I first read about Justin Mashouf when I was reading the book All American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim. The introduction to his essay mentioned that he is a filmmaker who met with Iranian breakdancers and also participated in a b-boy battle while filming his documentary Warring Factions in Iran. It was one of the more random notes that accompanied the essays in that book.
As it turns out, Justin Mashouf, a professional editor, combined his skills as a filmmaker and as a b-boy to direct projects like the aforementioned Warring Factions and the short Spring Movements. Warring Factions breaks stereotypes as it portrays Iranians as who they actually are – not the American-hating group as thought by most of us in this country, but as a people with a very rich history and culture. In addition to directing, Justin also produced Spring Movements, a short inspired by the uprisings in the Middle East and an “ode to movements striving to reclaim their dignity and sovereignty from their keepers”.
I recently interviewed Justin while he was in the Bay Area spreading the word about this latest project, Re-Made Men, a documentary currently in progress about people who converted to Islam in prison and are transitioning out of the prison system. He spoke in Oakland and also participated in a panel at Ta’leef Collective in Fremont with a couple of Muslims from the Bay who had found Islam in prison and who talked about their experiences adjusting to real life after they were released.
I talked to Justin about filmmaking, the proper term for “breakdancing”, Iranian martial arts, and even his work ethic over coffee with him, his wife, and their friend in a boba/karaoke cafe in Oakland’s Chinatown. It’s worth mentioning that 1) even though Justin was taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to me, he insisted on paying for my mocha and 2) the interior walls of the cafe were painted pink.
How did you get even get into filmmaking and what was one of the first things you produced?
I started working with technical equipment and things like that when I was in middle school. I took a drama class and I really liked theater and drama but my dad owned a camera, it was one of those big VHS cameras, and I liked filming little movies more than I did performing on a stage because it was something different than what other people could do. Everybody would just do their skit and I liked doing that, but I liked playing with location, props. I started filming little sketches and plays with my friends who were part of my class.
The first real thing that I actually produced was this documentary on human rights on the border. It was a short documentary – it was a short interview, I wouldn’t even call it a documentary – with a human rights activist who worked a lot with communities that were traveling from Mexico to the U.S. and working with immigrant rights. People would die along the border – there were a lot of militia groups that were actually killing on the border. She was working to stop the violence against those communities. That was the first thing I had really done that I was really proud of. I submitted it to a foreign language film festival when I was in high school and it actually won first prize. It was the moment I realized I was good at it and that I wanted to do it professionally.
So then, how did you get into breakdancing?
I got into breaking just from –
Wait, is that even the proper term first of all? Breakdancing?
The real term that we call it is “b-boying”. “Breakdancing” is more like a layman’s term. I got into breaking from just being a really avid fan of hip hop music at an early age. I started listening to rap and hip hop – my brother was older than me, 7 years older, so he introduced me to a lot of hip hop music, and when I was in middle school some friends of mine wanted to start breaking. We were all hip hop fans. Some people, when they want to get into hip hop, they’ll start trying to rap or they’ll do graffiti or they’ll DJ – we were kind of like the athletic kids so dancing was the first choice. I had been dancing as a kid – I used to dress up as Michael Jackson and perform for my family so dancing was the obvious step for me and I started picking up breaking in 1998 and started getting more serious in 2000-2001, to start competing and traveling and that type of thing.
How did you come up with the idea of combining your love of dancing with filmmaking with Warring Factions and Spring Movements?
People always say to make stories about what you know and what you love. I felt like one thing I do know was breaking. It’s always been something that fascinates and surprises me. It never stops to surprise me as to how universal body movement is and it’s something that we take for granted but as a dancer, it’s something you channel and focus as part of your expression. So, using the language of movement to express humanity and universality was the idea that made Warring Factions make sense. It’s also a crazy conversation starter – telling people there are break dancers in Iran where a lot of Americans think Iran is just this a country full of women wearing black tents over their head and people with beards and guns – that there’s a hip hop community in Iran and there’s a whole different side to Iran that people don’t necessarily see. So that’s why I wanted to also use b-boying as an access point there.
What has Warring Factions done with American perceptions of Iran and even Iranians’ perception of themselves?
The film has gotten a lot of downloads and had gone to a lot of film festivals but a lot of those film festivals are mostly niche film festivals – “Muslim Fest”, “Salaam Fest”, Iranian film festivals. The first festival that I opened at was called “Filmstock”, which was this more general film festival in the UK but most of the reception that I can really calculate and see the result is from what I’ve seen in the Iranian community that has viewed the film.
