Friends and families from all over the GTA grabbed their car keys and headed to Ontario Place’s drive-in movie theatre Friday to attend Toronto’s first-ever Muslim International Film Festival (MIFF). There were 80 or more vehicles parked to watch the screening of eight short films and two feature films. Despite the pandemic, the drive-in theatre concept allowed the audience to watch the films and eat together while remaining in their own bubbles.
MIFF was founded by two Ryerson alumni, Hirra Farooqi and Obaid Ullah.
“The doors closed, and screening began at 6:30 pm. It got dark and the first intro went up and everyone’s headlights were visible,” Farooqi recalled.
The short films that were shown were: Out of Context: Volume 1, The Mask of Noor, From Syria to Hope, Aun vs Sudrom, First Stop, Let The Kids Run The World, Amritsar, and Unmarked Graves.
“We showed the short films in one go, and then break for load-in and out was from 9 to 10 p.m. We showcased the feature films The Secret Marathon and I Am Rohingya-A Genocide in Four Acts, from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m,” Farooqi said.
The founders wanted to show filmmakers’ work and screen films that are meaningful and inspiring. They also wanted to allow the Muslim community to experience what it means to attend a film festival.
“The community could simply enjoy the work and to be able to show that work on the big screen was an honour for a lot of filmmakers, and we hope to showcase a lot more in future MIFF festivals,” Ullah said.
Showcase for Muslim films
Farooqi, 23, is a production assistant for a documentary film The Secret Marathon. It’s where she did her internship when studying at Ryerson University.
The documentary film is inspired by the true story of the first woman to run a marathon in Afghanistan. The marathon happens in secret to prevent terrorist threats and gender discrimination. This inspired Canadian marathon runner Martin Parnell and filmmaker Kate McKenzie to participate and uncover the hardships. The Secret Marathon was filmed in Afghanistan.
THE SECRET MARATHON TRAILER
(Courtesy: The Secret Marathon)
Farooqi went on a tour showing the film at various festivals, including the one she attended with co-founder Obaid Ullah, which was the Waterloo Zonta Film Festival which represents female filmmakers. It got them thinking big.
“We’ve never seen any Muslim International Film Festival in Toronto or Ontario, why is that the case,” Farooqi said. “It was that ride to Waterloo where we decided that we are going to do this, and this was November 2019 and by January 5, 2020, we decided to make our first launch on social media.”
Ullah, 26, said that they wanted to host the festival in December, however with cold weather that wouldn’t have made this possible. That is why they chose to do it in October.
“To commemorate with Islamic Heritage Month, to show the Ontario government that we are doing something impactful for the community,” he said. “And it worked out.”
Films speak for themselves
“When people heard about MIFF, they thought it would be combating Islamophobia but our perspective was to showcase different and diverse stories, amazing acting, directing and producing skills,” Farooqi said.
“We thought we would showcase good stories that show the excellence of Muslims within the film and that itself combats any negative image of Islamophobia and stereotypes because we are showcasing that not all Muslims are the same,” she said.
Through social media platforms, they were able to encourage many young filmmakers to submit their films. They also approached many filmmakers nationally and internationally. However, the COVID-19 restrictions impacted the eventual scope of content available.
“Some of them were in the middle of travelling and they had to come back home and stop their production which is upsetting,” Farooqi said.
The founders decided to open up the criteria to allow previously-shown films to be submitted, as long as they were within a year or two old. That helped, but then they had to contend with public health rules on large gatherings.
“We wanted to do the traditional film festival, have networking night, gala, awards night but because of COVID-19 restrictions a lot of the film festivals were really confused, we saw a lot of film festivals cancel and go online,” Farooqi said.
Very few film festivals decided to stick it through in person. For instance, the Mosquers Film Festival from Edmonton postponed theirs to 2021.
“When it was postponed, it did upset me, but everyone has their own work ethic. I am however grateful for my team and how they stuck it through with me because I was the crazy one saying ‘Let’s keep doing’, and I am glad my team trusted my vision,” Ullah said.
“When you really stick your mind to something despite the challenges, it can work out and that determination motivated the team,” Ullah said. “The mindset that we learned at our time in university was to innovate, adapt and implement.”
Financial support came from the City of Toronto, Moya Financial, and the charity IRDF (International Development and Relief Foundation). Renting Ontario Place meant they could accommodate up to 185 cars and receive technical support.
Scooty partnered up with them and provided them with free e-scooters to use for that night. This made it easier for them to travel around the big venue.
