Award-winning filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, who’s worked as a staff producer at KQED-TV for the past decade, on and off, has investigated the territory between the personal and the political in a range of documentaries, broadcast segments and short films. Her latest documentary, New Muslim Cool, focuses on Hamza Perez, whose life is a crucible of disparate urban influences. Though raised as a Puerto Rican Catholic, Perez, a Pittsburgh-based hip hop artist and former drug dealer, converted to Islam and turned his life around. The film follows him as he interacts with his community and family and offers up the occasional hip hop performance. New Muslim Cool screens in the Documentary competition during the San Francisco International Film Festival (Sat., April 25, 2 p.m., PFA, Sun., April 26, 3 p.m. and Mon., May 4, Sundance Kabuki). It also airs June 23 as part of the POV series on PBS.
SF360: What led you to become a documentary filmmaker?
Jennifer Maytorena Taylor: I did not have any formal training beyond a couple of video classes at the now sadly-defunct New College of California. I had wanted to be a modern dancer but I got injured and had to look for something else to do. I worked in San Francisco public schools for a few years as a teacher’s aide in special education, which was great and very healing. But I felt I needed a more creative outlet. I became interested in film for its potential to have broad social impact and also because it’s a kinetic medium.
SF360: Did the time you spent living in Brazil and Argentina change you?
Taylor: Yes, definitely. I got to spend a lot of time there after my nascent dance career had been put to its sudden end. I explored my long-time fascination with how communities work and talk amongst themselves, which was easy to do since people are so hugely communicative in both of those countries. Also, I could see how much of an impact pop culture was having on big sociopolitical movements as both Argentina and Brazil were emerging from decades of dictatorship and that made me start thinking about working in media.
SF360: How has your work as a television producer informed your filmmaking and vice versa?
Taylor: I’ve been really lucky to work for KQED doing arts and culture segments and series as well as current affairs. Doing work for them is a bit different from independent long-form filmmaking since you understandably need to finish the productions on a much tighter time frame and with budgets that have been set and acquired at the beginning. I really enjoy working with that structure, since independent projects can go on a really long time due to funding and the evolution of the stories. It can be a relief to have to meet someone else’s parameters, especially if they’ve figured out the financing part. I tend to cut things more quickly for TV production with more use of interview material and sometimes a bit of omniscient narration, though I do try hard to avoid that. I learned with New Muslim Cool that I needed to slow the pace down a bit and let the observational material lead the storytelling. But I was still aware of the need for the film to be clear, to speak to a broad audience, to keep people engaged.
SF360: Is San Francisco still the optimal place to be a documentary filmmaker?
Taylor: I don’t know. It’s become so expensive here that I think there’s a lot of pressure on people just to make it day-by-day. Most of us work on our own off-line edit systems and don’t necessarily go to rental facilities for much of the post-production anymore, so I don’t bump into fellow filmmakers the way I once did. But, there is still clearly an amazing group of talented and committed filmmakers here and a really collegial atmosphere.
SF360: What’s the difference between working for PBS and working for POV?
Taylor: POV formally came on board the project when it was pretty advanced, although they had been tracking it and sharing many wonderful editorial ideas and suggestions for quite some time. So, unlike KQED productions, I have final cut on this film. With POV, we’ve been totally aligned on everything so it feels like a great collaboration.
SF360: What was your initial motivation for making a film about American Muslim youth culture?
Taylor: I was brought into some post-9/11 reporting projects at KQED about Muslim and South Asian youth in the Bay Area. I found a small Muslim hip-hop label in Oakland that was doing really interesting work with diverse artists from both immigrant and convert communities and did a short segment about them for the arts series, Spark. They were so interesting I decided to dig deeper and that’s what led me to start the longer project that became New Muslim Cool.
SF360: Is the finished film the one you set out to make?
Taylor: I think the finished film is never exactly the one you set out to make, although it’s certainly has elements of the original idea. I definitely was intrigued by the whole idea of Muslim hip-hop culture and how it was providing a means for young American Muslims to bring together all the parts of themselves. It also seemed like a good way to critically explore this supposed â€œclash of civilizationsâ€ that we were suddenly being told existed between Muslims and non-Muslims.
SF360: Why did Perez want to become a Muslim?
Taylor: Hamza has said he had always looked for a spiritual outlet since. as a child, he was raised Catholic and this just seemed to be the path that called to him when life as a street hustler was getting too depressing. In his own words, he felt like he was ‘washing away a layer of negativity’ the moment he became Muslim. Hamza mentioned that coming out of street life and drug dealing, the rigors of having to pray five times a day gave him the routine and discipline he needed.
SF360: Even though music plays a crucial role in the film, there are period of stillness and calm. Was this a deliberate choice?
Taylor: Yes and I know it’s a bit of a risk in our fast-paced media world to have those moments. I hope they invite viewers in, give them a moment to absorb what’s happening and feel the story and the characters’ emotions more deeply. It’s really a quiet film in many ways.
SF360: What was it like working at the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Edit and Story Lab?
Taylor: The Lab was brilliant. The editor, Kenji Yamamoto, and I were invited along with three other projects after I had received a grant from the Sundance Documentary Fund. We had gone in with a partial rough cut that, in retrospect, was kind of rushed and choppy, partly because we kept having to cut flashy fundraising reels and partly because I was still looking for the story threads and was cutting a lot of different snatches of in-situ interviews into a guide track. The Lab gave us a quiet and contemplative space to delve into our material.
SF360: Which is most satisfying part of the process: development, shooting, editing?
Taylor: Probably being on location and shooting. It’s like traveling, you just have to be 100 percent attuned to what is happening right in front of you at that very moment and listening and watching and feeling with every faculty you have.
SF360: What films have made the greatest impression on you and why?
Taylor: The first film I ever saw as a child and is still my favorite of all time is The Sound of Music. Not sure why but I really love musicals and epics. Big Night made a big impression on me because its narrative was kind of loose and not forced. It almost felt like it had documentary qualities in it. Dancer in the Dark probably had the strongest visceral impact on me. I saw it on DVD and kept having to turn it off because it was so painful but I thought it was amazing, especially the musical numbers.
SF360: What do you do to relax?
Taylor: I love to swim and take urban hikes, read, listen to and play music and cook. That said, I’m terribly out of shape, can barely fit into most of my clothes, have been reading copious amounts of trashy novels on planes and have been eating a lot of bad food in the edit room and on the road.
SF360: How have your personal experiences influenced your films?
Taylor: The biggest personal experience to influence me was my parents’ decision to move our family from Los Angeles to Vermont in the ’70s, when I was about 7. You have a different rhythm of life in a small town (at least you used to before the Internet) where there’s this unseen web of communication. You can see clearly how people are connected to each other and how one person’s actions can have an effect on others. Moving to that small community eventually led me to work in documentaries about people and communities. I love finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and the unseen connections between disparate people that make them part of a whole.
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