 other films from every corner of Canada.

“It’s the widest variety of award-winning documentary, dramatic feature and experimental films we’ve ever presented,” said festival producer Andrew Connors.

The films were chosen by Connors and a crew of movie mavens from the Yukon Film Society who combed websites and magazines looking for ideas.

They checked out what was playing at larger fests in Toronto and Vancouver, ordered copies and held screening parties where they watched the first 20 minutes from each of a selection of movies and then chose their favourites.

When they finalized their 20 picks, a couple themes emerged, said Connors.

One theme was “troubled artists.”

Douglas Coupland’s most recent film Souvenir of Canada will play at the festival even before it hits mainstream theatres.

The sweetheart film chronicles Coupland as he builds Canada House — a full-house art installation of items collected from across the country — and contends with his personal connection to his country and relationship with his parents.

Trudell, a documentary about the life of acclaimed native activist and poet John Trudell, is one of Connors’ favourites.

On the lighter side, the festival will also feature films about coming of age and coming out of the closet — like feature films C.R.A.Z.Y., Whole New Thing and Eve and the Fire Horse.

The other theme was current events, and that’s where Nawaz fits in.

Muslims in Canada have a higher profile right now, especially in light of the recently-published cartoons in Europe, said Connors.

With Nawaz, three other Canadian filmmakers will make the Whitehorse journey this year.

Deepa Mehta’s film Water, which screened earlier in the year at the Yukon art film series in Whitehorse, will screen again in Whitehorse and Dawson City during the festival with producer David Hamilton in attendance.

Hamilton will also present workshops on film financing.

Inuvik-based Inuvialuit filmmaker Dennis Allen will present his documentary My Father My Teacher chronicling his personal struggle to reconnect with his traditional culture and speak about his experiences with making films in the North.

And writer/director Amnon Buchbinder will be in town to show his coming of age film dubbed, Whole New Thing.

Also screening will be Czech Republic film Shutka Book of Records; a tough and heartwarming actuality drama of life in a Jewish nursing home called Memory: For Max, Clair & Ada; Drawing Out the Demons; Working Man’s Death; Vendetta Song; My Ancestors were Rogues and Murderers, a Newfoundland film about seal hunting; Death by Popcorn: The tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets; Townes Van Zandt — Be Here to Love Me; Weird Sex & Snowshoes and Silent Messengers.

And feature films Caché, and the Yukon-filmed French production The Last Trapper featuring Yukoner Norman Winther, who plays himself in the story based on his life.

Available Light runs from February 28 to March 5 at the Beringia Centre, the Alpine Bakery and the Qwanlin Cinema. Five-film passes are available at Hougen’s ticket office.

Nawaz will talk about her work on March 5 at the Beringia Centre.