The Tiger Hunter: An interview with filmmaker Lena Khan

Lena Khan is an award winning American-Muslim filmmaker who commenced an ambitious Kickstarter campaign to fund her film project,The Tiger Hunter. Author Deonna Kelli Sayed talks to Lena about filmmaking, faith, and the challenge in launching her latest movie.
 When you decided to make films, how did your family and the Muslim community react?

Lena Khan: When I decided to apply to UCLA Film School, the Muslim community at UCLA was extremely excited and supportive because they knew it was a competitive, prestigious program. As for my parents, their main worry was financial stability. Once I started getting higher paying jobs, however, and they saw how much press I was getting, they were excited.

 You had to develop creative networking skills in film school because you didn’t participate in some of the informal, yet important, networking opportunities – like the bar scene, for example. How did you handle this?

Lena Khan: Since I sometimes wasn’t able to network as easily as I might have liked, I needed to offer something outside of volunteering on film sets or buying them a beer. This meant I needed to be able to make my own projects. As any film student will tell you, that’s not easy. I saved up money and wrote scripts so I could make my own short films, and that led to contracted work doing music videos or commercials. In this way, I could hire others and work with them. That was the best way to network

 How do your non-Muslim peers in the entertainment industry react to your presence?

Lena Khan: I think there is a lot that remains unsaid. For example, when I first started working, I noticed that my bosses seemed to assume other interns were more knowledgeable about our craft or pop culture in general. I had to step up and work harder to prove myself which, in hindsight, worked out for the best since I ended up landing a job at an extremely respected production company, Participant Media. As far as my peers—filmmakers and crewmembers—were concerned, they showed far more understanding and respect than I would have thought. I prefer to do things discreetly, but I’ve learned that if I simply say, “I’ll be right back, I’m just going to find somewhere to pray,” the film community is one of the most respectful.

 What are your thoughts regarding American-Muslim support of the creative arts?

Lena Khan: I believe the community is proud of the quality of my work, but I also worry that too much of the support is merely because I am a filmmaker with a headscarf who has created a movie featuring a Muslim actor in the lead role. In order to engage in American culture and to truly carve out a Muslim-American identity, we need more than that. We can’t simply be excited about films because we think they are making “foreign Islam” more acceptable to the masses. The Tiger Hunter shows more of a Muslim taking on American culture, while leaving what he cannot accept. This is what we need to do regarding American culture and the arts.

 How do you balance between celebrating the nuances of our many stories while also appealing to a larger audience?

Lena Khan: I grew up here. America is my home and by far the biggest factor influencing my cultural identity. My faith is also dearly important, but like other faithful people, I don’t walk around talking about it all the time, reciting Arabic supplications in front of everyone every two seconds or praying in public at every opportunity. If I simply tell the stories I know organically, I see no reason why those stories won’t be suitable for a mainstream public. So far, that has worked.

As for being a Muslim woman, yes, there are prejudice and barriers to entry into the film industry for both Muslims and women. But, you won’t get anywhere in life if you try to gain recognition based on the label you carry rather than the quality of your work. That’s the end goal for me.

 How did The Tiger Hunter come about?

Lena Khan: I had developed a few other scripts with some potential, but this story was the one that seemed to catch the most interest from others. I grew up with my dad telling me fascinating stories of my grandfather as a tiger hunter, his journey to America, and what hilarious and creative strategies it took to get here and to get ahead. From there, I gathered inspiration for the script by interviewing dozens of other immigrants, people from the 1970s, even apartment squatters. Then, I got a few key people on board, such as a producer who has worked with A-list celebrities. We also brought on the talented writer Sameer Gardezi to do the rewrite. He has written for shows like Modern Family and Outsourced, and when we saw his work and he saw the script, we both immediately wanted to work together.

At first, I never considered making these stories into a film. I thought, “Why should I make a movie that has a lead brown person? I want to be accepted!” But when I saw how excited others were about the project, it was contagious. I realized that audiences simply respond to good storytelling. The film is not a “Muslim film.” Our main character is Muslim in as much as Seinfeld is Jewish, and I think that’s important and the right way to go about it. I think it’s a bit of self-hatred to say there is no place for a Muslim character to happen to be in a story. Are we not part of society? Yes! So we can be in stories on screen as well.

 What is it about Kickstarter than appealed to you?

Lena Khan: Film is definitely one of the most competitive industries. Raising enough money for a competitive, commercial film is insanely difficult. We have been fortunate in that the strength of our project has attracted investors whose money comprised the vast majority of our budget. This Kickstarter campaign has filled in the last piece of the budget. That said, I went to Kickstarter to get people directly involved.

Kickstarter campaigns are far more difficult than I think anybody who hasn’t run one really knows. We have been preparing for a couple months for the launch, and even with several other team members. I myself spend pretty much every waking hour working on it, and my work days typically stretch into 17 hours. We began our preparation for the campaign by shooting and editing a video. I set up the website, made special pages to make it easier to share the campaign on Facebook and Twitter, wrote articles for blogs, worked with a graphic designer to make the badges and all the visuals, etc. On a daily basis, I spend nearly every waking hour emailing people, making my Facebook page exciting and interactive, thanking our backers, writing articles for blogs and doing interviews, writing my own blog, researching new channels through which to promote the campaign—essentially, doing what I can to reach a larger audience. Even with all our hard work, we still sometimes have trouble persuading people to actually pledge.

 You seem amazingly comfortable in your persona and your work embodies a confidence that seems to come from an authentic place. How do you see your creative voice evolving?

Lena Khan: All work, and especially art, is in a constant state of improvement. Each director’s films get better with time. I hope I can reach a place in my career where I can focus far more on the artistic side than the promotion, fundraising, and the like. So far, with everyone’s support, I think that may be possible.

Click here to support The Tiger Hunter’s Kickstarter.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is an American-Muslim author and contributor to Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American-Muslim Women.

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