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Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam
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by Jay Seaver

"Everyone rocks."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2010: So, if you're making a movie about the birth of Muslim punk rock, who do you put at the center? Even if you know the players, that might not be as obvious as it seems: The word "taqwacore" ("taqwa" meaning "religious consciousness") first appeared in the title of a novel which inspired a number of musicians to pick up their guitars. Fortunately, writer Michael Muhammad Knight is as drawn to the real-life taqwacores as they were to his book, and director Omar Majeed is able to give us both at once.

So on the one hand, we start with Michael, whose life with a racial separatist father and abused mother eventually led him to seek enlightenment in a mosque in Pakistan. He wrote The Taqwacores later, and the novel would gain a following among young North American Muslims who felt stifled by their religion and their country. Among them were the teenagers in the Boston suburbs who formed a band, The Kominas; in 2007 they (and others) hopped aboard a green bus and road tripped across the country to Chicago, where the Islamic Society of North Ameica. Six months later, several would be in Pakistan, looking to spread the punk message to a different group.

Knight is also on the bus for much of the tour, and also returns to Pakistan for the movie's second half. Although he's not a great deal older than the musicians, he does clearly speak from a different perspective. While everyone in the film is outspoken and political, it's most often with a blunt, punk sensibility, while Knight's words - especially during readings or interviews supporting his novel - are much more considered and studied. He's no droning academic, and indeed throws himself into certain experiences with more abandon than anyone else, but he is definitely the one more likely to step back and take the long view.

That's only right, of course; rock & roll in general and punk in particular need a sort of frantic energy. Majeed doesn't spend a whole lot of time on performances, but does show us enough to make it clear that there is a great deal of diversity to be found, although it's very spread out - though we see bands from Boston, Vancouver, San Antonio, Baltimore, and other places, none of those cities are really portrayed as having a punk Islam scene. I perhaps might have liked a tighter focus on the various bands; especially once they're all on the bus, they tend to run together, especially since many are only briefly introduced by name in the beginning. The exception, of course, being Sena Hussain and her band Secret Trial Five; "openly gay Muslim drag king fronting a punk band" is a pretty memorable descriptor!

For all that it's sometimes confusing, the road trip is a lot of high-energy fun. There's a reckless streak of black comedy that pops up again and again during the trip, since the folks care little about angering either the secular or religious establishments - whether it be making jokes about not wanting your car's engine to blow up or mocking the sickly-sweet other participants at the ISNA "talent show". The Pakistan segment is somewhat less even; the bits with Knight exploring the country and returning to the madrassa where he studied are intriguing; the many uses of cannabis, less so.

Majeed and company do manage to get some striking images, too - perhaps the most memorable is how red Knight gets during a rite in Pakistan that involves striking one's chest; it really underscores how much he throws himself into these things. It's also fascinating how mosques appear during the film: The one they find near Toledo, Ohio looks strange and alien, rising out of an American corn field, and the two we see in Pakistan have very different personalities - one, near a city's red-light district, seems very much a part of the community; the Saudi-built madrassa is beautiful but strangely austere.

Interestingly, this isn't the only Taqwacore-inspired film coming out this year; a feature adaptation of "The Taqwacores" is also hitting the festival circuit, with music by the Kominas and a script by Knight. That film isn't playing IFFBoston, but it will be interesting to see how they influence each other, since both sprang from the same source.

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originally posted: 04/24/10 03:48:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 series, click here.

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  DVD: 09-Aug-2011



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