The filmmaker brothers Zeshawn and Aman Ali are now based in New York City but originally hail from Columbus, Ohio. “Growing up right outside of Columbus, we were just two kids who didn’t really see people who looked like us in narratives,” Aman told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “As we got older, we wanted to be a part of this conversation where we were starting to tell our own stories and not waiting on other people to tell them for us.”
Zeshawn studied directing and cinematography at NYU and Aman, who has been both a journalist and a stand-up comedian, was one of the brains behind the social media phenomenon 30 Mosques in 30 Days, a 25,000 mile road trip he took to all 50 states in the U.S. with the mission of telling profound stories about Muslims in America. Zeshawn was one of the directors of the series that became a social media phenomenon.
Director Zeshawn’s fictional short film Shallows explored people trying to find faith—in each other, in God, and in the mysterious water tower that watches over their town. In Zeshawn and Aman’s documentary Two Gods they explore faith through the eyes of a Muslim casket maker in New Jersey and his mentees, all shot through a striking, textured black and white.
“Beauty and tragedy overlap here in a way that feels personal and profound. It’s one reason this evocative documentary makes for such an indelible debut from director Zeshawn Ali,” Zaki Hasan wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Two Gods uses a meditative, observational focus on a handful of characters, and the ways in which they interface with religion, to highlight how people are just people irrespective of how (or if) they worship, all striving to find whatever measure of peace they can when surrounded by violence.”
Zeshawn spoke to us, on behalf of both himself and producer Aman, about what led them to want to make Two Gods, their choice to film it in black and white, and provides updates on how the three main characters in the film are faring these days.
Why did you make this film?
Muslim American films have lacked nuance and stories centered on real human experiences. We wanted to counter the narratives we had seen as Muslims ourselves and we saw an opportunity once we met our subjects in finding a story that explored faith through a lens of spirituality, redemption, and healing. We wanted a story that shared parts of the Muslim experience not through a political lens but a human one, something that encapsulated the quiet moments, the moments of celebration, and the moments of vulnerability.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most?
We definitely wanted this film to resonate with Muslim and BIPOC audiences. Given the mission we outlined above, it was important that we were centering this film through a human-centered lens that is often not found in films that explore themes of Islam, mortality, mentorship, and navigating complicated subject matters like abuse, trauma, and unjust criminal justice systems. We also hope this film will resonate with wider audiences.
Because of how particular the lens of storytelling is, we want this to be an opportunity where people of any background can watch this and feel impacted by our characters and their journeys and understand that these human stories have [the] power to create change, to open the door of conversation around difficult subject matters, and remind us that no matter who we are or where we come from we have the ability to experience joy, pain, grief, and that is what connects us as people navigating life together.
What were some challenges you encountered while filming Two Gods? Including working around what could potentially be such difficult subject matter.
There were certainly many challenges when we were filming. Navigating a film around such sensitive subject matters was difficult, but reiterated the importance of collaboration with our subjects as we were navigating the storytelling and production. When you’re filming in environments like funeral homes or in difficult moments in your subjects’ lives, you’re dealing with moments of grief, pain, and loss, and you have to handle that with the care it deserves, so thinking about how we brought a camera into those spaces was an incredibly important conversation we needed to have during production with our subjects but also one that was certainly difficult to navigate as a first-time filmmaker. The other difficulty was something that happened off-screen during production. In the process of making this film, we (my brother Aman and I) lost our father unexpectedly and a few months after that we lost our grandmother.
It was surreal to go from making a film about the rituals of death to having to navigate those same rituals in your own life. It opened up this new perspective in the material for me and looking at the footage of washings and casket building took on this greater meaning. It created this desire to hold the quiet moments with as much reverence and care as the moments where emotions and conversation were present. The film, edit and score became ways to weave in those moments of reflection in many ways and that was definitely something that was reflective of my own personal experience with grief off-screen.
It was not easy bringing that grief into the creative process but it was ultimately so important to find that language between the creative team (and much credit should also go to our incredible editor Colin Nusbaum and composer Michael Beharie) on how to reflect those threads in the film itself.
How did you gain the trust of Hanif and the young men who star in your film?
We actually met Hanif for the first time at a washing (the ritual process of preparing the body before burial). We had been filming a bit at the casket shop he worked at but we actually met him for a washing we attended just to help out. Hanif saw that we were learning some of the steps for the first time and struck up a conversation with us. Afterward, we went out to lunch and shared a really meaningful conversation.
From there we just kept hanging out as friends. Over time, we started filming naturally, especially as Hanif started bringing us along with more of the work he was doing at the shop—which is also how we met Furquan and funny enough, the first time we met Furquan was the scene in the film where Furquan is on his bike and then goes inside to make a casket for the first time with Hanif.
The trust with our subjects really came from a true friendship that was formed and important in so many ways as we navigated the filming process. There were many moments we shared over the past few years that had nothing to do with the film, moments where we would pray together, break our fasts together, celebrate birthdays, and everything in between.
