Interview with Khalid Shamis | by Andre Marais

by Oct 17, 2011All Articles

The documentary Imam and I by Khalid Shamis was screened at the beginning of June at the Encounters Film Festival in Cape Town. Shamis is the grandson of the film’s protagonist, Imam Haron. He talks here about this six-year-long project, his portrait of the Imam and the latter’s role in the anti-apartheid-struggle.

Imam Abdullah Haron was born in 1923, in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town. In Mecca he learnt Islamic studies and then taught at a Muslim school. He returned to South Africa to become Imam in 1955 and together with other activists, he created the Claremont Muslim Youth Association and established the newspaper Muslim News in 1958. He initiated dialogue among the Muslim community, especially about racism and religion. When the first apartheid laws appeared, he said ‘the monster of racialism is vicious … How much can we bear, I ask you! Has tolerance not a limit?’ and attacked the government harshly. In 1967 he was detained by one of the most brutal police forces, tortured and finally murdered on 27 September 1969. Since then, Imam Abdullah Haron has remained a figure of freedom.
Amandla! (A!): Can you briefly sketch your own background?

Khalid Shamis (KS): I was born from a Libyan father and a South African/Cape Malay mother. The second of four children, we were raised and bred in London. That’s where I studied film and trained as a director in the TV industry for a little over eight years. I moved to Cape Town in 2005 to make this movie and taught at the film school of the University of Wits. I now have a small production company, Tubafilms, in town.

A!: What was your central motivation and aim in making the film?
The life, death and legacy of my grandfather have always had a profound impact on me and I wanted to find out who he was beyond the myths that surround him. I have always been motivated and intrigued by my grandfather’s story. I think that in our current climate of anti-Islam sentiment and one-dimensional role models, I see the Imam as a positive role model and as an inspirational figure for an open Islam. When I came to Cape Town, I was struck by how little was known about him by the youth. I think that if the Imam is shown as a real person rather than a myth, he can really become a relevant model to look up to.

A!: I see you used very creatively the famous cover of the book in the animation sections of the film. I assume this was not merely an artistic device?

(KS): Not at all. Of course, aesthetics plays a big part but it was a way to explore the stories that people told me of my grandfather through this medium, without having access to live footage of the Imam. It also gave me a cheaper option than reenactments.

A!: The film suggests that the memory of Imam Haron is very much a contested legacy. Can you comment?

(KS): Many people have claimed him over the years, and rightly so. The film aims to highlight most, if not all, of those claims and to see that he must have been a very influential person in order to bring that about. I think that everyone should claim him on some level.

A!: Your film is brutally honest about the bitter divisions that existed in the Cape Muslim community. Did you deliberately choose this approach?

(KS): I chose to tell the story that I felt was the most accurate in terms of the Imam’s work and his relationship to his community. I’m not the only one to have uncovered this. Any grouping or community has its divisions; the Imam sought to bring people together in spite of the divisions.

A!: The death in detention of Imam Haron in 1969 in many ways spelt the end of an era of radical opposition to apartheid from the Muslim clergy. What memory of his contribution exists in South Africa in general? Did you have difficulties finding people?

(KS): In general, only the Muslims of the Western Cape hold an annual commemoration of his death, otherwise there is very little if any at all. I didn’t find any difficulty locating people for the film: most of the older generations of the Cape knew him and knew of him. It was generally easy to get his contemporaries to reflect on that era. Most people were glad to talk about him; it was only the ones who spoke against him in the sixties who didn’t want to go on record – no names mentioned!

(KS): I only got resistance from the NFVF [National Film and Video Foundation] in making the film. In the end they supported it and realised the importance of the Imam.

A!: In the revival of militant Muslim organisations in the 1980s, his example spawned a number of outspoken Muslim young people. You very cleverly and integrated a number of mediums in your film, e.g. audio recordings/Hollywood films, family and public photographs. How were you able to gain access to these archival footage and resources?

(KS): All the photos and audio recordings in the film are mainly owned by the Imam’s family and some others were donated by people who had photos. The Black Sash kindly allowed me to use some archive footage from a film they made about the Group Areas Act.

A!: Why do you think Imam Haron has not been rehabilitated earlier?

(KS): Because he wasn’t in the ANC.

A!: The Imam emerges as contradictory figure at times, which I think makes for a much richer film. Did you purposely set out to capture these complexities?

(KS): Yes, for sure. I wanted to find out who he was as a real person, warts and all, instead of this mythical hero figure that is usually portrayed. He becomes more inspirational once he is real and accessible. The film shows how the Imam always strived to build beyond the racial divides, like he did in Langa. I think he was striving in the true Islamic sense of wanting to bring people together and help anyone who needed help, black, white or otherwise.

A!: What do you think is your grandpa’s true legacy for us today?

(KS): Understanding leadership and accepting that there can be an open Islam. Anyone who is interested in this country’s heroes and the role that Islam played or didn’t play in the struggle should go see this film

A!: How did you fund the film? Was there an immediate interest in your project?

(KS): I funded it mostly myself. The family helped and some monies came from individuals across the country. The NFVF gave some finishing money but I’m sorry to say that after canvassing the community that the Imam came from, I received very, very little. History repeats itself.

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