This Saturday, February 4, Hudson Hall will host the City of Hudson’s premiere screening of a new documentary film shot there over a seven-year period and starring a group of local youth: first-generation Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Produced and directed by Zuzka Kurtz and Geoffrey Hug, Hudson, America: Six Gen Z Immigrants debuted at the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival in September 2022 and had its New York premiere at the Quad Cinema in November.
Hudson, America is a longitudinal study of these young people’s lives from high school, through college and beyond. Utilizing a similar narrative mode to Michael Apted’s famed Up series that followed the lives of 14 English schoolchildren from 1964 to 2019, it consists mainly of interviews shot while accompanying these young members of the Hudson Bengali community as they go about their lives – at home with their families, away at school, hanging out with friends and romantic partners, traveling, worshiping, recreating, and participating in community events including political protests.
On one level, the process from adolescence to adulthood that we observe as the cameras tag along with Ramisa, Jahed, Siddique, Mahmuda, Sharmin and Farzana is a universal coming-of-age tale. On another, it’s a story of the immigrant experience, as the youngest generation of families coming to America from a very different culture confronts choices about how to adapt to their new milieu, as well as the resistance of the so-called melting pot to making them feel at home here.
But it’s the timeframe in which these young lives unfold – 2016 to 2022 – that makes Hudson, America particularly valuable as a historical document. While not much screen time is devoted to the expressions of fear of Muslims and other brown people that were still a dominant theme in public dialogue in 2016, Ramisa responds to the election of Donald Trump with the observation of how much it hurts to know that “50 million people don’t care about you.” The following summer, as white residents of Hudson strut their patriotism at a July 4 parade, she talks about the frustration of Bengali immigrant families having to pay a “hate tax,” of not being accepted as truly American even when they do everything that is asked of them to conform and demonstrate impeccable citizenship.
How deeply to embrace their Muslim heritage is a struggle that confronts each of these young people, and the range of choices they make is interesting. Several of the young people have brothers who go off to religious schools to memorize the Quran. Of the two boys in the study, Jahed becomes more conservative in his religious practices over time, eventually breaking up with his Catholic girlfriend when she refuses to convert to Islam. The other boy, Siddique, gets involved with a project to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Hudson, although he takes pride in the fact that it will eventually have a space for women to congregate and worship.
It’s way different for the four girls in the group. In high school, only one of them, Sharmin, had already decided to stop wearing the hijab, but both Ramisa and Mahmuda end up giving it up while they’re away at school. There’s inconsistency even within families, with sisters taking different paths with regard to “modesty” issues. For all the girls – and women in their community generally – there are deeper issues to address when it comes to being female in a rigidly patriarchal culture, and then trying to adapt to a Western context that is in many ways just as misogynistic, even if that manifests differently. Things begin to come to a head in 2018 when no women are allowed to be part of the audience for the mosque groundbreaking, despite the fact that there are non-Muslim female community leaders among the speakers on the podium. An activist slightly older than the study group, Jabin Ahmed, begins a letter-writing campaign to protest this exclusion.
Then, in 2019, a prominent local Muslim is arrested and charged with raping two young children. In response, Ahmed, a survivor of familial sexual abuse who says that “molestation is common” in the Bangladeshi community, founds the organization Jaago Hudson to raise awareness surrounding sexual abuse and violence in the South Asian diaspora. The film depicts a 2020 march on the home of the accused rapist after he was released from custody. Unfortunately, the more conservative elements among the immigrants rally behind him, and by 2020 Ahmed is describing herself as “one of the most hated people in the community.” The film forces the viewer to contemplate the idea that, however profound the perceived cultural differences between the Islamic and Western worlds, rape culture remains universally entrenched.
The widespread sexual abuse among the Bengali clans isn’t limited to girls, and ironically, Jahed admits to having been molested by a member of his extended family as a boy. But as he becomes more religious with age, the only support he has to offer the burgeoning #metoo movement is prayer. “The men don’t want to change,” observes Mahmuda, who is facing a gender-related crisis of her own while attending Mount Holyoke College: She has fallen deeply in love with a non-Muslim woman named Nadia, wants to marry her and raise Muslim children. Completion and airing of the documentary means that she will have to reveal her lesbian relationship to her family, risking being disowned by them entirely.
The concluding section of Hudson, America transpires during the COVID pandemic, which presents additional barriers in the lives of these courageous young people navigating a time of profound change and clashing cultures. That the girls are grappling with these challenges with much greater seriousness, flexibility and commitment than the boys, and are likely to serve as the vanguard for the American Muslim community in the future, is perhaps this film’s most powerful takeaway message.
The documentary and its themes will be explored in a question-and-answer session following the 4 p.m. screening this Saturday. The panel, moderated by Michael Chameides, will include filmmakers Zuzka Kurtz and Geoffrey Hug and documentary participants Jahed Miah, Mahmuda Alam, Siddique Ahmed and Jabin Ahmed. Tickets cost $10 general admission, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase, visit https://hudsonhall.org/event/hudson-america. You can view a trailer for Hudson, America at https://hudsonamerica.org.