(Image Courtesy: @ridescooty)
Ullah said when it came to having food trucks – The Holy Grills’, Chef Aleem came out and served everyone with his amazing Nashville hot fried chicken sandwich, and everyone enjoyed the food and had a good time.
MIFF founders approached Ozzy’s Burgers, a halal burger restaurant. The owner Ozgur “Ozzy” Sker said they would support MIFF because they are doing something really good for the community.
(Image Courtesy: @theholygrillto)
The co-founders were able to donate $1,000 to their charity partner. The International Development Relief Foundation wants to break the cycle of poverty, through providing Rohingya refugee families with food and water. They also help families in East Turkestan, Yemen and Lebanon.
They also donated $300 to the Marathon of Afghanistan, a non-profit organization sponsored by the makers of The Secret Marathon, that provides access to equality and freedom to run.
Of the 1,200 people who voted at MIFF within two hours, the audience choice for short film went to Out of Context: Volume 1 by Arshad Mohamed and runner-up short film The Mask of Noor by Noaman Rahin (SoulFlow).
Short Film Trailer- OUT OF CONTEXT: VOLUME 1
Won Audience Choice Award Best Short Film for MIFF
(Courtesy: StartBAD Studios)
The comedy web series directed by Arshad Mohamed has episodes where each one is 60 seconds. Each episode drops the audience into a scene without any context on what happened in prior or in the next scenes.
“It is a local film made by startBAD Studios here in Markham and this story was a creative way of storytelling, which is why I think it was selected,” Farooqi said.
Short Film Trailer- THE MASK OF NOOR
Won Audience Choice Award Best Short Film Runner- Up for MIFF
The Mask of Noor is a psychological thriller. The actor, Noaman Rahin, 27, also wrote the film and produced it, along with doing the editing.
It focuses on someone who is psychologically challenged who gets involved in a crime scene and becomes a suspect in a robbery. This film has a bunch of mind-twisting plots. Rahin played this tough and powerful character that showcased someone who has multiple personality disorders.
“There are parts of ourselves that we don’t share often and hide because it is not socially acceptable and I wanted to challenge my acting abilities through this character,” Rahin said.
‘Telling our own stories’
At MIFF, Rahin watched the film screening with his friend Husnain Sher, who’s an actor in this film.
“At first I was in disbelief watching myself on the big screen and then I felt encouraged to continue making more,” Rahin said, adding that his upcoming film Be Empty focuses on themes of identity as an immigrant.
Rahin stated that platforms such as MIFF allows creators like himself to show their own films and build a community for Muslim stories.
“If the story itself is not coming from a person who knows the experience of what it’s like growing up in Afghanistan then you can’t tell those stories,” Rahin said. “You can’t tell stories of what it’s like being an immigrant and being confused about your identity, it is difficult to tell unless you lived it or are around people that did.”
When Rahin first got into acting, he was offered roles that pigeonholed him as a Muslim stereotype. He remembers one of his very first auditions for a short film.
“My role I came to find out was a terrorist, and there was no way I would play that role,” Rahin said. “I felt discouraged.”
But it sparked his desire to be aware of stereotypes in the entertainment industry and do his part in fighting that. Being at the MIFF gave him and other filmmakers hope to continue feeling motivated and think bigger for themselves because they now know that there is a community to support them.
Enthusiastic support from big names
Indeed, MIFF attracted the attention of Hamza Haq, one of the better-known Canadian stars of Muslim descent. Haq plays a Syrian refugee doctor on the CTV show Transplant, and has acted in other popular dramas including Quantico.
Haq was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and immigrated with his family to Canada. He graduated with a film studies degree from Carleton University.
MIFF on Instagram shared the special video message sent by Haq. “As one of many pioneers to Muslim representation, we’re so happy to have Hamza’s support on board.”
(Courtesy: MIFF @muslimintlfilmfest)
Shah, who is of Pakistani descent, said MIFF will allow more positive stories about Muslims to be told and change how society views them.
“In future, I hope I can be a part of MIFF, whether to perform, speak or support them, but I think MIFF is fantastic because we got so much talent in Muslim community,” he said. “Being a Muslim myself – I wish I had more opportunities when I was younger, it makes me proud that this exists now and I hope it gets coverage and attention in future.”
Syrian refugees in Canada
Short Film Documentary- FROM SYRIA TO HOPE
(Courtesy: Films With A Cause)
From Syria to Hope is directed by the talented Yazmeen Kanji, 22. This documentary film explores the lives of three Syrian refugee families in Canada.
