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Saturday, June 15, 2024

UF lecturer’s film ‘Americanish’ acquired by Sony Pictures

Romantic comedy navigates lives of 3 Muslim women

<p>Iman Zawahry was president of Islam on Campus during 9/11. Now, Zawahry teaches media production, management and technology at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications.</p>

Iman Zawahry was president of Islam on Campus during 9/11. Now, Zawahry teaches media production, management and technology at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications.

When Iman Zawahry walked into the one-woman show “Dirty Paki Lingerie” in New York City September 2013, she didn’t know she'd also be embarking on a nine-year-long film project with the play’s star.

A lecturer at the UF College of Journalism and Communications, Zawahry was inspired by actress Aizzah Fatima’s comedic yet heart-wrenching performance as a Pakistani American Muslim woman and her life in America. 

Zawahry approached Fatima after the play and suggested she adapt the show into a film. The two shared an immediate bond and started writing the screenplay by January 2014.

“Americanish,” Zawahry's directorial debut feature film, premiered in 2021 and has recently been acquired by Sony Pictures International Productions. Zawahry received the news that the deal went through in an email when she was on UF campus, she said.

“I was walking outside of Weimer … and I just started screaming and jumping up and down,” Zawahry said.

She describes the romantic comedy as a story of three women — Sisters Sam (Aizzah Fatima) and Maryam Khan (Salena Qureshi), and their cousin Ameera (Shenaz Treasury) — who tackle the everyday challenges of love, life and career in New York City through the unique perspective of Muslim women in Jackson Heights, New York.

Zawahry teaches classes such as Narrative Collaborative Filmmaking and Islam, Media and Pop culture. Teaching is her greatest source of fulfillment outside being a mother of two, Zawahry said.

Ayla Babanikos, a 22-year-old media production, management and technology senior and Zawahry’s student, said Zawahry always makes herself accessible to her students.

Being half Turkish, Babanikos said she was happy to see a positive, comedic representation of Muslim women when watching “Americanish” for the first time last year. 

“It was just really refreshing to see [Muslim women] portrayed as just women trying to figure out their lives like we all are,” Babanikos said. "There’s really not many films about Muslim women centered around comedy. They're all pretty dark and hard to watch."

As a Muslim woman, Zawahry said “Americanish” symbolizes her dedication to improving Muslim women’s representation in the film industry and portraying them in roles that aren’t focused on tragedies.

“Muslim women are not a monolith,” Zawahry said. “We have agency of our own lives and our own stories.”

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For the next four years, Zawahry and Fatima juggled writing the screenplay and raising funds to produce the film. They accomplished their goal to have the film fully funded by the Muslim community. While the film began production in December 2017, the two faced an uphill battle with many obstacles in the way: running out of funding in the middle of production, edits to the storyline and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which disrupted the film’s completion for years.

“Everything went wrong in making this movie,” Zawahry said. “One of my students said, ‘Every feature is a miracle’ and it’s so true.”

Zawahry and her team’s drive for sharing the story pushed the film past the finish line, she said. When she saw the film screened and the audience’s reactions for the first time, she knew all the hardships had been worth it. 

“I’m really proud of us because I know many people would have quit,” she said.

“Americanish” has won 25 awards, including the Audience Award at the San Francisco CAAMFest film festival, where it premiered in 2021. With sold-out theaters and teary-eyed crowds throughout the film’s festival cycle, Zawahry said she was shocked by how many viewers other than Muslim women resonated with the film's themes. 

“Everybody was able to relate to it,” she said. “I was just very surprised at how much it touched individuals.”

Fatima believes although “Americanish” tells a story about Muslim women, its themes focus on common life struggles, allowing it to resonate with people of many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, she said.

“That’s the beauty of creating work that is very specific,” Fatima said. “It has a universal appeal.”

Executive producers Mohannad Malas and Tarak Ben Ammar began negotiating with Sony Pictures International Productions for the studio to acquire global rights to the film after the film’s premiere. 

The news was a long-awaited reward.

“We really were able to show that there's an audience for this film,” Fatima said.

After working on “Americanish” for nine years, Zawahry and Fatima hope the film will find a home on a streaming service later this year, by virtue of the Sony acquisition.

Zawahry and Fatima are excited to celebrate “Americanish’s” acquisition and attend a panel at the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the U.S., Jan. 22. 

Contact Amanda at Follow her on Twitter @afriedmanuf.

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Amanda Friedman

Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande. 

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