“I don’t believe in you, but now I look at you, and I genuinely see you potentially changing the world.”
More often than not, Western media’s representation of people of colour is severely lacking, misinformed or deluged with stereotypes and bias towards assimilation. Mainstream movies and TV shows — and Australian media is no exception — are still predominantly white and largely responsible for circulating
Islamophobic perceptions in society throughout history, most notably in the 2000s. Even recently, with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the considerable spike in racism and abuse towards the Asian community, it is glaringly evident that harmful archetypes towards people of colour are still prevalent.
Director Sereen Oman, states, “the representation of Muslim people in mainstream media has always been violent and oppressive.” Her debut film, Towel Head follows a young Muslim musician, Layla, struggling in a prejudiced music industry for the sake of her passion, self-love and identity. As a young Muslim woman herself, Sereen emphasises that not only was she not represented on TV in any way, but she felt as if assimilation was the only path towards acceptance into white society. Prevailing stereotypes notoriously steer people of colour into narrowed pathways of success, mostly consisting of STEM or healthcare-related careers. Thus, making more creative pathways, such as music and film, even harder to pursue than they already are.
I had the privilege of viewing Towel Head prior to its release. It was produced for a UTS Media Arts and Production Capstone project, with Raeanne Chami as the producer, and a collective of other young talents whose combined skills bring this story to life. As a person of colour myself, there were many moments in the film’s duration that resonated with me. In particular, the demeanour of the judges was eerily remnant of many (or most) of the encounters I have had with white people, especially those in positions of power. The condescending mannerisms, flaunt of power, and air of superiority as they place a value on you, based on their standards, hit very close to home.
Layla was wonderfully portrayed by Safia Arain (from the upcoming Stan Original Series Bump). It was incredibly refreshing to see a Muslim character who had no personal issues with her religion, yet still suffered due to the worlds’ issue with it. The film also explores other relatable struggles such as self-criticism and insecurity. Many young immigrants or first-generation Australians suffer from multiple identity crises while they grow up in Western society, largely due to limited representation in mainstream media. It made such an impact to see unspoken, unexplained acceptance for one’s culture and faith — as if it were a given. Additionally, the invasive presence of Layla’s rather loud and obnoxious subconscious captured what many creatives go through. The pursuit of her dream is challenging enough as it is, hence, the judges’ prejudice against her hijab was a jab of injustice I could not swallow, but was not surprised by.
Towel Head succinctly encapsulates the many layers of Layla’s story in only 14 minutes. When representation makes all the difference, it is very inspiring to see the next generation of filmmakers and creatives alike develop work of deeper meaning. Unapologetic, authentic and true; seeing Layla overcome her personal obstacles and take a stance in the face of her oppressor truly reflects the energy young people of colour have fiercely emanated in recent times. I’m truly looking forward to the future works of the talent behind this production; changes come in waves and I sense a strong one.
Find out more @towelheadshortfilm