“I wanted to highlight stories that are different from what we are used to seeing among North American content,” Kanji said. “This film is about hope, overcoming trials and combating xenophobia, Islamophobia and discrimination.”
From Syria to Hope won as best documentary short at Toronto Short Film Festival in 2019.
Before creating this film, Kanji became annoyed with hearing repetitive Islamophobic comments at her high school and media sensationalizing the waves of Syrian refugees.
“The social and political aspect of this film should be a gateway to discover and understand how Canada and North America media portrays refugees and question Syrian refugee stories and why it became popular in Canada media as opposed to any other refugee stories,” Kanji said.
Kanji hopes that in the future MIFF can grow and be a strong platform of communication for others like her in the industry.
With MIFF showcasing Muslim excellence and pulling that small community of Muslim filmmakers together, Kanji feels it is a way of “encouraging upcoming artists to pursue their passions and we need more Muslim voices in the industry since it’s lacking.”
Amir wanted the audience to understand the emotion of desperation for survival. The film focuses on bringing awareness to the issue of water pollution but he wanted to handle it in his own satirical way.
Amir feels that a platform such as MIFF is needed to help shift people’s mindset of how the Muslim community has been portrayed. Instead, he wants the discussion to move on from stories of oppression and Islamophobia.
“We are so much more than a community of oppressed people. Apart from religion and culture we all are the same people, we have similar stories,” Amir said.
“We can relate to the characters of Hollywood and Bollywood, what is stopping us from making their audiences relate to our characters? I truly believe this is the way we can break stereotypes through stories that are personal to us.”
Act of kindness
Short Film- FIRST STOP
First Stop is directed by Blair Baker. The filmmaker is passionate about being involved with work that represents the under-represented. Baker’s first acting coaching client, Hasnain Ali, acted and produced this film. He plays a Pakistani-American who is Muslim, working at a gas station who helps Molly, where she is trying to escape from an abusive husband.
(Courtesy: MIFF @muslimintlfilmfest)
The idea for First Stop started a year into [former U.S. President Donald] Trump’s presidency. Trump had recently announced the Muslim Travel Ban and the southern border wall was the hot news topic. Hate crimes specifically against Muslim-Americans were skyrocketing, recalls Baker, 35.
“It is vital that we do not speak for a community that we are not intimately connected with, you must use an authentic voice of that community, these stories are vital and now its time to tell them truthfully, with all the complexities and nuisance these stories deserve, ” Baker said.
Best feature film
Feature Film- I AM ROHINGYA: A GENOCIDE IN FOUR ACTS
Won Best Feature Film for MIFF
(Courtesy: I Am Rohingya Official)
It focuses on fourteen Rohingya refugees living in Canada who express their personal stories through theatre. It shows their journey of learning how to act and reenact their traumas and struggles and their lives in Canada.
“At the time the goal was to get attention and awareness for the Rohingya people. When making it there was little to no coverage about the Rohingya genocide,” Zine said. “It’s a story that brings the crisis and genocide to your homes, your living room, your theatre, and makes it personal.”
Zine attended his first drive-in theatre screening with his co-producer Young and Ahmed Hashim Ullah, who is the main character in the play that is using his voice to tell this heart-wrenching story.
Zine appreciated how MIFF created a community for collaboration. When working, members can ask for feedback, watch rough cuts, bounce ideas, and discuss funding, which is all important, especially for a beginner.
“I hope that MIFF continues to grow and beyond just the screenings – that they do year round programming like workshops and I would like to see them get funding, so they can support themselves but also filmmakers and be a hub for people to go,” Zine said.
MIFF’s next steps
As the lights came up at Ontario Place when the final film credits were showing, the founders felt satisfied their vision had succeeded. They had resisted framing the inaugural MIFF inside a specific theme, despite the way many other film festivals operate.
“We decided not to have a theme, we just said ‘Show us your best work’, if your work shows greatness then that is combating any stereotypes within itself,” Hirra Farooqi said.
Farooqi knows their community is eager to see the MIFF continue. For co-founder Obaid Ullah, it’s a challenge he has already accepted, despite the uncertainties.
“My desire is to continue holding this festival in Toronto, because of the support and community we have established here, to have MIFF held at a theatre at a grand scale, and I would love for more awareness internationally and nationally,” Ullah said.
If public health rules and the pandemic permit, the MIFF could look like a normal in-person festival.
“We want to hold an annual gala or awards night, to really recognize the talented and hardworking filmmakers and their submissions, and give them the opportunity to network,” co-founder Hirra Farooqi said.