January 25, 2024

The Optics of Islam | Beyond Resilience

On Thursday, January 25, from 4-5 pm ET, Firelight Media hosted a Beyond Resilience conversation that brought together filmmakers and scholars to discuss how Muslim and MENASA stories are framed – and how they should be framed in the future.

Accessibility Notice: This event included live ASL interpretation.

Moderator Farihah Zaman (filmmaker and film critic) was joined by Jude Chehab (Documentary Lab alum and director, Q), Dr. Maha Hilal (author, Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11), and Li Lu (Documentary Lab alum, Impact Campaign Fund grantee, and director, A Town Called Victoria) to discuss their work, and how the nonfiction industry – from gatekeepers to critics to audiences and the storytellers themselves – must shift to create space for broader and more complex understandings of the Muslim experience. The event was introduced by Firelight Media Co-Founder and President Marcia Smith.

Complex stories about Muslims have long struggled to find major distribution in the documentary industry and in mainstream media more broadly. When films depicting Muslim communities do break through, they are seldom created by or accountable to those who comprise them: those who have a deep understanding of Muslim traditions and beliefs or even a sense of the quotidian Muslim experience. When represented by outsiders, the optics of Islam often include tired tropes such as yellow, sepia-toned filters to signal locations across the Muslim world; anonymous crowds in generic desert settings wearing traditional Islamic clothing; and aerial shots suggesting mass surveillance and the perspective of distant outsiders.

So what are the optics of Islam when crafted by those who experience Muslim life firsthand? What documentary films and series resist these tropes and reflect new modes of representation for Muslim and non-Muslim audiences? And what can we learn about the importance of positionality, representation, and accuracy from films by, for, or about Muslim communities?


The Beyond Resilience Series is sponsored by Open Society Foundations. Beyond Resilience is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Field of Vision.


Participant Bios:

Farihah Zaman (she/they) (moderator) is a queer Bangladeshi-American filmmaker, writer, and curator whose award-winning work has screened at Sundance, TIFF, NYFF, Tribeca, SXSW, and more. She produced the Sundance-award winning Netflix Original Ghosts of Sugar Land, which was shortlisted for 2020 Academy Award nomination. Zaman has written for Reverse Shot, Film Comment, Elle, and Huffington Post and her industry experience includes roles at Magnolia Pictures, IFP, The Flaherty Seminar, and Laura Poitras-founded company Field of Vision.

Jude Chehab is a Lebanese-American filmmaker whose cinematic interests have drawn her to the exploration of the esoteric, the spiritual and the unspoken. A richly layered visual and intimate personal shooting style developed under the mentorship of Abbas Kiarostami’s final student group; Jude has been credited in collaborations with the BBC, Hot Docs, Refinery29, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders. She has worked as a DP internationally, on films in Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan and was an AP on Sesame Street’s show, Ahlan Simsim, for Syrian refugees. Her work has been awarded fellowships through: CAAM, BGDM, Points North Institute, Firelight Media and Chicken & Egg. Jude’s first feature documentary, Q, was named one of the best documentaries of 2023 by Vogue Magazine. It was supported by: IDA, ITVS, TFI, and the Sundance Institute and won the Albert Maysles award for Best New Documentary Director at Tribeca and the Grand Jury Award for Best First Feature at Sheffield DocFest. The film was nominated for two IDA awards and won a Cinema Eye Honor. She is part of DOCNYC's '40 under 40' list and Filmmaker Magazine named her one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.

Dr. Maha Hilal is a Muslim Arab American and an expert on institutionalized Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and counternarrative work. She is the author of the book Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11 and her writings have appeared in Vox, Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, Newsweek, Business Insider,The Daily Beast, and Truthout, among others.    Dr. Hilal is the founding Executive Director of Muslim Counterpublics Lab, an organization that works to disrupt and subvert dehumanizing narratives that are designed and deployed to justify state violence against Muslims. Dr. Hilal earned her doctorate in May 2014 from the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University in Washington, D.C.  She received her Master's Degree in Counseling and her Bachelor's Degree in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her spare time, Dr. Hilal enjoys spending time with her family and practicing Arabic calligraphy.

Li Lu was born in Suzhou, China, and moved to the United States when she was five. Daughter of two physicists, Li discovered filmmaking via her lifelong passions of photography, ballet, and literature. After an adventurous immigrant upbringing spanning all three coasts, Li graduated high school in Sugar Land, TX, and received her BA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Her award-winning narrative television, feature, and documentary work has been supported by Sundance, Firelight Media, Ford Foundation, Disney, ITVS, Austin Film Society, Gotham, CAAM, and others. Her directorial work can be streamed on Hulu, Disney+, Amazon, PBS, and Netflix. A lover of all storytelling, Li strives to create bold and fearless projects spanning genre and form.

May 10, 2024

Filming with Family | Beyond Resilience x CAAMFest Filmmaker Summit 2024

Join Firelight Media's Beyond Resilience series at CAAMFest Filmmaker Summit in San Francisco.

March 7, 2024

Interrogating the Festival to Awards Pipeline | Beyond Resilience

Firelight Media and Distribution Advocates hosted a conversation about navigating the festival to awards pipeline for documentary filmmakers.

January 25, 2024

The Optics of Islam | Beyond Resilience

A conversation with filmmakers and scholars about Muslim and MENASA representation.

December 7, 2023

The Documentary System is Broken. Now What? | Beyond Resilience

How can we band together to (re)build a system that will ensure independent filmmakers can thrive?

November 1, 2023

Palestinian Voices | Beyond Resilience

Beyond Resilience, with support from Field of Vision, is proud to be a community partner for the Arab Film & Media Institute's 'Palestinian Voices' program.

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Navigating the Ethical and Business Landscape of Artificial Intelligence | Beyond Resilience

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Join Firelight Media for a conversation about creating work, profiting from that work, and creating a sustainable career in nonfiction film.

August 6, 2023

Disability Justice: Spotlight on unseen | Beyond Resilience

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