Hollywood has never been so accessible for Muslim creators.
LA is the go-to spot for fostering creativity and making it big – and it’s also home to dozens of promising Muslim artists who’re breaking into the industry and redefining what it means to be Muslim. Follow columnist Umber Bhatti as she covers local creators and discovers how they plan to make their mark in the city.
Ali Baluch landed his dream internship with Nickelodeon on the spot – sans a resume or an interview.
The filmmaker, who has worked in media and film for almost a decade, impressed recruiters at a career fair with his thorough research on the company, even knowing interns were dubbed “NICKterns.” The Nickelodeon recruiter offered him the position of digital operations intern instantly in a room filled with hundreds of other students at Tribeca Flashpoint college.
For Baluch, this hustle was necessary. Against his parents’ wishes, the Virginia native went from pursuing law to enrolling in film school, knowing he had to prove himself as being successful in the arts. Baluch said his father told him to not bother coming back home if he failed. This drove him to perfect his skill as a director and cinematographer, he said.
“I was given an ultimatum,” Baluch said. “I’m one of the few people of color in the school, the only Muslim, the only Afghan … so I was like, ‘I need to excel.’ Every single day classes ended at 5 sharp, and from 5 to 9, I’d be in the editing lab.”
Before devoting his life to film, Baluch was on a path to politics, landing an internship on Capitol Hill out of high school and eventually working full time for a congressman. But being behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., revealed the smokescreen of politics, and when the housing crash happened in 2008, he said he wanted out. Baluch found that out when he watched – and was subsequently devastated by – the film “Requiem for a Dream.” In that moment, he knew he wanted to make art that provoked and challenged others.
The career switch from lawyer to director wasn’t a big jump for Baluch, as he said storytelling has always been a part of his identity.
“In Afghan culture, oral storytelling is everything,” Baluch said. “I pride myself in being able to tell great captivating stories. You pick up from family … the pauses, the exaggeration, all that makes a good storytelling experience.”
Baluch said he created these experiences with the help of his community and masjid, a place of worship. Soon after he made his first short film, a Muslim singing group, Native Deen, reached out to him to go on tour and film videos for it. Baluch said that was the first time he realized he could get paid for being a filmmaker.
After the gig, Baluch moved to Chicago for film school and his former classmate and a producer, Natalia Osias, said she would always find Baluch in the computer lab working away on a new project. She said she was impressed by the range of work the filmmaker created and especially appreciated whenever he shared parts of his culture through film. In particular, she said she enjoyed a documentary Baluch filmed in Afghanistan that told stories about a community that usually isn’t portrayed in the media.
“There’s a very grounding asset to (Baluch),” Osias said. “If there was a challenge where we might not know how to do this, he would be like, ‘Let’s work together. Let’s figure this out. There’s always some way to overcome this.'”
Once he graduated, Baluch moved to Los Angeles to start his internship at Nickelodeon. Afterward, he started directing sketches for Hasan Minhaj’s comedy group “Goatface.” He then worked as a producer for YouTuber fouseyTUBE and later on the MTV show “Ridiculousness.”
All along, Baluch was taking on a variety of side projects and eventually met Imran J. Khan, an assistant editor on Netflix’s “Disenchantment.” Khan said he’s worked with Baluch many times and appreciates the director’s unique vision and ability to take risks.
“If you’re on set and you’re afraid of failing … you won’t do anything interesting,” Khan said. “(Baluch) was really great with some of the more stylized camera moves that I hadn’t envisioned.”
Aside from freelancing, Baluch said he’s also made time for projects that deal with Muslim identity. After a friend from Virginia was arrested on terrorism charges, Baluch said he wanted to explore why people go down that path and directed a short film about the tactics terrorist groups use to isolate and recruit young men.
“I lightly touched on the parallels between white supremacy and radical extremism and how faith has no role in it,” Baluch said. “I spent a year and a half working on two projects that wanted to debunk the misconception that faith is a driver of violence.”
And while Muslims have been gaining more positive recognition in Hollywood, Baluch said the term “representation” gets thrown around lightly, without forcing change. He said he thinks Hollywood still primarily caters to white audiences, and Muslims and individuals with underrepresented backgrounds need to be in positions of power, as executives and studio heads, to challenge that.
Baluch recently shot an offseason basketball documentary with a Pakistani American producer. Despite having access to NBA stars, never-before-seen footage and sports publications interested in the film, he said no one is willing to fund the project when a white executive with industry connections isn’t attached.
In the face of these ongoing challenges, Baluch still said he has been lucky to have found a steady stream of work since he graduated from film school in 2012. The filmmaker is confident in his abilities to produce quality content but said he’s had to nurture his craft over the years to reach the level of success he’s attained.
“I’m a fantastic cinematographer and a fantastic editor … but I had to become good at it out of necessity,” Baluch said. “Given the budgets that I was working with, I had to be the editor, the writer, the director, a one-man crew.”