Meet Filmmaker Iman Zawahry, One of UF’s Inspirational Women

Many incredible women are vital parts to the University Florida and deserve recognition and appreciation for all that they do – especially about fighting stigmas and advocating for the representation and inclusion of all women. Iman Zawahry is one of these remarkable women who fight for Muslim American women. 

Women’s History Month is a fitting time to reach out and celebrate the beautiful women in your life and community. It is a time to celebrate women who embody what it means to be truly inspiring. But, make no mistake, these women deserve to be recognized every month of the year. I am so grateful for all the amazing women in my life, and I love meeting women who are unapologetically themselves and fight to make this world a better place.

Earlier this year, Iman Zawahry was nominated to Her Campus UFL as an inspirational woman. She is a perfect example of what it means to be an empowering and innovative woman. She has made incredible strides in her professional career and irrevocable positive societal changes for women and Muslim-American women everywhere through her films. We sat down with her to find out more about her and how she has gotten to where she is.

Photo courtesy of Iman Zawahry

HC UFL: Can you tell readers a little bit about yourself? What courses do you teach? How did you get into filmmaking and production? 

Zawahry: I was born and raised in Panama City, Florida. I went to undergrad here at the University of Florida. I actually majored in Near Eastern languages, cultures and religion. My goal was to get a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies to educate the masses about Muslims. But, I realized that you couldn’t reach out to Billy Bob in the Midwest by being a professor because everybody who comes to school is educated. 

I've always had a strong passion for film. Growing up, I made a lot of films and movies. But, being who I am as a child of immigrants and doctors, that really wasn’t an option for me. [Later on,] my husband got into law school at Florida State University, which has one of the top film schools in the nation. So, I was like, “Okay, I'm going to apply and not tell my parents and see what happens.” I applied, and I got in. During that time, I was one of like maybe two or three Muslim women that were wearing a scarf and were going into filmmaking. Which meant that I had to create my own path for myself, which was fine because I had a lot of guidance. But, I put this huge responsibility on myself to tell these stories, specifically Muslim women stories.

And so through FSU I made four short films [“Neighbors of Mass Destruction”, “The Cape, Tough Crowd” and “Undercover”]. They won a student Emmy. I was a finalist to pitch a sitcom to NBC and they’ve been shown in 100 film festivals worldwide. It was really interesting, because these films are just comedy broad that incorporate Muslim female characters. … But, they were seen and received so well, because people have never seen it before, and that was something that really stuck with me. 

I was traveling a lot with my films, I [had] graduated film school, I was writing my feature film and I was going to move to Atlanta or LA when my… mother-in-law got sick [in Gainesville]. We were planning on leaving, but while I was in Gainesville I ended up producing a feature film with Adele Romanski, the producer of “Moonlight”– she just won an Oscar and she's an FSU grad as well. So, we produced a film together here, and because we produced that film together I actually met Houston Wells because his kid was in it. I've been trying for like two to three years to try to get into teaching somehow because that was kind of my goal when I went to film school – I would teach and then I'd make my films.

So, I got in touch with Houston … and [taught his] lab, and that's how I got into teaching. I just absolutely loved it. It was like such an awesome thing…. I'm teaching film, which is something that people love, so it's not like I'm teaching them something boring. I’m in a practical setting where I am not just sitting there lecturing, we're actually making things, and I connected really well with my students. I mean I'm childlike in general and my students think I am their age, so I connect very well with [them] … my passion for film … just permeates on them.

It just kind of builds from that time, up. So, I came here as an adjunct teaching fundamentals of production labs, which is a first film lab. I started teaching the next one, which is electronic field production labs, which was under Tim Sorel. … I created this film class called narrative collaborative filmmaking. Which is basically a boot camp film school, and it takes 15 kids and all 15 of them make a crew instead of doing it on your own, unlike some of the other classes. That kind of really blew up in terms of the success of getting these kids to create these stronger films that are technically sound and things like that. So, I continue to teach that.

I also created a class, which I unfortunately do not teach anymore. [The class is] called Islam media and pop culture, which talks about different aspects of how Islam’s were treated in media through photo radio, film and television, and I had famous industry professionals Skype in. It was so cool, because I was teaching that class and we [were] changing the world in our own little 30 people crew … they would make Muslim themed shorts, PSAs and comedies so they could get into the storytelling of a Muslim character and perspective. They wanted me to teach the narrative filmmaking class every semester, so that’s why I had to let that class go. This is the first spring that I haven't taught it. I'm hoping to bring that back. [I also brought] in another class … [called] screenwriting and producing, which is what I’m teaching now.

HC UFL: What’s your personal favorite film?

Zawahry: "The Burbs." It is a Tom Hanks ‘80s film and definitely one of my favorites. All ‘80s comedies are kind of my favorite films, and I try to implement that in my films. It’s funny because I just shot my feature film in New York, which took six years to make, and we are in post now. Everybody’s saying, "Iman it has such a nostalgic feel, it feels like an ‘80s movie,” and I’m like, "Thank god, no one makes those movies anymore.” That’s my goal. I just hope someone watches it. I miss those feel-good comedies; we don't have those anymore. I'm hoping that an audience will appreciate this – what I’m making. 

HC UFL: What do you think films teach us, or what is their purpose?

