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by Danielle Kourtesis
June 18th, 2009

On Saturday, June 20th, Rooftop Films will be screening Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s film New Muslim Cool on the roof of El Museo del Barrio. Get tickets now before it sells out.

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor is a director, producer, photographer, and narrator. Her latest feature film , New Muslim Cool, chronicles the personal journey of Puerto-Rican American rapper Hamza Pérez. Pérez ended his life as a drug dealer 12 years ago, and started down a new path as a young Muslim. Now he’s moved to Pittsburgh’s tough North Side to start a new religious community, rebuild his shattered family, and take his message of faith to other young people through his uncompromising music as part of the hip-hop duo M-Team. But when the FBI raids his mosque, Hamza must confront the realities of the post-9/11 world.

Rooftop’s Julia Friedman discussed the film with Jennifer. Here’s the scoop:

ROOFTOP FILMS: Give us a brief description of your film for those who haven’t seen it yet.

JENNIFER MAYTORENA TAYLOR: After the FBI raids his community’s mosque, Puerto Rican American Muslim hip-hop artist Hamza Pérez must confront life in post-9/11 America, and himself. NEW MUSLIM COOL, shot over three years in Pittsburgh, PA and other locations around the US, follows Hamza’s ride through the streets, projects and jail cells of urban America, following his spiritual journey to some surprising places — where we can all see ourselves reflected in a world that never stops changing.

RF: Hamza’s background, as a Puerto-Rican, Muslim American is truly representative of the American “melting-pot.” Was this part of what drew you to focus on him as a character?

JMT: My work often focuses on Latino characters and themes (I’m partially of Mexican descent) so that was a point of connection that served us well at many points in the production process, especially with the rest of the Perez family. Our principal DP, David Sarasti, is from Columbia, so that also added some good Latino flavor to the production team.

And definitely, Hamza’s multiple affiliations represent the complex cultural identity that so many of us share in the melting-pot, and I think help underscore that we can be many things at once and still share a national identity and set of common values.

RF: The movie focuses on the FBI’s persecution of Muslim Americans, especially under The Patriot Act. Under the Obama administration, do you think that some of this persecution has subsided, or are Muslim citizens still being harassed and denied rights?

JMT: We never intended to focus on this issue when we set out to make the film, indeed I intentionally did not use 9/11 and its aftermath as a frame for the film’s story because I didn’t want that to be the only point of reference. I was so tired of only seeing Muslim stories in that context that I tried to start with a fresh slate.

But of course when the surveillance issue emerged and then the raid happened, we had no choice but to make that part of the film. Even so, the action that unfolded after the raid had much more to do with Hamza and his community’s emotional and spiritual responses to the event. I actually looked for them to do something more typically dramatic but that is not how they chose to respond, and so the film ends up with a much more subtle and quiet storyline.

Also I should say that Hamza and the other folks in the film, while being understandably very upset about the raid, did not really see themselves so much as victims. Partly that is because many of them grew up with a lot of police presence in their communities, partly because they try really hard to take a lot of responsibility for themselves and their responses, and partly because they are sophisticated about the ways in which others may see them. That’s what Hamza and Suliman’s song So Clear is about, which they’ll perform at the Rooftop Films show.

Finally, I am not sure what may have changed in the last few months with regard to the PATRIOT Act and treatment of the Muslim community in the US, but I’m hopeful.

RF: The role of hip-hop and poetry in the film functions as both artistic expression and social statement. In your opinion, and perhaps in Hamza’s as well, are art and music the most effective means of changing public opinion?

JMT: I’m not sure if they are the most effective of all but I think they are certainly one of the most effective ways of moving mass opinion. I think the thing is to make people feel empathy and a personal connection and not just treat issues in the abstract.

RF: The film focuses on Hamza’s spiritual journey of personal growth. Did you as the filmmaker experience a similar transformation during the making of the film?

JMT: I think I have more respect and understanding now for people who choose to follow organized forms of faith of all kinds — when they are motivated to make society better and respect that others have different beliefs (including no religious affiliation) but can still have common values.

RF: Are you a full-time filmmaker? If not, what else are you up to?

JMT: I’ve worked full-time as a producer and filmmaker for about 10 years, and in addition to making long-form independent documentaries often work as a producer in current affairs and arts at the San Francisco PBS affiliate, KQED.

RF: Tell us about your next project.

JMT: We’re launching a lot of components of NEW MUSLIM COOL over the next few months, including an expanded soundtrack album hosted by Q-Tip. This fall we’re going to kick off a campus and prison screening tour with the film to sound that theme, and also plan to work with several youth civic engagement projects through the next couple of years. We’ll be preparing a special DVD for use in correctional facilities with extra features and discussion guides that jail staff can use with inmates of different faith backgrounds, to both help the interfaith relationships among the inmate population and also to encourage self-reflection.

Another idea that we are developing and fundraising for is a video game aimed at pre-teens and teenagers, based on the drug dealing prevention program Hamza, Suliman, and Luqmon have developed. We also hope that we might be able to support the work being done by non-profit organizations that help young people start small legitimate businesses through micro-loans and training.

Also as I was making NEW MUSLIM COOL I also co-produced and co-directed a feature documentary (with Marianne Teleki) called SPECIAL CIRCUMANSTANCES. It’s about Marianne’s husband Hector — a Chilean exile searching for the people who killed his friends after the 1973 coup — and will be out on national PBS in the fall in the Latino series Voces.
And for my next production I’m going to finally have time to make the film I’ve had rattling around my laptop for a long time, a short musical comedy extravaganza called STOP! WAIT! THAT’S MY TACO TRUCK!

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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