UK film fights Islamaphobia

Recently the far-right British National Party announced that its leader, Nick Griffin, would stand as parliamentary candidate in the next election for Keighley, one of the most racially sensitive towns in West Yorkshire, northern England.

By a happy coincidence, this is the town in which ‘Yasmin’, a film about a Muslim community in northern England dealing with Islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks, was filmed. I say “happy’’ because the film’s most moving scene shows Keighley in a more racially harmonious light than would ever be dreamt of in Griffin’s philosophy.

In that scene, a gang of young white boys throw milk at a Muslim woman wearing a burqa in a Keighley shopping precinct and yell at her to go home. Simon Beaufoy’s script has the eponymous Yasmin comforting the distressed woman, but what is particularly lovely about the scene is that an elderly white woman, appalled at the boys’ behaviour, rushes up to the two women to apologise.

The woman turns out to have been a passing shopper who did not realise she had stumbled on to a film shoot. “It was such a great unscripted moment, we decided we had to keep it in,’’ says producer Sally Hibbin. “There was also an old bloke who started coming over and attacking the kids for what they were doing. He didn’t know we were making a film, either.’’

A sceptic might still argue that these real-life interventions subvert the film’s rather schematic perspective on Islamophobia in northern England. But that would be a tad unfair: Kenny Gleenan’s film, based on six months’ research in Asian communities in northern English mill towns by two white, middle-class men (Gleenan and Beaufoy), is evidently an important picture dramatising how Muslim communities in Great Britain have been tormented in the wake of 9/11.

It is cunningly scripted by the man who wrote ‘The Full Monty’, and directed in the realist British manner reminiscent of Ken Loach. In fact, ‘Yasmin’ touches similar ground to Loach’s ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ (which dealt with a love affair between a Muslim and a Catholic in Glasgow) and Hanif Kureishi’s ‘My Son the Fanatic’ (about a Pakistani taxi driver who has an affair with a white prostitute, and whose son becomes an Islamic fundamentalist). It explores the cultural dilemmas of Muslims in post-9/11 Britain: the film’s younger Asian characters are tempted by western society with all its secular joys and perils but, because of rising Islamophobia, are pushed from that milieu into the comforting world of traditional Islamic society or, frighteningly, fundamentalist


It features a terrific central performance from Archie Panjabi, who appeared in ‘East Is East’ and ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, two popular films that have also dealt, if more jauntily, with Asian families leading conflicted lives in modern Britain. In ‘Yasmin’, Panjabi plays a westernised young Asian woman whose father has made her marry her Pakistani goatheard cousin (whom she shockingly calls “banana boat’’ and “thick Paki’’ during the film). In the film’s opening, we see her pulling over in her car, removing her hijab and writhing into a pair of jeans, before heading off to work.

Yasmin has been released in cinemas in France, Germany, Brazil and Switzerland, and is likely to be distributed in Holland, Belgium and Italy. It garnered positive reviews at Edinburgh and Venice, won an audience award at the Festival of British film at Dinard and an Ecumenical Prize in Locarno, Switzerland. Two weeks ago, Panjabi was chosen as Britain’s representative in a key European showcase for upcoming actors at next month’s Berlin film festival.

Why, then, has Yasmin not received a British cinematic release? Is it not an indictment of the frivolity of the UK’s film-going culture that Yasmin will only be shown TV in Britain, while the rest of western Europe can see it on the big screen?

“The thing is,’’ says Sally Hibbin, “after we finished filming in June we showed it but couldn’t get a UK film distributor interested. It was only after we got the award at Dinard that we managed to get a distribution deal.’’ Ironic: it took a French audience to get British distributors interested in a British film. That deal was with Verve Pictures, a small company that distributes British independent films.

In the meantime, Nick Griffin is on bail, after being questioned by police about a BBC documentary in which he described Islam as a “vicious, wicked faith”, a film that was pulled off air.

‘Yasmin’, one hopes, will do something more productive and encourage non-Muslims in the UK to understand what some of British-Asian communities are enduring today.