Independent Lens caught up with Isaac Solotaroff, the filmmaker behind Wham Bam Islam!, a film about a Kuwaiti entrepreneur trying to launch a comic book series in the Middle East featuring heroes who embody the 99 virtues of Allah. Solotaroff took a parallel journey in creating his documentary, and in the end won the trust of his subjects and survived a grueling shoot.
What impact do you hope Wham Bam Islam! will have?
I hope the film surprises and challenges some preconceptions. I was drawn to Naif as a protagonist because he is such an iconoclast — the son of a conservative Kuwaiti family who could easily be mistaken for a fast-talking New Yorker. He can go toe to toe on points of Muslim theology in Arabic and then get weepy talking about the impact of John Lennon on his life. Hopefully, there are plenty of other moments and characters who leave Western audiences slack-jawed. My personal favorite is a university student who wears the burqa and compares Naif to William Butler Yeats. I think as the Arab Spring showed us, young people in the Middle East have spent a lot more time discovering what we have in common than their counterparts in this part of the world have done.
What led you to make this film?
When I was researching this project, it became clear that Muslim societies across the world were at a fascinating crossroads. There were the forces of fundamentalism that wanted to anchor the culture to Qur’anic strictures and modernists who wanted to find a way for Islam to integrate with the rest of the world.
I was fascinated to see what would happen to someone like Naif who was so demonstrably planting his flag on the side of those who want to push Muslim societies into the 21st century. Beyond that he was doing it in a way that could be seen as highly provocative — a children’s entertainment property based on Western-styled superheroes with powers that are borrowed from Allah’s 99 names! — I figured that was likely to stir up the hornets’ nest.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making Wham Bam Islam!?
The biggest challenge was maintaining a degree of objectivity in both fundraising and editing the film. In both cases, the documentary’s subject matter required a fair amount of explanation and cultural translation. Once I cleared that hurdle, I had to get people (whether funders or an audience) to care about the protagonist and his mission.
In the process, it was easy to come across as sycophant or a pitchman for Naif and his company which at the end of the day is both a social venture and a for-profit business. I hope I was able to tell the story which does some justice to both the successes and failures of THE 99 and its creator.
How did you gain the trust of the Naif and others in the film?
I’m not sure I fully had Naif’s trust, until my second production trip which was to film him launching THE 99 in Indonesia. It was an unbelievably taxing week for both of us — I was working 20 hour days with a local crew who didn’t speak English, in sweltering tropical heat. Naif was booked every day with school visits, book signings and media appearances which included interviews/interrogations with hard-line Islamists. And it was Ramadan! No food from sun up to sundown. It was the crucible of our working relationship and we were able to distract each other from our growling stomachs with a lot of shared laughs.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
Naif was sent by his parents, unknowingly, from Kuwait to a predominantly Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire when he was 7. This is the place where Naif first discovered comic books and also first learned that there are more things that unite us than divide us. He not only didn’t tell his parents it was a Jewish summer camp when he came back but insisted on going back every year for the next 10 years and now sends his children there as well.
I filmed at the camp with Naif when he went back for a reunion and we even developed some animation scenes with awesome renderings of Naif as a pre-adolescent in the early 1980s to go along with the camp footage but unfortunately we couldn’t squeeze it into the allotted PBS time.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Without giving too much away, there is a point in the film when things are really going badly for Naif and THE 99. After a lot of early success and recognition, I think it shook Naif’s confidence and tested his mettle in an unexpected way. It also made him more reflective about the journey and the personal and emotional stakes for him.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
Motivation has nothing to do with it. It’s a dependency. With every project comes multiple vows that this is the last time. Then towards the end of the project, I get an idea for a new documentary — a story that’s too good to pass up — and I swear that it’s going to be different this time. This process has repeated itself about five times now.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Started about three or four other films that other people went on to do with great success.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Find a mentor who you respect and needs help. Leverage your ability to work for very little money and work very hard to make yourself absolutely essential to this person. It’s the best way to learn the process of filmmaking and likely disavow yourself of the romance of filmmaking.