Two Gods

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Two Gods
"Shot in black and white, the removal of colours gives the film a concentrated quality that adds to the intimate vibe." | Photo: Zeshawn Ali

Despite the spiritual reference in the title of this debut documentary from Zeshawn Ali - and the fact that its chief subject crafts caskets and performs ritual body washing for a living - this film is as much about temptation, resilience and redemption here on earth as it is about spiritual matters. It also stands as a testimony to the importance of community support and the healing powers of the rituals that surround grief in any religion.

African-American Muslim Hanif hasn't always been a casket maker. He's a recovering addict, who has done his time. He has been helped to the point where we meet him and, in turn, has taken to mentoring two kids - streetwise 12-year-old Furquan, who has a great sense of humour and a tough home life, and 17-year-old Naz. The older boy is having an increasing number of brushes with the law in his home town of Newark, New Jersey. It's clear Hanif sees a lot of his younger self in Naz, who while no angel, also appears to be suffering the sort of low-level but constant harassment many black teens face from police through little fault of their own - a subject that is back in the world spotlight at the moment and makes the film even more timely.

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Shot in black and white, the removal of colours gives the film a concentrated quality that adds to the intimate vibe, as we follow Hanif making the caskets and showing the two youngsters how to do this at the same time as imparting nuggets of philosophy on life and death. Despite the presence of death, this isn't an overly sombre film, as Hanif has an upbeat energy that is infectious. But as other recent documentaries, like Quest and 17 Blocks illustrate, death is an all too common occurrence in modern working-class American communities struggling with the blight of gun violence and Ali's film touches on this too, although he avoids overt politics in favour of keeping the focus on the three men at its heart.

There is a sense of Hanif finding some sort of redemption through giving back to the kids but we also become acutely aware of the fragility of his own recovery, when Furquan has to undergo a change of circumstances and Naz begins to get into serious trouble. We see that this mentoring relationship is a two-way street, with Furquan and Naz also helping Hanif as he helps them, even if they don't realise it. Ali - whose film is premiering in the Hot Docs online festival - isn't looking to manufacture an easy or triumphant TV arc for his subjects, instead revealing their lives in all their messy complexity, which makes the film all the more absorbing. By following Hanif and his young friends, he is also able to open a window into Muslim rituals surrounding death - shot, like all of the film, with care and respect by Ali himself -  that many viewers won't have seen before.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2020
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Documentary about a Muslim casket maker and the two youngsters he mentors.

Director: Zeshawn Ali

Year: 2020

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US

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