Written for Spoonfed, London Film Festival 2010
“In heart I am Muslim; in heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt” is the Patti Smith quote boldly on display in one of the most telling scenes of Eyad Zahra’s Taqwacores, a look at the American Muslim punk scene.
Based on the novel by Michael Muhammed Knight, Zahra’s film follows a straight-laced Pakistani-American Muslim Yusef and his changing views on the ways Islam can be practised after he moves into a mixed gender house of Muslim punks. With a motley crew of characters including Shia skinhead Ayub, the militant Umar and burkha-clad feminist Rabeyah, Zahra has a strident enough base for one of the most memorable films of the London Film Festival.
The Taqwacores hails everything Woodstock stood for and is a universal portrayal of the developing personalities of young adults away from home partying at university. So at first it seems gimmicky to use Muslim characters to make a point about the all too familiar scenes of grotty student living, a search for a home away from home and social rebellion. But The Taqwacoresis also about religious unity, sanctity, ritual, and the place of religion in modern American culture. It delves into the Venn diagram that is identity and addresses feminism and sex in Islam with gusto.
The scene that uses Patti Smith’s words as a backdrop features hard-ass Rabeyah completely covered in black explaining to Yusef why she has committed what most Muslims would see as heresy by crossing out a verse of the Qur’an. It’s a verse about a husband’s rights over his wife. She doesn’t agree with it, she’s danced around its many interpretations and can’t stand by it. In a simple scene filled with aesthetic contradictions, Zahra boldly but sensitively champions each of his characters and pushes the thinking portion of his audience to consider an unfamiliar subculture.
Between scenes of this nature though are scenes that seem injected into the film for shock value. The same points are laboured: Republicans tend to add chips to shoulders, sex is still a touchy subject, students are lazy and things are open for interpretation; we get it. The Taqwacores presents its audience with the same odd juxtaposition of wisdom and immaturity that its lead character also confronts.
It’s shot fantastically. The student grime makes its way to a free and easy camera that keeps everything a cool grey/blue. Nothing here is warm or inviting but it is brilliantly paced, very witty and completely compelling.