Caught on camera

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
The views and experiences of young British Muslims have been recorded in a thought-provoking film. Jerome Monahan reports

It was a modest project - a camera and 15 teenagers discussing the impact of their home cultures and religion on their lives. Only post-July 7 the views of young British Muslims have never been more relevant. Young, British and Muslim is the result of a year-long Excellence in Cities education project for the Festival of Muslim Cultures (2006-7) - the funding enabling Westminster's lead learning mentor Chloe Ruthven to make the film with a diverse crowd of students from Quintin Kynaston (QK) School in the north of the borough.

"I was inspired," explains Chloe, "by the diversity of the school population at QK where over 60 languages are spoken and nearly a third of the pupils are from refugee or asylum-seeking backgrounds. I recruited from across the board in consultation with staff responsible for the gifted and talented programme, SEN and EAL. However, in the end the participants were self-selecting - those that stuck with the process played the biggest part." What this process included was a series of sessions with artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein at the British Library (a specialist oral history practitioner) with whom they investigated "identity" and thrashed out the kinds of subjects they wanted to discuss on film.

"The students were fascinated by Rachel's story," says Chloe. "She is a Jew married to a Muslim and through her it was possible for young people to come to a better understanding of Islam and Judaism's shared traditions and culture - something that valuably offset some of their more undigested views about Israel and the Middle East." This is most marked when one sixth-former complains of feeling vulnerable living in an area of London with a prominent Jewish community. "It's like being behind enemy lines," he complains. "On the other hand they are cousins," he concedes with the same breath.

Chloe's film comprises two sections - the first showing student-to-student interviews in classrooms and the second taking the camera out on the road, filming the students drinking tea at their homes, playing pool in a cafe and out on shopping trips. It is this second element that QK's headteacher Jo Shuter particularly applauded: "It is remarkable how intelligently they negotiate a path between the pulls of home and faith and the fact they are living in a secular country. It is a salutary reminder to teachers of the way we often ignore the rich lives all our children lead beyond school."

It is clear that these negotiations, added to their adolescence, leave a number of them confused. One girl is filmed expressing her bemusement at having seen a Muslim girl in a hijab behaving immodestly with a boyfriend.

Another teenage boy describes the love and respect he feels for his girlfriend, but admits he has not told his mother about her and that she would want him to break up the relationship. And in one of the film's most enjoyable sequences, a bubbly group of western-dressed young Kosovan girls and boys are shown parodying the kinds of tea-serving rituals they remember from home, ceremonies requiring the woman to bow and kiss male visitors'


Some speak candidly of the lack of religion in their lives and their belief that faithful participation in Ramadan should be a matter of personal choice. They also help challenge notions of automatic Muslim antipathy for the US. "Everyone thinks that all Muslims hate Americans," says one, "it's not true - they helped us against the Serbs in Kosovo."

"It is important to remember that these are young people and that their views can be both subjective and partial," says Isobel Carlisle of the Festival of Muslim Cultures. "One young boy's views about corporal punishment need to be taken with a pinch of salt for this reason. Overall, the impact on me of the film was one of enormous optimism."

At Holland Park School, RE teacher Kate Christopher has seen Young, British and Muslim and can see a role for it in her own teaching. "It would be an ideal complement to the teaching about Islam that we do at key stage 3. It brings home the fact that there is nothing monolithic about this faith.

Examining who you are and what you believe is also an integral part of RE and so the film could be a useful mechanism for getting those discussions going too."

One of the film's stars is sixth-former Hadil, shown on a shopping trip on Oxford Street, searching for fashions in keeping with her views of female modesty that include the public wearing of a hijab. With a friend, she discusses her feelings about the image of a woman she has seen on a poster, lamenting the lack of respect it reveals. Her condemnation is muted however. "We can live with it," she says. "We know where we stand."

The Festival of Muslim Cultures 2006 - 2007

January 14-April 17. Palace and Mosque. Islamic Art from the Middle East (on loan from the VA) at the Sheffield Millennium Galleries.

March-April. The Art of Islam - education workshops on calligraphy in National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

11 March. Muslim Stories, poetry and nasheeds - Wolverhampton, Bantock House and Park.

May-December. Word Art - The Contemporary Middle East - exhibition at the British Museum.

August. Sufi Festival - Glasgow - Association of Poetry and Music. The International Qiraat Conference - a festival of Qur'anic recitation - Leicester Islamic Centre.

September. Islamic Faith, history of Islam and Islamic Arts - National Museums and Galleries of Wales.

The opening of the Jameel Galleries at the VA, South Kensington, London.

OctoberNovember (tbc). Faith and Identity in Contemporary Art - conference at Manchester University.

December. Islamic Trail - Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The Draped and the Shaped - costumes and textiles from Pakistan - Bradford Museums.


Tierno Bokar ( - a play directed by Peter Brook on the theme of tolerance based on the life of the Sufi sage - The Young Vic; the Tramway in Glasgow and Lowry Theatre in Salford (and others).



Before getting young people to explore their own identities, it is important for adults to share their own stories.

* Encourage young people to use treasured items or pictures as a means of exploring their histories. Such props are an ideal means of breaking down barriers.

* Equip young people with sketch books or notebooks in which they can note or draw observations and thoughts.

* Show them artwork inspired by personal stories. Film does not have to be the only outlet for family, spiritual or cultural experiences.

* When making films ensure young people are trained in the basics: using tripods to avoid unnecessary shake; considering film locations and backgrounds so as to avoid unhelpful background noise; or employing captions helpfully at the editing stage so that interviewees' identities can be easily established.

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