The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 forever impacted the lives of every American -- but for Muslim Americans, their lives changed more than they could have expected.
The experience of Muslim Americans in a post-9/11 nation -- one often marked by scapegoating, prejudice and fear -- inspired Khurram Mozaffar, a Naperville, Ill. actor, writer and lawyer, to write "nine/twelve," a screenplay telling, as the film's website describes, "a story that hadn't been told before. But perhaps should have been."
The screenplay is currently in the process of being brought to life as a full-length feature film by director Sean Fahey and producers Fawzia Mirza and Kevin Schroeder. Telling the story of two Chicago men -- one Muslim, one Christian; one a soldier, one a blue-collar worker -- whose lives are brought together following the 9/11 attacks, the film recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help offset its production costs.
The Huffington Post spoke with Mozaffar about his new project.
What originally inspired you to write the script for "nine/twelve"?
I come from an acting background and I do some theater in Chicago and I started writing, in general, because there weren't a lot of parts for people of my ethnicity. I fell in love with the craft of writing itself. A number of stories originate out of the South Asian Muslim American experience and they're usually told from an outsiders' perspective. I wanted to tackle that kind of story line from the inside out because I feel like that kind of voice usually isn't heard in film.
In the time after 9/11, the world changed for everybody and it changed twofold for patriotic Muslim Americans who were, on one hand, horrified as to what was happening and what they were witnessing, but at the same time, we were also suffering a backlash as we were associated with the people who committed these horrific, horrific crimes. With "nine/twelve," I wanted to tell that story of what it was like in the days right after 9/11 for people, like me, who were considered patriotic Americans one day and, in a matter of minutes, because of what happened, the perception that people had of them changed.
(Scroll down to watch a teaser clip of the film.)
This story clearly has a strong personal resonance for you. Tell me more about what you sensed changed for you and how you were perceived by others immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
I remember a few years ago, I was visiting a close friend of mine, a white American frat brother of mine from the University of Chicago, in New York. We were talking about 9/11 and he said something to the effect that, in addition to me, he knew other Muslims, including one man he worked with. He said he seemed like a really nice guy though my friend added, "But I don't know what he talks about when he gets home."
Wow, was that surprising for you to hear from your friend?
It struck me that his coworker was automatically considered suspicious, even by my friend, someone who knew other Muslims and who doesn't have a negative bone in his body. But because of what he witnessed, he had to question everything he knew about Muslims. I always thought that as a Muslim American, if people just get to know me, they'll use me as a standard for what to decide about us, but there are competing messages about what people of my faith have done in the world. It's not enough to sit back and wait for people to come to their senses -- we have to battle the presumption that is out there. That was the impetus of the film.
That said, the film is not an overtly political or overtly pro-Muslim movie. This is not that movie. I wanted to be careful not to create propaganda, because that sort of filmmaking makes me sick. I am telling a story about human people, a story that would resonate with anyone, so that people can understand we are just like anyone else, and felt pain like anyone else. We are a part of the fabric of this country.
Fictional stories can definitely be powerful in battling prejudice.
I feel like we, especially in the West, are a culture of storytellers. I feel an obligation to take on the role of storyteller. I'm a parent and I want my children to grow up in a world where they can be proud of who they are and don't have to hide aspects of themselves. A good friend of mine in Chicago told me that, in the days after 9/11, his son was 4 or 5 years old saw him shredding some financial documents and his son asked him whether he was shredding the bills because he didn't want their neighbors to know they are Muslim. Even at that age, this child was cognizant of how the world perceives him right now.
How long has this screenplay specifically been in development?
This script has been in incubation for the last few years now. It was an idea I had a while back and has gone through a couple of different transformations in terms of plot lines and characters. About a year and a half ago, I was in a play with the Silk Road Theatre Project and met a number of amazing artists there. One is Fawzia Mirza, an actress and producer of the film. We started working on the movie together and started developing a fresher take on the ideas I already had. From that point on, it's been kind of steamrolling on its own as people have really responded to the need for voices like these to be heard.
Your story feels particularly timely right now, as last fall marked the 10th anniversary of the tragedy and there has been a lot of Islamophobic language coming up in the presidential race.
I think it [the anniversary] gave me a sense of urgency. We launched our Kickstarter right after the incident where Lowe's pulled their ads from the "All-American Muslim" reality show and that situation effected all of us as filmmakers and people. It was very saddening to us that it was happening and made it even more important for us to make this movie. It is profoundly sad that there are people in our culture who have no interest in seeing people like me or my wife or my kids as anything other than some kind of aberration of humanity or something we should all be suspicious of.
I've never seen the particular show, but the argument that boycott made was that there is something wrong with a show that doesn't depict Muslims being violent. Those people don't want us to be a part of our national conversation. I don't think this film will change those peoples' minds, but I would like other voices to be out there on these issues and I hope to be one of those voices. I hope to be a part of the conversation.
What is your timeline going forward with the project?
Job one for us now is to get the money in the bank. To do this film right and to do it justice, we're looking at a $400,000 budget, which is not a lot of money for a movie, but is a lot of money to fundraise. We are bringing together a wonderful crew, we have the cast, which includes some fun names that we are looking forward to working with. One is another Chicago actor, Parvesh Cheena, who used to be on "Outsourced." Another is Faran Tahir who played the villain in the first "Iron Man" movie. And we also have Azhar Usman, a Chicago standup comic who tours the world as part of his comedy troupe which is called "Allah Made Me Funny."
We also have some rewrites going on and one of the people who has been really instrumental in helping us work on the script is "Chinglish" playwright David Henry Hwang, who I had worked with as an actor. I showed him my script and he was very generous with his time and gave me some very serious and thoughtful notes on where the story can go.
Tell me more about the decision to film in and recruit talent primarily from Chicago. What was behind that decision?
It seemed like an obvious decision for us, given that most of our talent lives here, so it made sense because it was cheaper to shoot here. But also, this is an amazing theater town and amazing writers constantly come out of Chicago. As far as we're concerned, this is a movie that Chicago is making. The crew and actors are primarily from Chicago and the majority of the filming will be done here.
The movie takes place in Chicago after 9/11 and part of it is a love letter to the experience in Chicago. This is a community-based movie. When I've been out working on other projects in LA and talking about scripts, it was almost a purposeful decision not to talk about this script with production companies. This has been a passion project for me and really everyone involved with it -- to be making the movie for the amount we're trying to make it for means that nobody is going home with a giant pay check at the end of the day. They all believe in the story we are trying to tell. We're committed to making this movie no matter what, even if we have to shoot it on iPhones.
As of Feb. 23, with 23 days to go, Mozaffar's campaign has raised just over $5,200 of its $100,000 fundraising goal. Click here to learn more about the film and help the important project become a reality.
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WATCH a preview of "nine/twelve":