Beating Back the Bulldog – The rise of British Asian movies tackling social issues

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A new UK movie was released this year by a theatre company which hopes to be the first ‘Islamic film company’ in Britain. The film, Freesia, is thought to be the first to tackle the growing problem of Islamophobia in Britain and has already earned a string of awards. It is the latest in a growing trend of movies which hit hard at issues deeply ingrained in British culture.

Conor Ibrahiem, artistic director of Arakan Creative, spoke about how Freesia fits in the context of British Asian movies in general.

“It’s not the first film to tackle Islamophobia worldwide – American Sharia (2015) is the first I know of. But that’s a comedy set in the USA whereas Freesia tries to deal with real issues facing British Asians today in a serious, compassionate way.”

Comedy does seem to be the vehicle of choice for many British Asian directors. Bhaji on the Beach (1993), East is East (1999), Anita and Me (2002), Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Four Lions (2010) and The Best Marigold Hotel (2011) are all comedies which tackle various issues such as racism, unyielding cultural expectations, and terrorism but ultimately seek to entertain audiences rather than challenge.

Ibrahiem’s film, by contrast, is serious throughout. The plot follows three families brought together through the racist attack by a white youth on a Muslim man. The audience get to understand the youth’s background of poverty and frustration, the Muslim man’s struggles with his son and the difficulties of a Muslim woman – a witness to the crime – trying to find her place between British and, in her case, Middle-Eastern cultures. In the background of each household are some Freesia flowers which, it is explained, are given to people who are graceful under pressure. The flowers also represent friendship and innocence – subjects which take on increasing significance as the film progresses.

Ibraheim’s careful treatment though means the film never becomes too heavy or bleak for general viewing. For this director, entertainment and tackling issues seriously go hand in hand.

“The companies producing films like Four Lions are rather generic. Instead of setting out with the goal of raising issues, these films are one-offs – and of course that’s okay – but by contrast Arakan hopes to have an ongoing commitment to addressing the stories within the Islamic and South Asian world. Yet we still want to produce family entertainment – films you could watch with your grandma and your children.”

In some ways, Freesia has been made more in the style of a TV movie which, in the UK, is a style which allows for digging deep into difficult issues. Britz (2007) was one such TV production and looked at what would cause a second-generation Muslim to turn against their birth country and forced marriages. Honour (2014) is another which considers so-called ‘honour killings’ as did Film 4’s Catch Me Daddy the same year. However, important though these issues are, there have been criticisms of melodrama levelled at the directors and of entertainment rather than ‘enlightenment’ as the New York Times complained of Honour. By contrast, Ibrahiem intended to make something more true to experience and relevant to British Asians.

“I want to see more stories from the people who are living these lives for real. How many Asian people have really seen these films? Instead, I’m hearing feedback on Freesia from audiences which have seen the private screenings like ‘finally someone from our community who understands these issues’.”

This earthy reality has certainly impressed those who have seen Freesia calling it “thought-provoking” and “fair and balanced” during post-screening sessions or on feedback forms – five screen tests have given a consistent 80-90% positive rating from audiences. The film has garnered numerous nominations from festivals including ‘Best original Screenplay of a Feature Film’, ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Original Score’ from the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema. Other achievements include, so far, ‘Award of Merit’ from the Accolade Global Film Competition in San Diego, ‘Best New Filmmaker’ from the Canadian Diversity Film Festival and ‘Best First Time Filmmaker’ from the Auckland International Film Festival.

Ibrahiem himself is not new to recognition. Among other successes, he won the Mosaic’s ‘Arts & Culture’ award in 2010 and Brit Writer’s Awards in the ‘Script & Screenplay’ category in 2012.

That Ibrahiem is ambitious is not in doubt: he dreamed big to make Freesia a reality despite a tiny budget and having to raise funds through a grant-making charitable trust, but the dreaming hasn’t stopped there.

Freesia isn’t a one-off. I want to see Islamic social realism as a new, recognised sub-genre in British Asian movies. We’re already making plans for a sequel to the film which would look at the issues surround Sharia Law. My hope is to make a number of films which can take a look at all sorts of prejudice and demonstrate that it is ‘Islamic’ to be caring about all social problems and not just our own ‘in-house’ issues.”