The film became a reflection of the moment in time we all shared together. So the process of filming was less about trust-building and more about collaboration as we started thinking about ways to highlight some of those important moments in their life. Because we were making a film for the first time we really had no idea where this film would take us. But the process of making this together with our subjects was one of the best experiences we’ve had.
Can you talk a bit about the choice to film Two Gods in black and white?
I think [that is the] question we get asked the most about our film. The answer I always say is that there was never a version of this film in color. Two Gods explores this space where we explore the rituals of death and the emotions around grief and loss and pair that with an exploration of a true coming of age story. Black and white allows us to drift between these spaces and hold both emotions with equal weight.
Also, when you take away the color from an image, you’re left with the intimate details that feel more present and hold meaning—a hand running along a casket, raindrops falling along a windowpane, a bee landing on a flower in spring. These moments take on a profound meaning when there’s no color and you’re able to carry those threads of faith, redemption, grief and joy into those simple details. Every time I watch this film I cannot imagine it unfolding in any other way.
What moments in your film resonate the most for you personally? [Some spoilers]
The first is a washing scene where a young boy is brought into the room to learn how to do a washing. In the midst of that scene, we also hear Hanif’s reflection of his second washing that he ever did and how that deeply affected him and made him realize that this ritual held meaning for him and was a place he could find redemption as he was also preparing those who passed. After the washing scene, there’s a conversation with the father and his son where the father says that he wanted to bring him here to teach him how to do the ritual washing in case the son would need to wash him when he passed. It was powerful in so many ways and really solidified so many layers of the film for me. That redemption story paired with this mentorship in these moments, the passing down of this tradition… It was so simple but powerful in many ways.
[Another] one of my favorites is the scene with Furquan towards the end of the film. After we learn about his grandmother’s passing, we get this really beautiful reflection from Furquan about how the loss has shaped his perspective on his faith, his life, and his future. All of this happens as we see these beautiful moments of his everyday life in North Carolina, surrounded by family, community and care.
It was so powerful to hear his words, to see the young man he was becoming before our eyes. And it was even more meaningful because that sequence was actually something Furquan felt really strongly about adding in. Rather than just show the loss of his grandmother and the moments after through observation, he really wanted to have a moment of reflection. So what you hear in his voiceover are pieces of a conversation we had on his roof in North Carolina where he was grappling with all of these big questions we have at that age.
It’s so powerful in so many ways because we can all remember the moments in our lives where those questions first crossed our minds. You’re at this really delicate crossroads of being a kid and being an adult and you are holding onto both sides at the same time. That scene (and the way our editor and composer handled the material there) really resonates with me every time I watch it.
How did the COVID pandemic affect the finishing of your film, or did it?
An interesting anecdote: we actually had to finish this film completely remotely due to COVID protocols. That included all the mixing, color grade, and final details. But interestingly, that is where the film came to life the most. It was definitely strange being isolated during those moments but it actually made it more important to pay attention to those small details, listening on your own with headphones in your ear. I think the film found so many layers in that collaboration and we owe a huge thanks to our whole post team (at Dungeon Beach based in Brooklyn) for the work they did to get us across the finish line.
Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share with our audience?
We are still in regular contact with our subjects. Hanif is doing well. It has certainly been a challenging year in many ways because of the pandemic and his work as a casket maker and body washer. He saw a lot of grief and loss first hand so it takes an emotional toll on those who work in this field. But he’s excited about what’s next and he’s actually hoping to start his own business soon. We’re really proud of him and hope he will be able to continue sharing his gift, mentorship, for many years to come.
Furquan is doing really well. He’s found so much fulfillment in his life in North Carolina. He’s a really talented wrestler and has spent a lot of time dedicated to getting better in his sport. He’s also getting towards the end of high school and wants to go to college. We’re so proud of the young man he’s grown into. And he still regularly keeps in touch in Hanif which is great to see how their bond has continued through the years.
Unfortunately, things are still challenging with Naz. He is still being held without any conviction so it’s certainly been very hard on him and his family. He has a really great support system and his mother Keerah in particular is such a strong person for navigating these past few years. He’s surrounded by people who love and support him and our biggest hope is that he can have a chance at living a fulfilling life. He’s got so much potential and it’s just so hard seeing how our systems of policing and supposed criminal justice can break down these young men and communities.
What are your three favorite films or films that inspired the making of Two Gods?
For this film in particular, I found myself revisiting a few key films as sources of inspiration: Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Bombay Beach were really inspiring to me both visually and emotionally. I also really resonated with Minding the Gap. I found a lot of inspiration from films that explored the intimate details of people’s experiences through a nuanced lens that was handled with care. I was hugely inspired by a lot of photography in thinking of the world of this film; in particular the work of Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, and Danny Lyon. I loved thinking of ways to capture people in natural environments that felt soft and empowering all at the same time.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
We have a couple of film projects that had to be put on hold due to the pandemic but we are really excited to get going on filming them once it’s safe to do so. One we’re really excited about involves filming on the road which is really interesting because so much of Two Gods felt rooted in one place and moment in time. I’m interested in taking the camera on the road to capture this feeling of movement and place in transit.