This special feature on Muslim female filmmakers looks at women who are redefining onscreen Muslim representation, raising difficult issues and overcoming barriers in the film and TV industry. Today our focus is on Lena Khan, who spoke to Alchemiya about what inspired her to make films, and what it’s like to be a Muslim cinematic trailblazer.
by Sarah Khurshid
I am a Muslim woman. I love my faith and my culture has allowed me to connect with many different people. I care about the environment and social issues. I love to laugh, read and spend time with my family. So why do I feel so misrepresented and ignored on screen?
In 2021, the University of Southern California, Annenberg, conducted a study on Muslim representation in cinema and found that Muslims appeared in only 1.6% of 200 international movies. Typically in the west, Muslim characters are written and directed by non-Muslims who do not, and cannot, fully realise the Muslim experience on screen. The same study indicated that Muslim women accounted for only a quarter of that already tiny representation.
After bingeing countless TV shows and films, I have also noticed a trend in Muslim female representation. We are either violent and destructive, or just desperate to rip off our headscarves and denounce our faith to rebel against the societal and cultural expectations that are apparently placed on us. It’s ridiculous, tedious and frustrating.
This is Part I of a special feature showcasing Muslim female filmmakers, who are making waves and challenging these problematic representations. These women have created outstanding work based on their passions and on their experiences as Muslim women.
We are going to start with the first Hijab-wearing director in Hollywood, and fantastic writer, Lena Khan.
Canadian-American Khan has already conquered cinema in the west and is a true powerhouse. From her hilarious debut feature film, The Tiger Hunter, to working with Disney and directing the DisneyPlus hit Flora and Ulysses, Khan has broken so many barriers to Muslims in this industry.
I grew up in the west watching countless Hollywood films. I dreamed about directing my own movies and writing screenplays. The adults around me told me that my dream was not realistic because of my faith and ethnic background. Lena Khan shatters that idea, and is a testament to the fact that dedication and commitment can overturn outdated views of what is and isn’t possible for young Muslim women. She is hugely inspirational and I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing her for Alchemiya. Here’s what she had to say.
What sparked your interest in filmmaking?
I’ve always loved creatively engaging with characters and making videos since I was young. When I was in college, my brother finally encouraged me to consider the possibility that filmmaking could actually be a career (something no South Asian girl, especially at the time, would think is real). Hoping to see if I could merge my love of visual storytelling with my desire to spread awareness about overlooked people and issues, I applied to film school.
What filmmakers or storytellers have inspired you and your craft?
I’ve always hoped to achieve even a little bit for various communities what folks like Spike Lee or Ava Duvernay have done for the African American community. If I could do what they did, but perhaps within my own tone and creative sensibilities, I’d feel like I’ve achieved a little of what I set out to do. Creatively, I incline toward playful filmmakers— Ed Wright, Danny Boyle, Taika Waititi.
As a Muslim woman, did you face any resistance when you decided to study film?
I used to get emails telling me that I’m doing something haram. That wasn’t fun. Aunties and uncles would joke about me to my parents. It wasn’t anything like I was black-listed or anything, but nor did it feel like support. Things have changed quite a bit now… and in some ways, they haven’t.
Over the years, have you seen a change in Muslim representation in the production crew and on-screen?
Yes, there’s definitely more Muslims out there. When I entered the industry, I could count the Muslims with actual careers in my hand. Now, they are making their way in nearly every discipline.
Have you faced any major obstacles in the industry? How has your faith helped you navigate your path as a filmmaker?
It is a career path full of obstacles. That’s just part of the game. Nothing is easy, and there are people and logistical problems always in your path. There’s always obviously always the worry that you might fail. Faith helps me a lot in these circumstances. The realization that, hoping my intentions are pure, success is Allah’s domain and not mine has been extremely freeing. At the end of the day, He is the one who gives talent, who makes our projects fly or not, and who changes hearts and minds. I’m just putting in the grunt work and hoping to do some part in helping His creation, but I’m fortunate to have such a thrilling career to be doing it with.
Thank you so much Lena Khan! In Part II of Breaking Barriers and Making Movies, we will show you some of the other fabulous, female Muslim filmmakers whose work we are lucky enough to have on Alchemiya.