Movie of the Week: An Act of Worship

Posted by Greg on Jun 15, 2022 in Movies |

Photo 1- (L-R) Aber and her mother in Nausheen Dadabhoy's AN ACT OF WORSHIP (Photo Credit_ Capital K Pictures)

As America continues its march towards unprecedented polarity there is no denying the rise of hate crimes in the last decade. One such target of said hate crimes is Muslim Americans. In her absorbing new documentary An Act of Worship Pakistani-American director Nausheen Dadabhoy sheds light on a handful of Muslim Americans and their efforts to stem the tides of hate. A follow up project to her 2017 short of the same name An Act of Worship is an absolute must-see.

Using a chronological timeline the documentary details the passing of 1965’s Immigration and Naturalization Act and how that opened the doors of America for many Muslims seeking a better life in the U.S. That promise of hope was short-lived after 1979’s Iran Hostage Crisis. Instead of being proud of their culture and their religion many found ways to keep their religion and culture hidden.The film inserts another interstitial card a few minutes later and looks at 1991’s Persian Gulf War and its impact on grade-school children.

Moments later we get introduced to Aber Kawas, a Palestinian-American living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Aber and her family fled Palestine for Jordan before settling in Brooklyn. Her parents were undocumented and lived in constant fear of the police. The audience watches as Aber prepares for her wedding and her helps her father apply for a visa. Two decades earlier he was accused of buying cigarettes in New Jersey and selling them at his delis in New York City. Near the film’s conclusion Aber’s wedding is both poignant and picturesque. Ultimately the scene proves bittersweet as her father watches in via FaceTime. In her spare time Aber is a community organizer of a sanctuary city initiative in her beloved Bay Ridge enclave.

Another interstitial card reminds us of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and how former House Intelligence Committee chairman Dave McCurdy spew vitriol at Muslims during a taping of Larry King Live. Ameena Qazi retells a story of how hard she tried to assimilate and shed her cultural identity. A UCLA graduate and current civil rights attorney, Qazi’s story is one of hope, fortitude and enduring compassion. In a doc teeming with heroes, Qazi is the pinnacle of heroism.

Six years after the OKC bombing the world changed forever with the terrorist attacks on 9/11. That event is certainly not breaking news but how it impacted Muslim Americans living in the United States is the subject of An Act of Worship’s most riveting 15 minutes. One of the interviewees recounts how his uncle, a Muslim, died on the 95th floor of Tower 1 and how despite that life-changing event, he was still blamed for the death of 3,000 Americans. In an effort to show solidarity towards America, he removed a bumper sticker with Arabic writing and replaced it with an American flag. The defeat in his voice though is what lingers long after he stops speaking. Moments later we hear from a 20-something male who recounts rampant drug abuse in high school as a way of coping through the torment of emotions. He attributes the drug abuse as a means of escaping the nightmare of being a Muslim American in a post 9/11 world.

Arguably the most piercing scene comes after a clip of George W. Bush signing the Patriot Act. A woman recounts being six years old and breaking fast with her family for Ramadan. Moments later the family is interrupted by the FBI who was there to interview her family. Seen through a staged re-enactment the woman remembers driving around in the family minivan worrying about her father for what felt like an hour.

The film continues its forward momentum when Qazi remarks that taking down systems of injustice and advocating for the oppressed is rooted in the Muslim faith. On the heels of that proclamation we are introduced to Khadega Mohammed a Sudanese-American and college freshman living in Detroit, MI with her family. In her spare time Khadega volunteers with the nonprofit One Michigan and feels empowered to run as a precinct delegate in her neighborhood. Back at home Khadega’s mother warns her that the USA is not safe and that she should not spend so much time away from home. Khadega gives credit to Obama being elected president in 2008 and how as a brand new American she felt empowered, encouraged and hopeful that she could make lasting change in America. Later in the film Khadega sobs in front of her friend Sam as she feels crushed under the weight of expectation.

The next interstitial card after Obama’s presidency is the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and how that impacted the life of a 17-year-old Muslim American female in Minneapolis. She recounts as her school held an assembly featuring the United States DA for Minnesota and a Somali man who showed an animated video that tried to deter the students from participating in jihad. The female remembers being both unsafe and disappointed in her high school and America. Another interviewee recalls how their mosque was being surveilled and how it started to feel unsafe and many fled the community for fear of being arrested. Back in New York City a male interviewee relays the fear of having the NYPD spy on both him and his friends while they participated in a charity event for Muslim relief.

The final events in An Act of Worship’s chronology is the 2014 murder of three UNC Muslim students and how the media seemed intent on portraying ti as a parking dispute and not a hate crime. Two years later Trump was elected and he instituted the 90 day ban on travelers from Muslim nations. We once again hear from unnamed voices within the Muslim-American community who document how the inane Trump travel ban impacted their day-to-day-life. An Act of Worship’s final scenes are that of social justice. The film concludes with Khadega in the streets of Detroit honoring her Islamic faith by standing up for justice and helping the lives of those who cannot help themselves.

Those final scenes are just some of the many that help make An Act of Worship a provocative and pensive documentary that bristles with raw emotion and unvarnished honesty. The best docs are the ones that leave an impression and this such film does exactly that. Unflinching and candid it is a brutal and important view of America’s 40-year-plus habit of spewing vitriol and hate at Muslim-Americans living in the United States. Perhaps the only flaw in the film is Dadabhoy’s persistent lack of naming many of her interviewees. Whether that was a request of those interviewed or a glaring omission it is the one thing that gnaws at you after the end credits. That small grip aside An Act of Worship is a towering achievement and a film that we hope lives on long after its recent Tribeca Film Festival appearance. Blending personal stories with archival footage, family home movies and seminal moments in America’s recent history filmmaker Dadabhoy allows viewers to walk in the shoes of Muslim Americans. If the film has any lasting impact the hope of this reviewer is that it will leave viewers wanting to create a more just and verdant world.

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