When Bassam Tariq began making his first documentary, he was already a prolific blogger and had just set up Honest Chops, a halal butchers in downtown New York, with friends. Disjointed as these endeavours might seem at first glance, they’re indications of a storyteller in dialogue with a wide world, building frames to hold broader canvasses of understanding.
From a background in advertising and copywriting, his creative path began with a personal project, the blog 30 Mosques in 30 Days, in which he and his friend, the comedian Aman Ali, documented breaking their Ramadan fast in mosques in 30 different states around the US. “What emerged was a beautiful and complicated portrait of America,” he explains. An unexpected result was that “the media coverage forced local journalists to revisit their Muslim communities”, to paint less stereotyped pictures of the people they usually only depicted in relation to terrorism.
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It wasn’t long before Tariq’s path intersected with that of photojournalist Omar Mullick, who was also exploring the lives of Muslim Americans with his photography project Can’t Take It with You, producing images that challenged the flat narrative of the media. Together, they set off to Pakistan to make what came to be These Birds Walk, a gentle study of the fragile lives of street kids in Karachi. Imbued with tenderness and filmed with the youthful energy of its wayward protagonists, the film debuted at Missouri’s True/False Film Festival in 2013, its co-directors having already been celebrated among Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. These Birds Walk paints an immersive picture in which there are no easy answers. It’s a film that leaves you with fleeting images, full of emotion, contemplating what it means to be grounded and to have the comfort of an anchor in your circumstances, in your elders.
In his 2014 TED talk, Tariq connects the dots. “All these disparate projects are the result of a restlessness. They are a visceral response to the businesses and curators who work hard to oversimplify my beliefs and my community.”
Tariq was only 14 when 9/11 shook the world. After that, he reflects, all conversations about his faith became framed around terrorism. He delved directly into the discomfort of this space with his Sundance jury award-winning short documentary Ghosts of Sugar Land (2019), in which his high-school friends ponder the fate of their friend ‘Mark’. Mark’s need to assimilate involved engaging more fully with their Muslim faith, until one day he disappears and reveals via Facebook that he has joined ISIS. Yet as the bigger picture is revealed piece by piece, the viewer feels niggling questions about the overarching truth – did he really go? Did he believe what he was writing? Was he undercover FBI?
Ghosts of Sugar Land is on one hand a story in fragments built around unanswered questions, on the other a reflection on belonging. There’s a tension at play in the anonymity necessary to be able to speak freely: Tariq’s friends share recollections, interpretations and doubts behind the safety of a mask. Jarringly, these masks are a collection of colourful plastic superhero masks, which bring an array of associations to mind, from American pop culture to childhood games. It leaves you feeling unsettled: how many ghosts are there in this narrative?
I was curious to see how the richness of Tariq’s documentary approach would take shape in his fiction debut, Mogul Mowgli, which receives its UK premiere at this year’s London Film Festival. What I found was a mosaic – you need to get closer to see, and can’t behold the complexity of its detail in a single glance.
It’s a visceral portrayal of the confusion and complexity of what it can mean to exist between cultures. It centres around Zed (Riz Ahmed), a British-Pakistani rapper, whose life spirals out of control when, on the cusp of success, he succumbs to a debilitating illness. Although his cutting lyrics speak provocatively about identity politics, it’s not until Zed returns home after 2 years on tour that he’s called by his real name: Zaheer.
The vulnerability of illness and his decreasing mobility bring both focus and fragmentation – memories and hallucinations merge to the beat of Qawwali music. He’s haunted by the apparition of a masked figure, which conjures the spectre of Partition, a reality that looms large in his father’s past. Zed’s relationship with his father (Alyy Khan) is at the heart of the film’s delving into generational trauma and colonial amnesia.
Further bruising Zed’s ego is his nemesis – RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), a young rapper whose face tattoos and crass lyrics bewilder him, and yet who respects Zed; he’s conscious that it’s Zed’s shoulders he’s standing on. Through the dynamics between these characters, the film becomes a paean to the importance of cultural heritage, and a sharply observed reflection on muscle memory.
Documentary is an art of placing a frame around reality and, in doing so, of meaning-making. This feels ever present in Mogul Mowgli, alongside the agility of the non-fiction spirit, which involves working with the chaos of life as it unfolds, throwing twists and turns beyond what you could have predicted. “We changed the script every day – it kept things fresh,” says Tarriq. The shoot was scheduled chronologically to enable this fluid creative process. “We were blessed with a good producer, Bennett McGhee, [so] it wasn’t disturbing for me – it was part of the process of figuring things out.”
