How a new film festival aims to reclaim Muslim artistic identity in the West

The first Muslim International Film Festival is set to take place in London

The film Inshallah A Boy, directed by Amjad Al Rasheed, will feature at the festival. Photo: The Imaginarium Films
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Last week, actor-producer Sajid Varda launched the first edition of the Muslim International Film Festival. Taking place in London between May 30 and June 2, the festival’s inaugural edition promises an enticing mix of feature films, shorts, industry panels and Q & with talent.

But more than that, Varda is looking for this vibrant-looking festival to help reclaim Muslim artistic identity in a world where words like ‘Islam’ and 'Allahu akbar' are often demonised.

“The media loves to use Islam and Muslim as part of the headline, because again, it's just the way of stoking up fear, dividing communities,” Varda explains exclusively to The National.

“So this really is about how do we reclaim our identity, which really has been taken away from us. It's been left in the hands of others, who seek to really demonise our faith and you can see that also in TV shows and films … that there is a lot of stereotyping.”

Varda points out that as a younger man, he starred in the 1991-1993 comedy show Teenage Health Freak for UK television broadcaster Channel 4. It was one of the rare times he’d seen his own community shown on screen.

Although representation has improved since then, world events like the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 saw Muslims and Islam identified with something “not just foreign but evil”. On top of this, stories from the Muslim community were not getting screen time in the media.

“The fear of the other is perhaps why we have a lot of the issues that we have currently,” he continues. “And it's about how do we break down those barriers? How do we show other communities who we interact with on a daily basis in so many different ways?

“How do we share our lived experiences, and show other audiences and other communities that actually there's nothing really to be fearful of? What we should be very careful and fearful of is the media in how they portray minority communities.”

It led to Varda creating the Muslim International Film Festival, which is supported by UK Muslin Film, a charity working to change perspectives by championing underrepresented voices.

Varda explains: “As a festival, we really want to be able to show the best of what we do as a faith community, as a global faith community; as a community of brilliant filmmaking talent who are contributing to the cinema landscape, and telling beautiful stories, and it's about giving mainstream audiences a window into our lives. There's actually a lot more that we have in common than what divides us.”

MIFF opens on May 30 with Hounds, Moroccan writer-director Kamal Lazraq’s Casablanca-set drama about a father and a son who become embroiled in a kidnapping that goes disastrously wrong. The film bowed at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

“I remember just being captivated by it,” says Varda. “It's dark. But it's humorous. It's not about necessarily about faith. This is just about the human experience. And it just so happens in the film, they are drawn to almost a different path because of their connection to their faith.”

Also screening at the festival is British science-fiction film Sky Peals, starring Faraz Ayub as a night shift worker at a motorway service station who begins to experience strange, extraterrestrial goings-on. Ayub, who featured in the popular Channel 4 show Screw, is confirmed to join the screening for a Q&A.

Other films include Mohamed Kordofani's debut Goodbye Julia, which was the first film from Sudan to play at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Amjad Al Rasheed’s compelling legal drama Inshallah a Boy, which became Jordan’s official entry for the Oscars this year, also screens. The Iranian film Empty Nets, which dives into the world of illegal caviar poaching, was also confirmed to play at MIFF after Tuesday’s launch.

Varda says that making the selection process was “very challenging”, especially as the selectors are “fighting for films with every other festival around the world”. But he pays tribute to his festival team, some of whom are newcomers.

“I wanted to really employ a team that understands film curation well, and also bring on board some newbies as well to create opportunities for Muslims as the future of festival programming. For them, to programme a festival, which is a major festival, is quite new as an experience.”

While representatives from such esteemed organisations as the BBC, BFI and Netflix will take part in various panels, Varda is hoping that MIFF not only brings together the best of Muslim filmmaking talent, but also encourages Muslim audiences to participate as well.

“I've been attending festivals for many years,” he adds. “But it's still a quite new concept I would say for Muslims and Muslim community. But this festival is about how do we bring in the Muslim community … bringing them in to see these wonderful films, which they may not have had the opportunity to have seen.”

With two short programmes also part of the festival, highlights include Dammi by Yann Demange, the director of ’71 and White Boy Rick (and Marvel’s forthcoming Blade reboot). Playing in the strand A Reckoning of Hearts, the 16-minute short stars British Oscar-winner Riz Ahmed as a man who returns to Paris in search of his misplaced Arab identity.

Varda is hoping that both Demange and Ahmed will participate in Q&A, either over video or in person. Also playing in the same strand is Warda Mohammed’s Muna, starring Kosar Ali, who was nominated for a BAFTA for her breakout performance in 2019’s Rocks.

The festival will also be offering awards for Best Feature and Best Short, as well as presenting the Trailblazer Award for those who have made innovative contributions to the industry.

Above all, Varda says he hopes MIFF will also “help steer the careers of new talent”, with the various networking and creative sessions that will run during the festival. “We really want to operate on several different levels here,” he says. “As well as for the audiences, it’s also really about how we can help filmmakers too.”

The Muslim International Film Festival runs from May 30 to June 2. For more details, visit

Updated: April 22, 2024, 4:38 AM