The Feedback: Zeshawn Ali's 'Two Gods'
By Tom White
Director Zeshawn Ali and producer Aman Ali premiered their first feature-length documentary Two Gods at Hot Docs in June in the midst of a global pandemic and a swath of uprisings for racial justice. The film takes you to Newark, New Jersey, where Hanif, a Muslim casket-maker and ritual body-washer, finds purpose and spiritual grounding in his work. He transforms that purpose into mentoring younger men in the community, specifically his son, as well as two other charges, Naz and Furquan. Together they learn from each other about life and life’s lessons and what the future may hold.
Two Gods screened as a work-in-progress at IDA’s DocuClub NY in March 2019. We caught up with Zeshawn Ali via email as he and Aman Ali were readying themselves for screenings at DOC NYC (November 11-19) and New Orleans Film Festival (November 6-22), and Zeshawn shared insights about the beauty of black-and-white cinematography, the collaborative process with his protagonists, and the filmmakers’ experience on the digital festival circuit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: You shot Two Gods in black and white. Talk about how you arrived at this aesthetic choice. What were your artistic goals and objectives in shooting in black and white?
ZESHAWN ALI: Two Gods explores the juxtaposition of grief and the rituals of death with the vibrancy of coming of age. The film is a tonal balance between those two worlds; our choice to shoot in black and white was to show how they’re so delicately interconnected. When you take away the color from the image, the spiritual and emotional threads of the film carry weight in the small details of the frame—the way sawdust flies from a casket being built, or drops of water fall down the arm of someone being washed, or the way a flame flickers from the candle of a young boy’s birthday cake. Those details hold the weight of so many emotional threads through the softness of the black and white. I also think that a huge factor of this film and my own filmmaking process was wanting a narrative centered on Muslim American stories and specifically a Black Muslim man and community, in a way that felt artistic—something that felt intimate and something that held the many complexities of the experiences we were having unfold. So often the narratives of Muslims in America and people of color are told in such detached and cold ways; we wanted something that felt full of life, full of vulnerabilities and full of tenderness.
D: The choice of black and white made me think of two films, made several decades apart: Garrett Bradley’s Time and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Both evoke a deep sense of community in a world fraught with the trauma of systemic racism. What were some of the films that inspired you in making Two Gods?
ZA: Both are filmmakers I hugely admire, so any comparison there is a huge compliment. I was inspired by a lot of photography, actually, while making this film. Gordon Parks’ photographs of the beautifully intimate moments of everyday life, the softness of Carrie Mae Weems’ portraits, the way you can get lost in the world of Danny Lyon’s images. I revisited a lot of those photos as ways to center my own creative process. On the film side, I would definitely say I was influenced by films like Killer of Sheep and The 400 Blows, especially as I was thinking about the world of black and white and the coming-of-age narratives that had defined my own relationship to film and storytelling growing up. But I was also inspired by films like Bombay Beach and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Any story that holds the human condition in delicate hands or is told behind an empathetic lens is something I’m inspired by— films that feel poetic, lyrical and reflective. Documentary is such a powerful medium, but to me the most powerful portrayals are ones where I can feel care happening both in front of and behind the camera.
D: In the synopsis on the ITVS website, Rashad and Hanif are described as the central characters, while in your final version, Hanif takes on more of a central role and Rashad has more of a supporting role. Talk about how you shifted the focus in protagonists.
ZA: The first person we were introduced to during the pre-production process was Rashad. He owned the casket shop and we were initially interested in exploring the world of the casket shop, following the work that goes into it and the relationship they had with their community. As we spent more time there, Rashad introduced us to Hanif, whom we met at a washing. As we spent more time with Hanif, we met Furquan and Naz, who were both young men Hanif was mentoring and spending time with in his everyday life. Hanif had this natural sense of connection to the people around him, and his relationship to washing and casket-building was such a personal and beautiful reflection of his character. Bringing Naz and Furquan as characters and subjects of the film was a natural extension of Hanif’s connection to the world around him. So the process of shifting focus was natural in a lot of ways because these subjects were all extensions of each other’s worlds and journeys.
D: Access and trust are so critical in the documentary practice, and you created a work that transcends access and trust, that feels like a collaboration. How did you build the relationships with your protagonists?
