Filmmaker Interview

POV: Can you tell us how you began working on this project? Did you have a personal interest in Muslim hip-hop?

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor: Before I started this film, I didn't have too much interest in Muslim hip-hop per se. But in doing some reporting about Bay Area youth who came from different backgrounds — Sikh, Hindu, Muslim — I discovered that there's this really vibrant culture of young Muslims who use hip-hop culture — perhaps similarly to the way that Christian youth often use rock music — as a way for them both to express themselves culturally and to build a sense of community. So that's what got me interested. It also seemed like a great way to talk about post-9/11 America, and in particular to look critically at some of the things we were being told about the way the world works — for example, that there's a clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims. It seemed to me that to look at a group of young American Muslims doing something as quintessentially American as making hip-hop would perhaps be a good way to look critically at that paradigm.

POV: How did you meet Hamza? What did you find compelling about him as a subject?

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor

Taylor: I met Hamza early in the production process, when I went to Chicago to film a large gathering of American Muslim youth performing hip-hop in a street festival called "Taking It To The Streets." Hamza and his brother were performing, so I filmed them and I filmed the crowds, and it was all very interesting. Then I interviewed Hamza and his brother, and what struck me was how completely different their offstage personae were from their onstage personae. Onstage they come across as very strong, very energetic — one might even say a little bit aggressive. Offstage they were both incredibly funny, gentle, humble — really different from the people that I had seen onstage.

I found that really interesting and thought that would be something to explore. So after I did a first round of interviewing with them I asked, "Could I come to Pittsburgh and could we film you in your home territory and get to know a little bit more about you and your families?" At that point we discovered a whole new possibility — a film that had a lot less to do with this whole idea of Muslims and hip-hop culture, and a lot more to do with the spiritual growth of one person.

DP David Sarasti films Hamza teaching in jail

DP David Sarasti films Hamza Pérez teaching in jail. Credit: Kauthar Umar.

POV: How did you establish trust with Hamza and his family? How often were you there in Pittsburgh?

Taylor: We had to take small steps. I think that's the way a lot of filmmakers work at the beginning of a relationship with a person who will become a subject. The first thing that I did when I went to Pittsburgh was show Hamza an early fundraising trailer I had cut using his first interviews and some of the material we had shot about the larger hip-hop context.

I let him see the trailer so he could see the points-of-view that I would represent and the shooting style I would use. But I also said, "I won't show you anything else ever again until the film is done. Can you live with that?" He agreed, and we established some ground rules for shooting. I told him, "If the camera is rolling, anything that happens is fair game. If you want us to shut it off, if you want us to leave, if there's something happening that you don't want documented, we'll totally respect that."

So we tried to give Hamza a sense that he had some control over the process. And we also did something that I think was really key to the initial filming: We didn't film all the time. Generally, we would spend three days at a time filming. I think any more than that and you get really tired. The subjects get really sick of you and everybody is just tired. So we would take really ample breaks, especially at the beginning, just to hang out, to eat, for the crew to get to know Hamza and his family.

The core of what I think makes the film successful is that Hamza's pretty brave and his family was pretty brave. And they just really took a leap of faith to work with us.

New Muslim Cool: Hana Siddiqi, Jennifer Taylor, Chris Strollo, Jon Shenk film outside wedding

Co-producer Hana Siddiqi, Director Jennifer Taylor, Sound Recordist Chris Strollo and DP Jon Shenk film outside Hamza's wedding. Credit: Kauthar Umar.

POV: What do you think were Hamza's reasons for doing the film?

Taylor: I'm not sure I can say with total certainty, of course, but I think that he and a lot of people in his community share a sense that they really want their real stories to be told. He, like anybody else, is so fully a part of American culture [and] being filmed and opening his life up was a way to show people that. I think that was the main reason, and that was something we all shared. We had a common goal, which was to tell a story accurately and fairly, and to tell it in a way that would really help viewers empathize and see Hamza, his family and his community as full human beings.

POV: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

Taylor: One of the big challenges in this case was following a story that didn't have a lot of obvious drama. The raid on Hamza's community had a lot of obvious drama, but the community didn't respond in an obviously dramatic way. I kept waiting for the Erin Brockovich moment after the raid happened; I was waiting for the whole community to rally, to go after the FBI, to make up some placards and stage a big march. None of that happened. The story turned out to be about somebody's internal experience.