Movie Review Journey Into America
By Dilshad D. Ali
Journey Into America made its premiere aptly on July 4th 2009
The question is large, and the answer is even larger and more complex: What does it mean to be an American? And following that, what does it mean to be a Muslim in America? Can one be a Muslim and an American? Will non-Muslim Americans ever accept their Muslim brothers and sisters as a true component of the omnipresent “melting pot?” that is this country?
Nearly a year ago renowned scholar and Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University and a team of five young college students set out on a tour across the United States searching for answers to those questions. They visited more than 75 cities and 100 mosques across the country, armed with questions, anthropological experiments, and a video camera to record it all. The resulting film, Journey Into America made its premiere aptly on July 4th at the Islamic Society of Northern America (ISNA) convention in Washington, D.C.
Akbar Ahmed friends and supporters as well as journalists and conference attendees packed the screening room to see the debut of this documentary. The expectations were high, the hopes were strong that the film would discover some truths about how Muslims were accepted in post-9/11 America and show how they were an integral part of the American fabric. But the grandiose nature of the project, which lent itself wonderfully to the running blog (journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com) maintained by Akbar and his team throughout the year, was hard to capture in this low-tech film.
The problem for me stemmed from being in a position of knowing too much. Having interviewed Ahmed numerous times about previous projects (like in 2006 when he and his team of college students toured several countries in the Muslim world to research the perceptions Muslims have of America) and having followed the project on the Journey Into America blog, I knew the vast, rich, and varied stories Ahmed and his team had amassed through their incessant travels. As I awaited the premiere of this documentary, I wondered how it could all translate coherently into a documentary format.
To be sure, 24-year-old director Craig Considine certainly threw himself into his work, producing more than 150 hours of video that was then painstakingly edited into about 90 minutes of film. The film takes the viewer from the oldest mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Las Vegas to the largest mosque in New York City to the debauchery of Mardi Gras in New Orleans to a pleasant lesson in tolerance in a sleepy little Alabama town called Arab (but pronounced Ay-rab). And that is just for starters.
What it meant to be American?
Ahmed and his team visited so many communities and spoke with so many Americans, faith leaders, imams and Muslim-Americans in their goal to discover what it meant to be American (and following that, Muslim and American), that the bar was set impossibly high to capture all they had done. And unless you come to the film with a working knowledge of what Ahmed’s project was about, and how in depth it was, and how truly sophisticated and at the same time refreshing his research methods were, then chances are the importance of the Journey Into America project will get buried in the raw nature of this film.
It is better to focus on some of the individual moments captured on film rather than to take it as a whole. In one powerful scene outside New York City’s largest mosque, things get heated as a group of Muslims begin identifying themselves by their country of origin: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia—until one Muslim breaks in to remind everyone that wherever they are from, whatever they do, their identity is first and foremost as a Muslim, and that should unify them all.
Another powerful tactic of the film is how it cleverly juxtaposes interviews to show how people with similar backgrounds can have entirely different viewpoints on what it means to be an American: As Ahmed and his team interview drunken revelers during Mardi Gras in New Orleans (which was an uncomfortable moment for those watching the film at the ISNA convention), many of them say that being American means drinking, fornicating, and doing whatever they damn well please. The film then cuts to an interview with an articulate young Muslim-American convert who used to be a self-described partier and fashion photographer. Now she sees the intelligence of Islam’s directive to women to cover up, because doing so allows for a respect for her mind instead of her body. For her, to be an American is to be a respected, contributing member of society.
And the scenes that take Ahmed and his team to the foundations of America—the site of Plymouth Rock and to the statue of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville particularly drive home the point that this country was made on the principles of acceptance and tolerance: Jefferson’s statue has the word “God” written on the base in several manifestations, including “Allah.” And the modern representation of Jefferson’s vision is then perhaps when Ahmed visits with Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison, who swore his oath of office on a Qur’an that Jefferson owned.
The individual stories portrayed in Journey Into America indeed serve as a hopeful portrait of the potential America has to be a nation of citizens, a nation built by immigrants, a nation of human beings from all nationalities and faiths living harmoniously together. And though this grand idea is better grasped through the hundreds of posts in Ahmed’s blog, his film is still a promising start to a journey that continues forward.
And, as Ahmed said at a Khutbah (sermon) he gave during Friday prayers in Cedar Rapids, “The Prophet [Muhammad, salilahu aliwasallam] once said, ‘The ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.’”
For more information about Journey Into America, visit www.journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com.
Dilshad D. Ali’s writing reaches across the United States to address lifestyle topics pertinent to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ali has covered movie premieres, film festivals, art exhibitions, concerts, and numerous other cultural stories, including the effect of September 11 on New York’s cultural landscape for IslamOnline. Ali is a 1997 University of Maryland journalism graduate. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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