The Making Of
Director Yoni Brook and Producer Musa Syeed talk about finding the right family for their film, filming in a slaughterhouse and deciding how much of its activities to show on screen.
What led you to make this film?
We're both the children of immigrants of different religions—Jewish and Muslim—so we're fascinated by the dietary laws of our respective heritages. When we came upon "pick-your-own" animal slaughterhouses in ethnic neighborhoods in New York City, we began thinking about rituals that create lively communities, yet emerge from places we normally associate with death. More than a throwback to village life, these live animal markets serve as a way for immigrant parents to pass on traditions to their children. We set out to find a story that captured some of the tensions between the old world of immigrant parents and the new world of their children. Eventually we found an immigrant father and his American-born son at the family's halal slaughterhouse. We focused on how the son's struggle to take over his father's slaughterhouse shapes his identity.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Spending over two years inside urban slaughterhouses was not easy. Every day we went home to our apartments smelling like farm animals and sometimes stained with blood. Although we didn’t enjoy the sight of animals dying, we didn't want to make a film that was an exposé of the meatpacking industry. As we spent more time with the family who runs the slaughterhouse, we realized that they don't view halal slaughtering as simply a job, but as a service to their community and faith. We wanted the film to convey the dignity they bring to an unpleasant job. We used the inherent beauty of the environment—from the camera's careful compositions to the faces of the customers and their children—to challenge our audience's expectation that the slaughterhouse would be gruesome.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
We wanted our film to be very personal and intimate. However, in general, the owners of storefront slaughterhouses in New York City are not a very welcoming group to the media. Many feel that their work is misunderstood by the public and are wary of the media's glare. It was difficult to find slaughterhouse owners who would give us unfettered access to everything from their kill floors at work to their bedrooms at home. We searched a list of the nearly 70 slaughterhouses in New York City and spent a year visiting most of them and chatting with the owners. After meeting slaughterhouse owners of varying ethnicities and religions, from Somalis in the Bronx to Uzbek Jews in Flushing, we found our subjects at the Uddin family's slaughterhouse in Ozone Park, Queens. To its credit, the Uddin family trusted us even though we had never made a film before.
The greatest investment we made in our relationship with our subjects was our time. We spent countless hours without the camera rolling, listening and learning from them. We wanted them to know that we were committed to telling their story in a sensitive and nuanced way. We shot many scenes, from birthdays to family outings, that ultimately did not make it into the film, but solidified our relationship with the family and their customers.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
Since the film focuses on the relationship between a father and son, we were unable to delve into the important role of Natividad, the mother of Imran. She is usually the person audiences are most curious about and, indeed, she has a great story of how she fits into this racially and religious mixed household. She acts as an anchor for the family and wisely stays out of many of the squabbles between father and son that we filmed.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
When our protagonist Imran's identity as a Muslim is questioned, we were shocked at how much doubt it instilled in him. Although he subtly feels like an outsider on a daily basis, we were surprised when his faith was overtly probed. When we were editing the film, we decided to let that scene play out with little interruption in order to show the starkness and isolation felt by Imran.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
Shooting in a slaughterhouse was difficult. We were in small, slippery spaces with sharp implements all around us. Therefore, we kept our crew very small, with just the two of us shooting video and mixing sound. That technical decision paid off because customers became accustomed to seeing the two of us around the slaughterhouse. It became as normal to see a documentary crew at the slaughterhouse as to see a basket of live chickens. We saw people welcome us back and eventually open up to letting us film them during often sensitive rituals.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Festival audiences have been very enthusiastic about the film, especially at Tribeca Film Festival, where we won Best Documentary Short, and SILVERDOCS (AFI/Discovery Channel), where we won the Audience Award for Short Film.
When people hear our film is about a family-run slaughterhouse, their preconceptions are that it will be gruesome and somber. Instead, we find they walk out of the theater enamored with the family’s humor and universal quirks. Similarly, audiences don’t know what to expect from a Muslim family depicted on film. We’re thrilled when they see them as Americans living a universal intergenerational story.
Imran and his family have been the biggest supporters of the film, because it allowed father and son to see each other in a new way. Imran, the son, appreciates that, via the film, his father can see the struggles he still goes through in gaining acceptance from the Muslim community. For Riaz, the father, the film became an opportunity to share his struggles of raising a new generation.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
We don't think of making independent documentaries as a "business,” but as a privilege. The Uddin family gave us a gift by allowing us into their lives. When we face the challenges of making a business out of documentary films, we remind ourselves of the fascinating and generous people we meet on the other side of our lens.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We could not have made this film without public television. We’re thrilled that we received support from ITVS at an early stage, thus allowing us to make this film. We did not want to compromise our vision of showing the slaughterhouse in a nuanced way, and public television gave us the creative freedom to make the best film.
Most importantly, the film is reaching millions of people at a time when understanding our similarities as Americans is vital. Public television is a one-of-a-kind conduit for films that represent our nation’s diversity.
Get the DVD >>