Directed by Eyad Zahra
USA 2010, 84 minutes, Strand Releasing
Currently running at the NWFF through February 17; shows at 7:00, 9:00 PM daily
Yusef doesn’t look like a punk when he joins a communal youth living situation in a grimy, kicked-in-the-economic-sack neighborhood of Buffalo, NY. Even after telling the story of his time spent in his experience of the perennial, punk rock passage known as the punk group house, to someone visiting just as the tenants are disbanding, he is told “he doesn’t look like one.” But wait a second. Does the young kid interviewing him mean he doesn’t look like a punk — or a Muslim?
The real story of The Taqwacores — or one of the stories happening at the same time, and bleeding into the other, in a string theory putting a butterfly’s wings into bondage sort of way — is that it is an archetypal “core” community house. That is, various flavors of contemporary (and timeless) punk rockers, from mohawk-sporting libertines who play pranks on passersby and crave affection from young women and wake and bake on skunk weed in the afternoon; jittery, horny, goofy skinheads who can barely control their libidinousness impulses; art-damaged feminist punk poets with gay comrades; and the other end of the squatter-spectrum, with ham-fists clenched in the corner, the rules-adoring straight edge scene-cop. You know, the usual milieu of misfit urban rebels living together for some god-forsaken reason.
Except that it is actually for God’s sake — or their own shared belief in a deity, “taqwa” roughly translated to “God-fearing.” The house Yusef comes to live in is also a place with a diverse mix of people within those people described above — the Muslims within the punks, and how they try to keep themselves and each other from being double-minded or disingenuous to the mutual causes they share. The guitar-playing hedonist wants to use his instrument during a praise service; the muscle-ripped legalist isn’t so happy about that. The covered-in-a-burka Scripture expert teaches political liberation along with spiritual surrender, and um the muscle-ripped legalist isn’t so happy about that either. The skinhead feverishly wants to get laid, even in the midst of a religious clan that seems to prize chastity and respect for sexuality as a very high value — and the muscle-ripped legalist finally has someone he can work his daddy issues out on.
Okay, so it was his bed the skinhead did the dirty deed on, with a more freedom-loving neo-convert to the tribe — but the resulting violence and contention in the community will be mind-blowing to punks who are used to more casual interpersonal politics. Hell, the uproar and the forgiveness within the commune-Koran study-beer drinking and pot smoking devotional group is such a hurricane, it makes the fierce tongue-clucking and smug finger-waving of Born Again Christians seem dispassionate. These people take perceived transgression very seriously — but then, comradeship is all they have. Very intimate, personal details about sexuality (and other behaviors) are either extremely disguised or transmuted, or severely dealt with. Everything becomes an argument, and character is often questioned — to a somewhat melodramatic extent in Taqwacores — but this is a subculture in an extreme minority, in several different ways, than mainstream America.
There is the possibility that this low budgeted but lustrous-looking adaptation of Michael Muhammad Knight’s detailed novel of the same name will blow many fucking minds. As Pakistan-born Yusef is ingrained into negotiating a world of genuine spirituality among temptations and confusion, bonding over skating with new friends who share his musical tastes, and discovers masturbation (all of which many young men and women do in their teenage years, all over the country and the world), it becomes apparent that this is not simply a piece of religious propaganda. The sexual tension, even among the competitive male characters, and even with the repressive opinions of some of the more “core” fundamentalists in the scene, is more realistically and openly displayed than say a Christian punk movie of its type would be. The violence is senseless too, and even if it is shown that way, the values behind it are considered important enough for director Eyad Zahra to patiently show the characters struggle working through. (Almost too patiently — but then I would have kicked the straight edge guy out of the house the first time he glowered at me.)
But would (say) a Christian punk movie show fore-brand legalists and flamingly gay characters praying together, no matter how begrudgingly, as is done here? Would the tenderness of their shared devotion seem so universal as it still allows the unique personalities of its faithful followers? The Taqwacores has many potential audiences — any person with a spiritual belief who is trying to live in community and serve others would find it refreshing for even dealing with the topic. The current punk audience may be much more intrigued though — the original scene’s old school nihilism long since considered passe and the hopes for either new or valid traditional values have been thirsted after since the fall of the first Bush. I have the feeling that most punks will consider Muslim punk to be too dialectical, too much of a burden to sort out, just from viewing The Taqwacores. And that’s not to blame the film; it had a lot of diverse POVs to cram into 84 minutes — which might be a big surprise to many in itself.
As Yusef spends time alone with each member of the household and some in the surrounding neighborhood, the audience is shown how it feels to be different — to be thought of as a terrorist by rednecks at the gas station, or to be dismissed as a lesser brother by people in the scene who remembered people who lived there before you came along. The glorification of the mohawk-wearing punk as a symbol of peace is overt and stereotypical, but his love for his god and religious family seems genuine in his scenes. As the film slowly places him between the violent forces of tradition and the self-acceptance of new believers at a tumultuous punk rock show, the kind of group house show all punks throw whenever they have a house together, is just one example of plotting a story from deep experience.
This dialectic of the Taqwacores — that there are opposing interpretations of what it means to be Islamic, engaged together even when it war — ends in irredeemable conflict (carried out in the mosh pit), and like the world of punk and the suffering world of faith itself, is left crying into the void. And maybe the expression of that crying, along with the weeping itself, is more important than what it is directed to — the fact that it is being done together by people who have nothing else in common but their shattered, shambling, shameful humanity. Yet the revolutionary notion that this terrible violence may somehow be necessary in itself for both spiritual and growth is something the novelist and filmmaker are smart enough to imply, but not answer.