Muslim International Film Festival debuts in London amid rising Islamophobia

5 min read
24 May, 2024

The inaugural Muslim International Film Festival (MIFF) has arrived at a pertinent time. This cinematic celebration of stories and storytellers from the Muslim world will take place in London across four days, from May 30 to June 2, only a few months after the UN warned that Islamophobia had risen to "alarming levels."

The last seven months of Israel's war on Gaza have certainly widened the world's eyes to the dehumanisation of Muslims in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and beyond.

Experts at the UN singled out Israel's "continued refusal to allow adequate humanitarian assistance and food aid to be provided to the mainly Muslim civilian population in Gaza," during the holy month of Ramadan, "despite the widespread hunger and signs of severe malnutrition," as a particularly harrowing example.

However, faith-based marginalisation of Muslims did not begin on October 7, 2023, nor has it been constrained to government authorities and media outlets.

"By focusing on our stories and narratives... we can erode and chip away at these misconceptions that the media has perpetuated over so many years"

Film and TV have historically played a role in the vilification of Muslims, which is exactly why MIFF festival director Sajid Varda put this programme together.

"When 9/11 happened, you saw a massive shift in roles geared towards showing Muslims as terrorists," the MIFF festival director tells The New Arab. "The Muslim community and Islamic faith became something to be hated."

"For some [Muslim] writers, it was difficult to pitch a story unless it had something tinged with terrorism or some kind of trope," he explains. "And for [Muslim] actors, it was challenging for them to not audition for roles that were showing Muslims in a bad light."

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An actor and producer himself – one of his earliest roles was in the beloved Nineties children's TV series Byker Grove – Varda wanted to make the industry he loved a safer, more inclusive space for Muslim stories, filmmakers, and performers.

So, he founded the charity UK Muslim Film in 2017 to work with broadcasters and industry creatives to combat negative stereotypes. Now, the festival is an inviting extension of that effort, bringing together audiences of all backgrounds to experience the diversity of the global Islamic community.

"How do we show the beauty and the creative talents of Muslim filmmakers?" Varda asks. "By focusing on our stories and narratives, and honouring filmmakers from other backgrounds who have created amazing cinematic stories about our community of faith, we can erode and chip away at these misconceptions that the media has perpetuated over so many years."

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The inaugural programme includes critically acclaimed feature films from the UK, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan, and Sudan.

Award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia will receive the Trailblazer Award at the opening night gala premiere of Hounds (Les Meutes), Kamal Lazraq's blackly comic, Casablanca-set noir, which won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes.

The festival will close with British filmmaker Naqqash Khalid's exquisite entertainment satire In Camera, starring Nabhaan Rizwan and Amir El Masry, with a slew of industry talks and networking events in between.

A short programme also includes Yann Mounir Demange's deeply personal short film Dammi, starring Riz Ahmed; Roopa Gogineni's revolutionary spotlight on Sudan, Suddenly TV; and the moving Palestinian drama An Orange from Jaffa.

Actor and rapper Riz Ahmed in Dammi [Muslim International Film Festival]

"The hope is we will continue to have a film from Palestine every single year because it is a cause so close to everybody's hearts now, Muslim and non-Muslim alike," says Varda. "Seeing 143 votes in favour of Palestine joining the UN was quite moving."

Despite some appalling pushback against Palestinian filmmakers, films, and programming at recent cultural events and festivals across the globe, Varda says MIFF has come together without complaints. "We've had some wonderful individuals come forward and say, 'We'd love to be a part of this.'"

In addition to putting his own money into the festival – "If you believe in something deeply, you need to put some skin in the game!" he says – the festival is receiving industry support from the BFI, BBC Writers' Room, BBC Film, Film4, and BAFTA, with all events taking place at Odeon Luxe in Leicester Square.

"I'm proud of being Muslim; it's not something that I feel I need to fear, so I wanted [the festival] in the heart of London, where we have those world premieres," says Varda. "The industry has been phenomenal."

As a person of British and East African heritage with Indian ancestry, it was a no-brainer for Varda to bring together a diverse group of professionals to realize his cinematic dream: "Even though it's a Muslim Film Festival, it's about sharing this wonderful experience with people from all backgrounds."

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The team includes Muslim interns and festival coordinators, English publicists and marketers, and a Ukrainian-Greek programmer, as well as a predominantly female festival jury deciding which filmmakers will win Best Short and Best Film.

Varda hopes the festival will serve as a welcome mat for people outside the Muslim faith to enter worlds they might not be familiar with but can still recognise.

"The ethos of the festival is important for us, which is about human stories that anyone who is not Muslim could watch and identify with," says Varda.

He also wants Muslims to feel at home at a film festival that is "honouring the faith and pleasing our Creator. Ultimately, for a Muslim, our whole life is geared towards doing that."

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint