Said (Arlo Green) is a young Muslim living in Auckland. He loves playing music and and he dreams of getting married. Yet his existence is plagued by nightmares, as we find out in the movie’s hilarious opening sequence. He fears that the words “if anyone has something to say, speak now or forever hold your peace” (“salaam”, in this case) on his wedding day will be followed by a swathe of reasons why he should not get married: “he doesn’t have a job”, “he doesn’t have a car”, “he stills lives with his mum”, and other awkward revelations and interrogations into his life. He is also afraid that the “haram police” may break into the celebration and arrest him. But what terrible sin is it that troubles such a loving, cheerful and naive young man?
A Facebook conversation including the words “jihad”, “radicalise” and “blown away” lands Said in trouble with the local authorities. Two hostile intelligence officers question Said in his house, with his desperate mother attempting to reassure them that her boy is a good, well-intentioned citizen without any connection to Isis. A predicament familiar to Muslims in New Zealand and the West, who often and by default become associated with religious fundamentalism. Guilty until proven innocent. Said explains that the conversation was taken out of context, and that the sentences were in reality the lyrics of a song he’s writing. The officers question his “love” for New Zealand, and whether he intends to implement Sharia law. They then demand that he performs the music for them. The perplexed young man has a response in store for them, which indeed may blow them away (if in a way very different to what they expected). Eventually, we learn that “jihad” simply means “struggle” in Arabic, and that it is entirely devoid of a terrorist connotation. Extremists seized the term for their religious crusade, and the mainstream media weaponised it in order to stigmatise all Muslims.
In the second episode, Said’s friend Ahmed (played by the heart-throb Sami Afuni) goes on television and faces off two white morning presenters who treat him like a foreigner, despite the fact that he was born and raised on New Zealand soil, and English is his first language. He has to fend off mortifying and cliched questions such as “Where are you from?” and “What is your accent?”. This too will ring bells with Muslims, and – more broadly – with first, second and third generation immigrants anywhere on this planet. Said confronts the hosts by reminding them that New Zealand is a “settler colonial state” and that it no longer belongs to any specific race. The hosts attempt to make up with their guest by offering him “organic pork”, thereby adding insult to injury. Beneath the very thin veneer of cordiality, these people are profoundly nasty. A polished turd is still a turd.
This is movie peppered with little soundbites that reveal the subtle and also the not-so-subtle ways that the establishment and mainstream media have found in order to fan the flames of islamophobia. It also shows the creative mechanisms that Muslims have crafted in order to protect themselves from bigotry and ostracism. It takes a lot of social acrobatics in order to grow up and integrate in an environment that insistently dismisses you as an outsider.
Miles to Nowhere just premiered at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. A sweet little comedy about some rather unsavoury topics. Hate, prejudice and intolerance are not easily digestible. And you should never swallow them. This journalist has seen the first two parts of a six-episode Sky original series. Stick around for more bittersweet flavours to come.