On the surface, Naz & Maalik has the conventional characteristics of low-budget, independent cinema: The cast is small, it's dialogue-heavy, and the streets of Brooklyn serve as the setting. But the feature-film debut of director Jay Dockendorf is anything but conventional.
The film tells the story of a day in the life of its two titular protagonists, Naz and Maalik, the day after they have sex with each other for the first time. The two black, closeted, Muslim teenagers make their way through Brooklyn, while reconciling their feelings as best friends and lovers with their religion, which considers homosexuality a sin. Naz & Maalik plays with that tension throughout the story, adding the feeling that they’re always being watched—by family, community, and a suspicious FBI agent who wants to “get to know the neighborhood.”
In fact, surveillance is a prominent theme throughout the film—the feeling confronts viewers within the first 10 minutes. The tension between Naz and Maalik pauses for a moment when they attend salah, a daily prayer service, at a Bed-Stuy mosque. Men greet each other as they remove their shoes.
“If you’re with the NYPD or you’re with the FBI: Welcome, sincerely,” the imam, who leads everyone in prayer, says in a calming voice. “We expect you here. We hope that you will benefit and grow spiritually as a result of this experience.”
The moment is fleeting as the group proceeds with the prayer ceremony, but it speaks to an atmosphere of surveillance that’s affected Muslim communities for more than a decade. The imam appears at peace with this reality; he has nothing to hide, after all, and sincerely hopes any outsiders can learn from the experience.
The imam’s calm juxtaposes that of Naz and Maalik, who struggle to find that peace between themselves throughout the 85-minute film.
For 27-year-old Dockendorf, who spent three years writing and producing the film, the primary goal of Naz & Maalik wasn’t to address issues like racism, sexuality, gentrification, and religion—though these themes are prevalent in the narrative—as much as it was to tell a human story.
“These are two people who happen to be gay, black, and Muslim,” Dockendorf told NTRSCTN before the film's Jan. 22 theatrical premiere. “[Naz and Maalik] are in an enormous fight over something that’s very teenage.”
The encounters with other Brooklynites, an FBI agent, insiders, and outsiders, push Naz and Maalik to confront their personal issues with each other, and with themselves.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Dockendorf graduated from Yale in 2011 and drew inspiration for the characters from a post-college roommate in Bed-Stuy. He described this roommate as a Pakistani man in his late twenties, living a double life similar to that of his protagonists.
His roommate’s story of growing up a gay, closeted Muslim became the basis for Naz & Maalik. But the added element of government surveillance came from the young director’s shock when he found out that CIA and FBI operatives had been infiltrating Muslim student groups since Sept. 11.
The Associated Press published a story in August 2011 about the wide-scale surveillance of minority communities by New York Police Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Undercover operatives for the NYPD called “rakers,” as well as informants known as “mosque crawlers,” infiltrated communities they considered suspect, despite having no evidence of wrongdoing. Dockendorf was appalled when he first read about this. Even the thought of government infiltration of student organizations, he said, made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
“It so infuriated me that a group of students had to undergo such a large scale betrayal or act of dishonesty when they were completely innocent,” he said. “And it was also uncanny—very weird—the idea that the government would manifest itself in a person who was lying to them.”
The FBI surveillance in Naz & Maalik exaggerates the suspicion of the agent, who misinterprets the couple's sneaking around as something more nefarious. While questioning the teens separately, the FBI agent gets two different stories. This arc propels Naz and Maalik to confront personal honesty, and how they relate to each other in public and private settings.
Naz & Maalik is a film spotlighting two gay characters of color, so it runs the risk of exotifying or othering because it was created by a white filmmaker. But that’s where the strengths of the film lie.
“The world doesn’t need so many more films about a character like me,” Dockendorf said, referring to the ubiquity of films with a straight, white, male protagonist.
Inspired by hallmarks of queer cinema, including My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Happy Together (1997), Dockendorf worked with his lead actors to find humanity in their characters and not necessarily define them by sexuality, race, or religion. The most important aspect of producing this film was making sure not to exploit the characters.
“We knew we could get things wrong in terms of representation and really didn't want to,” he said. “If we had taken all the scenarios that could have gone horribly badly in their lives and just exploited those, that would have been the wrong choice."
Dockendorf avoided scenarios where black or Muslim stereotypes played out, and instead sought to create a “deep dive into the psychology of two individuals like any other in America who just happen to have certain characteristics that distinguish them from the mainstream.”
The actors, Kerwin Johnson Jr. and Curtiss Cook Jr., played a crucial role with Dockendorf in developing Naz and Maalik. The three rehearsed the film for three weeks before shooting: They interacted with each other, passersby on the street, and the geography of historically black community Bed-Stuy, to build the flow of the film.
“You show how alive the streets are when it’s controlled by the people who have helped that community grow,” said Cook, the 24-year-old actor who portrayed Maalik. “We just showed [Bed-Stuy] in its everyday naturalism.”
Born and raised in Yonkers, Cook shared an organic connection with his 26-year-old co-star Johnson, who hails from Queens. In fact, their grandparents live around the corner from each other, Johnson told NTRSCTN.
“You try to be as transparent as possible with a character, and you try to put as much of yourself into the character,” Johnson said. “At his core, he’s just an average New York youth.”
Dockendorf credits Johnson and Cook, as well as his team of producers—Margaret Katcher and Jacob Albert—for what he called a truly collaborative effort.
“I’m extraordinarily grateful that they took on the project and they made it with me,” he said. “It’s from the heart when I say that I feel there’s too much emphasis given to the authority or legacy of the director, especially on a low budget film like this.”
Naz & Maalik is a day in the life of two conflicted teenagers, but also offers a new substantive story about identity through religion and sexuality. Through the hyper-specific portrayal of two average teens trying to save up for college, Dockendorf, Cook, and Johnson show universality in the struggle to figure out who we are.
Are they friends, lovers, or Muslims?
Maybe “all of the above,” but the real answer is more complicated, and Dockendorf thinks the conversation deserves nuance.
He hopes to build movies around “extremely dramatic scenarios that appear in real life,” as well as see more nuanced storytelling come from new generations of filmmakers.
“There are more ways to tell this story,” Dockendorf said. “I hope that Naz & Maalik inspires people to tell the story in an even better way.”
Naz & Maalik is now available on DVD and video on-demand. It is screening at the Cinema Village in New York City until Jan. 29.