'Two Gods': Film Review | Hot Docs 2020

Courtesy of Zeshawn Ali
'Two Gods'
A timely portrait of lives lost and redeemed.

Director Zeshawn Ali’s debut documentary centers on a coffin maker in Newark, New Jersey.

[Note: In the wake of the Hot Doc festival’s postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

Premiering at a moment of mass protest and urban unrest, Zeshawn Ali’s documentary Two Gods chronicles a situation that America’s Black community has lived with for far too long, in a cycle of systemic problems that seems to go unbroken.

And yet this intimate portrait of Hanif, a Black Muslim casket maker who provides spiritual and social healing services to those around him, reveals how some people eventually break the cycle, and then try to help others to do the same.

Two Gods focuses on three characters living in socioeconomically challenged parts of Newark, New Jersey, although their fates seem emblematic of similar communities across the country.  Along with Hanif, who builds coffins and helps carry out Islamic funeral rites, including the ritual washing of dead bodies, we meet two young men whose futures are very much on the line: Furquan, a rambunctious 12-year-old who hasn’t quite grown up, and Naz, a more hardened 17-year-old kid who’s already had several brushes with the law.

The two do not have fathers at home, and Hanif takes them under his wing. A man with a police record who once served time in prison, he tries to show them that crime isn’t the only way, and he does so by having them assist with his burial rituals — hoping, perhaps, that by handling coffins and corpses according to Muslim doctrine, the boys will learn more about the value of their own lives and do everything to avoid dying themselves.

At a time when the fate of Black men and their bodies has risen to the level of a national emergency, what happens to the characters in Two Gods takes on added weight. Over the course of the chronicle, Hanif, Furquan and Naz will all wind up getting into trouble, sometimes severely so, in what almost feels like an inevitable occurrence. Ali, who shot the film with co-cinematographer Emir Fils-Aime in stark black-and-white, doesn’t shy away from such dark realities, showing that a healer like Hanif cannot always manage to heal himself.

Another reality is that, for neighborhoods like the ones in Newark depicted onscreen, mosques and churches can play a crucial role in unifying residents against violence. When Furquan, who is sent away to live with an aunt in North Carolina after suffering abuse at home, starts on his own path toward redemption, it involves a local church whose preacher once led a life of crime. Two Gods seems to be saying that, no matter what faith you practice in America, religion can provide viable solutions when nothing else does.

If such a conclusion may appear troubling for nonbelievers, the film constantly underlines how, for Hanif and others, New Jersey’s Muslim community has become a saving grace. The man never looks happier than when we see him in his tiny workshop, dancing to hip-hop while sanding down wooden caskets before they’re shipped out for burial. It may seem like a grim existence, but as Hanif proudly admits at one point, "This is pretty much my life."

Venue: Hot Docs Film Festival (World Showcase)
Director: Zeshawn Ali
Producer: Aman Ali
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen
Cinematographers: Zeshawn Ali, Emir Fils-Aime
Editor: Colin Nusbaum
Composer: Michael Beharie

82 minutes