Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Thinking About the Name Game and Documentaries

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What’s in a name? I find myself approaching the new POV season the same way I used to love cracking the college course catalog, eating up the clever names teachers would give their courses, such as my comp-lit favorite, “Uncanny Tales.”
What sounds good? Life. Support. Music., Hold me Tight, Let Me Go and Bronx Princess each have a particular ring that makes me want to see more. But the one that grabs me most is the first up, New Muslim Cool.
There’s something so enticing about those three words together, complemented by the image of the film’s main subject, Hamza Perez. The notion of a new form of Islam, coupled with something cool, is so seemingly incongruous and yet appealing, that I was hooked.

New Muslim Cool
I’ve watched the doc, which I really enjoyed and felt lived up to the promise of the title, but then I started turning alternative titles in my head, most of them variations on the word jihad.

I had to wonder about director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor‘s process of deciding the title, so I dropped her a line.

“The title was inspired by the Miles Davis album Birth of the Cool,” she tells me. “I was thinking about other seminal moments in popular culture and how they got announced to the public at large, and it made me think of jazz and be-bop, which in some senses were the hip-hop of their day. And of course, I was playing a bit with the idea that ‘Muslim’ and ‘cool’ are usually two words that are [not] thought of as congruent in any way.”

As for using the word jihad in the title: “We did think about ways to possibly use what we like to call the ‘j word’ in the title,” she says. “But ultimately decided it would need too much explanation. It takes the whole film and many events in the lives of Hamza and the other characters to fully manifest the definition of what a lot of people call the greater jihad — i.e the internal struggle to better yourself.”

A lot of thought clearly has to go into coming up with a title. And while movie titles get test-marketed to death in the world of feature films, in the doc world, the title depends on the filmmaker’s gut. I think Jennifer has a good gut.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite doc titles. You may note there are none of Michael Moore‘s films here. I think his titles generally stink (Roger and Me being the exception).
When We Were Kings
Capturing the Friedmans
The Sorrow and the Pity
Born Into Brothels
Hands on a Hard Body
An Inconvenient Truth
Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
Super Size Me
My Kid Could Paint That

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Andrew

    FOREIGNID: 18418
    ‘Up the Yangtze’ is one of my favorite titles. Deceptively simple but immediately hits both themes– “journey on the river” and “rising water level”. Classic.

  • Jennifer Taylor

    FOREIGNID: 18449
    Thanks for the thumbs up on the title, Tom. I always suggest people have a working title at the very beginning of any project as a way to focus and encapsulate what the film will be about.
    And as I like to do fun little pieces in-between the long-form documentaries, I’m now hoping to make my long-awaited short musical comedy extravaganza titled “Stop! Wait! That’s My Taco Truck!”

  • Sakina Abdul A’la

    FOREIGNID: 18555
    As I watched “New Muslim Cool” last evening, I was impressed with the growth of this young man and his family. His daily trials differ very little form the trials of everyone else in Amerika, except he’s Muslim.Congratulations it was a saga well told.Visit him again in 5 years and see how much he continues to grow.
    Shukrun = Thank-you

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 18620
    Hey Jennifer:
    I definitely want to see “Stop! Wait! That’s My Taco Truck!” It reminds me of another great short comedic title: Jessica Yu’s “Sour Death Balls.”