‘Americanish’ dreams come true: UF professor debuts film about Muslim-Americans

Iman Zawahry

For filmmaker Iman Zawahry, filmmaking is about creating nuanced narratives that more accurately reflect real life than the stereotypes perpetuated by the mass media. In short, her art is about pure storytelling, and Zawahry has recently been showcasing her approach with her latest film, “Americanish,” which screened at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival between Nov. 4 and 21.

The film debuted at Gainesville’s Regal Cinemas Celebration Pointe in September, at a private screening for Zawahry’s close friends and colleagues at the University of Florida, where she teaches in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

The Panama City native, who holds degrees from UF and Florida State University, spent about eight years making the film, which is about three Pakistani women living in New York City. Although the three women share a nationality, they each have very different stories—and struggles—that reflect those of not only Muslims, but anyone. Each woman has her own version of the ‘American Dream’: one wants a career, one wants to find romantic love, and one is just figuring it all out. The common denominator is that they all want success, which underlies the American Dream, Zawahry said.

The film’s title, she explains, is a take-off of the ABC television show, “Black-ish;” the ‘ish’ refers to an array of Black people. Likewise, the ‘ish’ in “Americanish” refers to the array of women represented in the film. Although its themes—love, success, family tensions—are universal, the film also reflects the specificity of the Muslim-American experience, and the struggles they endure.

Zawahry said it was partly her awareness of Islamophobia that led her to make the film. “Where’s all this hatred stemming from?” Zawahry asked in an interview, not hesitating to answer her own question: “The media and how we educate people.”

She has been doing her own part to break through some of the media’s portrayals of Muslims in a course she teaches at UF, called Islam, media and pop culture, which is jointly offered by the journalism and religion departments. Zawahry has three goals with her class. The first is to show the hypocrisy in the media, specifically in terms of how Muslims are portrayed or being othered. The second is to have students meet Muslims, and the final goal is for students to be able to tell the story of someone from a background they’re unfamiliar with by the time they graduate. “Not just Muslims,” she explained. “But in general.”

Students have generally loved the course, and a handful of former students in her class ended up working on “Americanish.” One of Zawahry’s goals in making the film was to break into Hollywood and start filling up the diversity quota that is often talked about there. “Yes! Fill it up! We have to make sure we’re there,” Zawahry said, adding that a group of 10 white people in America will not have the same creativity as a group of four-to-five people of color who can each bring a different perspective to the table because of their marginalized experiences.

Zawahry ran into plenty of snags during the film-making process, and she credits the film’s director of photography, Chloe Weaver, whom Zawahry calls “the Hollywood experienced crew member” and her executive producer, Ann Chaudhary, for making the film happen.

Zawahry says she owes it to Chloe for taking her aside and helping her focus on getting the project done without worries.

“‘Let’s make it happen!’ she told me.” And they did.

After four years of writing the script, one year to shoot the movie and another three years to edit it into a film, the phrase that has become all too familiar entered the scene. As Zawahry says,   “And then COVID hit.”

Zawahry said she didn’t want to premiere during COVID because they knew this movie was meant for human connection “and you just don’t get that through a virtual screen.”

They held on to the film for a year and kept polishing the piece until it was ready to send to festivals. Initially, it was difficult to have the film accepted at festivals, Zawahry said, explaining that many festivals want drama-heavy, foreign films such as Roma. “The American Muslim story is never told. It’s never heard,” she said, adding that the fact that the film is also a romantic comedy made it even more unusual—and hard to place at festivals.

But several festival acceptances followed, along with rave reviews. The film was accepted at the New York Asian Film Festival, the Asian American International Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival, and La Femme International Film Festival, among others.

The film has also had sold-out performances recently at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and it won three audience awards in just three months, “which really doesn’t happen,” Zawahry said. “The reaction to this is incredibly surprising to me.”`

About Fareeha Abrar

Fareeha is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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