Why is a movie about a hate crime spotlighting a white woman?

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Let me walk you through the moment when I found out about the Christchurch shootings.

I was a junior in college, and a journalism student no less, so I was always browsing the news anyway. I saw the headline and the social media posts in the morning before my commute.

Don’t share the livestream video of the shootings, people in my social circle texted each other. And yet other people did exactly that. I never watched that awful video, but I didn’t need to. I could picture it perfectly well.

Just like the moment when I found out that three members of my mosque had been shot execution-style — Deah, Yusor, and Razan in 2015 — I didn’t feel grief immediately.

It’s a weird sort of numbness that comes over you when you hear of a hate crime. You’re walking to class, and all you can see is how many people are just going about their lives when so many Muslims have just lost theirs in cold blood. You post about it to your Snapchat story. No one responds to it. No one non-Muslim seems to have anything to say. Do they not know, or do they just not care?

The silence is so, so loud.

You hang around after class to ask your editorial-writing teacher a question, and you leave in tears because she’s the only one who said something.

You go to your board meeting with your school’s Muslim Students Association. You look at the other students — kids, just like you — and you are all quiet, so quiet, and then you all take a deep breath and begin planning a vigil. You are the ones to reach out to other campus leaders, and you wish that the adults running this place had just said something.

On the day of, you and your MSA people collect 50 prayer rugs, one for each person who died, and lay them out in front of the student union, facing Makkah. It drizzles a bit, and you all pray really, really, really hard that this won’t mess up the sound equipment, and thankfully the clouds are replaced by a glowing russet sun.

On the day of, you worry that only Muslims will show up, because hardly anyone seems to be aware that 50 people were murdered, some of them elderly and some of them children, shot and left to bleed out on the plush carpet that is a staple of every mosque.

On the day of, it’s not just Muslims who show up. You’re shocked and then you realize how messed up it is that you were shocked.

You give a speech at the vigil, where you talk about how every Saturday, you run your own little program at your own mosque, where little girls in middle school come to you with their stories. My teacher says bad stuff about Muslims, my friend says bad stuff about Muslims. You tell this crowd of people that you are afraid for your girls. That you’re waiting for the day that they don’t have to live in shame for crimes they never committed, paying for a hatred that was never deserved.

Your voice breaks and you cry a bit and God it’s embarrassing. But that’s okay, because other people teared up with you.

Afterwards, you all pray on the 50 prayer rugs amid who-knows-how-many candles, and the photographers for the student newspaper take pictures. You’re able to smile at the attendees, and you receive their hugs, but nothing is okay.

Nothing is okay.

You cry because you didn’t know them, but you kind of did anyway. You cry because so many families have lost fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children, grandparents. You cry because Jacinda Ardern is being the epitome of an ally through her headscarf and her hugs and her words condemning hatred and terror.

But that doesn’t mean she’s the spotlight of the story.

I saw earlier today that Rose Byrne was cast as Jacinda Ardern in the upcoming film They Are Us, which, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “will tell the story of how Ardern rallied New Zealand following the terror attacks on two mosques in 2019.”

Here’s what I want to know — why does writer and director Andrew Niccol want to take a story that is about Muslim pain and suffering, and turn it into an “inspiring true story about the positive impact, even in the darkest of moments, a strong leader can have on their constituents’ lives”?

Look, I really like Jacinda Ardern. I do think she deserves a biopic (though maybe not while she’s in office). I do think she is one of the few world leaders who deserves a great deal of respect, mainly for the way she handled such a horrific tragedy with actions as much as she did with words. I, like many Muslims around the world, was uplifted and touched by the wave of support that poured out of New Zealand in the aftermath.

But I don’t see how Andrew Niccol, who is not a Muslim, can say that he wants to make a film that “is not so much about the attack but the response to the attack.”

I get that he’s a New Zealander. I get that I am not.

But look at the way Hollywood has sidelined and disrespected Muslims since 9/11 and even earlier.

If anything, Muslims are under constant threat because of what is shown in Hollywood. We are always the side characters, even in our own stories. The stepping stones to prop up white saviorism. White people stand on top of dead Muslims all the time and call it heroism — whether it’s in the real-life military, or in a movie like American Sniper, or in a feel-good biopic like They Are Us.

Which brings me to my extreme discomfort with the title.

I don’t like the name “They Are Us.” It’s already turning Muslims into the secondary characters. It’s already directing the audience’s focus to Jacinda, and not the people who paid the highest price for the tragedy. It doesn’t seem like a story focused on confronting Islamophobia specifically, but on a much more vague sort of kumbaya among all people, with an anti-guns message thrown in.

For this story, this is not the angle we need.

For this story, we need to not only spotlight the Muslim victims and their surviving families, but also the global climate of Islamophobia, the ways Hollywood had failed us, and the way we live under constant surveillance, the way we pay the price for other people’s misguidance and blind hatred.

Is it possible that I will end up watching this film and loving it? Maybe. Maybe not. A lot of what I’m saying is based on my limited understanding of this movie’s angle and the people involved.

But right now, I’m already reeling from the attack that just happened against a Canadian family in London, Ontario, where Madiha Salman, her husband Salman Afzaal, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and Ms. Salman’s mother were all murdered by a 20-year-old terrorist in his pickup truck. They’re survived by Yumna’s 9-year-old brother. He is the only member of the family left.

I’m imagining how it would be if they made a film about Trudeau’s response to their murders. I’m imagining how it would be received if someone were to make a movie about the murder of Deah, Yusor, and Razan from the perspective of the neighbor who made the 911 call.

And right now, we don’t need films about responses to Islamophobia. We need films confronting Islamophobia.

Which is why, from my vantage point, They Are Us feels like just another slap in the face — skirting around the issue, but never confronting it directly.

Writer, videographer, artist, and nerd. UNC-Chapel Hill, Class of 2020 (unfortunately). http://www.safaahmed.com/

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