An Interview With Filmmaker Eyad Zahra
By Bob Ignizio
[THE TAQWACORES screens Thursday February 24th at 7pm and Friday February 25th at 9:30pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque. Director Eyad Zahra will be on hand to answer questions after both screenings.]
Although he no longer calls Cleveland home, when it came time to shoot his feature film THE TAQWACORES returned to the best location in the nation, using our fair city as a stand-in for Buffalo. The film tells the story of a group of young Muslim punk rockers who are too punk for most Muslims, and too Muslim for most punks. It's a fascinating look at a subculture most people probably didn't know existed. Eyad will be back in Cleveland this week to screen his film and answer questions from the audience afterward. He was also kind enough to answer some of my questions for the Cleveland Movie Blog.
Cleveland Movie Blog: What got you interested in filmmaking? Did you go to film school, or are you self taught?
Eyad Zahara: Filmmaking was always something I have been interested in. Taking video production courses in high school (Lake Ridge Academy) solidified that sentiment. Taking the next step, I ended up going to film school at Florida State University.
CMB: How did you first encounter the book The Taqwacores, and what made you decide to turn it into a movie?
EZ: I came about the book randomly on the internet. When I read the book I was stunned. It seemed like The Taqwacores was written just for me. I felt very connected to it.
CMB: Was this a difficult book to adapt on a low budget, and to what degree was it important to you to stay faithful to the source material versus putting your own stamp on it?
EZ:To make any film on an ultra low budget is extremely difficult, book adaptation or not. The great thing about THE TAQWACORES was that the story lent itself well to be made as an ultra low budget film. The narrative takes place in and around one setting, a punk house. As you can imagine, this made the film much more manageable to shoot.
CMB: Did you come out of the punk rock scene yourself, or was this sort of a new world for you?
EZ: I had a basic understanding of punk, but making this film required me to learn a lot more. Diving into the punk world was a great life lesson for me, and one of the best things that came out of making this film.
CMB: The characters in the movie drink and smoke pot, and have some fairly nontraditional ideas about the role of women in Islam. Have you experienced any strong negative reactions to the film as a result of putting forth those kind of ideas?
EZ: No, we haven't had any strong backlash directed at us. I think this goes to show how diverse and understanding the Islamic community actually is.
CMB: One of the biggest obstacles for low budget filmmakers is finding good actors willing to work for what you can afford, yet you seem to have assembled a very strong cast of unknowns. How did you put together such a good cast?
EZ: I knew a few of the actors, but mostly this came about through the help of our casting director Ryan Glorioso. Although he was based out of Louisiana, he was able to setup a nationwide audition for the film on the internet. Through a virtual casting office, he helped us find the best minority talent in the country. These actors also were very excited to work on this film. As a director, I really lucked out with the kind of talent that I was able to work with on my first go.
CMB:Although the story is set in Buffalo, you shot the film in Cleveland. Is that just home town loyalty, or were there other reasons that made shooting in Cleveland the best choice?EZ: Beyond town loyalty though, we couldn't have made this film anywhere else. It was the only place where we could shoot the film at our budget. I was able to make the film by moving back into my old bedroom, and calling upon major favors from family and friends. Also important was the fact that our Executive Producer, Dr. David Perse, a life-long Cleveland man, really pushed for the film to be made here. He wanted to oversee everything and be a part of the entire production process. He came to set pretty much every day, and was involved in critiquing every cut of the film. So many great moments in the film are his doing.
CMB: If you had made your movie in the seventies, I could see a company like Roger Corman's New World Pictures distributing it and doing a really good exploitation campaign. They would bring in the right kind of edgy young audience that today's indie distributors either don't know how to reach or don't care about. Do you think it's still possible for a film like yours to find an audience theatrically, or do you think it's going to have to be through home video?
EZ: Times have definitely changed, and it's hard to apply what worked in the seventies in our world today. Back then, you could do things like that because people had to come to the theaters to see those films, or else they wouldn't be able see them at all . There weren't outlets like Netflix or IFC, where people could see niche films easily quickly after their theatrical release, and save themselves money in the process. I think Strand Releasing (our distributor) has done an excellent job in releasing our film. We played in major theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, and from there we have had limited engagements in other cities.
CMB: What was your experience of showing the film at Sundance like?
EZ: Sundance was incredible. In my opinion, it's the still the biggest beacon of light for indie cinema in the US. I highly encourage any cinema goer to make a trip out there if they can. You have to experience it. And if you can't do that, it's okay. Thankfully, Cleveland has it's own Sundance -- The Cleveland International Film Festival. As many of you already know, Bill Guentzler (CIFF's Artistic director) programs the festival up to par with the best international film festivals in the world. Showing THE TAQWACORES at CIFF last year was an incredible experience. I couldn't believe how much the festival had grown since I had been in high school. It's great to see people lining up in the Gateway Walkway to see world renowned films, versus just another sports event.
CMB: What would you like to do for your next project? Are you hoping to attract the interest of the bigger studios, or would you prefer to stay independent?
EZ: What I care about most is being passionate about the next story I take on. Things like size of the production and genre are second to that.