Australian film festival tackles discrimination against Muslims

Stories of women's rights, intimidating haircuts and the mocking of stereotypes were the highlights of an Islamic film festival in Sydney.

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SYDNEY // Provocative stories of women's rights, intimidating haircuts and the mocking of stereotypes that cast Muslims as terrorists were the highlights of a three-year-old Islamic film festival in Australia. A dozen short films were showcased this month in Sydney, many of which highlighted the gritty realities of life for Muslims in an often intolerant country dominated by Anglo-Saxon traditions.

One of the winning entries in the Aussie Mozzie, as the film gala is known, Undercut, explored the world of men and boys from migrant Lebanese families in Australia, whose distinctive haircuts have become a powerful symbol of discontent and alienation. The five-minute documentary produced by Mohamed Taha, a journalism student, was widely acclaimed for its sharp observations of an intriguing subculture.

"For young Lebanese men, haircuts are a part of their identity and represent more than a simple look. It reflects inner sentiments of racism, discrimination and marginalisation. There is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the haircut," Mr Taha said after the screening of his film. "They are put on the defensive and feel the need to rebel and this is their form of rebellion to have that sort of haircut."

The cut is characterised by a close shave on either side of the head, with long hair trailing down the back, which resembles the bouffant splendour of mullets that were fashionable among sports stars and rock singers in the 1980s. Mr Taha said that this modern interpretation had become a "war cry" for many young Lebanese-Australians, who wanted their hair to signify aggression and defiance. After his success at the Sydney festival, Mr Taha said, he was determined to pursue his dream working as a full-time director. "After doing this film, I am considering a career delving into documentaries, short films and animations but they must have a moral theme and be pertinent to society."

Another film sought to challenge the common stigmatisation of many other young Muslims as troublemakers and extremists. Suspicion was a documentary produced by a group of 12- and 13-year-old schoolboys that shines a spotlight on the flimsy foundations upon which such stereotypes have been built by gently mocking broader society's misconceptions. "To understand the world we have to satirise ourselves. It is part of the Australian sense of humour to continuously poke fun at yourself," explained Maha Shiyab, an English and history teacher at Sydney's Belmore Boys' High School, who helped her pupils make the film.

Ms Shiyab said at the screening that beneath the wry humour of Suspicion, there was a serious message about the damaging labels often attached to Muslim teenagers in Australia. "They lack confidence and even though they might appear to be confident, boys are very shy creatures in reality and very self-conscious because of those stereotypes," Ms Shiyab said. "There is a generation of boys now that have grown up with the fact that they are known as terrorists. All they want is a bit of understanding."

There are signs that perhaps this is slowly beginning to change. Lynne Collingwood, one of the festival's judges, who works on Australia's popular television soap opera Home and Away, said that although Australia's entertainment industry remained heavily white, it was gradually reaching out to minority groups. "Home and Away does have some characters that are from other cultures and we did have a storyline that involved a Muslim person. I would not have said this five years ago, but I think the media realise there are a lot of people out there that aren't from the [white] background that I'm from," Collingwood said during a panel discussion in a break between films.

Of the 12 films shown, a seven-year-old film of an Islamic matchmaker made by a South African-born director, Ridwan Hassim, had the most contentious history. Hassim's Khatabah, made in 2003, was banned from an Arab film festival in Australia because it was too controversial. "There is a scene where the girl removes her veil and throws it off in the air and they [critics] felt that I denigrated the hijab, but in the Quran it doesn't state that the woman has to cover her face. That is actually a traditional thing that arose," Hassim said.

This time, the film was received warmly, with much applause during its screening this month. "People are scared generally when you are touching anything to do with Islam. You have got the whole Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy and the backlash with that," Hassim said. "I come from South Africa and was very active in the fight against apartheid, so naturally I have that quality in me to fight for human rights."