MY JOURNEY to Morgantown began in Colorado.
I was about ten years old, and our small-town church was in crisis. I had grown up to a soundtrack of sermons about the evils of American culture, the inferior station of women and the irredeemability of non-believers. Now we had a new preacher with a different tune, and a retired cattle rancher from Oklahoma had made it his mission to depose him. The rancher said the new preacher’s sermons strayed too far from the hellfire-and-brimstone that previously filled our church on Sunday mornings. Moreover, he was “fellowshipping” with other Christians in town, flouting the received truth that our denomination stood alone on the path to heaven.
I remember the day the preacher submitted his resignation. Soon after, our church split — the rancher and his partisans founding their own congregation across town.
Looking back, I realize I was seeing the clash between tradition and modernity that plays out in so many religious communities, written small among the red canvas pews of our little brick church. A desire to understand that conflict animated my aspirations as a documentary filmmaker, and eventually led me to Morgantown.
A colleague had told me about an old friend who just returned to her hometown mosque and found it had been taken over by a conservative clique. As Asra Nomani told it, these “extremists” were excluding women and families from the mosque, and their sermons lashed out against the West and non-believers. It all sounded familiar. I wondered, were these Muslims really any more exotic — or dangerous — than the Oklahoma cattle rancher who wanted to control my childhood church?
I hired a camera crew and headed down to West Virginia to check it out. We arrived just in time to witness Asra’s ‘march’ on the mosque, staged to bring awareness of a woman’s right to enter through the front door and pray in the main hall. I found Asra a complex and intriguing figure, and I sensed there was more to the story than the surface civil-rights struggle.
So, in the fall of 2004, I packed up my Jeep Cherokee and moved to Morgantown. I had no funding, so it was a total leap of faith. The first apartment I rented was in a run-down area near West Virginia University. The dryer caught on fire and the place was filled with fleas. I quickly relocated to a better space right on Morgantown’s up-and-coming waterfront area.
I was in Morgantown for at least a month before I took out my camera. I simply went to the mosque as often as I could, read the Quran and books on Islam, listened and learned. Along the way I began to get acquainted with people in the community and, thankfully, discovered the best restaurant in town — Kassar’s, run by a friendly Syrian couple. Gradually I began filming interviews.
There were access issues at first. Some found it difficult to believe I’d be different than the many other journalists who had shown up at the mosque in the wake of Asra’s activism. Those reporters, they felt, had blindly presented Asra’s side of the story — perpetuating fears of extremism (and even terrorism) in the community. Many people were getting visits from the FBI around this time, adding to the general sense of unease. Some were worried I would take their words out of context, or juxtapose shots from inside the mosque with footage of incendiary sermons elsewhere. A few feared I was an undercover FBI agent. After I eventually received some funding through PBS’s controversial America at a Crossroads initiative, some even said I was a tool of some kind of vast neo-conservative conspiracy. None of this was true, of course.
But some forward-looking mosque members saw the advantages of transparency. They knew that the only way to combat negative images of their community was to contribute positive ones. They saw that it didn’t help when the mosque habitually neglected to return reporters’ phone calls. So they too took a leap of faith and began to cooperate with me. They weren’t as open as Asra was, but it was a start.
This, I began to see, was the real story in Morgantown. As in Colorado, the traditionalists’ position was more or less a given. What interested me more were the modernizers — those who wanted to adapt the community’s cultural practices to the reality of American life. And yes, in this sense I put Asra and many of her opponents in the mosque in the same general category. They, whether one wishes to label them as moderates, progressives or somewhere in between, are the heart of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN.
That said, I regret I was unable able to gain more access to the traditionalist viewpoint in the mosque. I aimed to present the views of every individual in the film as fully and humanely as possible. But a few members of the community made this very difficult. Hany Ammar was the mosque’s president at the time I began filming. Because by all accounts his actions played a major role in polarizing the community, I could not leave him out of the story. Had he accepted my many requests for cooperation, perhaps he would have appeared as a fully formed, understandable, even sympathetic character. Now he slips through the film as a mere ghost, carrying only the power of symbolism. I wish I’d had a different option.
I kept my apartment in Morgantown for about a year and a half, continuing to follow the story as it unfolded. Most of that time I had no funding and worked alone. But I always believed it was worth the trouble. The story in Morgantown stands as a powerful illustration of the predicament of many religious communities today.
In my view, modernity and tradition are forces of nature. They operate on a continuum, with most people embodying a bit of both. Modernity moves the conversation forward while tradition keeps us in touch with who we are. But people have different ideas of the proper proportion of each, and conflict is inevitable. Sometimes tradition is confused with truth, and sometimes progress is held as the highest end. The urge to power and control all too often adds poison to the pot and makes resolution difficult.
Many documentary filmmakers see themselves as activists. I’m not one of them. Of course, I have my particular interests and view of the world. But I approach my work as one who selects, observes and documents stories I believe are important, no more and no less. It is up to you, the viewer, to interpret the story and take action.