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A Conversation with Joshua Seftel

June 12, 2019

FC member Joshua Seftel is a 2017 Emmy nominee and Peabody Awards Finalist for creating the landmark series “Secret Life of Muslims.” The timely and poignant documentaries which combat Islamophobia have more than 66 million views to date. Seftel also directed the breakthrough Emmy-winning series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the feature film War, Inc. starring John Cusack, Marisa Tomei and Ben Kingsley, and is a contributor to Ira Glass’ This American Life, CBS Sunday Morning, and The New York Times.

We recently chatted with Joshua about “The Secret Life of Muslims” and his journey as a filmmaker.

FC: How has the reception to “The Secret Life of Muslims” met or exceeded your expectations?

JS: We didn’t know what to expect. The series took 7 years to get off the ground. And some of that was taken up by trying to get funding and some of that was just getting people to buy into the idea. So when we finally got to the point where it was being released, it just happened to be the day before Election Day 2016.

At that point in time there had been so much rhetoric on the campaign trail around Muslims and we just did not know how the series would be received. When the films came out, we immediately realized that there was a huge hunger for these kinds of stories that were not being told enough in public.

FC: Do you think the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign created an environment of greater receptivity to a more balanced view of Muslims?

JS: Absolutely. I think there was a hunger and desire to hear stories that disproved the things that were being said. And disprove them in a powerful way. Disprove them in a way that could not argue with. These stories are people standing in front of a camera and talking about their lives. And you can’t argue with that. When you see that, all of the things that you heard on the campaign trail melted away. It was like, ‘Oh wait, it’s a real person. It’s not an abstract idea.’

I think people responded to that and they shared it and posted it on social media. And now we are up to 66 million views since we started. Plus we received an Emmy nomination and were a finalist for a Peabody award. The series has filled a need for more content like this. So that people can better understand what it means to be Muslim.

FC: How did the process for selecting participants in “Secret Life of Muslims” season 2 differ from season 1?

JS: The challenge of trying to tell the story of American Muslims over multiple episodes is a fool’s errand. You simply can’t do it. You’re talking about something like 3.3 million stories. But we tried to—with a lot of guidance—pick a cross-section that was representative in some fashion. And of course, we failed.

You can never fully succeed at that, but we tried. And we continue to try, and will probably continue to fail, to represent an entire group of people.

FC: Did you set out to take a new or different approach for season 2?

JS: In some ways. I feel like season 1 was definitely 1.0. It was designed to be an introduction to American Muslims, in some ways. With season 2, we are starting to get a little deeper into things. We did an episode called ‘What is Jihad?’. We did an episode called ‘What is Sharia Law?’. Topics like that that go a little further into asking big questions. But still always using humor and playfulness, while also being serious at times.

Another thing we did this season was an episode about a convert, which was a new thing. That episode aired on CBS Sunday Morning. It went viral and I think we’ve had something like 8 million hits. That episode came out one week after the the Christchurch shooting.

Some of the feedback we’ve received has been really rewarding. We get comments saying, ‘I’ve never met a Muslim before but now I feel like I have and I have a better understanding. Thank you!’ That’s our hope and dream that that’s what people take away from watching the series.

Another great thing that happens is when share the series with people they love. One young woman posted an episode on Facebook and tagged her mother and said, ‘Mom, this is what I’ve been talking about. Please watch this.’ And to me that is perfect. We’ve given her something to share with someone she loves to express a point of view. To educate. To open her mother’s mind a little. And maybe also open her heart a little.

Having these little, bite-sized films out there in the universe just might help some people think a little differently.

FC: Do you consider yourself to be an “advocacy” filmmaker?

JS: I’ve done so many kinds of films in my career. There’s such a variety in my work that I don’t feel like I’m an advocacy filmmaker. I started my career making a film called “Lost and Found,” which was about the conditions of abandoned children in Romania. That film resulted in the American adoption of thousands of Romanian children. But would I call it an advocacy film? I don’t know. I think it was a film about compassion.

And in some ways I think that is what this series is about, too. It’s about compassion and understanding. As a filmmaker I’m just trying to tell great stories that can help people understand other people. In this case, that happens to be stories about American Muslims. I hope all my films have that element of helping the viewer feel connected to the person on the screen. To create some kind of understanding around the characters I’m presenting in some deep way.

FC: Do you approach your commercial work differently than you approach your documentary work?

JS: Maybe I give too much to my commercial work, but I approach it just like all my other work. Once I’m on a project—whether it’s a documentary that I work on for 3 years or a commercial story that I’m working on for 3 days—I throw myself into it in a way that’s probably unhealthy. This is especially the case around real people stories. When I do a film for a brand and it’s about a real person I use all the tools in my tool kit. And they are the same tools I would use when making an independent film.

I use all the same tools I have to figure out how I can tell this person’s story in a way that is going to make people feel, laugh, cry, change their mind or make people love. Whatever it is that I need to do, I search—with all the tools I have—to find the most powerful way to make that happen. My process from one project to the next is not really that much different. In fact, I think it’s identical.

I would take some of the work I’ve done for brands and put it next to my documentaries and I think you’d discover the DNA is the same.

FC: Who were your early filmmaking role models?

JS: Well, I didn’t go to film school. I was pre-med and a French literature major. But I met a filmmaker named David Sutherland and he became my mentor. I worked for him for a few years as an AP. This was around the time I was making my first film. He was incredibly generous in giving me time to work on my film while I was working for him. And he played a huge role in guiding me in the making of that first film. So there I was, learning from a master filmmaker. While he’s gotten a lot of recognition, I feel like he should be even more recognized and well-known. I learned about perfectionism from him. That was probably the most important thing I learned from him.

I also learned to recognize a great character. How to look for those little details that make a story interesting that most people might ignore or just pass over. And that’s actually “the stuff”!

And there were also people like Ross McElwee and Errol Morris. I was in Boston in the 90s and those guys were huge role models for me. So those three—especially David—were really big influences. Each of them, in really different ways, are great visual storytellers.

FC: What are your thoughts on how the process of filmmaking has evolved since you started as a filmmaker?

JS: Good question! Technology is a big part of it. And advances in editing techniques. Access to filmmaking technology such as specialized cameras, laptops and drones have had a huge influence on the making of films, especially documentaries. Practically anyone can make a film that looks really stunning if they know how to work the equipment properly. I taught myself to shoot and edit and I’m still learning!

We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation
City of Boston Arts and Culture