Filmmaker Jennifer M. Taylor started off her career with no formal training and a lot of “common sense.” Now a pro, the director has won an award at the 2009 Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival for her most recent work “New Muslim Cool,” which was screened at the Sackler Museum on October 10. In the film, she follows the life of Hamza Pérez, a Puerto Rican-American rapper and former drug dealer who found his faith in Islam. FM had a chance to hear her dish about music, the FBI raiding mosques after 9/11, and her love for sauerkraut.
FM: Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
JMT: No, I did not. I thought I wanted to be a modern dancer. Then I got injured, and I had to find another career path and, ultimately it led me to filmmaking.
FM: You’re not trained to be a filmmaker. Do you think that this made work harder?
JMT: I have very little formal training. Not necessarily. I don’t think...I was lucky. My first film project was with someone that went to film school, so I figured she could cover for the both of us. And I figured I could augment my co-producer’s formal training with my common sense.
FM: You spent some time in Brazil and Argentina recovering from the dance injury. Any funny experiences while you were there? Do you speak Spanish?
JMT: Yes, and Portuguese. One time I was in Brazil, and my visa was expiring, and there was a soap opera I was really into, and I didn’t have enough money to stay...I just asked them if I could stay until the end of the soap opera. They thought it was so ridiculous so they said yes.
FM: What inspired “New Muslim Cool”?
JMT: I knew very little about Muslims, so I thought the whole “clash of civilizations” paradigm needed some integration post-9/11 when we were suddenly being told that there was this entire religion out to get us, and that seemed a little odd to me...and I’m just naturally a very curious person. In the course of my original research I discovered that a lot of American Muslims are interested in pop culture...I decided to investigate hip-hop culture, which ultimately led me to meeting Hamza and Suliman [Hamza’s brother].
FM: Are you still in contact with Pérez?
JMT: Oh yeah—as a matter of fact yesterday, he, Suliman and I had a brainstorming meeting with a media production company that we’re partnering with to create a video game. We’re looking at developing an interactive educational video game that would be oriented towards youth to help them learn about alternatives to drug dealing and street life.
FM: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from working with Pérez?
JMT: Well, I think for me as a filmmaker the biggest thing I learned is that you as a filmmaker really can’t impose your narrative on somebody else. And when he and his community responded to that FBI raid [of their mosque]...they were saying that things were going to work out for them, and they were going to be better people. I had trouble comprehending that. You have to be super, super patient and sometimes go beyond your comfort zone to really capture the story.
FM: When else did you feel outside your comfort zone while filming?
JMT: I’m not Muslim, and I’m not particularly religious, and sometimes towards the beginning of the film I would be the only person who wasn’t Muslim...I think what would ground me is that Hamza is funny and his brother and wife would remind me of my cousins.
FM: So when you say that you can’t impose your narrative, did this lead to some compromise between your ideas and Pérez’s?
JMT: When they got raided by the FBI, I would have responded differently personally. I expected them to get a lawyer and be aggressive...that was the hard part for me to watch them not respond in that way. But they took a different path. He took a path that was looking inwards and taking some kind of spiritual improvement.
FM: Where did you film?
JMT: The film was mostly shot in Pittsburgh. A little in New York, a little in Massachusetts, a little in Chicago, and a little in Oakland. I’d say 70 percent was in Pittsburgh.
FM: The Pérez brothers light machetes on fire for a performance in the film. How did you feel about that? Were you there for that scene?
JMT: Oh sure, of course. I mean, I asked them to explain. When I first saw them perform and they had the flaming machetes, I was a little taken aback, and it certainly conformed to them and the image that they were from the ’hood, Puerto Rican, and America’s worst nightmare. When I first met them, I thought the flaming machetes were a little over the top. But as I got to know them, I realized that these men were just really funny and that they’re good showmen and they’re good at finding stage activities that will draw attention.
FM: Music is an essential part of this film. How did you pick the soundtrack?
JMT: The soundtrack is almost entirely original music that was composed for the film. All of the instrumental music is composed by the composer, who is also my sound recordist...that was something we did together as artists to find music that would really match the film.
FM: The film’s Web site has a clip of Suliman and Hamza Pérez doing a freestyle rap in a convenience store. Were they behind any of the music in the film?
JMT: Yes, some of the music. In the film, there are several sequences when you’re just seeing them perform their music.
FM: Hamza Pérez experiments with Boricua (Puerto Rican) halal cooking. How is he as a cook?
JMT: That night that they cooked that dish, I think we missed it because our crew went away to eat.
FM: Have you ever tried halal food? Maybe a hot dog?
JMT: Oh sure, and kosher hot dogs. And sauerkraut for sure. No question. And it’s good for you.
FM: Have you been influenced by Islam or Muslim culture in any way since starting work on this film?
JMT: I always want to be very careful about saying Islam in a kind of abstract or total way because I can’t say necessarily that I know a lot about Islam. I’ve met people who are Muslim, but Islam is a very big religion. The people I have met who are Muslim have certainly influenced me to learn that there are many kinds of Muslims, just like there are many human beings and that there is something at the core that many religions and many ethical systems share, and that has to do with treating people well and doing good in the world.