DETROIT — The 2010 debut of the trailer for the movie documentary "Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football," generated a huge amount of buzz among local Arab Americans and Muslims as well as many others eager to see a real-life portrayal of the community on the big screen.
But the buzz generated by the movie on the film festival circuit has been perhaps even bigger, culminating in a win in the "Best Documentary" category at last weekend's Detroit-Windsor International Film Festival at Wayne State University.
Players from the 2009 Fordson football team who doubled as the movie's subjects (and stars) attended along with family members and others as part of a sold-out audience.
"I thought the final version was incredible, people really loved it," said Baquer Sayed, who currently plays as a wide receiver on the University of Michigan's football team in Ann Arbor.
"Nobody expected it to be this big, I really feel like this could have a big impact on the community."
The film follows four Fordson players: running back Bilal Abu-Omarah, Sayed, offensive guard Hassan Hussaiky, and quarterback Ali Beidoun, as they deal with the challenges of practicing and playing while fasting during Ramadan leading up to their heated inter-city rivalry with Dearborn High School.
Scenes of the players' home lives, prayers at the Islamic Center of America, and time spent hanging out with friends on the side and community members struggling to deal with discrimination during their post-9/11 lives all show a side of the community that has been mischaracterized and even demonized by outsiders who've never seen it with the exception of TV news clips.
Director Rashid Ghazi, himself a Muslim of Indian descent, attended the Detroit-Windsor screening and was proud to take the award in a crowded field that featured 16 other documentary movies.
"To win the jury award for Best Documentary is extremely gratifying, especially considering that the Ann Arbor festival wasn't willing to screen our documentary," Ghazi said. Al Jazeera's festival in Doha, Qatar also did not accept them but the movie has continued to fare strongly at many other prestigious events.
"We never take any acceptance to any festival for granted because they're all very hard to get into...but to win this award is especially great."
Ghazi said the audience's favorable reaction was perhaps just as strong an indicator of the way the film has resonated so far with people of all walks of life. It wasn't the first award for "Fordson" either. The film has already received several awards including a Special Grand Jury Award at the Slamdance Festival in Park City, Utah, a 2011 Audience and Founder's Award from the 2011 Politics on Film Festival, a 2011 World Cup Film Awards Championship in a tournament-style contest, a special honor from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and more.
Despite the serious nature of many of the scenes, genuine everyday humor from colorful real-life characters such as diehard fan Yusuf "Big Joe" Berry (who conjures up images of the Chicago Bears "Bill Swerski's Super Fans" skits of 'Saturday Night Live' fame) along with Abu-Omarah and his constant unfulfilled cravings for junk food during Ramadan practice had the audience at the DWIFF laughing throughout the Friday night screening.
"The comedy in the movie is like the hidden gem of the film, you don't expect to see a lot of comedy in documentaries," Ghazi said. "But it just kind of happened naturally because of the characters; so far the audiences have ended up laughing a lot."
The comprehensive, humanizing portrayal of the film is something many have waited for, both inside and outside the community.
"Two non-Arab people I spoke with two weeks ago said it actually changed their perspective and really showed them a different vibe about how we really are as people," Abu-Omarah said.
"They were like, 'Wow, I was surprised at how strong you guys are to be able to play football while fasting and to have to play outside the city and to be discriminated against, you guys are strong kids.'"
Ghazi will premiere the film in Dearborn on September 7 at AMC Fairlane and September 9 at AMC Southfield 20 along with nine other major U.S. markets. He said that showing common ground was one of the main visions he had for the film.
"We like to think the movie shows that you can believe in your religion and culture and be proud of the fact that you're American and adopt the best America has to offer," he said.
"I had a military officer's wife come up to me and say, 'This is really cathartic for me, I had built up this displaced anger and hostility to Arabs and Muslims but this completely opened my eyes,' this kind of reaction is unbelievable."