Kenny Glenaan tells me the story of a twenty-year old British Asian Muslim he met during the research for the film Yasmin. ‘He had felt like a second class citizen all his life. He wanted the best for his son, but for himself, he had given up at twenty, despite the fact that he had all this potential – I was struck by that.’
Yasmin is the product of extensive research through workshops with members of the local Pakistani communities of Oldham, Bradford and Keighley. Simon Beaufoy, writer of The Full Monty, was brought on board as scriptwriter. He recalls one man who attended the workshops saying to the team, ‘I bet I know pretty much everything about your life and you know nothing about my life’. The researchers soon realised he was right.
Yasmin presents real issues, based on stories told by real people, in the context of actual events. To dismiss them as anecdotes is to ignore the bigger picture. The result is a warts-and-all picture of a section of society that most people know little about, set against the backdrop of the 9/11 tragedy.
The film follows the story of a young woman who has rebelled against her culture to the extent that she could be deemed racist. Imagine then, her frustration at being forced into marriage with an illiterate goat herder from Pakistan in order to gain him citizenship. The events of 9/11 force Yasmin and her family to re-evaluate their lives and their identities, both as individuals and as members of their society. She becomes increasingly ostracised by her colleagues at work, and when her husband is later arrested as a potential terrorist suspect, she finds herself unexpectedly returning to her roots.
I ask Kenny whether he thinks Yasmin’s response to feeling discriminated against is representative of the way other individuals dealt with a hostile public post-9/11. ‘We observed a trend – lots of young people going back to religion after 9/11 as a way of re-identifying, re-solidifying who they were. But on their own terms. There’s a lot of guilt in these communities and this film is partly about “Who is your responsibility to?” – is it to your family, your religion, your community or to yourself. This film is about Yasmin’s journey and the stance that she ultimately finds herself taking.’
Is this process a constructive thing to have come out of the 9/11 tragedy? Kenny is undecided. ‘You have to be hopeful that this generation of young people will define itself through positive change. I worry that the authorities’ knee-jerk reaction to try to contain terrorism is affecting many innocent people and distancing an already marginalised community. As long as the same mistakes are being made, I am concerned that we are going to see more radicalised young men, before we see any improvement in the situation.’
Kenny wanted to make a ‘positive film about British Asian Muslims’, in response to the current climate of Islamophobia. Yet Yasmin would not have been representative had some of these more complex issues not also been brought to the forefront. One of the most important questions concerns whether people of different origins have the capacity to truly mix together, rather than just tolerate one another. ‘If integrating means letting go of one’s deep-rooted beliefs and culture in favour of an immoral consumer culture then I can understand why people don’t,’ says Steve Jackson, who plays Yasmin’s white work colleague and potential love interest in the film.
We still live in a society where the children of immigrant parents are required to take sides in every aspect of their lifestyle. ‘There’s always a conflict of interests within my house,’ says Shahid Ahmed, who plays Yasmin’s husband in the film, ‘It’s like you’re leading two lives.’ Their parents want them to remain true to their roots. Yet fitting in to the world around them requires them to renounce many of their parents’ ideals. Many of those who could be described as ‘well-integrated’ have in fact, much like Yasmin, distanced themselves entirely from their parents’ culture.
Progressing as a multicultural society involves breaking down invisible barriers that segregate one community from another. But this will take effort from both sides. The terminology is important. ‘I can remember talking to a sixteen-year old in Oldham about integration,’ says Kenny. ‘He said to me, “I’m not interested in integrating into western culture, it’s a term that implies that I have to lose something of what I am. I prefer the word assimilation – let’s celebrate each other’s culture.’” Ethnic minority communities should not be required to forsake their cultural heritage in order ‘to fit in’. But equally speaking, there needs to be recognition by minority communities that life in a new place means that change is inevitable – and that this is not a negative thing. Every individual brings with them their own anecdotal emotional baggage. What Kenny and his team have done is to concentrate some of these strands into the context of a family with whom most of us can identify.