It’s really had an effect, at least from what I can see of people reaching out to me, of young people wanting to actually visit Iran, to rediscover their culture, because the film doesn’t necessarily just deal with breaking. While I was there, while I was a teacher of breakdancing, I was a student of the Iranian Persian martial art called “Varzesh Bastani” which translates to “Exercise of Heroes” or “Epics”. It’s something that a lot of Iranian young people in the West don’t know much about. They want to to go and see Iran for themselves. Even Iranians living in the West – they have a perception of Iran as being a dangerous place for them, somewhere where they capture Americans and hold them hostage. A lot of them that I’ve met have learned to almost love the Iranian culture from their own perspective, not just through the lens of their parents, but through their own lens.
You have Warring Factions and Spring Movements, and now you have Re-Made Men, this documentary about Muslim inmates transitioning out of prison. There’s such a huge difference in subject matter. How did you get from one to the other?
I try to focus on things I have some type of personal attachment to because documentary is a medium that requires a lot of time and attention and if you don’t love what you are making a film about, it’s not going to happen.
So, I had met a brother that was incarcerated in South Dakota and he was from Idaho – he was a Muslim convert Brother – and just the way that he reinvented himself, his identify, his life, as a human being and as an American, was very impressive to me.
We have this whole American ideal that anybody can make it, anybody can be successful and it really displays itself, at least in the story of men who have been incarcerated and have reinvented in that incarceration, to become better people. But it’s a neglected story. People think of the American dream and think ‘rags to riches’, right? These guys go from rags to riches but not in the monetary sense but in the social and philosophical and spiritual sense. They had nothing and now they have everything. They have a world of spirituality ahead of them and they turn their lives around in such a positive way. The subject really fell into my lap. Fate put it in my plate. God passed it to me. He put this man into my life and I wanted to tell his story.
What do you perceive your ultimate goal of Re-Made Men to be?
My ultimate goal for the film is a national broadcast, God-willing, InshAllah through PBS. I want to do a very wide digital release. I want the film to be seen by as many people as possible but ultimately I hope the film is able to spark a conversation about incarceration and about reentry and recidivism because incarceration is really half of the problem. The other half of the problem is that once someone has gone to prison there’s no reason they should go back. We as a community, whether as a community of believers or just as regular people who don’t want ill for our fellow human, we don’t want people to be in that place in their life where they do something to get them in prison again. So I’m hoping that the film can spark a conversation that can help communities of faith and just regular communities reach out to those who are transitioning to keep them out of harm’s way and to give them social support so they don’t end up back in prison.
One of my favorite websites is Lifehacker and they have been doing a series called “How I work” so as you were talking just now, I was wondering: how do you work? What kind of gear do you use, what kind of work ethic do you have?
I try to structure my free time as much as possible so I could actually be productive with it. When it comes to aimlessly watching television or that type of recreation, I don’t like doing it. If I watch TV, it’ll be something I can learn from. I’ll watch documentaries. I’ll watch films that will help me in building my mindset for Re-Made Men or other projects I’m working on.
I use Pomodoro timers when I’m working. It’s a method 25 minutes of work and then 5 minutes of rest. There’s this app I use [demoing it for me on his phone]. It times you. After 25 minutes, it gives me 5 minutes of rest so I can do whatever, check Facebook, or eat something, and then go back to work. That keeps me on top of stuff especially when I’m editing. When your tool is a computer, there are so many distractions. Sometimes you just need the computer to yell at you when you stop working or need to start working so I use the pomodoro timer.
I’m shooting Re-Made Men mostly on the 5d, a Canon DSLR camera. I use a standard DLSR shoot setup. I’m an Apple guy, I use Apple products. Basically that’s my setup.
I noticed on your website that you have videos with poet Amir Sulaiman and artist El Seed. Is there anyone in particular you would want to work with?
I would love to work with Mos Def. He’s one of my inspirations, artistically. I think he’s an amazing artist. Brother Ali, who is a friend of mine, I would love to collaborate with him.
Those guys are on the top of my list. They’re good dudes and I’d love to collaborate with them.
Justin Mashouf is based in LA and has won two Emmys this year for his work as an editor at KTLA. Re-Made Men is currently in production. You can learn more about the project and how to contribute to the film here.