But is the reason Freesia stands out from other movies is that there isn’t a place for a British Asian movie that tries to tackle social problems so based on daily routine life in Britain?  Is it a prophet or a pariah? There’s good reason to think it does have a place. On Monday November 23, 2015 an 18-year-old hijab-wearing Muslim woman was attacked by a white youth who punched her in the middle of a busy main street in Birmingham – a city with a large Asian population. It’s just one of many islamophobic atttacks which have taken place since the Paris killings last year.  According to The Telegraph reports of such hate crimes have increased by 300 per cent since November 13, 2015 and most of the victims are Muslim women wearing hijabs and niqabs and often quite young. Most of the perpetrators were white men aged between 15 and 35. While the Paris attacks have seen a surge, the media interest in stories such as British Asian men grooming and sexually abusing young white girls has fanned the flames of extremist groups and the nation’s distrust of the Asian community in general. Membership of anti-immigration groups such as UKIP and anti-Muslim groups like the English Defence League have risen alarmingly. After the Brexit vote -where the fear surrounding immigration was a key argument for many who voted to leave the EU – the press noted a sharp rise in racist attacks, particularly on Muslims, and though that has abated to an extent there continues an air of concern among many in Asian communities.

While groups such as UKIP and EDL are relatively new – but highly popular – organisations, white racism seems to have been deeply embedded in the White British psyche a long time; probably since the days of the Empire. ‘The British Bulldog’, a small but tenacious animal, is a well-known symbol for the British, but that aggressive and persistent attitude which is felt to make the nation great has an ugly side too where rational thinking fades and mob mentality is difficult to eradicate. Ibrahiem thinks education is key and sees his film in this context.

Freesia is written in part for a Muslim audience. It respectfully challenges the community to address issues like grooming and deal with them. But it is also a movie for those who hate us. I would love people from these groups to come and see the film and see the other side. For that reason we deliberately portray the positive and negative sides to both communities.”

It’s a bold move and is, perhaps, something which takes Arakan’s future movies out of the current narrative of British Asian productions. Where previous films may have been guilty of melodrama and perhaps being a little trite in their handling of sensitive issues, Freesia is real enough to hold its own in the UK’s tough and intimidating schools. Again, this is all part of the plan by Ibrahiem and his team.

“We want this film to be used in schools and we’re hoping for the opportunity to work with education providers to see this happen. We’re ready to provide resource packs to use for lessons which would give the opportunity for teenagers to engage in the issues raised by the characters.”

Remarkably, the film succeeds educationally in ways its two closest companions do not. Brick Lane (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) both present the harsh realities of life in the UK and India respectively and deserve the immense success they’ve received, but both also add scenes of sex and violence which might make teachers and councils think twice about their use in the classroom. Freesia has nothing which will concern authorities yet manages to hit hard with the message that British society needs to change without preaching or talking down to the audience.

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At the time of writing, Arakan’s production is still doing the rounds of the international festivals and it waits to be seen if it will be picked up for general release in cinemas, taken by British TV or made a part of the British national curriculum for schools (it is encouraging for the team that they have just received their 14th official festival selection, this time from the Yosemite International Film Festival). It’s hard to say which of these would have the greatest impact and it is certainly impact rather than commercial success which drives Ibrahiem. The goal of seeing Arakan Creative as the UK’s first ‘Islamic’ film company is a spiritual one rather than cultural. The crew who made the film came from both white and Asian communities, Muslim and non-Muslim.

“’Islamic’ is an holistic idea,” Ibrahiem explained. “It is about how you interact with other people and the world. It’s about encouraging good moral values and understanding others.”

This inclusive understanding of faith which is at the core of what Arakan stands for can be seen in the latest venture the company has undertaken; not a film but a comic book titled ‘The Abrahamix’ which features three superheroes – a Muslim, A Christian and a Jew – who team together to fight racial injustice. The type of media Arakan uses is clearly not a concern; the message however is unwavering.

For more information about Freesia go to

http://arakancreative.co.uk/freesia-film/

You can see the trailer for Freesia here:

https://youtu.be/6-B0CClN2DQ

 

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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