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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Yoni Brook and Musa Syeed--'A Son's Sacrifice'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next couple of weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 18-24. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Yoni Brook, director/producer, and Musa Syeed, producer, of A Son's Sacrifice.

Synopsis: A Son's Sacrifice follows the journey of Imran, a young American Muslim who confronts his roots at his father's slaughterhouse in New York City. On the holiest day of the year, Imran must lead his community in a sacrifice that forces him to define himself as a Muslim and a son.

IDA:   How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Yoni Brook and Musa Syeed:   We met at NYU's film school and began collaborating when we realized we are both passionate about telling personal stories that have social relevance.
Yoni works as a photojournalist for magazines and newspapers, so his work as a filmmaker springs from his interest in nonfiction storytelling. Musa is a writer and director whose work addresses themes of identity.

IDA:   What inspired you to make A Son's Sacrifice?

YB & MS:   As college students in New York City, we were fascinated by the storefront slaughterhouses that are hidden from most New Yorkers. Most people don't realize that you can hop on the subway to Queens and buy a live goat or cow.
As first-generation Americans of different religions--Jewish and Muslim--we realized that these slaughterhouses serve as a way for immigrant parents to pass on traditions to their children. They are places where parents protest their children's assimilation by practicing ancient religious rites of sacrifice. We spent over a year interviewing slaughterhouse owners all over the city to find a story that we wanted to tell. After meeting slaughterhouse owners of varying ethnicity, such as Somalis in the Bronx and Uzbek Jews in Queens, we found our subjects at a family-owned Bangladeshi slaughterhouse in Ozone Park, Queens.

IDA:   What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

YB & MS:   Slaughtering live animals in New York City is a tough profession. Many slaughterhouse owners feel stigmatized by their profession's unpopularity with Western tastes. Often the Muslim communities who patronize slaughterhouses are wary of the media. For Muslims, halal meat has deep religious and cultural meanings, so we wanted to treat the subject with dignity.
It was difficult to find a family-run slaughterhouse that would let us film their bloody day job as well as their personal life. Our subject, Imran, is one of the few first-generation Americans in New York who runs a traditional slaughterhouse. Because he previously worked in advertising and is media savvy, he understood our goals and was eager for us to film his business. His Bangladeshi-immigrant father, Riaz, was getting ready to retire. Their relationship laid the groundwork for a story as Imran struggled to take over the business from his father.
We wanted to gain the trust of Imran and his family, as well as their customers, so we spent months becoming a part of the daily life of the South Asian and West Indian neighborhood. Eventually, we focused our story on one of the most important holidays of the year, Qurbani or Eid-al-Adha, which would test Imran's ability to run the business and earn the trust of his father's community.

IDA:   How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

YB & MS:   We first wanted to make this film because of the tension of running a rural business like a slaughterhouse in the midst of New York City. However, as we interviewed our subjects and watched their relationship evolve, we realized that our true subject wasn't storefront slaughterhouses but the family drama that unfolds inside them. An urban slaughterhouse becomes a way to explore the universal themes of a first-generation American's struggle to reconcile his immigrant parents' traditions with his own.

IDA:   As you've screened A Son's Sacrifice --whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

YB & MS:   Although our story is about unique cultural practices that most people either aren't familiar with or might find distasteful, we've been gratified that audiences relate to the characters and see their own lives in their struggles. We screened our rough cut to a class of seminary students who identified with our Muslim-American characters because we portray them as people with universal concerns, not as religious or cultural specimens.

IDA:   What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

YB & MS:   We admire Frederick Wiseman's patient observational approach and Errol Morris' use of humor in morose situations.
We were both inspired and motivated by the work of Marco Williams, our executive producer, who championed our project and whose films strike at the emotional core of complex social subjects.

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