ZA: That collaboration was so important. I think it started with a lot of genuine time spent together and conversations with one another. We met Hanif at a funeral-washing, and afterwards we ended up grabbing lunch and having this really amazing conversation where we all shared such complex parts of our own lives and experiences. Since that day, we became close and developed a really close bond—this was even before we knew we were making a film. We just enjoyed spending time together, and we found ways to film moments that felt honest and important to capture. A lot of that closeness also came from the everyday moments we were able to share together, whether that was fasting together during Ramadan and breaking our fasts at the mosque together or navigating some of the more challenging life moments that were thrown our way. In the process of making this film, my father passed away. Hanif taught me how to wash my father and perform that religious tradition. We leaned on each other for support during that time, and I will never forget that. Similarly, a few months later Furquan’s grandmother passed away, and my grandmother passed away a couple months after that. We both were navigating really heavy and complex losses in our lives at the same time, and we were able to share a really genuine dialogue both with the camera and without.
One of the things you don’t think about when you set out to make a film is how many hours are spent when the cameras aren’t rolling. This process was not just about making a film for us. The film was a natural extension of this moment we were all interested in capturing and creating together, but at a certain point that became secondary to the ways our lives became connected during that period. The collaboration was not something that ever felt forced; it felt like an honest reflection of the ways we all cared for one another.
D: The water metaphor is so artfully deployed throughout the film—as a means of cleansing, care, atonement and rehabilitation; and as a symbol of renewal and rebirth. Talk about the post-production process and how you structured your film so that this metaphor would not overwhelm the film.
ZA: I’m really glad that came across because it was so important during our entire post-production process. It was certainly a delicate balance but one that was so important to uphold. The ritual of washing is such a beautiful and important tradition in Islam. And it was something that was deeply person to Hanif. The washings hold this spiritual and personal connection, so the goal with the use of water was to weave it into the film to uphold those spiritual and emotional threads. It’s definitely a place of redemption and cleansing for Hanif, so we wanted to think creatively about how water can function as this element of cleansing within the film and how it was a reflection of care. So the washings are all told with these really soft visuals of water running along hands and being poured delicately over gently washed skin. And under those visuals we crafted a score and a music world that used horns and delicately plucked strings to help elevate the moment to a place of beauty. A lot of the most vulnerable moments in the film took place on days when it was raining. Editorially, we always moved from one of those rain scenes into a more delicate cleansing scene with a washing or another transitional moment to help house those moments of vulnerability with that feeling of care and cleansing. Water is such a beautiful element and it has a lot of meaning in many faith practices, Islam included. So it really gives the film a lot of the more tangible emotion and helps create this natural energy in the way each scene flowed into each other.
D: While faith obviously plays a strong role in empowering both Hanif and Farquan, Hanif, especially, struggles to honor his commitments—as a father figure, as a healer. He takes ownership of, as his niece says, “What he has done, and what he must do.” But it’s not easy in an environment fraught with so many temptations and obstacles, and he does slip in the film. He does pay for it, but he is eventually forgiven and brought back to the fold. How is he doing now? How are Farquan, Naz and Hanif’s son doing?
ZA: With this film, we are trying to grapple with what “slipping up” means and who defines that. Hanif and Naz encounter challenging circumstances in the film, which are made even more complicated because they are operating within systems that are essentially waiting for any slip-up to take away any progress they have made. What’s been beautiful has been to see the resilience they have formed despite those setbacks.
And that has all extended to today. Thankfully, all of them are doing okay, all things considered. For Hanif, it’s certainly been a challenging year for him, given COVID and the work he does with casket-building and funeral-washings. The community in Newark was hit particularly hard during the beginning of the pandemic, and while he was able to stay in good health, he was surrounded by a lot of pain and grief. What is amazing about Hanif is that he finds so much healing through the work of giving respect and care for those that are lost. So while it was difficult, he found a lot of emotional healing in the work he was doing. He’s in a better place now and he’s looking to find new ways to be a mentor and continue his work in new ways. His son Tyler is doing great—he just had a baby recently! It actually happened a few weeks before Hanif turned 60, so that was a really special moment in time. Hanif told us he never could have imagined a more beautiful gift to become a grandfather during this time of transition.
