'Illuminating Muslim Narratives' at the Sundance Film Festival

March 3, 2017

Written by Sue Obeidi, Director of the Hollywood Bureau

In the midst of these challenging times, we have some encouraging news to share. MPAC was a corporate sponsor of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, held every year in Park City, Utah. As a part of that sponsorship, the Sundance Institute invited our Hollywood Bureau to host a panel discussion, making us the first Muslim organization to ever do so at this prestigious festival that draws industry decision-makers from all over the world.

Our panel, called, “Illuminating Muslim Narratives," was formed around the belief that popular culture has a powerful impact on public perception and at this critical time, the entertainment industry has a tremendous opportunity to challenge rising bigotry and fear. Our esteemed panelists included Karim Amer, Oscar-nominated Producer of The Square, Ahmos Hassan, Producer and CEO of Chariot Entertainment, Malina Saval, Features Editor for Variety, and Kamal Sinclair, Director of the New Frontier Lab Programs at the Sundance Institute.

We drew a rapt audience filled with screenwriters, filmmakers, and other creatives from a wide variety of backgrounds. From the onset, we invited them to become a part of the solution by portraying authentic Muslim narratives and representing the Muslim experience, in their television and film projects, with accuracy and understanding. The panelists discussed the joint responsibility of the entertainment industry and Muslim creatives to work together on changing the narratives around our communities. They noted that we must do our part to demand that talented Muslim writers are involved on projects that seek to tell our stories, and also keep grooming emerging Muslim talent so that when opportunities arise, they can hit the ground running.

Following the discussion, I was filled with so much hope that the Hollywood Bureau’s work in the entertainment industry will have an effective impact on these narratives. The industry is dynamic and there are increasing avenues that Muslim talent can take to be a part of that change. We can never underestimate the power of storytelling- narratives shape opinions, opinions shape values, and values shape action.

This year's festival was not an ordinary one considering the current political environment. I will remember the 2017 Sundance Film Festival not for the amazing panel that we organized, but for the solidarity we received at the Park City March and Rally, held in conjunction with others across the country. MPAC was invited to speak alongside other people of conscience such as Chelsea Handler, Laura Dern, Benjamin Bratt and Dolores Huerta. I spoke of my pride as an American Muslim woman, telling the crowd of over 8,000 that we are not intimidated, and that we are not going anywhere. I told them that American Muslims are not a pain that needs to be "tolerated’, but that we deserve to be accepted, respected and celebrated, and that we will work in solidarity with our interfaith partners and other vulnerable communities to ensure that the values of American democracy are a reality for everyone.

Through our Sundance experience, we were incredibly successful in positioning the Hollywood Bureau as a resource to the industry. We got the attention of the right people, who are now aware that we are a vital part of the journey in Hollywood. Those who previously used terms like “tolerance” and “diversity” walked away using the more accurate terms of “inclusion” and “equity”. We made decision-makers aware that in order to accurately represent a community, that particular community needs to speak for itself. We must frame, shape and define our own stories, and this powerful experience in Park City paved the road for us to do so.

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