Islamic films looking beyond stereotypes

'Shahada,' 'Khan' among titles offering up fresh perspectives

BERLIN -- Terrorism, honor killings, fundamentalism and female oppression. The themes of films running in the Berlinale lineup this year could read like a series of banner headlines from Fox News. But instead of sensationalism and stereotypes, what competition films such as "On the Path" and "Shahada," Panorama title "When We Leave" and Berlinale Special entry "My Name Is Khan" offer are new images of Islam.

"It has taken nearly 10 years after 9/11 but these issues are finally going from the headlines into the cinemas," "Shahada" director Burhan Qurbani said. "These are things we have to talk about."

In "Shahada" (or "Faith") which premieres Wednesday in Berlin, three very different Muslims living in Germany struggle with their religious and cultural identities. The film looks at Islam's treatment of homosexuality and women's rights and the difficulty of being Muslim in a majority Christian culture.

"I learned the Lord's Prayer before I learned (Islam's central prayer) the Fatiha," said Qurbani, whose family is Afghani but was raised in Germany. "Partly, the film is about the contradictions in both cultures, about living in a culture to which one does not really belong. The twisting of identity"

Qurbani has experienced this "twisting" first hand.

"The media cliches are so strong," he said. "I mean, I'm a Muslim and even I'm suspicious of Muslims. We are so lazy in just adapting the media's bits and bytes. So comfortable in our fear of this culture that we don't research and we don't ask questions. For me, my film is an attempt to engage with Islam and start a dialogue. To make people talk about Islam."

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Getting people talking was also the goal of Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan, who was in Berlin on Friday with "My Name is Khan." Instead of the actor's usual Bollywood extravaganza, the film's plot is of a man arrested at Newark airport and interrogated because of his Muslim-sounding name.

In "On the Path," which premieres in competition Thursday, director Jasmila Zbanic explores the trend toward Islamic fundamentalism in her native Bosnia. Liberal young Muslim Luna begins to question her love for her husband Amar when he abandons his hard-drinking ways and finds solace in the conservative Wahhabi sect. As with "Shahada," Zbanic's film peers deeper to find the real people behind the sensationalist headlines.

But perhaps the most surprising film dealing with hot-button Islamic issues in Berlin is "When We Leave" from Austrian first timer Feo Aladag. The carefully crafted debut stars Sibel Kekilli ("Head-On") in a comeback performance. She plays Umay, a German/Turkish woman whose father decides to have her killed after her decision to leave her husband leads the community to shun their family. As the film makes clear, "honor killings," portrayed in the Western media as expressions of Islamic fundamentalism, have little to do with religious ideology.

"Honor killings are a lot older than Islam, than any religion," Aladag said. "There's nothing in the Koran about them. Calling them Islamic is a misuse of the religion."

"The treatment of Islam in the media is always black and white. Nobody really talks about it seriously," Zbanic added. And, echoing the opinion of all the directors dealing with Muslim themes at this year's Berlinale, she adds, "I hope my film can start a dialogue. Up to now, we've just had yelling and shouting. I hope that the (Berlinale) audience will now be able to see both sides."