Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Lena Khan

Asalamu Alaykom,

I'd like to introduce you to Lena Khan.  If you're an avid reader of this blog, you've already heard of her.

Writer/Director Lena Khan is an "Amazing Muslimah," because she...well, for one thing, she agreed to an interview with me !  I'll let you read on to learn more about her.

Yosra:  The first time I saw your work was when you won "One Nation, Many Voices" video contest with "A Land Called Paradise."

You were 23 years old.  Can you describe that moment when you won?

Lena:  I was in college, with my roommates in our room and I got the call in the morning. We all just started shouting and celebrating, it was just so exciting.

Yosra:  Did you feel both the elation of winning and the responsibility to represent Muslims and Islam?

Lena:  I felt it in making it firstly. The whole reason I chose to do it the way i did was because in being tasked to represent Muslims in America as a whole, it seemed foolhardy to only express my own views. I figured, why not ask everyone else their opinion?

As for feeling the responsibility afterward, I definitely feel it. People email me or tell me in public that they are expecting me to do great things for our community in terms of the media and that definitely feels like a burden. Even now, in my upcoming film, I purposely made religion tangential to the main characters and to their stories, but I realize I'm going to have to explain that choice to those who just want an overtly "Muslim movie." I don't feel that approach is as effective as simply normalizing us through likable characters in non-preachy stories, but it's interesting to note that I have to explain that choice to so many who feel they have tasked me with representing them. I appreciate the honor, but often I do have to ask myself, "Are you sure you are doing this right?"

Yosra:  When I saw Maher Zain's video for "The Rest of My Life," it felt different than other music videos.  It did have a woman's touch. 

What are the elements you worked hard to impart within those few minutes?

Lena:  The biggest task was conveying what is essentially a love story without a female actress. It took a bit of time to come up with a concept that would come through on this aspect, but once the concept was approved everything was more smooth. The main elements I tried to stress were those aspects that would emphasize the "love" part of a marriage. Given that Maher is Muslim and the song has religious references, it was clearly going to be seen as a religious song. Muslims unfortunately have the reputation (and often enough, the flaw) of being too focused on rules rather than the spirit of things...and for the sake of not just our image, but ourselves, I wanted to remind us what was at the heart of this blessed institution called marriage. Therefore, we had to focus on picking symbols and objects that would help remind each other of the spirit of this relationship they were meant to preserve, whether it was rocking chairs, picnic baskets, or children's toys. The Qur'an tells us it's about love and mercy, and that's what we wanted to remind the hearts of the viewers.

Yosra:  Knowing how important Maher Zain is, were you ever scared that this was a big chance you could mess up?

Lena:  Always.

Yosra:  How does your faith help you handle those moments of starting a new project?

Lena:  I worry all the time about how a project would turn out. We actually had some roadblocks in this project as well that were out of our control and affected the final project. At the end of the day, faith is what gets you through. I have to realize that I can only do my best, and what happens at the end is in God's hands. Sometimes I worry, "what If I fail at all of this?" I know it will be severe disappointment, but at the same time I have to remind myself to do the best I can, be the most honest I can in my business dealings, do my utmost to make my projects meaningful and excellent using the talents or intellect I've been given, and then leave it up to a Higher power. I figure, if I can look to Allah at the end of the day and feel I've done my best, I believe He will not fault me for a project not turning out the way I wanted.

Since artists are always inherently viciously self-critical, faith is definitely helpful in that regard!

Yosra:  You are a hijab-wearing Muslimah and, like your video "Bassem is Trying" you might have felt times of wanting to fit in.

Are there compromises you make in order to be "one of the guys" in the film industry? Shaking hands with men? Sitting at a table with alcohol?

Lena:  I think it's less of a compromise, and more just exerting extra effort. I have to worker harder to earn the respect of others. I have to make extra efforts for people to know that I am "normal" and can "hang out" and have a laugh with everyone else. And I have to not treat my religion as an obstacle or something I have to apologize for. Yes, I don't advertise it or talk about it much around colleagues who aren't Muslim, but if it comes up I've learned that if I deal with it confidently, everyone respects you all the more.

Yosra:  Are there times when you wish you could be working with people who are more simmilarily minded?

Lena:  Absolutely. When you are in film school, you get the idea that everyone who works on a project believes in it and its goal as much as you do. But that's not true. At the end of the day, for a lot of people it is just a job. For a lot of investors, it is just a way to make money. And all those are important to life, but I wish I could find more people who are doing it with the same passion and principles for which I'm dedicating myself to it. Alhamdulillah, recently I've come across many of these people who've offered to help me for these reasons, so it is a good start. I hope soon a lot of these people will also start to come from the film community.

Yosra:  What have you heard from Non-Muslims who view your work? What do you feel is your role in interfaith dialogue?

