Hijabi film-maker Lena Khan on breaking barriers in Hollywood

The Canadian-American, who is Indian Muslim, directs the new Disney+ family comedy film Flora & Ulysses. PHOTO: DISNEY ENTERPRISES

LOS ANGELES - Filmmaker Lena Khan - who directs the new Disney+ family comedy film Flora & Ulysses - is breaking barriers as the first hijab-wearing director in Hollywood.

The Canadian-American, who is Indian Muslim, directs the new Disney+ family comedy film Flora & Ulysses, about a young girl, Flora (Matilda Lawler), who teams up with a superpowered squirrel.

Female directors are already a rare breed when it comes to major Hollywood productions, and while Khan says there are a few who are Muslim, they are not yet well-known or might be less overt about their faith.

And she herself is still the only hijab-wearing female director that she knows of working in Hollywood today, the 34-year-old says in a recent Zoom interview from Los Angeles.

Khan's first feature was The Tiger Hunter (2016), a comedy drama she co-wrote, directed and produced and was a hit on the film festival circuit.

Inspired by the stories of her father and other immigrants, it is about a Muslim Indian immigrant trying to fit in in 1970s America.

She funded the movie with a Kickstarter campaign that was supported by the South Asian and Muslim communities.

This was after she realised that many potential investors, both Muslim and non-Muslim, were hesitant to back a hijab-wearing filmmaker.

"I think a lot of people felt like a hijabi filmmaker either wouldn't know what she was doing or isn't cool enough to work in this industry," she says with a laugh.

"Or that she might be held back in the industry because of prejudice. And there's a little bit of that, but there are also tremendous opportunities if you keep fighting for them.

"You kind of have to keep plugging away and finding people who will support you anyway, and showing them what you can do."

She has also directed episodes of the acclaimed Netflix teenage comedy Never Have I Ever (2020 to now), whose protagonist is an Indian-American girl.

"I found that a lot of people, when you first meet them and you're Muslim, especially when you wear a hijab, they think you might have an accent, you might not have fresh takes on things or you might not be up on pop culture," she says.

"But you can tell their walls go down after a few minutes of talking to them."

Lena Khan and Matilda Lawler, who plays Flora, in the new Disney+ family superhero comedy Flora & Ulysses. PHOTO: DISNEY ENTERPRISES

Unlike many other Asian-American filmmakers, it was not an uphill battle for her to convince her immigrant parents of her career choice.

"I could tell there was hesitance from my parents, but they weren't so much the type to go, 'You cannot do this', and then have a big fight

"I think they were just worried about how it was going to pan out, but to their credit, they didn't force things," says Khan, who was born in Canada, raised in California and attended the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles film school.

"But it's been nice to go into a kind of non-traditional career. There have been a lot of people in the South Asian and Muslim communities who reach out to me and are always very excited to see me out there, and have questions."

Things have also become somewhat easier for her in Hollywood in terms of not feeling she always has to prove herself.

"I think at some point you start meeting the people who are going to treat you as just another talent, and there are enough of these people in the industry that you don't have to bother with the people who might still have some sort of biases.

"You align with those people and we're all sort of rising, or they are helping us rise, together."

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