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‘Three Veils’ screening and discussion complex and deep

On Thursday, April 12, the South Asian Middle Eastern Asian Pacific Islander committee and the Department of Spiritual and Religious Life hosted a screening of Rolla Selbak’s 2011 movie, Three Veils, which focuses on three Muslim women, their lives and their intersections.

“One of my favorite things about Three Veils is its title,” Mills professor Samar Habib said, as it reminded her of a verse in the Quran which describes the beginning of people as coming from three darknesses. “The characters in it are being developed in three darknesses, it’s the darkness where mushrooms can grow, an embryonic darkness, not the darkness of a soul…The characters go on this amazing journey, it’s like they’re being formed in the shroud of a womb.”

The event was part of April’s SAMEAPI Heritage Month and Interfaith week. President of the Muslim Student Alliance Samia Abbasi and Habib in conjunction with the SAMEAPI planning committee and the Department of Spiritual and Religious Life put on the event. Mills senior and writer Sara O’Neal helped moderate the event.

Three Veils follows Leila (Mercedes Masöhn), Amira (Angela Zahra) and Nikki (Sheetal Sheth) as they grapple with tradition, identity and sexuality in their Muslim-American families and communities as a part of the Muslim diaspora. The movie deals with heavier topics like domestic violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse, trauma, suicide, drug use and rape. Amira struggles with her sexuality and her strong faith, as her mother pressures her to get married. Leila is engaged, but the closer she gets to her wedding day the less confident she feels, while Nikki turns to sexual encounters to drown out past traumas bubbling up again.

Selbak continued to direct movies after Three Veils was released and is working on the ‘Day with a Muslim’ docu-series. She is “a triple-minority in the film industry: a queer, Muslim-American woman,” according to her website. When asked about family structures in Muslim communities and how coming out is received, Selbak referenced her own coming out experience to give context for how coming out is received in Muslim communities.

“In one word, its shame,” Selbak said. “In the middle east, the family name is their reputation. If anything gets out that someone came out, it reflects on the whole family.”

Her mother didn’t want her living in the house anymore, and Selbak got a job in another town. However, when asked about balancing the needs of the family and the self, Selbak emphasized wanting to tell people to love their family and to be confident in themselves.

“No matter what it is, I think that you should as much as possible be who you are and walk through the world in a very proud, confident, not shameful manner,” Selbak said. “The more I was myself, the more people saw through my work, my creativity, how I treated my family even after they disowned me, I left and I said I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”

She continued to support her mother and before her mother died, Selbak said they reconciled.  

In the Q&A section after the event, many audience members expressed that they were still processing the movie, and many had questions about Selbak’s process in making the movie. Topics ranged from representation of an underrepresented group in cinema, to how Selbak wrote the three main characters and what went into those decisions. The next day, Friday, Habib invited Selbak to speak with Habib’s Women in Islam class and discuss the movie as well.

She mentioned having to strike a balance between writing realistically and writing what could be, while also emphasizing the relatability and universality of certain feelings or situations. 

“I think the ending is where I mostly grappled with that,” Selbak said. “[For Leila] It was important for me to have audiences who are a part of the community, to see how it could be, and to me how it should be. I felt very strongly I did not want another awful ending on screen.”

Selbak said she wanted to push the line with this movie, especially when deciding to keep in a sexual scene between Amira and Nikki. How Amira’s story ended was also brought up in discussion.

“I chose to how it could be with Leila, but I chose to do how it was with Amira because I wanted those in the audience, homophobic or [intolerant], to reckon with that, look at what you did to this beautiful person.”

Abbasi described watching the movie with the Mills community “powerful.”

“I can’t help but think that often queer Muslim people are hidden, in a sense of like ‘let’s try to be immersed in the narrative of being Muslim’ without having to show ourselves because that’s hard, right? So instead of that, it’s like, let’s be present in this moment, let’s learn from this film, that was essentially about Arab queer identities that compete culturally and religiously, and I think that’s so powerful to see that,” Abbasi said. “Something that really stuck out to me is that it’s such a specific thing, there’s really specific things that happen, that are touched upon in Three Veils, and at the same time, everyone’s hand was raised when we asked ‘has this happened before?’ ‘do you know this experience?’ It’s like that weird thing where a film, or a movie, or a book, it’s so specific, but at the same time that specificity to the author and the characters involved also translates to the audience whether it’s in their own lives or people they know.”