Moussa creates opportunities for herself and other women in hijab as an indie film writer, actress, and director.
By Nadia Eldemerdash
It is 7:30 pm in Windsor, Canada, when Asil Moussa calls me for our interview, but she’s only just woken up.
Twenty-four-year-old Moussa, an actress, writer, and director, was at a film shoot until four that morning back in July, and came home in the zombie makeup she’d been shooting in.
“My mom was like wow, you look terrible!” she laughs.
When it comes to her looks, Moussa’s are perhaps the first thing a film audience will notice. A Muslim, Moussa wears the hijab, or headscarf, in public.
“I remember being 12 years old and realizing that, ‘Oh I’m Muslim, things are going to be a little bit harder for me; oh, I’m going to wear the scarf someday hopefully so acting won’t be ideal for a lot of roles,” Moussa says. “I knew that acting probably won’t be a career choice for somebody who looks like me like full-time.”
But the acting bug was hard to shake, and Moussa, who has been working on independent films professionally since she interned with director Lena Khan on her 2016 film The Tiger Hunter, found herself drawn to acting even as she pursued writing, directing, and producing. When she first applied to the Canadian production company Suede Productions as an intern, they asked her to be in a few commercials they were working on. The short film she’s currently in, No-Clusivity, was specifically looking for a hijabi character.
No-Clusivity is a comedy short directed by first-timer Kate Whitehead about five women who end up fighting in an alleyway after succumbing to their own biases. Moussa plays Amna, the hijabi in a zombie costume who is mistaken for an assailant by two other women on their way to the same costume party. The movie is currently being sent to film festivals around the country for its first showing.
Moussa is excited to see directors specifically looking for visibly Muslim characters. “[Maybe] it’s just to fill a quota, but now they’re actually giving them a story line,” she says.
But Moussa acknowledges that some responsibility for that shift lies in the actors themselves, who must demonstrate their talent to directors and producers. When it comes to her own aspirations, Moussa is taking advantage of her multiple roles as writer, director, and producer. She played a small role in her first short film The Card, which debuted at the Mosquers International Film Festival in 2016. Mosquers is an annual festival held in Edmonton, Canada, that seeks to promote up-and-coming Muslim filmmakers from around the world. Moussa’s film was showcased along with Ahmad Asaad’s A Day in the Life of a Syrian Refugee and Aman Hameed’s Crisis. This year’s festival is rolling out on September 9.
“When I wrote The Card I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want that to always be a thing, like oh every film she directs [she casts herself in a role].’ How cocky is that?” she laughs. “So in the first draft of The Card she [the character, Layla] wasn’t a hijabi, she was ethnically ambiguous, and I just wanted to see if the story worked, because I didn’t want to just rely on her wearing hijab.”
Once she felt that the character made sense, she decided to go for it. “I actually auditioned for my own short film,” she says. “It was weird but I just wanted to make sure that I could do it.”
Weird as it was, Moussa recommends it. “You have to realize that if no one is going to write for you, then you have to write for you and you have to create opportunities for yourself,” she says, citing women like Mindy Kaling who have built their careers by creating their own paths. “Because people won’t see you in that light, you have to show them,” she adds.
The Card follows businesswoman Karen, played by Bridget Opfer, as she frantically searches for her credit card, which she loses at a café during the lunch rush. Moussa’s Layla interacts with Karen as she searches for the missing card.
“[The film] stemmed from my fear of being hardened by the world,” Moussa says. Karen’s character represents who she fears she might become, someone who is constantly stressed out and treats people poorly as a result, while Layla’s character represents her younger self.
Aside from having a female lead character and a visible minority character, it was important to Moussa that the lead creatives on the film be female as well.
“I really made it a point to make opportunities for women… [having my creative team by entirely female] was not what I set out to do but I really wanted that to be a possibility if it could be, and it was. We really lucked out there,” she says.
“I wanted who I wanted to be as a filmmaker to show in my first short. I wanted people to be like, ‘Okay, this is what she stands for,’” Moussa says.
Today Moussa has an acting agent and is looking to land more roles even as she continues working at Suede Productions. She is also working on her first feature film screenplay.
While Moussa readily credits serendipity for the success of The Card and her other endeavors, it is clear as she tells me about the trajectory of her career that a lot of that serendipity was of her own making. Whether it’s relentlessly pursuing an internship on The Tiger Hunter or finding an agent who would understand how her roles would be limited, Moussa lives by the motto, “How will they know you can if you don’t show them?”
Nadia Eldemerdash is a writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV. She is Managing Editor at The Tempest and has written for Muftah, Broad Street Review, and other publications. She blogs about pop culture and creative careers at Creative Quibble, and tweets about politics, writing, and the many pros of tea at @DemerN.