The Education of Mohammad Hussein is a short documentary that opens old wounds while closing other perceived wounds. On one hand, the film reminds audiences of the inflammatory Florida preacher, Terry Jones. On the other hand, the film helps to paint Muslims as everyday, peaceful people who fit well within American culture. The film has a solid presentation and a point of view that’s simple to follow, making the documentary easy to watch. The single biggest issue with the film is that the statement it makes doesn’t have enough impact.
Mohammad Hussein is a 10-year-old boy (at the time of the film), who lives in Detroit, Michigan, which, according to the documentary, has the largest concentration of Muslims living in the United States. The film focuses on Mohammad’s community, moving among the Muslim citizens, including community leaders, school children, families and more. The film also travels with pastor Terry Jones when he visits the community to hold a rally against Muslims. As expected, cultures clash as worlds collide.
The Education of Mohammad Hussein is competent throughout and expertly filmed. Cameramen Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson did a wonderful job framing all of the subjects while also capturing some ironic moments. In one instance, Terry Jones is being congratulated by a supporter in a restaurant for Jones’ efforts against Muslims. On the wall behind him, however, is a picture of Andy Warhol and his quote, “I think everybody should like everybody.” In another ironic shot, a Muslim wearing her headscarf stands in the foreground while young women wearing bikinis stroll by behind her. It’s this eye for dichotomy that elevates The Education of Mohammad Hussein into a work that should be respected.
Regrettably, a few fatal flaws hold the documentary back from achieving its full potential. First, the film hardly focuses on Mohammad Hussein. Aside from the opening scene that focuses on the boy without actually introducing him to audiences, Mohammad is only seen sporadically. So viewers who are expecting to see how bigotry or the stigma of being an outsider has affected a child will be disappointed. This film is more about the community rather than one person. Second, while the filmmakers’ efforts to provide Terry Jones as a villain are laudable, Jones doesn’t seem villainous enough. While he obviously has strong feelings about Muslims, he seems to go about spreading his opinions in a largely non-violent and reasonable manner, going through normal channels like talk radio and permitted rallies with a visible police force to maintain order. Perhaps his opinions are ignorant and his fears unfounded, but the film doesn’t feature anyone on the Muslim side arguing against them. For example, Jones warns that he won’t tolerate Sharia Law, but the film never explains what that is or if Muslims believe it is something that should be spread to non-Muslims. A better villain would have been society at large since so many subjects in the film talk about bullies and attacks.
The biggest issue with The Education of Mohammad Hussein is that the statements the documentary makes seem predictable and self-evident. Whenever a foreign culture enters a larger culture, there will always be friction. Furthermore, we live in a society that blames groups rather than individuals. Because some men have raped women using date rape drugs, every woman must be wary of every man at a bar who hands the woman a drink she didn’t see made. Similarly, whenever there is a mass shooting, every gun owner is perceived as a ticking time bomb that will eventually go to a school and shoot children. And, of course, many black people are still watched carefully while shopping. This blanket perception of groups is unfair, but this is the state of modern America, and it’s difficult to imagine someone watching this documentary who doesn’t have that same understanding.
Still, The Education of Mohammad Hussein is worth watching if for nothing else than as good PR for American Muslims. They are presented simply as people with the same interests, hopes and dreams as any other American. Just don’t expect an examination that goes beyond superficialities.
The Education of Mohammad Hussein
HBO playdates: Jan. 17 (3:15 p.m.), 20 (11:00 a.m.), 23 (4:30 p.m.) and 26 (5:45 a.m.)
HBO2 playdates: Jan. 27 (3:15 p.m.), Feb. 1 (5:20 a.m.), 11 (3:45 a.m.) and 19 (1:50 a.m.)