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Imams, Anarchists and B-Boys: New School Docs Festival

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Imam Siraj Wahhaj

The human side of a controversial Brooklyn imam.

The mystical sound of Esperanto.

Anarchists in Brooklyn.

The New School's annual assortment of student documentaries — the three-day film festival known as "Truth Be Told" — has a two-fold task for organizers: examining the bounty of the city and beyond while hoping to create calling cards for aspiring filmmakers.

The festival begins Tuesday night with "American Imam," Donya Ravasani's 20-minute short doc on Imam Siraj Wahhaj.

Wahhaj, who leads a mosque in Bed-Stuy, was a defense witness in the trials that followed the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and, although never charged, has been linked by critics to the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rehman, who was sentenced to life in prison. Ravasani said she spoke at length to Wahhaj about these events, but focused on his religious work and his daughter, Hujrah, in the short.

"What I found interesting is that his daughter, she's also called the little imam, and with her Facebook and Blogtalkradio activities, she's doing the same [as him]: giving advice or listening to the congregation or being there as somebody they can talk to, or discussing problems or challenging problems in the community," said Ravasani, who is originally from Germany.

As for the criticisms of Wahhaj, Ravasani said that in her six months observing the imam she never found his sermons to be "strange" or provocative so much as laced with humor.

"My impression is that this was more politically motivated," said Ravasani. "People who are against the so-called Islamization of America."

The picture that "American Imam" puts forth is far different from the flamethrower he's made out to be by opponents -- someone who denounces extremism rather than encouraging it.

"Muslims have to learn how to articulate their legitimate concerns and angers of, maybe, United States foreign policy in some areas," says the imam in the film. "They need to articulate that, and not hate Americans and not hate America -- this is crazy."

The New School series also feature Eric Rockey's "Vulture Culture," about the Brooklyn anarchist collective In Our Hearts, and Saman Maydání's "Hack," about a female cabbie.

"This is arguably the best work ever," wrote Deirdre Boyle, a professor in the New School Media Studies and Film department and director of the festival, of the entries.

The film festival runs through Thursday and is free to the public.

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