Guilty until proven otherwise. Living in a nation gripped by fear and distrust, many Muslim Americans tragically find themselves under the ever-watchful gaze of the law – even if they are normal law abiding citizens. Between the Patriot Act and the bigotry and fear-mongering factory known as the Republican Party, Muslims often find themselves unjustly persecuted. This is the burnt, undesirable crust that’s forever baking on the bottom of that great American melting pot. As Americans, we take pride in our rebellious history, religious freedom, and mixing of cultures and new ideas. But we tend to overlook the extermination of Native American tribes, the slavery of Africans, anti-Irish, Italian, and Chinese sentiment of the late 1800’s, the concentration camps full of Japanese Americans in the 1940’s, and over a century of anti-LGBT policies and hate crimes.
What makes writer/director Jay Dockendorf’s latest work, Naz & Maalik so poignant is the layering of cultures set within America’s largest melting pot, New York City.
“This story came together two different ways,” explains the director. “It’s primarily inspired by the story of a man I know who is Muslim and closeted to his family, and secondly it comes from dramatic and upsetting articles we’ve seen about the surveillance of Muslims. Given the current circumstances, it’s impossible to write about anything else.”
In this film, Naz & Maalik are two young men living in post-9/11 Brooklyn. They spend their days hawking corner store religious cards, essential oils, and overpriced lotto tickets, each trying to earn enough to get out of Brooklyn. They are both African American, devout Muslims, and closeted homosexuals. By simply being black, Muslim, and wearing a takiyah in the streets, these two young men find themselves unfairly under the surveillance of the FBI.
“I’m not Muslim,” explains the director. “To prepare to write the film, I went to mosques, interviewed Muslim friends and acquaintances, and did as much traditional research as possible to get to know the characters’ culture. I’m particularly indebted to Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: a Prophet for Our Time and the UK’s Channel 4 documentary Gay Muslims.”
A transplant from Los Angeles, Jay Dockendorf is currently based in New York. Despite having spent most of his life outside of Gotham, Dockendorf manages to deliver a gritty, realistic portrayal of life in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Using digital, often handheld cinematography, Naz & Maalik feels part fiction, part documentary.
“The subway scenes were filmed legally, but had we tried to make the film a few years earlier the MTA would have shut us down,” says Dockendorf. “For ten years after the 9/11 attacks, all photography and videography on New York City subways were outlawed. I read that the city didn’t want potential terrorists studying structural vulnerabilities. In 2011, however, the laws were rescinded. Shooting in 2013 and 2014 we were not allowed to film with tripods, lights or large reflective equipment, so we were somewhat constrained. However, our producers carried around copies of the new videography law and successfully warded off a few NYPD shutdowns that way!”
Throughout the film we see Naz & Maalik facing various challenges, both as a couple and individually. Maalik fears his relationship with Naz will be revealed to his conservative Muslim family. Meanwhile, both men are growing more and more nervous about the FBI presence in their neighbourhood. Their story never fully unfolds, which may put off some audiences. This film is more so a glimpse into gay Muslim life.
“I like the idea that this film can’t be explained easily,” says Dockendorf. “When I wrote the film I didn’t know what they would look like, but they had to be contrasting personalities. Given the setting, it made sense to make the characters African American.”
He goes on to explain, “We saw about 100 men in casting. I’m very grateful for the Casting Director [Holly Buczek] to put together such a strong cast. Both actors [Kerwin Johnson Jr and Curtiss Cook Jr] gave performances they were very happy with. We were all very much on the same page. I’m glad.”
The unsung heroes of this production, lead actors Johnson and Cook managed to deliver compelling and believable portrayals. In fact, some scenes had to be ad lib, working directly with available pedestrians and “talent” on the streets of New York.
“There were lots of opportunities for serendipitous situations,” laughs Dockendorf. “There were very some very supportive pedestrians in the street. We carried around huge yellow signs that we would wave in the air before we filmed. They were not subtle, and so hopefully people knew they had just become background actors.”
Looking forward, Jay Dockendorf thankfully plans to continue his subtle, yet immersive brand of storytelling. Like any good filmmaker, he’s already got another gem in the works for us.
“I can’t say much,” Dockendorf explains. “But it’s a story about a girl, a camera, and some dietary supplements.”