Nausheen Dadabhoy explores a wide array of Muslim-American experiences in this overstuffed, but impactful documentary.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.)
The documentary An Act of Worship opens with a group of Muslim women gathered in a small room. The space may be cramped, but this environment still seems freeing, since it’s being used for a meeting where everywhere can be open about their lives. Here, they can speak freely on the ways in which Islamophobia impacts their lives. Instructions come for the women to write down one specific way intolerance has adversely impacted their lives in America.
Quickly, they pick up pens and jot down their thoughts. Then, they attach the brightly-colored sticky notes to a wall. Sentences about strangers telling them to “go home!” or the election of bigoted politicians crowd up the screen. This opening doesn’t just show the value of a place where Muslims can be open and vulnerable. It also establishes a precedent for the primary style of An Act of Worship, which will largely focus on recalling these anecdotes in voiceover form.
This auditory component, told by a slew of different often uncredited interview subjects, is set against home video footage from the 1990s and the 2000s. While the dialogue we hear is urgent, rife with long bottled-up pain, the imagery we’re seeing is quite different. Often, these are all very mundane snapshots of domestic suburban life in America. Kids dance to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or play games in the yard while teens rock out in their ramshackle band. On their own, this footage would likely register as just cute reflections of the past.
Juxtaposed against those emotionally raw anecdotes, though, these home videos take on a tragic context. One of the interview subjects notes that he and his family were constantly worried about being attacked or harassed by their neighbors. To avoid confrontations, he, his parents, and his siblings opted to “look like a ‘normal’ suburban American family.” This kind of thought lends a bittersweet layer to the images flickering on-screen. All those internal strategies for living that were erased in recordings of yesteryear can now be put in the spotlight in An Act of Worship.
These home videos are often placed alongside snippets of news footage from real-world events, such as the start of the Pacific Gulf War or 9/11, that adversely impacted the American Muslim community. Especially harrowing are clips from various U.S. Presidents of all political parties engaging in harmful rhetoric against this marginalized class. Director Nausheen Dadabhoy seems to comprehensively reflect how all-encompassing Islamophobia can be in the everyday life of a Muslim-American citizen. All those intimate depictions of everyday domestic life add up, showing how normalized this all us. Dadabhoy proves quite adept at fusing new interview audio with previously existing footage.
An affecting piece of cinema, which smartly showcases the variety of the Muslim-American community as often as it does the Islamophobia that torments them.
Unfortunately, a much clumsier segment of An Act of Worship comes midway through its runtime with a filmed recreation of U.S. federal agents, emboldened and empowered thanks to the Patriot Act, barging into a Muslim family’s home. Given that it’s doubtful such agents would allow video of these attacks to get publicly released, you can see why the doc would veer away from its archival footage for this sequence.
But An Act of Worship doesn’t eschew its default mode of playing interview audio over on-screen imagery for this sequence. Previously, these anecdotes were essential since they underscored internal thoughts and feelings concealed from the camera. Now that Islamophobia is explicitly on-screen, the accompanying words just feel didactic and unnecessary. The videos we’re seeing can speak for themselves.
From here, its scope also begins to exceed its grasp a bit. As the documentary’s gaze shifts closer and closer to the world of 2022, home video footage decreases in prominence and newly filmed segments centered on a trio of modern-day Muslim-Americans become more dominant. These subjects include aspiring politician Khadega, wife-to-be Aber, and the extremely busy civil rights lawyer Ameena.
Each of their segments often features fascinating details. Many of them, such as the amusing conversations between Ameena and her kids, emerged from incidental flourishes that nobody could’ve predicted would get caught on camera. However, the stories of these three women are combined with an expansive attempt to chronicle all of the major horrific historical events for Muslim-Americans in the last 30 years. That’s a lot for one 82-minute documentary to cover.
But the doc can’t help but feel overstuffed, sequences dedicated to Khadega, Aber, and Ameena suffering the most because of this shortcoming. Dadabhoy still shows some deft and thoughtful details in chronicling this trio of women, particularly in the lack of a concrete resolution for Khadega’s political ambitions. It’s a subtle detail to show that her story is not done yet; there’s still so much more to come.
An Act of Worship’s best scenes, namely ones juxtaposing new interview audio with mundane home video footage, highlight some of its other weaknesses. But this is still an affecting piece of cinema, which smartly showcases the variety of the Muslim-American community as often as it does the Islamophobia that torments them. Those wildly varied testimonies on those sticky notes reflect not just the heterogeneity of this population; they also show how nobody is truly going through this alone.