An interview with Rashid Ghazi, executive producer and director of Fordson
By: Alexandra Kinias .. article published in Kalimat Magazine.
At the 7th annual Traverse City Film Festival, Michael Moore recommended that everyone in the country should see the film ‘Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football.’ The feature length documentary tells the inspiring story of a high school football team as it prepares for its big game, played during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, while its players are fasting. As the film follows the preparations for the game, it also peels the layers of this working class community living in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. Through the eyes of the team players, their coaches, fans and families, the movie exposes the lives of the community and how its members are holding to their faith and living the American dream, while struggling for acceptance after 9/11.
‘Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football’ won the U.S Jury Award for best documentary and was described by Academy award winning director Michael Moore as powerful, intelligent and moving. Interestingly enough, the movie was turned down by all television networks in the US, and the film makers failed to secure a television distributor in North America. HBO, TLC, PBS Independent lens and Oprah Network were among the networks that rejected it.
“I am a Muslim myself who grew up playing sports in Ramadan. It was back in 2004 when I heard the story about this high school football team, playing the semifinals in the Michigan playoffs–Ramadan in 2004 was in November–and they were playing football and fasting. These Muslim kids inspired me to tell their story. They had to be of Arab descend, practicing their religion and playing an all American game of football.” Rashid Ghazi, executive producer and director, said in a question and answer segment about what had inspired him to make the movie.
Fordson High School is located in Dearborn, MI, which has the largest single concentration of Arabs in one city outside the Middle East. The first Arab immigrants landed in Dearborn over one hundred years ago. Arab Americans became an essential part in the tapestry of the city. They started businesses and were highly involved in politics. A century later, Dearborn is the only home to tens of thousands of Arab Americans who constitute the largest ethnic group in the city. Consequently, ninety eight percent of the students in Fordson, the public school built by Henry Ford in 1922, are Arab Americans. However, the safe haven that the community members strived to build for themselves and their families for ten decades was shattered on 9/11. Although the residents of Dearborn were shocked by the events of the horrific attacks, as did everyone else in the country, within hours, Arab Americans were left to feel responsible for the attacks, by mere association to the 19 hijackers. Such accusations shook the foundation on which their community was founded.
“Throughout my life as I growing up, the stories of Islam in the news were either about violence, conflict, war or terrorism. The images we had of Arabs were the ones in the Middle East—screaming or burning the American flags—or the negative stereotypes [of villains] that were portrayed in books and movies.” Ghazi said.
Ghazi, a Muslim of south Asian descent, felt that most Americans neither understood Islam or Arabs, nor had compassion for either the Arabs living in the Middle East or the ones living in America. He concluded that the reason for the lack of empathy and understanding was because Americans didn’t know any Arabs or Muslims. “This was my inspiration to make a documentary, to service as bridge and to provide fellow Americans with more knowledge and information about Muslims and Islam.” Ghazi said.
Despite that ‘Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football’ is a film about an immigrant community of Arabs that tries to confirm their American identity, while struggling to reconcile their Arab heritage, the film was neither accepted in Al Jazeera documentary festival or Dubai International Film festival. In fact, Ghazi explained, the film was rejected by all the festivals in the Middle East.
‘Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football’ was independently produced by Ghazi and his wife Selma and entirely funded by them. “We didn’t want any organizations funding the movie because we wanted it to be a truly independent project. We didn’t want anybody to even think that there is an agenda behind some organizations propping the film out.”
It took him several years to get the rights to make the film. After rejecting the idea for a long time, Fordson board of education and the football coach finally agreed to grant the film makers the approval to shoot inside the school.
“Our persistence finally paid off with the coach, especially that he saw that our intentions were good.” When asked why the idea of filming a documentary about Fordson football team was initially rejected, Ghazi explained that residents of Dearborn are weary of the media. Media get in the community, tape one thing and then provide a completely opposite message. However, after multiple meetings with the board of educators, they gave the production team a green light after seeing that their intentions were not to misrepresent who they are as a community.
Ghazi saw that a documentary would be more truthful in telling the story than a feature movie. Moreover, it is politically incorrect to have a feature movie like ‘Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football.’
“Hilary Clinton honored us at the state department and spoke about the film in celebration for Muslim athletes. Yet, a lot of people don’t want to hear positive stories about Arab Americans. A negative environment exists. On the surface everything seems fine, but underneath it all there are still push backs to our film. Our film doesn’t criticize others to show positive stories of Arabs, but just the fact that we are showing positive stories of Arabs is not what we should be up against right now.”
Domestically, the film is publicly screened around the country in schools, community centers, local theaters and nonprofit and educational institutions. Internationally, the film was aired in Holland, and was bought by television networks in Brazil and Israel, and will air in twenty five more markets, outside the Middle East. “I originally thought that one of the local networks would pick up our film immediately because of what it is and how well it was received by critics. I still think that the biggest disappointment was not to secure wide television distribution in the US,” he said.