Sajid Varda reveals how charity UK Muslim Film helped C4’s comedy drama Screw avoid misinformed stereotypes.
The seismic events of 9/11 not only affected global politics, but thrust Muslims on-screen in a drastic new way. Much to the frustration of regular ‘everyday’ Muslims, caricatures and damaging stereotypes were the order of the day, without regard for real-life implications.
Having worked in film and TV since 1990, there were hardly any shows that depicted people like me. However, since 2001 there has been a dramatic rise in the number of storylines depicting Muslims as terrorists and Islam a faith to be feared, somehow out of step with the modern world. These dangerous tropes have served to embolden the less informed whose pre-existing anxieties were subsequently ‘confirmed’.
The premiere of a short film I exec produced captivated audiences at the 2015 UK Jewish Film Festival, a simple comedy that brought together Jewish and Muslim characters and handled both communities in a nuanced and sensitive way.
The Chop went on to win over 54 international awards, highlighting the power of storytelling that goes beyond stereotypes and reflects communities honestly and authentically. This led to my journey to establish the charity.
UK Muslim Film launched in April 2020 supported by the BFI at an event which highlighted misrepresentation of Muslims and the considerable lack of Muslim talent in positions across production, namely at executive level and in writers’ rooms where the narratives are controlled.
The launch received a great deal of international coverage and it was not long before we started receiving requests for help. STV Studios got in touch regarding their new drama series Screw for Channel 4. I was excited not only because we were presented with an opportunity to make a difference, but also because my first break on TV came in the Channel 4 cult comedy Teenage Health Freak.
“Teaching the cast how to perform the Muslim prayer (salah) was a wonderful experience especially as we had the wider cast and crew looking on”
The central storyline for this particular episode of ‘Screw’ focused on a Muslim ‘convert’ prisoner and we were pleased that this had been handled with care, with a refreshing twist to the story. We reviewed the scripts and provided our suggestions; advising on characterisation, dialogue and wardrobe. We visited the set in Glasgow to help stage the prayer scenes to ensure it looked authentic.
Teaching the cast how to perform the Muslim prayer (salah) was a wonderful experience especially as we had the wider cast and crew looking on. For many this was a great learning experience.
We have since been involved with a growing number of productions, all intent on broader and more accurate depictions. Why is this important? Because trite, cliched and contrived depictions of religious and cultural minorities jeopardises the integrity of your brand and undermines the veracity of your output. Shallow research evidences itself quickly, while the reputational damage remains long-term.
It is imperative to showcase in-touch, meaningful and informed handling of religious and cultural themes to be taken seriously. Today, shows are sold around the world and with an addressable market of around 1.8 billion Muslims, this raises the stakes even higher.
UK Muslim Film as is also a hub for the Muslim creative community with the aim of achieving broader representation of Muslims across production. Our motto is ‘Change the Script’. We hope that by working in close partnership with the screen industries, we can realise the shared ambition of media integrity, authentic engagement and a higher standard of storytelling for audiences to engage, relate and thrive through.
Sajid Varda is chief exec of UK Muslim Film