Film Review: Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football

In this slick, professionally assembled football documentary, Muslim-American director Rashid Ghazi focuses on Arabs living in Dearborn, Michigan in a post-9/11 world.

Can there be a more unlikely topic and timing for a film? Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football is an emotional documentary about the Tractors, an Arab-American football team at Fordson High in Dearborn, Michigan, training for a great battle against their arch-rivals from a fancier part of town. It’s the holy month of Ramadan—all-day fasting required, even for the quarterback. Yet the real long shot is the bravado of opening Fordson, a movie sympathetic to Muslims, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. First-time documentarian Rashid Ghazi, a Muslim from Chicago and executive producer of the film, had the guts to take this shot.

Luckily, Fordson is a sports film; we’re pumped to root for the team. Structured like Hoop Dreams, its gets us up-close and personal with some of the players (Ali Baidoun, Baquer Sayed, Bilal Abu-Omarah and Hassan Houssaiky). It also makes book on the underdog sports convention of trying harder: The uplifting Hoosiers comes to mind. “Football is about discipline. Ramadan is about discipline,” the kids shorthand the film’s metaphor for us.

Fordson, which won awards at Slamdance and the Traverse City Film Festival, also inhabits the world of the social-intent documentary, with a brief history of the Arab population of Dearborn, largest of any city outside the Middle East. Arriving from Lebanon to work in Michigan’s auto plants, like other immigrants, they soon brought over other family members. Yet when other Rust Belt cities died along with the auto industry, the Muslims with their strong work ethic stayed, started their own businesses, and kept Dearborn up and running. “America gave us the chance to do what we could not do in our own land,” one interviewee explains. “We wish to practice our faith, keep our culture, and live the American dream.”

Onscreen, this translates into sharp, sometimes mind-blowingly funny juxtapositions of Middle East and Middle America. They’re like us (whoever us is), but they’re not. A high-school teacher asks her class routine questions in a Great Lakes “Flat A” accent, but she wears the hijab. Family dinners are laid out on picnic tables against a Michigan sun setting in a crystal-clear sky of cerulean blue, but it’s prayers and hummus, not banter and B-B-Q. And nothing beats the film’s striking central image. Like a swarm of bees that instinctively knows when to group, the team may suddenly huddle on the field to pray, sometimes ending with “Grace be to God, with thanks to the Coach.” Principal Fadlallah shrugs it off: “Are you going to go out there and ask them what they’re doing? I’m not.”

Ghazi, going for more than just culture contrasts, shrewdly holds back Fordson’s didactic message until three-quarters of the way in. We’re stunned when two young Arabs, one of them a brother of Houssaiky, the Tractors’ defense lineman, are arrested for buying telephones in a nearby town. (It doesn’t help that the other kid is named Osama.) Truth? The guys were not engaged in terrorist activities, but the good old American practice of buying cheaply in bulk with plans to mark up the product for a later sale. This incident explains why Dearborn’s young Muslims have become increasingly insular, not wanting to leave their comfortable part of town, with a mosque on nearly every corner.

Fordson concludes with The Big Game, natch, but using a drawn-out, oddly unsuspenseful edit, and a schmaltzy, jingoistic coda of product-pushing head shots of the team. (Ghazi is a former sports producer for ESPN.) We already know and like these kids; tacked-on mini-portraits are not required.