Furquan is doing really great. It’s been so amazing seeing him grow up and develop such an appreciation for the life he has. And he’s matured into such a thoughtful young man. I think in a lot of ways the film has made him reflect on the journey he’s been on and where he has the potential to go. He’s a junior in high school now and still wrestling and doing really great. He has plans to go to college. We’re all so genuinely proud of the young man he has become and know he will continue to be.
Naz and his family are doing okay. It’s a difficult situation for him, admittedly, and there’s still justice to be found. His mother Keerah has done an incredible job at maintaining a balance in ways I could never imagine. She’s continuing her cooking business and has been there for Naz every step of the way. I think that familial support has been a huge place of comfort for Naz. We obviously wish he was not in the situation he is in, but he’s resilient and thankful to be surrounded by a lot of love and support.
It’s been a beautiful thing to see each of the subjects navigate the many ups and downs of life, even after the cameras stopped rolling. I’m so thankful to know all of them and I’m inspired by how they’ve shaped their lives despite the setbacks they have faced along the way.
D: With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening? What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening?
ZA: In full honesty, I was quite nervous going into our DocuClub screening. We hadn’t shown a cut to anyone outside of our film team and we were essentially showing a rough cut to a room full of people we did not know. A lot of the scenes were fresh in the sense that we had just tried certain arrangements on the timeline and we actually had just put together the ending the day before our screening. But I recognized that it was important to show something to people who had no familiarity with the story before and see how the general world we were building and overall arc we were trying to form was coming across. I think our biggest challenge was trying to balance the threads of the film. One of the hardest parts of the edit was trying to make sure each character had a clear arc and that the audience would feel connected with them. The biggest question mark going into the film was actually the middle and second acts, where things in each of our subjects’ lives gets more complex. We were trying to figure out how much context or information was needed to still be able to follow the events as they were unfolding.
D: What audience observations did you find most surprising and unexpected? What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?
ZA: In a great way, the audience felt like our film could have peeled back a bit on the more expositional elements of the film that were in our rough cut. When you’re first building an edit, you have this innate fear that people will be confused without context or information. But after our screening, a lot of people felt like they just wanted to be immersed more in the world and the moments between the characters. It was hugely valuable because we became less dependent on the “scaffolding” elements of our edit (voiceover, interview, etc.) and trusted the foundation of what we built and allowed the more observational moments between our subjects to really take center stage.
I think another important (and affirming) moment was when someone asked us what type of film we are actually trying to make—a piece that informs or a piece that reflects. Not to say your film can’t do both, but structurally, you have to make some decisions around how you treat information and tone. And I think that question and the conversation around that was so helpful for us as we went back into the edit. And it allowed for us to continue exploring those unspoken threads of the film that elevated the emotion and feelings we wanted the audience to experience.
D: When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made? What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere?
ZA: So many things changed going back into the edit. We removed a large chunk of our opening act and quite a bit of our second act. We had gone into the screening with a more general third act and we knew we had a lot of work to do, so I would say the biggest improvement and thing we got clarity on was how to bring our characters towards the end of the film and how to weave together those threads in a way that felt balanced and purposeful. In the final edit of the film, we have a reflection from Hanif towards the end that really beautifully ties together the journey he has been on. When we crafted that, the third act really clarified in a lot of ways and we were able to understand what threads we wanted to hold onto and which ones we wanted to let go.
In terms of being ready for the festival premiere, we actually spent quite a bit of time tinkering with the edit in those final weeks, especially in terms of transitions and the more subtle moments of reflection in the film. To me, the most important thing editorially was making sure we had moments to breathe, reflect, and feel the emotions happening in the scenes and between the scenes. That balance and crafting of that visual world in the edit definitely took some time, when we started to feel the worlds flowing together and the edit having a natural rhythm was when we knew we were ready. We also spent some time showing the edit to friends, colleagues and general test screenings, and it was great to see people responding to the film in ways you wanted people to respond to it. When we started seeing it was clicking for a viewer, we knew it was time to lock. And we definitely revisited that DocuClub screening a lot when we reflected on the progress of the film because that rough-cut screening was so early in our editorial process and it was such a great resource to be able to track not only editorial progress but also the feeling in the room when people watched the film and the conversations they had afterwards.
