When UF College of Journalism and Communications lecturer Iman Zawahry attended the Phoenix Film Festival in 2022, she received an offer difficult for any filmmaker to refuse: the chance for her indie film to hit the big screen across America.
Zawahry, who almost missed the festival, had just finished a screening of her film “Americanish” when she was approached by Dan Harkins, owner of the independent movie chain, Harkins Theaters.
As Zawahry’s film was awarded the festival’s coveted Best Picture, Harkins’ offer for a theatrical release was long-awaited. After a 10-year journey of producing and marketing the film, her directorial debut, “Americanish,” was released in theaters in California and Arizona Oct. 6.
Following its premiers in Harkins theaters, the film will also have a video-on-demand release through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Nov. 14.
“I’m so incredibly grateful,” Zawahry said. “I can’t believe after 10 years of making this movie how far it's gone. I never, never thought this would ever happen.”
Tagged as “The first American Muslim Comedy made by American Muslim Women,” ‘Americanish’ follows the lives of three Muslim women, Sam (Aizzah Fatima), Maryam (Salena Qureshi) and Ameera (Shenaz Treasure) as they navigate their lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Zawahry is one of the first hijabi American-Muslim directors in the nation. As an activist and a storyteller, she is passionate about expanding opportunities for Muslim filmmakers.
“I just want to make sure that everyone feels supported because I never had that when I was coming up,” Zawahry said.
The 2021 feature film was Zawahry’s directorial debut and has racked up many awards since its premiere, such as the Grand Prize at the Heartland International Film Festival and Best Comedy at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in 2021.
When it comes to the wider reception of her directorial debut, Zawahry says she hopes her film shows the diversity of Muslim women.
“What I hope ‘Americanish’ does is just show that Muslim women are not a monolith,” Zawahry said. “They’re so different in their thoughts and views and this film will be here to show you that.”
Roy Wol is a producer of “Americanish” and the president of Studio Autonomous, an IP development and production company with a multicultural staff.
Wol is a “third-culture kid,” which is a term used to describe people who were raised in a culture other than their parents or country of origin. While he was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wol has lived in Turkey, Argentina, Canada and now the U.S. This multicultural background motivates his filmmaking and is what brought him to “Americanish.”
“My entire being is this idea of bringing cross-cultural communities together because I do believe that is the solution to most things,” Wol said.
His invitation to produce the film came during a time when he was looking for like-minded people who value community and diversity.
“Making a great film in the current landscape of the industry is the minimum to start a conversation,” Wol said. “Many directors once they edit their film just want to launch it. They just want to move to the next thing. Iman was willing to stick through the hard part.”
The success that “Americanish” received is highly unlikely for independent films, Wol said.
“The fact that it happened gives me so much hope,” Wol said. “Iman has created at least a roadmap of some sort [...] for everyone else that’s coming after her.”
But aside from directing films and serving as the director of film programs for the Islamic Scholarship Fund, Zawahry is also a lecturer at UF, teaching media production classes such as Screenwriting and Producing and Islam, Media, and Pop Culture.
Jenna Ayoub, a 22-year-old UF media, production and management student, is currently a student in Zawahry’s Narrative Collaborating Filmmaking class. Although she has learned a lot from her classes, the most important thing Zawahry taught her was how much drive it takes to be in the film industry, Ayoub said.
This month, Ayoub will be attending a screening of “Americanish” along with Zawahry and her classmates in Los Angeles.
“To have such an established female director such as Iman as my professor is what makes going to UF worth it,” Ayoub said. “She is such an inspiration for me as a female filmmaker myself.”
Zawahry’s advice for young filmmakers, especially those in marginalized communities, is to tell your story and ignore the noise.
“There are people at the top that always tell you no. You just have to ignore the noise and create to create,” Zawahry said. “‘Americanish’, even though [...] it’s about Muslim women, the heart of the story is about love, life and career, which we all deal with on an everyday basis. There’s so many levels of story that come through it.”
Contact Bonny Matejowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bonnymatejowsky
Bonny Matejowsky is a third-year journalism major and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When she’s not writing, you can find her thrifting or watching Twin Peaks.