For some reason I don’t understand, I rarely elect to go and see documentaries on a cinema screen. When I do, I usually enjoy them more than I would on television (I tend not to watch TV these days). The Mosque in Morgantown was shown on the American public network PBS and it didn’t look great on a big screen – but it was engrossing and very well made.
This is an interesting example of a young filmmaker, Brittany Huckabee, taking a gamble and deciding to cover a story that would take several years to unfold – even though, initially, no funding was available. The protagonist of the narrative is Asra Nomani, the Wall Street Journal writer who was with Daniel Pearl when he was abducted and subsequently killed in Karachi in 2002. In Michael Winterbottom’s film A Mighty Heart she was played by Archie Panjabi (with a strong resemblance between the two). Nomani was born in India but moved with her family to the university town of Morgantown when she was 4. After the ordeal of waiting for news of Daniel Pearl she returned to Morgantown where she became involved with the leaders of the new mosque in the city, the Islamic Center of Morgantown. (I was struck by how dull/utilitarian this building looked compared to the large mosque in my town in West Yorkshire with its striking dome.) Nomani soon became embroiled in the politics of the mosque pushing for equal access for women to prayers and antagonising the more conservative (male) members.
Over a period of three years or so, a three-way battle ensued between the conservative leaders of the mosque, the moderate but non-aggressive members and Nomani, who also write a book about her ideas about women and Islam. I was struck by how ‘balanced’ the film was. I don’t mean this as a patronising comment on the film’s politics but more about the skill with which a quite complex set of skirmishes around the leadership of the mosque and the policies towards women and families generally was presented. My reading of the film was that Asra Nomani is a brave and principled woman with some firmly-held beliefs and some telling arguments. However, she may not be the most sensitive person in terms of recognising how a community feels (there is an interesting discussion about the meaning of the word ‘umma’ around community/family). At the same time, the people she labels as ‘extremists’ may not be quite so conservative as seems first apparent – on the other hand, I’d rather be in her camp than theirs! Most telling, the moderates in the mosque argue that had they been able to take a ‘softly, softly’ approach from the beginning (i.e. without Nomani’s intervention) they might have made more progress, more quickly. From the perspective of a region in the UK which has seen a group of its young men turned into potential and actual suicide bombers, Morgantown’s issues seem of a different order. Many American Muslim communities are heterogenous in terms of cultures and the Morgantown mosque has 500 members with 36 different nationalities represented. In addition, most of the 500 are either students or academics or have attained higher education levels than the American norm. The conflicts in the mosque were characterised by both cultural differences (Arabs v. South Asians) as well as immigrant v. American-raised.
Considered as a documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown is an interesting mix of reportage (presumably collected by Huckabee as it happened), witness testimony/interview and elements of Direct Cinema. This latter approach yields very impressive results in some of the face-offs between the different groups with the camera apparently capturing the exchanges with minimal mediation. Of course this may be a complete illusion and I did sometimes think that the editing was leading me in particular directions, but overall I felt that I had learned a great deal, being given an insight into a set of issues common to various community situations. That is an achievement for any documentary. (The filmmaker herself appears to have come from a background of similar conflicts in her own Christian community.) The music in the film is terrific.
The website for the film has lots of background information on the personnel in front of and behind the camera and examples of sequences from the film.