Moving Forward and Looking Eastward, by Patrick Felton
As long as America has been a haven for immigrants, comedians have had a knack for finding collective goats to antagonize. An individual can walk into a comedy open mic night any night of the week and they are sure to hear lazy jokes about migrant workers in front of a Home Depot, or the proud people of Poland and lightbulbs. Whether good or bad, these jokes define the way that many Americans view “the other” in their lives. It should be no surprise then that so many comedians from minorities exploit or subvert these stereotypes for their own comic effect.
The Muslims Are Coming is new documentary a new documentary by acclaimed comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah. Opening last week at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, The Muslims Are Coming places itself in a unique position into this paradigm. Because Islam has become a default cultural signifier for the Arab world, the cultural prejudices and misconceptions that they must navigate are much more complex. As comedians, Farsad and Obeidallah are used to representing their points of view to the world. With The Muslims Are Coming, Farsad and Obeidallah find themselves deconstructing others views of them while at the same time marketing their own hipper American narrative of Muslim or as the film calls them ‘Mussies’ The resulting film is a jaunty, slick, and utterly charming character study of a group of comedians who utterly challenge the viewers assumptions about what it means to be a Muslim, while never letting the weightiness of its issues overshadow a chance to be engaging.
What through line the documentary has focus on the titular Muslim comedy tour as it travels across America. The tour includes Muslim American Comedians from widely varying backgrounds; Farsad (Iranian-American), Obeidallah (Pakistani father/Irish Catholic mother), Aron Kader (Palestinian father/Mormon mother), Preacher Moss (African-American Muslim convert), Kareem Omary (half Syrian, half Peruvian) and Omar Elba (Egyptian immigrant). Even with the looseness of this alliance their shared identities as comedians and Muslims helps sell the broad brand of the free tour.
The tone of the film varies. The film begins with a crudely edited montage of hate speech and anti-Muslim rhetoric cherry-picked from cable news. Luckily the film quickly abandons this tone for a much warmer playful aesthetic by the time the film reaches its delightful title sequence (complete with slick motion graphics and a Paul Williams-esqe theme song which implores viewers to “hug a Muslim”).
The tour starts in the deep south, where the comedians book shows at Muslim community centers and other venues in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, before moving westward to finish their tour in Idaho and Utah. Along the way, they hold court with lemonade stand-style “Ask A Muslim” and “Hug A Muslim” booths, set up a impromptu game of “guess the religion,” explore local establishments and talk with locals in the so-called “red states” often associated with anti-Muslim xenophobia.
Its impossible to watch this film and not think Spurlock-esque. The film uses many of the same techniques of Supersize Me including slick infographics, occasional gimmick moments and a foregrounding of the documentarians. At every moment the filmmakers feel deeply committed to a superficial sleekness. It makes the film feel fun, warm, and appealing to a large audience.
The film is at its absolute best in the segments where we see the comedians on stage performing their material for American audiences. Because stand-up comedy currently occupies the space of chief cultural truthteller, it makes sense to foreground the comedy itself. The comedians are quite funny, particularly Negin Farsad, whose stage presence blends sexual empowerment with an awkward cuteness. The sheer charisma of their performances propels the film forward through the connective tissue of road footage and talking head interviews.
The commitment to slick superficiality is both the film’s main strength and its weakness. On one hand, the film is utterly charming, selling the product of Muslim Americans to a potentially hostile market. All too aware of the potential pitfalls of marketing Muslim Americans to middle America, the film uses its brisk pace that helps it to navigate around some of the more complicated social issues regarding Islam in America. The film is clearly trying to appeal to a middlebrow demographic who may be hesitant to accept their message. As a piece of public relations and social action, the film feels utterly successful.
On the other hand, as an educational document, the film can feel a little underresearched at times. Segments on some of the recent Islamic American controversies such as the Islamic Center in midtown Manhattan and the Middleboro Mosque feel rushed. Often the interviews in these segments feature comic riffs and opinions rather than cold hard facts. Particularly in the case of the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” the film goes out of its way to document how much disinformation exists regarding the project, only to stop short of correcting said disinformation. While its heartening to see comedians like David Cross, John Stewart, and Colin Quinn speaking so candidly on these subjects, they provide little substance to the conversation.
In the end, this may not matter, as the film is less interested in informing viewers about Islam than it is in exposing them to it. No film can cover the entire scope of the Muslim American experience, but the sliver of which this film examines is documented quite well. By limiting the film’s scope to the experiences of this small handful of Islamic comedians, we are perhaps being shown a specific narrative that may not resonate with the community at large. The film even hangs a lantern on this point by including challenges to the authenticity of the filmmaker’s “Muslimness” from another comedian (one of the films most surprising and poignant moments).
However, the version of the Islam experience that Farsad and Obidallah present remains fascinating, particularly because of how Americanized it is. The comedians talk freely about going to dance clubs, eating tacos, the same experiences that any other comedian may address on stage. This recurring ethos of “we’re just like you” means that the viewer is forced to readjust their social distance from Islam and address the similarities rather than the differences. They view no inherent conflict in their place within the in-groups of American and Islam.
On the occasions where the film shows these concentric circles in conflict, the filmmakers exhibit grace under fire. An early segment in which one of the comedians is asked by a passerby why more Muslims don’t condemn the September 11 attacks, the filmmakers go out of their way to be sympathetic to her question, only later explaining their ambivalent feelings about the question in voiceover. Another segment in which we see numerous Muslim women walk out of a comedy show after Farsad talks frankly about sex illustrates the tightrope of identity that these comedians walk and the emotional consequences thereof (this fact is hit home by an interview in which comedian Quinn describes female Muslim comedians as “trying to run through drops of rain”).
The real question for this film going forward is whether or not it will reach the eyes of the people whose minds its trying to change. The presence of John Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and CNN’s Ali Velshi signals a significant appeal to young urban activists. If nothing else, the film acts as a superb calling card and character study for this very singular group of comedians eager make people laugh regardless of race creed or political affiliation.
The Muslims Are Coming will continue to screen in New York City and Los Angeles through Thursday September 19. Audiences wishing to see The Muslims Are Coming in their town can petition for a screening in their town using the film social network Tugg. More information available at http://www.themuslimsarecoming.com or at http://www.tugg.com/titles/the-muslims-are-coming