“Surely we belong to God and to Him we shall return.”
In Zeshawn Ali’s Two Gods we see the struggles of people dealing with violence in their lives and neighborhoods. The documentary set mostly in Newark, New Jersey, focuses on Hanif, a Muslim casket maker and ritual body washer. Hanif knows the dangers of the streets. He ended up in prison at one point. He seems to have found meaning in his work. He approaches it with respect for the dead.
Hanif has taken two young men under his wing to try to mentor them into adulthood. Furquan is twelve years old, and comes from a violent home. Naz is seventeen and getting involved with dangerous activity, which eventually results in his arrest on very serious charges.
The back and white cinematography creates a stark world where violence is a constant presence. From time to time we encounter not only funerals, but the community workers who are trying to end the large number of violent deaths among young people. It is this that Hanif is trying to protect Naz and Furquan from.
It is important to note that Hanif is a religious man. He is frequently wearing t-shirts that say “Pray”. We see him in the mosque praying. And his approach to the bodies he prepares for burial is a form of religious observance. He feels blessed to be able to care for these bodies. Naz speak a bit about religion, but it doesn’t seem to be important to him. Furquan in time finds himself in his aunt’s home in North Carolina and being part of a Christian church there.
The filmmaker’s view is that all three of these men are struggling between the worship of God and of the streets. That is a fair description of what many people deal with each day. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean choosing God or violence. It can be about anything that draws us away from God. It could be money, sex, fame, drugs, success, or power. Those things can be a part of life, but when they dominate, they can become a different god to us.
Ali wants to show American Muslims as a part of our societal fabric. He does not make a case that Muslims are better than others or that Islam is superior, but he does want us to understand that we all share a common humanity. Indeed, he seems just as happy for Furquan finding a place in a Christian community as he with Hanif in his practice of Islam.
Two Gods is available in theaters and virtual cinema. It is coming soon to PBS’s “Independent Lens” series.
Photos by Zeshawn Ali.