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"Missing and Maligned": Riz Ahmed wants to change how Muslims are viewed in movies

The actor stands behind a new study, a blueprint for inclusion and the just announced Pillars Artist Fellowship which aim to dispel the stereotypes, while highlighting and supporting the work necessary to rectify the problem.
"Missing and Maligned": Riz Ahmed wants to change how Muslims are viewed in movies

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” says Academy Award nominated actor Riz Ahmed. “The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives.”

And we agree with him because at MIME we believe that cinema changes the world. But more importantly, the prestigious Ford Foundation and the Pillars Fund agree with him. And they recently supported a study which led to a report titled Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies, released on June 10 by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The groundbreaking study includes "a quantitative and qualitative exploration of Muslim representation in 200 popular films from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand released between 2017 and 2019," as their introduction goes.

The results are in, and they aren't good. In fact, the study points "to the scope of the problem and has prompted action from this coalition of voices to tackle some of the underlying reasons for the lack of Muslims in popular movies," as the Pillars website indicates.

So how does one go about changing that incorrect and often offensive perspective? Well, Pillars, an organization co-founded in 2010 by Kashif Shaikh has featured on their website a list of grantees that run from the American Muslim Advisory Council in Tennessee to the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Mississippi -- and has been supporting countless more since 2015. On their website, Pillars points to their achievements and isn't it wonderful to finally see someone/something boasting about doing something good in the world! "Since our founding in 2010, Pillars has distributed more than $6 million in grants to Muslim organizations and leaders who advance social good." they point out, "we invest in community-focused initiatives, push back against harmful narratives, uplift Muslim stories, and give collectively to generate resources within Muslim communities for Muslim communities."

"We envision a society where Muslims have access to every opportunity, are free to fully embody all of their identities, and are empowered to pursue their greatest aspirations." --Pillars

But if you're someone in the public eye, winning accolades and awards for your acting work as Ahmed, you help rectify that wrong image of Muslims through your choice of roles. Ahmed first appeared on my own cinematic radar when he starred in Mira Nair's 2012 film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which gave insight into what many Muslims must have felt when 9/11 happened and suddenly, their religion and sense of belonging to the countries they collectively called home were questioned, at best and distrusted, even persecuted during the worst of times.

Ahmed runs a production company Left Handed Films, which backed the highly successful Mogul Mowgli a film he also co-wrote and starred in, and focuses on "stretching culture through telling fresh stories in bold ways." Because it's not only the misinterpretation of Muslims in films that is the problem, they are also lacking representation as a whole, making up only 1.6% of more than 8000 characters in movies.

In The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion which is also a result of the study and provides a roadmap for the solution to this gross inconsistency, Ahmed is quoted as saying: "As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another. The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative."

"Part of the reason I became an actor was the promise that I might be able to help stretch these necklaces, and that the teenage version of myself might breathe a little easier as a result. If the films I re-enacted as a kid could humanise mutants and aliens, maybe there was hope for us. But portrayals of ethnic minorities worked in stages, I realised, so I’d have to strap in for a long ride." -- Riz Ahmed

Ahmed's personal account of his return from the Berlinale after the world premiere of Michael Winterbottom's film The Road to Guantanamo and having to deal with airport security in the UK is harrowing -- see the video below which the filmmaker/actor posted on his YouTube account. But the idea that one person has to be burdened with "furthering the Muslim struggle" is both mind-blowing and irrational. You'll have to watch the video to understand. I agree with Ahmed when he says, "I'd rather not be here, honestly," because his work and his mission should be to perform in projects that inspire him and not focus on what will further the struggle... Whatever that means. It's like saying Tom Cruise should help the short man's struggle or Charlize Theron help advance the tall, blonde woman's struggle. That's how illogical it is.

Yet the numbers don't lie. There are few, very few intelligently portrayed Muslim characters at the movies. We recently loved Americanish directed by Iman K. Zawahry because it showed strong Muslim women but also it was a film about a Muslim family, with all its humanity and complexity yet devoid of explanations. But how many films like that have you watched lately? 

Less than 10% of top grossing films from 2017-2019 had a Muslim character on screen, with less than 2% of those characters having speaking roles. But not to worry, Ahmed to the rescue. Well, Ahmed alongside this new coalition, which have created not only the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, but also the Pillars Artist Fellowship, offering selected grantees an unrestricted award of $25,000.

In partnership with Ahmed, Pillars created the Pillars Artist Fellowship program "to empower Muslim artists on their pathway to success," as they state on their site. "We hope to positively influence the career trajectories of emerging Muslim writers, directors, and producers who may otherwise lack the opportunities to realize their full potential. Our fellowship offers participating artists unrestricted financial awards, high-quality one-on-one mentorship, career development curriculum, and active and ongoing community building. The hope is that substantial unrestricted financial and professional support can help artists reach their greatest aspirations."

Their selection process will focus on Muslim artists in the U.S. and U.K. at the early stage of their career, creative minds with the ability to create "fresh, untold stories that advance social change." The Pillars Artist Fellows will be nominated through a process of outreach among industry and community networks, and will be selected by an advisory committee comprised of influential Muslim talent across arts and culture industries. Once selected, they will receive not only the financial grant, but also artistic support, coaching from industry insiders and access to a network of fellow candidates but also the Pillars' advisory committee of Muslim artists who have been trailblazers in the industry, including Ahmed, Mahershala Ali, Sana Amanat, Karim Amer, Rosa Attab, Lena Khan, Nida Manzoor, Hasan Minhaj, Jehane Noujaim, and Ramy Youssef.

The deadline for nominations is Fall 2021. Pillars Artist Fellowship recipients will be announced on December 1, 2021, and the fellowship program will run from January to August 2022.

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