It was also enabled by the affection, energy and potent creative collaboration with Riz Ahmed, the film’s lead and co-writer. “Everyone thinks you’re making a film when the camera turns on,” says Tarriq, but ”everyone has a different process. I need people. So much of [my] filmmaking is about friendship. When I think about These Birds Walk, it’s me and Omar. When I think of Ghosts of Sugar Land, it’s me and my high-school friends. Mogul Mowgli – it’s [Riz and I], both of us in every frame. The film is honouring our friendship.”
For Tarriq, this is also perhaps the first time that Ahmed was “playing someone who is like him”. Alongside Ahmed’s co-writing credit, this speaks directly to the most pressing debates in filmmaking at present: authenticity, authorship, ownership. Documentarians of colour are notably at the vanguard of these reflections; they always have been (see, for example, Sonya Childress and Natalie Bullock Brown for IDA or Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series).
The film opens with Zed’s potent lyrics – Ahmed’s own, from his album The Long Goodbye – which circle through the story and gather additional meaning and resonance as we understand his character better. As personal as Tarriq’s documentaries have felt, Mogul Mowgli feels intimate, raw even. It feels informed by lived experience of what it means to exist in a contested body. A body that’s constantly defined for you, structurally and systemically undermined, omitted, othered, exoticised, fetishised, misrepresented, misunderstood. “The body keeps the score,” Ahmed said during our LFF Q&A, referencing Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal book on the subject of trauma and transformation.
There is resonance in the film being released in the middle of a pandemic, during which illness, death and grief are omnipresent. While the autoimmune disease that Zed is struggling with is essentially the body turning on itself, it also speaks to disproportionate violence towards black and brown bodies. There are structural elements to that violence, additional to the weight of trauma, the constant consciousness of muscle memory – of knowing there are other sides to the coins being presented to you, to the flat narratives you are expected to exist within.
“I have to look to the points of views of people of colour from a certain tradition for permission,” says Tariq, citing some of his inspirations. ”The Day I Became a Woman (2000) by Marziyeh Meshkini. It’s the perfect film. I saw it at college and was blown away. Killer of Sheep (1978) by Charles Burnett. Films that are saying things so political, but not giving it easily. [Films that are] accessible but also have the space to exist as not basic propaganda of ‘wokeism’.”
It’s perhaps in homage to these that Tariq also deliberately doesn’t explain or subtitle everything in Mogul Mowgli, instead inviting viewers with different relationships to the cultures on screen to have purposefully different experiences – crucially encouraging those without all the keys to look, listen, feel.
Speaking of the writing process, Tarriq says: “Writers and poets influenced our film far more than films.” He names Saadat Hasan Manto whose “tense, short, fiery, poetic” 1955 short story satire ‘Toba Tek Singh’, which muses on the relationship between India and Pakistan, is directly referenced in the film through a mysterious and pivotal character.
Tarriq explains his own compass as broadly connected to the pan-Muslim experience, “the space of oneness that our cultures look to”, as opposed to the dualistic western canon of binaries, right/wrong, etc. “I am South Asian, I come from a post-colonial understanding of who I am and so much of my own understanding comes from a post 9/11 deep surveillance state world where I know that I’m constantly being surveilled and monitored, [while] trying to be unapologetic with my own artistic endeavours.”
As he articulates this multifaceted identity, something I’m sure he’s had to do countless times, I’m reminded of the words of West Indian writer Edouard Glissant, recently referenced by poet Claudia Rankine, for whom the resistance inherent in existing in abrasive spaces is “to consent not to be a single being”. To understand that while others may have a narrow frame of understanding of/for you, you have the freedom of your own frame of understanding of/for yourself.
“I get bored with a lot of films because they become quite polemical,” says Tarriq. ”I know what they’re trying to tell me. Watching and making films is a kind of religion that enables people to confirm biases – reinforcing our existing point of view. So we’re trying to exist within this space, but also to upend it.”
So what is the north star on this journey? “Making it easier for those who come after us – like Kiarostami did for me. Like Ozu. Like Tarkovsky – he’s my sheikh; when I read his words it’s like he’s speaking to me. I have 2 boys – who are 3 and 6 – what world will they inherit? My work is an effort to build a map for them, to make it easier.”
- Mogul Mowgli screens at the 64th BFI London Film Festival and will be on release around the UK from 30 October 2020. Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed have programmed an accompanying season of film influences, Near the Jugular, at BFI Southbank in October-November