Zawahry: That’s a good question. So, I think that film serves two purposes. The first purpose, which is probably the main one, is it's an escape for people to get out of their lives and get into a story of another person…. [It allows people to let] go of everything that's going on in their reality and just enjoy a story. The second purpose, my main purpose, is it's a vehicle to learn and to relate to other stories. So if you watch, for example, Bohemian Rhapsody, you become entranced [with] Freddie Mercury's life. I mean, no one knew that he was an immigrant of Iranian Indian parents, that he had huge identity issues and that he had to change his name. We're learning so much about his life and what he's come from, and that is something that we can all relate to. That's why I make comedies about Muslims, to humanize Muslims and to also realize once you laugh you put your guard down and you're able to learn from the experience.

One of my short films, “Undercover,” is about this police officer that wants to become a detective, but religion keeps getting in her way. She has the same wants that I do, she wants to be best friends with her partner and she wants to get high in her career. It’s not focused on like “Oh, this is a Muslim woman; this is how they are; they’re oppressed. Or this is how Islam is.” It's just a story. Getting to the human aspect of telling stories is greatly important. 

That’s the only positive thing from Trump's election. [Hollywood] has made such a huge push to tell Muslim stories. I mean you watch things on TV and there's always a woman with a scarf. I’m like “What, I've been working on this for ten years of my life and just like that! It just all came together.” People in Hollywood are always reaching out to us and trying to get more stories and things like that so that's really awesome. 

HC UFL: What is your favorite film you’ve created? What stereotypes do you tackle?

Zawahry: I guess the feature film that I made right now. This film I made now is about three Pakistani women living in New York City living life, love and career balancing their identity with living in Trump's America. So, it's a romantic comedy, and even though this film was probably the most traumatic experiences of my life because of every single thing about it, what remains is the story. There's a Muslim woman who wants to be a doctor and she wants to get married as well. But, her husband wants her to stay at home. So, she has to choose her career or her husband and she wears a scarf.

The next character wants to move out of her mom's house. She is 30 years old, and in brown culture you’re always in your parent's house. She has this pull between her mother and wanting to climb the corporate ladder in a white man's world. The last one is just the fun one in the film, she comes on the plane and says, “I want to marry a Pakistani doctor, that’s why I’m here,” she tells a TSA agent that. That story is just really a story about love and racism, because she comes to marry a Pakistani man but ends up marrying a Black man. 

So, all of these parts of these stories are parts of me, and I can't believe it. Everybody, even my parents, are like “I can’t believe you made that movie,” and I’m like “I can’t believe I made this move either!” There's a Trump character as well in the film, a Trump-like character, [and] it’s just showing what our lives are and putting it on screen in a fun, light story, which is hard to accomplish. I feel, hopefully, that I did. It's interesting; when you make a movie you hate it the entire time because you're so close to it. And the only time you really appreciate it is when audiences start to watch it. So, ... I’m waiting for the moment where I can be in the theater with people and hear how they feel about it.

HC UFL: What has it been like trying to make strides as an American Muslim woman? Have you had difficulties making a name for yourself?

Zawahry: I mean you asked me this today, which is a really hard day [I interviewed her the day after the New Zealand Mass Shooting]. And so yes, I think that is hard – the hate in general, the judgement and the hate. That's the reason why I became a filmmaker, because I grew up in a very small rural town of uneducated people who assume that Muslims ride camels and are oppressed. So, I made it my life's goal to change that. That's the biggest thing, the stereotype of being Muslim and identity is something that I’ve put in each one of my films, and that’s definitely something I’ve held onto up into my adulthood.

HC UFL: How did you get involved with the Islamic Scholarship Fund and what was your work like with them? Who has the grant impacted?

Zawahry: So, I was their first film recipient when I was in film school – that was their first year. They supported and gave me money for “Undercover.” They’re really unique because they [decided that they] are not going to support any more sciences because that’s all Muslims do, which is true, [and instead focused on the] humanities and arts. … So, after a few years they come to me … and they’re like “Iman, how can we help Muslim filmmakers?” and I’m like “Well, I’m in a situation right now, where I have no support from the Muslim Community in terms of funds to make my film. I think we should create a grant.” From that, we created the first American Muslim Film Grant in the nation, and we're now in our fifth year. We have given close to $200,000 of money to filmmakers. One of our filmmakers is Nijla Mu’min who made “Gin,” and it is very popular in the film world. We are really proud of that. There [are] so many filmmakers that are kind of building up. We're telling these Muslim kids [they can do it], [whose] parents are telling them to be doctors, which is still prevalent.… We had like five [applicants] the first year; it was nothing. It has built tremendously to like hundreds of applications now, because they're seeing that this is a possibility to tell their own stories instead of having someone else tell it for them.

HC UFL: What advice would you give to women who want to go into filmmaking, or as a professional in general?

Zawahry: In general, when a kid tells a parent they want to go make movies, they’re like “Hell no. I want you to support yourself.” My biggest advice always is just to follow your passion and work hard, [as] very cliché as it is. But, once you love something you will succeed in it, and you will find what brings you financial support and internal support in the art that you make. So, basically, don’t listen to the haters. 

Zawahry is a kind-hearted woman who uses her humor and passion for film to battle ignorance and reaches the minds of [different] types of people. It was a pleasure and an honor to get to meet her and learn just a little bit about her life and passions. Her films have received well-deserved recognition in the film world and continue to make an impact to this day. I hope you keep following her journey and look out for her new film when it is released. And to all the college students out there, scared to follow their passion for film, I hope this was just the nudge you needed.