Negin Farsad is spending fall in the Cayman Islands. “I’m interviewing bankers about how to hide my disposable income from the U.S. government,” she says. “As a comedian, some months I make as much as 30 extra dollars.”
Farsad doesn’t laugh at injustice; she uses laughter as a tool to uproot and expose injustice, and maybe even make it right. And while the 1 percent’s tax evasion schemes won’t likely be dismantled by jokes alone, interpersonal racism has been known to wither under a good one-liner. And that’s the spirit in which Farsad made her newest feature-length documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, which follows her and five other Muslim comics on a standup tour that winds very intentionally through red-state America. Along the way, Farsad and company interview everyone they can find–from suspicious-sounding white shopkeepers and gun show attendees, to small-town imams and Afghanistan veterans, to the live-and-let-live residents of Murfreesboro and the Islamophobic executives of American Family Association Radio. Through standup shows, bowling nights, and name that religion sidewalk quizes, the comics dispel misconceptions, and have some of their own dispelled in the process.
The film ends–spoiler alert–with a wonderfully lyrical scene in which Farsad and her compatriots stand on a street corner holding “Hug a Muslim” signs, and are then hugged by an endless stream of strangers (including what seems to be an entire wedding party). It’s a moment, captured on film, that speaks to Farsad’s analytical-yet-optimistic approach–equal parts ingenuity, effort, and plain ol’ showing up and seeing what happens.
Negin Farsad is one of our featured speakers at our Facing Race 2012 conference, happening on November 15-17 in Baltimore, Md. She’ll be appearing on our closing plenary about arts and culture, and she’ll also be in a Saturday morning workshop with W. Kamau Bell, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, and myself, talking comedy and social justice.
So what’s your background? You’re a comic, but you’re also a documentary filmmaker. Which came first?
Well, I’ve been doing comedy forever-forever, and then I started doing the filmmaking in the middle. Comedians, folks in this line of work, do a decent job of diversifying their skillset; they’re writers, they start making films, it’s pretty common that comedians will get involved with a lot of different forms of media. And early on, I wondered: what if there was a way to make documentaries hilarious?
My first directed feature was “Nerdcore Rising”; with that film, I thought, I just want to make this movie and see if I can make it funny, to keep everything in the realm of comedy. I had been doing work around identity already, but that was the first idea I had where I decided I’m going to do this, and I’m going to sell the fuck out of this movie, and let’s see what happens. I had to ask myself, “Can I make a movie? I never went to film school and I’m not particularly familiar with cameras… am I just going to fake this?” And that’s how I started making this movie. And around the same time, I was also faking it with a couple of TV jobs, you know: “I totally know how to direct and produce and write television! What! Not a problem!” And that’s how I got my start being on both sides of the camera, not just a standup or an actor.
But even before that, I was a policy analyst. I mean, I was always doing comedy at night, but I went to grad school for public policy and African American studies, and I was like, “I’m gonna end the racial divide! That’s gonna be the thing that I do with my life!” I worked with cities as a policy advisor… but even by the end of grad school, it was pretty clear that I was just going through the motions. Even though I honestly believe in that work and I really appreciate everyone who does that work, I wasn’t happy doing it myself. So I quit, and I had unemployment-amounts of time to figure out how to make money and still be involved with social justice and to be in entertainment and to have some mainstream credibility.
So “The Muslims Are Coming” seems like it pulls from each of these different approaches–bringing together the languages of comedy and documentary and straightforward social analysis.
Yeah, exactly. And “The Muslims Are Coming” is a big, expensive example of that–I mean, really cheap compared to other movies, but expensive for me. But I’ve also done videos about health care, about banking, about Citizens United. Our production company is called Qualified Laughter, and the tagline is Purveyors of Fine Satirical Social Justice Media, which rolls right off the tongue, really.
The crew you got together for the “Muslims Are Coming” tour is markedly diverse, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of able-bodied status, in terms of views of Islam. And you never really explicitly frame this in the film; we know it because the comics tell jokes about their lives. Was this diversity a specific goal?
Well, we really wanted it to be a diverse group, because otherwise we’re reinforcing the idea that Muslims in the Diaspora are a monolith. We wanted to work against that.
And you’re absolutely right; Preacher Moss is a Black Muslim, and that’s a different thing, and he deals with a bunch of different issues than we do. And he’s also far more devout than I am–I was the most secular person on the tour. Maysoon Zayid has cerebral palsy; it’s mentioned in the movie, but we don’t make a big deal out of it. But she’s an example of a Muslim woman whom people might not think of as being able to do what she does, and she does it really well. It was important for us to show that. Kareem Omary is half-Peruvian; he has a Catholic mom and grew up in Syria! Dean Obeidallah, my co-producer, is half-Sicilian, half-Palestinian, and grew up in this dual world. I’m Iranian, but I didn’t grow up around many Muslims at all, and I probably had the strictest parents of any of us. It’s interesting to see what we all ended up as.
I want it to get to the point where you can look at a bunch of Muslims the way you look at a bunch of Jews and say, that’s a Woody Allen Jew, that’s a Seinfeld Jew… because your brain can process that Jews have come to all these different countries. Or you can meet a Catholic who’s never been to church. These are distinctions that we’re comfortable with because they’re part of the American popular consciousness now, and what’s not part of the American popular consciousness is that the same differences exist within the Muslim Diaspora. And I think people would be more comfortable if they knew that some of us are super into being a Muslim, and some of us are like, “I’m Muslim, but pass me that ham sandwich.”
Speaking of this, the movie is about your efforts to introduce yourselves to rural white America, but it also documents you dealing with your own stereotypes about rural white Americans. And it also opens the question of whose responsibility it is for America to learn about Muslims–America’s, or Muslims’, or both–with a variety of perspectives given. So, what did you learn? In making this film, what surprised you the most?
Hm… well, we, the comics on this tour, we spend a lot of time getting hate mail or appearing on right-wing blogs, getting really ugly comments on Youtube, and I think we were all expecting to see more overt stuff on the streets. And we got a lot of drive-by we-hate-yous and stuff like that. I think the nature of how these things play out has changed, though. Online media gives a voice to, let’s call them shitty people. It’s safer for them, you know what I mean? So the Pamela Gellers of the world have these new tools, even as overt racism goes out of fashion and has to disguise itself.
But the drive-by hate-yous are definitely the fringe, and we’re not going to change their minds anyway. What’s truly pervasive is, you know, just a lot of questions about Muslims. A lot of confusion: what is the deal with this religion? Why do you guys dress like that? That was both the thing that I learned and the thing that I suspected going in–I thought, I feel like a lot of people haven’t met any Muslims! So they’ve got questions! And sure enough, when we were on tour, everybody had questions! Why don’t you guys denounce terrorism, why do you dress like that, why don’t you guys let women do anything… those are probably the top three questions. And those questions have emerged because the media gives a really one-sided image of what Muslims are. What other questions could you have, if this is the only thing you see?
The honest ability of an American neighbor to listen to the answers was great, and refreshing. I wasn’t… I realized that I actually wasn’t expecting people to really listen to the answers we gave. But they did! And that was kind of crazy! It made me think that there’s hope for all of us. Exposure is, really, half the battle.
This interview has been condensed and edited.