Tracy asks: In your film and in your interview you note that music is a tool that brings people together. Do you think documentary can illuminate these communities and thus bring together larger groups that might not otherwise be part of that particular music scene? What do you hope your audience will react to?
Jennifer Maytorena Taylor: I think music and film share a lot of the same possibilities, and one of those is definitely to bring different people together through shared experiences. With New Muslim Cool, we hope that even people who don’t consider themselves hip-hop fans will be drawn into the story and respond the universal aspects of the story about family, faith, redemption and just trying to make it in America today.
We also chose not to use much hip-hop in the original score other than Hamza and Suliman’s own music. Instead, we used a lot of jazz, because that genre of music felt more organic to the feelings in the story. And like me, Hamza is a big jazz fan.
Fred asks: How did making the documentary change you and your assumptions or ideas about Muslims? Other than telling and empathizing with Hamza’s story, what other impact would you hope the movie has on viewers, particularly non-Muslims?
Taylor: When I started researching the film about five years ago, I knew almost nothing about Muslims. I was not aware of how diverse the Muslim community is in the United States and internationally, and I did not know how much variation there is in people’s theological interpretations. I did feel, however, that media depictions of Muslims were either too pejorative, or on the other hand, too blandly positive. Neither of these kinds of images were really telling true stories about this very dynamic and diverse group of people.
So as I always try to do in my films, I set out to show Hamza and his community as fully human, with all of the nuances, positive character aspects and flaws that any other people have, and hope that is the main thing people take away from the film.
Sam asks: Were there any scenes that you had to leave on the cutting room floor that you wish could have made it into the film? In particular, I’m wondering if there were additional scenes that show more about Hamza’s spiritual life, and show him as a part of the Muslim community in Pittsburgh, that didn’t make it into the film.
Taylor: There were several scenes that were hard to drop, but I ultimately felt it was necessary to leave them out of the film for timing and the flow of the story. Some of these scenes were backstory scenes that had good information, but were dragging out the exposition too much. In one, Hamza talked in some detail about his past as a drug dealer. In another, he gave Rafiah a tour of Worcester and showed her where he used to sell drugs.
And there were tons of scenes with other community members that we had to cut out. One took place two days after the raid, when the mosque members threw a big community barbeque to thank the neighbors for being supportive. It was really great material and we cut and re-cut it several times, but it kept overtaking the emotional arc of the story at that point in the film, when we wanted to really try to convey how traumatic and scary the raid was, and how thoughtfully Hamza and his community responded.
Finally, regarding Hamza’s spiritual life, we also had to drop some good scenes, including one where he goes to an interfaith prayer vigil in support of immigrants’ rights. We also dropped a few scenes with more about Rafiah and her own backstory.
But fortunately, all of these scenes are included among the 40 minutes of extra features on the DVD that we’ve just released!