Lena:  I received a lot of emails from viewers who saw "A Land Called Paradise" or even some of the other music videos and said that the videos opened up doors for them to speak to others about prejudices against Islam, or helped them clarify their own views. I think that speaks for itself and it's part of the reason I am embarking on my upcoming film. It's more subtle, but I think the effect will be similar, but on a subconscious level. I have chosen for my role to be focused more on stimulating interfaith dialogue on a subconscious level.

My upcoming film is not really targeted to Muslims. It is targeted to the mainstream public, and I hope subconsciously, seeing a positive portrayal of a Muslim in an entertaining story where they will not focus on the character's religion will spread to their normal lives, and hopefully start influencing their dealings with the Muslim community in general. Being liked goes a long way. In my opinion, sometimes it can go much further than many, many formal interfaith dialogues. It's a different, and broader audience.

Yosra:  Who have been your role models for your personal life and your professional life?

Lena:  In my personal life, I have a lot of people in my community who inspire me. Most of them are community members who have dedicated their lives to helping society, whether it is a friend who went as a lawyer abroad to do relief work, or another friend I know who helped found a free health clinic and now works there. These are people who are using their job and their lives to be of service, and that is why I got into film.

In my professional life, stylistically I am most inspired by directors such as Wes Anderson and Danny Boyle, both who carve out distinct styles and take risks. In terms of purpose, I was always inspired by Spike Lee (who many readers will know as the director of "Malcolm X"), who did for the African-American community in film what I hope to do a bit of for the Muslim community. He helped usher in authentic representations of African-Americans in film and was one of the most groundbreaking African-American directors. One can learn volumes from his entire experience and body of work.

Yosra:  Is there another Muslimah film maker who inspired you?

Lena:  No. Unfortunately when I was getting into film I knew hardly any Muslims in the film industry, let alone female Muslims.

Yosra:  Could you tell a little about your upbringing?

Lena:  I was born in Canada and grew up in California. My parents are from India, and I have two older brothers. For the most part, I had a very normal, American life...which one can expect since I grew up here. I played baseball, I hung out with my friends, I played the drums and guitar, I went on road trips. I think of myself as a normal young person, and I think that reflects in my work. I've always thought of myself as a normal girl, a filmmaker, or whatever...who happens to be Muslim. I brought that into my work. My film is a comedy-drama, a normal movie, hopefully an entertaining one...and it just happens that the main character is Muslim.

Yosra:  Since this isn't a traditional job for Muslimahs, did your parents want this life for you? Is there a part of them which wishes for something different for you?

Lena:  I'm sure my parents would have loved if I were a doctor. But they never pressured me, and while I can tell they were a bit hesitant when I said I was going into film after refusing some much better opportunities that came up, they have always been supportive. I'm sure if I don't end up finding enough investors for "The Tiger Hunter," that they will finally start wishing I did another career!

Yosra:  I'm not aware of your personal life. I'm not sure if you are married or not; with children or not. At those time-changing milestones, we see things differently. Have you married and had children? If so, how has becoming a wife and a mother changed not only how you see life but how you present it in your films?

Lena:  I got married a few years ago. My movie "The Tiger Hunter" is more of a "guy movie" (think something like "The Hangover" but obviously toned down) so I guess getting married might have helped in that end...though I think my brothers had a big influence on that as well.

"The Tiger Hunter"  is a comedy-drama about a few South Asians who come to America in all the awesomeness that was the 1970s, trying to plan innovative and sometimes crazy ways to capture the glory they were promised in immigrating, despite all the obstacles they didn't realize they would face.

It's along the style of movies such as "500 Days of Summer" or "Little Miss Sunshine." We are doing everything we can to make it a mainstream, entertaining movie and I think it's important for Muslim filmmakers to start learning how to "play the game"...learning how to break into Hollywood, how to make films people actually want to watch, etc. I worked at studios for some time after graduation, and my producer is Brad Pitt's assistant and has worked in development on nearly all of his projects over the last 6 years; putting that together, we are hoping to use our experience to be some of the first Muslims to break into Hollywood.

Right now, we are hoping to count on the support of the Muslim community. We are asking everyone to please share and follow our facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/thetigerhuntermovie and to refer us to any potential investors. Referrals have been amazing in terms of gaining investment, and we hope to keep them coming.

Yosra:  Lastly, you are creating a legacy on film. Inshahallah when you are gone from this world, which moments from your films and videos would you like to live on?

Lena:  I hope to find my movies in the DVD collections of random people as the years pass; what more can I ask for.

Yosra:  Inshahallah.  Thank you for your time and efforts in answering my questions and for all you've done to shine a light on Muslims. 

Readers, Lena Khan has not used an excuse to stop her from fulfilling her dreams and living out her creativity.  There are so many excuses she could have used!  Yet, she wanted to make movies so she is.  What is it that this interview spurs you on to do?  Be that "Amazing Muslimah" and make your dreams become reality.  If you can think it, you can be it.  Inshahallah.

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