A low-budget, high-energy translation of Michael Muhammad Knight's 2003 cult novel.
Eyad Zahra’s first feature, “The Taqwacores,” is a low-budget, high-energy translation of Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 cult novel about a Buffalo, N.Y., household of Muslim punk rockers. Though the narrative is a bit formless and the execution uneven, there’s still an inherent appeal to the material that Zahra and his cast engagingly communicate. This Visit Films pickup will likely do better in ancillary than in niche theatrical release.
A sophomore majoring in engineering, Yusef (Bobby Naderi) seeks living quarters with fellow Muslims after a year in the godless dorms. He moves — rather improbably, given his conservative nature — into a building inhabited by various punky misfits (it’s unclear whether they’re also students) wrestling with their cultural and religious identity. Or, as pink-mohawked guitarist Jehangir (Dominic Rains) puts it, their “mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures.”
Others include ever-shirtless skateboarding wild man Amazing Ayyub (Volkan Eryaman), spike-haired stoner Fasiq (Ian Tran) and brawny, glowering Umar (Nav Mann), the would-be moral enforcer in a houseful of rebels against Koran strictures. Sole female in residence is Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), who wears a head-to-toe black burka yet is full of ideas that might be considered blasphemous.
Though the pic unfolds post-9/11 — as overheard televangelist and Islamophobe talkshow screeds make clear — the house is a thoroughly 1980s hardcore-punk crash pad, with anarchist slogans on the walls and nothing but beer in the fridge (despite abstainers Yusef and Umar). Nonetheless, regular (albeit somewhat unconventional) Friday prayer meetings are held, and in their own guilty and/or orthodox fashions, everyone is observant.
Despite the de rigeur jittery editorial rhythms, not a lot actually happens. Caught having sex after a typically raucous house party, Ayyub is nearly strangled by Umar and goes homeless for a while. Yusef is attracted by ex-Catholic, kinda-wannabe-Muslim hottie Lynn (Anne Leighton), but his chastity proves too much for her.
Jehangir eventually orchestrates a local concert of mostly West Coast (“Khalifornia”) Muslim punk bands, including one fundamentalist unit whose inclusion ticks off many, not least flamboyantly gay San Francisco visitor Muzzamil (Tony Yalda). A resulting melee ends in tragedy, though just what happens and how is less than clear. Staging there and elsewhere is sometimes awkward, dialogue occasionally on the blunt side, particularly a conversation kickstarted by Yusef’s earnest question,?”What’s a punk in the first place?”
All the thesps are appealing, though the pic and Naderi (who looks like a younger, darker-haired George Clooney) are saddled with a protag who’s too much the conventional audience-p.o.v. naif, and whose internal changes during a challenging year aren’t vividly conveyed.
Budgetary constraints are apparent in the limited locations — we never see our hero at school, or anywhere else much in the outside world. That aside, there’s a lot to enjoy, not least the songs by several actual taqwacore (American Muslim) punk bands. Lensing occasionally switches to black-and-white, the better to approximate ’80s Xerox-art punk aesthetics.