SXSW FILM 2010
By JP Chapman | March 20, 2010
Director: Omar Majeed
Writer: David Oliveras
Starring: Michael Muhammad Knight, The Kominas, Al Thawra, Vote Hezbollah, and Secret Trial Five
A pleasant surprise amongst the numerous documentaries at this year’s SXSW festival was Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. Spawned out of author Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, The Taqwacores, the film follows Knight and a number of Islamic youth in America inspired by his novel. In the film, Knight tells how the novelization of The Taqwacores inadvertently birthed an underground punk movement after being first published DIY, then via Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label. Plot-wise, the novel follows groups of drug addled, anarchy driven, but Islam-centric punks in New York as they struggle with their beliefs and mix with the local punk scene. Taqwacore, the documentary, follows some of the bands that picked up this novel and were inspired to mix their faith and music in the more accepting world of punk rock (“taqwa” is translated as “piety” or “god-fearing”). Interestingly, all of the bands involved in the film failed to see that The Taqwacores was a novel, but rather believed it to be a tale of like-minded Islamic youth that they had yet to encounter. This knowledge that “someone else was out there” pushed them to start bands and publicly mix their faith, politics, and music. The resulting film is one that managed to get me more emotionally invested in and thinking about its characters than any other documentary I saw at this year’s festival.
As a teenager, I was heavily invested in the Bay Area punk scene, and was privileged to attend countless vet’s hall shows, house parties/concerts, and club shows. In my eyes, punk rock is more of a tool than a musical genre. As opposed to the layered pop of the 60’s, or the multi-faceted prog of the 70’s, punk uses a basic, blunt structure to get its point across. As a result, it is much more about a message than the music that delivers it. I’ve witnessed bands use this platform and ideology politically, spiritually, emotionally, etc. The bands of Taqwacore have also seen this power, and grab onto it in an upside down world where their country rejects them for their beliefs, while their friends/family reject them for their lifestyle. However; just as countless other punk bands have done before them, they find camaraderie amongst each other.
Michael Muhammad Knight is really the true star of both The Taqwacores and Taqwacore. Born to an abusive, racist father, he was left to live solely with his mother at an early age. As he grew older, Knight had a desire to know who his father was, but upon learning who he was and how he lived his life, pushed away to an opposite extreme and embraced both Islam and the strictest elements that accompanied the faith. What resulted was a man with higher morals, but also one with little patience for his mother drinking a glass of wine at dinner. In an effort to distance himself from the corruption of western culture, Knight found himself moving to Pakistan to study the Islamic faith. This was a life-altering time for him; however, as he entered college, Knight began to fall away from his faith and into a world of drugs and alcohol. Here is where he became the poster-child for what would become Taqwacore. After living in this manner for years, Knight began to find a balance; re-discovering his faith, while simultaneously bringing a link to the world of punk. Taqwacore became his platform to connect the Islamic youth of today with something both tangible and primal.
Taqwacore invites us into the phase of Knight’s life in which he is finding his balance. Taking several bands under his wings and embarking on the “Taqwatour”, the group of friends discover what their faith means to them, and how they want to live their lives as they tour the country. Some of the bands move forward in pushing the boundaries of what is generally accepted in their Islamic faith, while others fall into the same destructive patterns that Knight found himself descending into. Through it all, the viewer is given the privilege of watching from the sidelines and seeing that “yes”, these bands can have an identity in both their faith and music, and that they also have the power to push a new generation towards a common ground of acceptance in America (and the world).
Technically, Taqwacore is nothing special. While not executed poorly, it has a home-movie/DIY feel to its structure typical of many band documentaries. However; not only is this what I feel the film-makers were going for, but it also serves to pull the viewer deeper into the lives of the characters of the film. Just as Lemmy also managed to accomplish this year, Taqwacore leaves you with a desire to know Knight and these bands, and to see them grow and find happiness in the conflicted world they live in. Probably more than any other film of SxSw, I found myself thinking back to the participants of this documentary, hoping they were doing ok, and wanting to continue watching their lives from the sidelines. That, in my opinion, is the mark of a truly great documentary, and is what made this film stand out as one of my favorites of the festival. My one complaint with the film is that due to the level of emotional attachment it fostered, I wished it was a little longer. In some ways, it left me feeling short-changed in regards to the back-stories of the bands, etc. Nonetheless, this was a minor complaint on my part. Overall, Taqwacore was an excellent film, and one that is absolutely worth watching.