Growing up in the early 1990s with a budding interest in cinema wasn't always easy for Musa Syeed. As a Muslim, he was expected to address weighty topics tied to his faith, with little freedom to pursue the topics he had a real passion for.
He's looking to change that for the next generation of Muslim filmmakers.
"Maybe they feel like they have to talk about certain things, or are made to respond to certain things that are going on in the world," said Syeed of the pressures associated with being a minority in the media. "They often don't just get the chance to talk about what they want to talk about."
This summer, Syeed held a weeklong filmmaking workshop for Muslim youth in Philadelphia through the Center for Asian American Media called Muslim Youth Voices Project. Participating in the workshop was free for students through a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art's Building Bridges Program. The students completed short works that will premiere this weekend at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival.
The shorts touch on universal topics — bullying, the importance of teamwork, and healthy eating — all the while weaving in fantasy, time travel and, of course, zombies.
A scene from 14-year-old Rizky Chandra's short, "Food for Thought," shows a young woman transforming into a zombie after eating mind-controlling brownies distributed by an aspiring class president. Ultimately, it's carrots save the day.
Having the space for this kind of creativity is exactly what Syeed wants for his students.
"For me it's important for the next generation of youth to feel like they can have ownership of their stories," he said.
After making "Food for Thought,"said the chance to flex his film skills alongside Muslim peers was invaluable.
"It's important that I know there are people around me who are the same and who are Muslim just like me," he said. "Doing this has made me feel a little better like, 'Hey I am in this group and I should be proud of who I am.'"
Eleven-year-old Gallant Abidin's film focuses a bully who finds great friendship. He hopes everyone who watches his film gains something from having seen it.
"I hope everyone walks away with a laugh and an idea in their head to spread the word: stop bullying. I want to show people that Muslims can be normal too," he said.
The Muslim Youth Voices Project film shorts premiere is Saturday, Nov. 14, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the International House in University City, and includes a panel discussion with the youth filmmakers. The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival runs through Nov. 22.
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