On March 15, 2023, the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) student government will host Director Iman Zawahry, one of the first hijabi American-Muslim filmmakers, and writer and star Aizzah Fatima, for a screening and question and answer panel for the film, Americanish.

Award-winning Americanish is a romantic comedy that follows a pair of first-generation Pakistani-American sisters and their cousin on their different paths to finding love.

The Midwest Film Journal described the movie as “... a feel-good movie that also tackles issues facing women today and speaks to real-life experiences. Sometimes being considerate, sweet, and genuine is all a film really needs to convey its message.”

The Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS), a co-sponsor of the screening, asked the director and writer and star some questions about themselves and the film.

Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up?

Aizzah: I was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Mississippi.

Iman: I grew up in Panama City, Florida, to Egyptian parents.

Iman Zawahry

What was it like growing up in an immigrant family and wanting to work in/on films?

Iman:  Well, we all know the answer to this question. They are not happy about it. I come from a family of physicians, and that was what I was supposed to be as well. So, I continued to create my own path, and they came along for the ride. However, they kept asking me when I would take my MCAT or LSAT.  Even though they were very discouraging, they never stopped me. And now, after Americanish and my university job, they are excited and proud.

Why leave your successful career and get into films? What changed?

Aizzah: My career as a filmmaker is accidental at best. There is a path that is right for us, and some of us take a long time to realize it. I never really knew that film could be a career option. I studied microbiology and computer science in college, which landed me a job at Google. Honestly, I was already disenchanted with tech when I got to Google, but it was the job of my dad's dreams and every single male co-worker I'd ever had. So I felt like I had to take it. It was at Google that I started experimenting with the arts. I took an improv class taught by a Googler. I then enrolled in an intro to acting and improv class at NYU and never looked back.

Can you describe the challenges and strengths of being the first hijabi American Muslim filmmaker?

Iman: My challenges haven’t been about being Muslim but making comedies. People want to see dramas about Muslim women and not the joy. Being Muslim has opened doors, but it was difficult because I had to create my own path and didn’t have anyone before me to help guide me.

Aizzah Fatima

What led you to make this movie? What was the motivation behind it?

Aizzah: We always see the same type of image of Muslims and Muslim women, in particular in the media, which is battered, abused, and voiceless. I wanted to show Muslim women the way I know them to be funny, flawed, and human.

Iman: My goal, as a filmmaker, is to tell honest stories about American Muslim women, and that is what Americanish is about. It shows that Muslim women have agency over their own lives and come from varying and different backgrounds, religiously, socio-economically, and politically. Telling stories with Muslim women joy. 

Tell me about the movie. Is it based on your own experiences?

Aizzah: The film is based on four of the six characters from Dirty Paki Lingerie, a one-woman play I wrote based on interviews and research. As a writer, you always put yourself and your experiences into the characters you write, and there are pieces of my own experience in every character.

Iman: This film is based on Aizzah’s one-woman show, Dirty Paki Lingerie. She interviewed women to make this show, and so they are based on real characters. Each part of the characters' stories is from people we know, and we made sure to make it as specific as possible. We find that the more specific you are to your story, the more relatable it is to audiences.

What is the one thing you hope people get from seeing the movie? Is there a particular message or something you hope they leave thinking about?

Aizzah: I hope people realize there is diversity in thought and practice within the Muslim community. That we are not a monolith.

Iman: As I have mentioned, Muslim women have agency over their lives and are not a monolith. Also, I hope everyone who watches the film can see themselves through these characters.