Finding Hope at Sundance

February 9, 2016


With anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise, it is sometimes hard to find reasons to be excited and hopeful. The entertainment industry has historically not been kind to Muslims and many other underserved communities, often portraying us in negative, flat and stereotypical roles. However, after my recent trip to the Sundance Film Festival, I feel that things are changing for the better! I was invited to the festival, which took place in late January, as a representative of MPAC's Hollywood Bureau and I walked away with a belief in the possibilities for a bright future if we take a proactive stance.

My Experience at the Sundance Film Festival: “Enormously Worthwhile”

Since the inception of MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau, there has been one goal and one goal only: to increase the number of authentic and humanizing stories of Muslims and Islam on film and TV. We do this by engaging the industry and developing relationships with filmmakers, artists, and studio executives.

One such relationship is with the Sundance Institute. Over the past few years, Sundance and MPAC have built a relationship of mutual respect and benefit that allows us greater levels of contribution for one another. We are currently collaborating on three projects.

At the Sundance Film Festival, I was invited to private screenings, award shows and receptions where I was introduced as a colleague working to promote honest and truthful depictions on issues that matter to both our communities.

How does participating at the Sundance Film Festival help the American Muslim community?

It’s no surprise that public perception is heavily influenced by what we see on the screen. My experience at Sundance has reaffirmed my belief that our engagement in the entertainment industry is the best opportunity to change the perception of Islam and Muslims in America and around the world. Our work in government is vital in protecting our rights as American citizens. However, even the most well-meaning policies cannot make people like, respect, accept, or understand us. Authentic, moving, and humanizing stories can be the difference between ignorance and understanding.

Pursuing a career in entertainment has rarely been at the top of our career choices as American Muslims. We are better known as doctors, lawyers and engineers. That’s why it excites me that more young Muslims are now pursuing their passions in screenwriting, directing, and producing. Growing up, I always wanted to work in the entertainment industry. But the industry always had an elusive feel to it, as if it was not for Muslims -- or at least devout Muslims. The more I engage with industry professionals -- and definitely after my Sundance experience -- I am convinced that it is ours for the taking, as it is for any other underserved community.

I believe that we are destined to make a difference in this industry by taking on roles that directly impact the narrative. The power of narrative was the theme of several panel discussions and meetings throughout the festival. It can define, label, and cage us -- or it can set us free to be our diverse and full selves and have a voice worth listening to. Today, audiences are more clever, educated and connected. Albeit slowly, filmmakers are placing greater value on accuracy and authenticity over filmmaking for entertainment purposes only.

Entertainment industry is not monolithic

Like the Muslim community, the entertainment community is not monolithic. There are ways to enter into the entertainment industry without having to go through the major studio system. The Sundance community, for example, thrives on developing storytellers from underserved communities, with stories by women, American Muslims, African Americans, Jewish Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and the LGBTQ community. The Institute has several programs that mentor budding storytellers, with millions of dollars from foundations that are looking to fund diverse voices telling unique stories. With time, effort, talent and a savviness of the business, more and more voices from diverse communities will emerge.  Of course, as we see in this year's Oscar nominations, many diverse voices were ignored making minority communities feel shut out and unrecognized.  But my view is that we have to keep at it, and things will ultimately shift.

As my Sundance experience unfolded, I found myself wondering to what extent we create our own psychological barriers to entry into the industry. Did we convince ourselves that we would not be accepted and couldn’t make a difference? Whether we did or not is not important; we are at a crossroads now. Our community must seize the opportunities that are slowly opening up to us. We must encourage the pursuit of careers in this industry.

As a Sundance executive said to me over dinner, “Your work is enormously worthwhile.” At MPAC, we will continue advising and consulting on film and TV projects, and more importantly, we will continue to create opportunities for more emerging Muslim artists to enter the industry.

The road ahead is challenging, but exciting! Anything ‘enormously worthwhile’ is.

Reflections from Sue Obeidi, Director of the Hollywood Bureau.



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