Award-Winning Doc Premieres at Gateway
Filmmakers Zeshawn and Aman Ali are planning a homecoming. Before their award-winning documentary Two Gods makes its PBS premiere on Monday, June 21, they are sharing their work with Columbus.
“This is the city that planted the seed for us to be storytellers, so this is a thank you to the community,” says the film’s producer, Aman. He and his brother, director Zeshawn, will screen the film Saturday, June 5, at 4:30 p.m. and participate in a Q&A after.
“This is where we grew up. We wanted to come to Columbus because we’re proud to be from here,” Aman says. “We’ve been very fortunate to have success with this film, and this is the city that raised us.”
The documentary follows Hanif, a Muslim casket maker mentoring two young men in his Newark, New Jersey community in the rituals of body washing.
“The process in Islam is called the Janaza,” Aman explains. “Essentially it is the Islamic burial process. When someone passes away, the body goes through a physical and a spiritual ceremonial rinsing and the body is wrapped in a white cloth and is buried. The entire process is very simple and very intimate and very spiritual. The beauty of it is that the community really comes together to help a family that is grieving. In the film you really see that. You see Hanif really step up while families are so overwhelmed with the trauma and grief of losing a loved one.”
Five years in the making, Two Gods became something the brothers had not originally envisioned.
“We never really set out to make a film,” Aman recalls. “It was just about hanging out with Hanif. It’s not that we said, ‘Ok, this is where we’re going to tell a story.’ It was just, let’s hang out with this guy, let’s learn about the community, let’s learn about the history. Then lightbulbs started going off: this isn’t just a person we want to hang out with, this is a person we want other people to hang out with.”
Aman believes it’s an important story for others as well.
“This is an incredible man really taking these kids under his wings and doing some incredible work in the community,” he says. “My brother and I live in New York City now, but we grew up in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. I think we got fed up and frustrated not seeing people who look like us as Muslim Americans in TV and film, so we always had that yearning for representation. Even within the stories of Muslim Americans that you see in cinema and TV today, it’s oftentimes in a political context. It’s often 9/11, hate crimes, surveillance. For us, I think it was extra important to emphasize that this was a story about a Black American Muslim community with very rich, vibrant ties.”
The film had an unexpected effect on the filmmakers when their own father passed away.
“Here we were, filming so many body washings, having to wash our own father,” Aman recalls. “Hanif was really that source of strength for us, too. Especially in a pandemic, death is on everyone’s minds. When you lose someone, it can be overwhelming: to fill out paperwork, to think about headstones, to think about all these little, mundane tasks that feel like a mountain. We want people to start talking about death. It doesn’t have to be a scary subject. We try to talk about it in a poetic way. We want people to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable.”
Two Gods screens at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5 or you can find it in the Gateway Film Center’s virtual screening room.
For more information, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.