By LAUREN PAON
For the Montclair local
Resident of Montclair and Professor Jeffrey Togman’s film of Seton Hall “Mayor Mohamed” was Ipresented to the world last month at the Brooklyn Film Festival, but its story began in Montclair.
“The whole film began with our meeting in Montclair at [Congregation Shomrei Emunah] synagogue, ”Togman said.
Togman considers the ongoing Syrian civil war to be “the great humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, with 12 million people forced from their homes and 500,000 killed.” He was looking for a way to bring a better understanding of the devastation to more people.
He was already working on the early stages of a war documentary in 2016 when he heard about Congregation Shomrei Emunah on Park Street which hosted a panel that invited Syrian-American speakers to discuss what they were doing for help those who suffer in the midst of fighting. Togman himself was not a member of the synagogue, but he went because he wanted to learn more and meet the guest speakers to see if any of them could be a potential subject for his film.
Togman watched Mohamed Khairullah – who since 2006 has served as mayor of Prospect Park and is New Jersey’s longest-serving Muslim elected official – speak to the panel, and immediately introduced himself. There was an immediate spark, Togman said.
He described Khairullah as “convincing, friendly, kind and generous with his time”. Khairullah, who fled Syria in 1980, was exactly the subject Togman was looking for. He was a Syrian American who could bridge the divide between the two countries, a part of the two worlds that aimed to improve life in both.
Khairullah gave Togman his card, and the Democratic mayor quickly agreed to become the main subject of Togman’s film. He brought to the film more perspectives on the issues and experience of American Muslim immigrants than Togman imagined possible.
“The documentary came to life after I met Mohamed,” Togman said. “Although I thought Mohamed was going to teach me more about Syria, he ended up teaching me more about America.”
Khairullah and his wife, Mona, also an immigrant from Syria, introduced Togman to the experience of Muslim immigrants in New Jersey. They also brought the filmmaker and his team to rallies for immigrant rights. One, in the film, in Passaic, shows supporters pleading for immigrants in the country without permission to obtain driving licenses.
“Mohamed is a strong advocate for the rights of immigrants in general, and I have attended several events in which he has participated. His presence and support shows how committed he is to helping people beyond his immediate community, ”Togman said.
The film shows the hatred and discrimination that an American Muslim mayor in New Jersey faces. Khairullah receives death threats and hate mail, with comments such as “You are mentally ill animals, you must be exterminated to the last of you” and “I can’t wait for Trump to take this nation and stick his foot in your Syrian bastard one – now go p – your mother.
Togman said through his work on the documentary that he “got to see the type of hatred that so many American Muslims face in this country.”
In a 2017 incident shown in the film, Maria Emma Anderson, then a member of the Prospect Park Board of Education, told Khairullah during a meeting: “This is not Sharia law, this is a session. orderly “as he addresses the council on special education. A video published by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who called for his resignation, also captured the comment. In 2018, Anderson ran for mayor as a Republican against Khairullah and lost.
In the documentary, Khairullah also travels to Syria with a cameraman. It shows him standing among the rubble of destroyed buildings, dodging bullets and providing food and clothing for war victims and children.
Although Togman and some of the crew traveled to Turkey with Khairullah, he did not go to Syria with him, promising his wife that he would only travel to the Turkish border. Instead, Togman hired a cameraman in Syria to film.
On the way back to Turkey’s airport, Togman and his crew’s SUV was pulled over at gunpoint by eight Turkish officials armed with machine guns, he said. Togman was ordered to destroy the footage he had just filmed at the airport, with officials saying filming near the facility was illegal, he said.
“Mayor Mohamed” is Togman’s third documentary. “Home, A look at the affordable housing crisis that also addresses issues of race and gender identity, follows the story of a woman with six children trying to buy her first home and escape violence and to drugs from his Newark neighborhood. “We are not blood”Follow Togman’s own journey to reunite with his birth parents.
“Mayor Mohammed” will be screened at other film festivals and universities over the coming year and will then screen at Seton Hall University on September 23.