Movie Review: “Mooz-lum”

I saw the movie “Mooz-lum” last night at the AMC Lennox Theater in Columbus, Ohio.

In case you’re wondering, the title alludes to the tendency that many people have to mispronounce “Muslim.” A couple of centuries ago, a common term among Westerners for Muslims was “Mohammedans” (with various spellings), but this is considered archaic today. (An even earlier term, Mahometan, was in use as early as 1529.) When I was growing up (during the ’60s), Moslem was the more common spelling. Before I converted, I pronounced Muslim and Islam incorrectly and I probably still do from time to time. (It’s hard to break old habits.)

From what I’ve been able to tell, the correct pronunciation of Muslim is “Moos-lum (no ‘z’ sound) and Islam is pronounced “Iss-lam (like the English word ‘lamb’). Please correct me if I’m wrong (which I probably am).  The title was chosen to symbolize the fact that Islam is an often-misunderstood religion.

Now on to the movie:

Pulled between his strict Muslim upbringing by his father and the normal social life he’s never had, Tariq Mahdi enters college in a state of confusion. New relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims alike challenge his already shaken ideals, and the estrangement with his mother and sister troubles him. With the help of new friends, family and mentors, he begins to find himself and open up to an Islam he hasn’t been exposed to. But when the attacks of 9/11 happen without warning, he is forced to face his past and make the biggest decisions of his life.

That’s the official synopsis. But I would say that it’s about far more than that.

The main thing that struck me was how authentically the family was portrayed. These people are not caricatures; even the overly strict father is shown as fully human, with both good points and bad. He’s patriarchal and stubborn, but he truly loves his family. There is dissension between the mother and father about how their eldest child, their only son, should be raised. What might be an eye-opener to some viewers is how independent the mother is. She’s not oppressed in any sense of the word. (Even though she wears the headscarf/hijab!)

The actor who plays the main character as a teenager, Evan Ross, is the youngest child of the singer/actress Diana Ross. I didn’t know that when I was watching the movie, but it probably at least somewhat explains his talent. The father, played by Roger Guenveur Smith,  the mother, played by Nia Long, and the daughter, played by Kimberley Drummond  were all excellent, as was Professor Jamal, played by Dorian Missick. The only performance that was truly disappointing was Danny Glover’s. He acted as if he didn’t want to be there. (For more details about the cast, go to International Movie Database [IMDb].)

The opening of the film is beautiful. Shot in sepia with color tinting (I don’t know if there’s a technical term for that) to the accompaniment of Qur’anic recitation or prayer, it is simply haunting. The film moves back and forth between Tariq’s pre-teen years and the present, a ploy I didn’t catch onto at first. The weakest part of the film was the acting of the younger Tariq; although he did a decent job, he didn’t seem as natural as the other members of his family.

The “bad guys” in the movie aren’t all black or white (and I mean that figuratively as well as literally). They’re a little of both. Yes, 9/11 happens during the course of the film, which is somewhat of a cliché, but it serves a dramatic purpose. Some of the anti-Muslim actions seem contrived and overdone and some seem realistic and understandable. All in all, I think the movie did a good job of presenting the good and the bad, and the motivations behind both.

I would love to see more movies this well-rounded about Muslims and Islam. Maybe “Mooz-lum” is a start in that direction.

“Mooz-lum” won “Best Narrative Feature” at Urbanworld 2010 and was an official selection at both the Chicago International Film Festival and the Cairo International Film Festival this year.

Movie Review: No One Knows About Persian Cats

I wanted to see No One Knows About Persian Cats (trailer here) because I’m curious about everyday life in Iran. The movie delivers some of that, but what it excels at is showing us Iran’s underground music scene.

As with most things, Iranian officials are very restrictive about what music can be played, who can sing (females are not allowed to sing solo), even what instruments are used. You can only play publicly  in Iran if you get a special permit and of course you won’t get a permit if you don’t stay within the boundaries. Anything that smacks of the “decadent West” won’t get approved and might even get you put into prison.

That poses a problem for the musicians in Persian Cats because they want to play everything from indie rock to rap. In fact, one of the things that most surprised me in this movie was the wide range of styles that were represented. I expected something that sounded, well, Persian (don’t ask me what I meant by that). I was also surprised by the quality. Even the rap song, which I don’t normally gravitate toward (a nice way of saying I dislike it), was well-done and enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean that the music was merely copied from Western music. The lyrics especially are brooding and poignant. What they weren’t–and this also surprised me–was political. It seems that the only rebelling the musicians are interested in is in the realm of art. That’s not to say that art can’t be political, but when these musicians sing about freedom, they mean the freedom to express themselves. They’re not advocating an overthrow of the government.

That’s what makes the Iranian government’s prohibitions and punishments seem so over-the-top: the music scene, at least the way it is portrayed in this movie, is no threat to the regime. Unless you ascribe to the view that once people taste freedom in one area, they want more of it.

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