Film on American Muslims Can Help Europe Understand Islam

Nestled in a medieval village in the French countryside, we ate delicious international food and watched four films a day from all corners of the world.
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Last week I attended the European premiere of the film Journey into America at the Culture and Cultures International Film Festival near Toulouse in Southern France.

The film, which premiered in Washington DC on July 4th, is the result of a nine month cross-country trip I took to study Islam in America with Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University and a team of young Americans.

Upon arriving in France it was apparent that similar debates and controversies surrounding the religion were raging. France, like the rest of Europe, is clearly having problems with its Muslim minority.

Our film's director, Craig Considine, and I were welcomed by festival director Denis Piel, a former photographer for Vogue and director of the film Love is Blind. Piel had started the festival to facilitate dialogue between different world cultures.

Nestled in a medieval village in the French countryside, we ate delicious international food and watched four films a day from all corners of the world. One of the viewing locations was Piel's Chateau de Padies, an elegant 13th century castle-like home that was once occupied by Napoleon's biographer who accompanied him to St. Helena Island.

The selections ranged from classics like Edge of the City with Sidney Poitier to modern-day, in competition films like Jackson about America's homeless. The Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino, which, like ours, deals with themes of American identity in the face of immigration, was presented by the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Tom Stern, the film's director of photography. It was great to meet and compare notes with filmmakers who were working on similar subjects like Deborah Harse, whose film Marathon Beirut, For the Love of Lebanon, also dealt with questions of Islam and how the religion is perceived by Westerners.

When it came time for our film I was unsure how the audience would respond. When the lights came up, however, my concerns were put to rest. There was an audible hush and a "wow" was heard as applause rang out. Craig and I got up to speak and answer enthusiastic questions about the story behind the film and how it came together. We spoke about the film's goal of improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims as well as the technical aspects of the production like our method of having every team member film with their own small camera.

The film touched a nerve with the audience, and not entirely in the ways I had expected. Some of the responses had to do with the Western perception of Islam and how our film challenged those perceptions. Others responded to different themes such as a German man living in France who spoke about the challenge of living in a society alongside people who are culturally different. When the Berlin Wall came down, he explained, he realized that he actually had more in common with the French, who don't share his language, than the East Germans.

The themes of interpretation of religion and the need to prevent violence by building understanding struck a chord among locals from that part of France, it was explained to me, because of the region's history. The film showing took place in an area laid waste during the Albigensian Crusade, an extremely bloody early 13th century war waged by the Pope to suppress local Cathars, an ethnic group whose interpretation of Christianity differed from Catholics as well as the distant King of France. The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which Catholics and Protestants traded massacres, also devastated the area, and I was told that even today farmers commonly find weapons from the religious wars while tilling their land.

The audience response also reflected the controversies surrounding the place of Islam in France. On a bus to the small town of Revel I spoke to a man who used to live in Marseille, a large city on the Mediterranean coast. He explained that despite the city's large Muslim population of Arabs and West Africans, the authorities have refused to allow a mosque to be built which has left the Muslim population to "pray in the streets." The message the authorities were sending, he said, is that French Muslims are "just visiting."

A front page headline I glimpsed in the prominent newspaper Le Figaro also reflected a barrier between mainstream French culture and Islam. The paper reported that 2,000 women in France were now wearing the burka, according to a government commission. Out of a population of over sixty million this didn't seem like a high number to me, but people seemed to be worried.

Against this backdrop it was gratifying to have a forum to explore issues of cultural dialogue in an honest manner at C&Ciff. Film is a medium that allows us to experience another life, time, or culture in a visceral way that is unique, and I was pleased to note that the movies I saw were honest and did not shy away from controversy, whether the subject was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the African-American experience.

Through this film we have tried to promote an honest dialogue with the idea that only with knowledge comes understanding and acceptance. In the American context, this is fully what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the country.

It was certainly thrilling to discuss these issues in reference to our film in France, where the need for Muslims and non-Muslims to talk to each other is great. I look forward to continuing to discuss the film and the issues it raises in the future. Next stop on the festival circuit: Cairo!

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