The Taqwacores Review
The Taqwacores was first published in 2003 by its author Michael Muhammad Knight in DIY fanzine style, copies of which he quite literally gave away. Though subsequently picked up on an international level by various ‘proper’ publishing houses, this punk ethos was perfectly in tune with the novel’s subject matter. The title, coined by Knight, is a combination of “taqwa” - an Islamic concept that loosely translates along the lines of ‘fear of god’ - and “-core” as in hardcore, as in the hardcore music scene. Two “disenfranchised cultures” coming together to create a subculture determinedly underground, in this case against a backdrop of Buffalo, New York. Since the novel’s first appearance Knight has appeared in a documentary entitled Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam which sought out the genuine taqwacores out there, some of whom were inspired by his own words.
Given the level of influence The Taqwacores has had over those years it should hardly be surprising that a big screen adaptation should surface. Admittedly this is a low-budget independent production, but then it arguably would have to be given the novel’s niche subject matter. Knight co-wrote the screenplay in conjunction with director Eyad Zahra, here making his feature debut. The pair also serve as two of many producers on the project (no doubt a necessity on such independent works) which should demonstrate how true the finished film is to the original novel. The ending comes slightly changed, but there has been no ironing out of the potential controversies that would greet a work concerned with disenfranchised Muslims in their early twenties, themes of sex and sexuality, and scenes of drug abuse. It would be safe to assume that had The Taqwacores secured distribution by a major, or indeed been produced by a major, then such scenes and subject matter (no matter how intelligently they’ve been dealt with) would have secured their fair share of attention.
As it stands The Taqwacores is a low-key work, heavy on the dialogue and shot with a digital camera. The basic structure is a year-in-the-life framework instigated by the arrival of engineering student Yusef (Bobby Naderi) into the lives of a bunch of taqwacores thanks to a flat share. His newfound housemates are a collection of musicians, skaters, riot grrrls and general rebels - anti-social as a means of demonstrating their dual outsider status as both punks and Muslims - all of which is in stark contrast to his own more normalised life experiences and approach to his religion. As you would expect initial tensions and misunderstandings give way to commonalities, albeit with enough disagreements and frayed relationships between the group to fuel The Taqwacores’ scant 80-minute running time. Surprisingly the musical component is rather small; genuine Islam punk bands populate the soundtrack and some appear for the climactic party sequence, but they’re never given much prominence. It is the characters which interest Knight and Zahra, not so much the scene overall.
Yet this differentiation is arguably The Taqwacores’ downfall inasmuch as it prevents the film from capturing the zeitgeist in the manner of previous works to document New York-based underground scenes such as the seminal hip-hop movie Wild Style or even the entirety of the ‘no wave’ scene populated by the likes of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. Certainly, the subject matter retains its novelty and remains an undoubted hook, but it feels as though the definitive taqwacore film is still to be made - and I recognise the irony and perhaps even illogic of this given Knight’s heavy involvement. What we have is a solid enough piece of filmmaking - visually, dramatically, performance-wise - without ever truly rising above the ordinary. I was reminded of those post-Jarmusch nineties independents such as Matthew Harrison’s Rhythm Thief and would like to think that had The Taqwacores been made back then it would near identical in style, with black and white 16mm once being the low-budget choice as opposed to digital. Like Rhythm Thief and the rest, Zahra’s film is perhaps destined a cult audience, but it’s likely to remain a small one.
The Taqwacores is gaining a DVD release in the UK courtesy of Network following a brief theatrical run. Encoded for Region 2, the film is given a fine presentation free of damage or technical problems. We get an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, and with DD2.0 soundtrack (no subtitles, English or otherwise, are available), both of which would appear to be correct given the low-budget digital source. Indeed, the budget should be considered when appraising the presentation and it would be safe to say that any issues are inherent in the production rather the encode. With that said, colours and textures are strong with solid black levels. The special features are a collection of mostly short pieces ranging from an interview with the director and actor Dominic Rains to some ‘behind the scenes’ footage. The interview is the main addition with Zahra doing most of the talking and covering a range of topics whether it be the controversies of the subject matter or more fundamental issues such as a certain actor’s performance. Though fairly brief there’s enough of background information to make this worthwhile. Also present are four deleted scenes (totalling just under four minutes) including the ending of the novel which didn’t make the final cut, four minutes of B-roll footage, an image gallery and the theatrical trailer. As with the main feature, there are no subtitles, English or otherwise, for the additional material.