D: Two Gods premiered at Hot Docs, then screened at BlackStar and Camden. There has been some debate in the filmmaking community about premiering online. What were some of the factors that you considered in arriving at your decision? Did both festivals geoblock in their respective regions? Did they restrict the number of virtual attendees? How was the audience reaction and engagement at both festivals?
ZA: The beginning of the pandemic was certainly a challenging time. We had to weigh all of those options, especially because when we premiered at Hot Docs we didn’t have any of those other festivals confirmed. I think the biggest worry for us was how it would affect potential distribution and how to ensure that a festival showcase wouldn’t conflict with a potential distribution deal down the line. Ultimately though, we felt like our film—which spoke to a more nuanced portrayal of the intimacy of grief and loss as well as an intimate portrait of men of color in Newark—was a powerful piece to bring to audiences in this moment in time.
Hot Docs was ultimately geoblocked to Ontario, which was helpful in terms of easing any sort of distribution conflicts we were worried about. However, after a few weeks it seemed like the industry kind of understood that these virtual festivals were going to be the norm for our foreseeable future, so after the first couple of months, we ultimately opted into festivals more. We were thankful that most festivals since then have been adaptive to the needs of the filmmaker. So for some festivals we have tried limiting regions (especially if we have multiple festivals happening at the same time) or capping audience size, and thankfully a lot of the festivals seem to allow for films and filmmakers to adapt to whatever their needs are in that moment. We also got to do a drive-in showcase at Camden, which was really incredible, especially because we got to be there with Hanif, who had seen the film but had never seen it on a big screen before, so it was really special to have that experience.
The audience reaction we’ve gotten thus far has been really positive and it’s been a good way to test out our overall engagement plan. I think the downside of the virtual festival release is that you can’t be in a room having conversations in real time as easily as you would; that’s an experience we are definitely missing. But we have gotten a lot of people who have resonated with the film and the storytelling approach we are taking with it. It’s given us a lot of ideas for how to craft our engagement campaign, which we are in the process of developing right now.
D: You’ll be screening at the New Orleans Film Festival and DOC NYC in November. Have you applied and been accepted into other festivals? What does your festival strategy look like? Have you been able to secure virtual distribution?
ZA: We’ve applied to a few others, but we are really happy with our US festival run to date. We’ve had a good mix of festivals and showcases where we’ve gotten to get our film in front of audiences who are interested in watching films and we’ve also been able to show at festivals that represent different regions within the States. We haven’t yet had an international showcase of the film on the festival side [other than Hot Docs in Canada], so I think right now, we’re trying to figure out what the international release and conversation around the film would be. It’s definitely challenging to a certain degree because we are very much navigating this as first-time filmmakers and without a big distributor or name attached to our film. So there are definitely some frustrations with feeling a bit lost in the shuffle but ultimately, we are just so thankful to be getting our film out into the world. It’s been a long journey and this feels like the right time, despite all of the logistical challenges the virtual world presents.
D: What advice would you offer to other filmmakers who completed their films and are assessing their roll-out strategies?
ZA: The amount of pro and con lists I’ve made and thrown out during this pandemic release process has been intense. There will always be pros and always be pretty significant cons to any situation you are navigating. But I would say, Do what feels right to you and don’t try and put unnecessary pressure on yourself. One of our mentors gave us some really good advice at the beginning of this, and it was that our world and the way we consume films is fundamentally changing. It’s not necessarily going to be easier in the next festival cycle. So if you feel like you are ready to get your film out into the world, do it. It might look a lot different than you planned, but there’s no set path a filmmaker can go on now. It’s really unique to each film and their respective goals. So in some ways it’s a relief to be freed from those traditional expectations placed on filmmakers during a festival season.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from this whole process—both making the film and releasing it—is that we should be kinder to ourselves. Ultimately, you’ll have a gut feeling when certain things feel right; I would say follow those instincts. And surround yourself with a community of other filmmakers who are also releasing films at the same time and try to share insights, frustrations and celebrations with them. It’s so important to do that because those connections will help your journey of releasing your film more purposeful and meaningful.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.