S hortly after his inauguration, President Donald Trump issued an executive order blocking entry to the United States by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries in what was presented as an effort to prevent terrorist attacks. The measure was followed by protests, challenges from several state courts—and crackdowns from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Even as the debate over the travel ban continued to work its way through the court system—the Supreme Court heard arguments last week and is expected to hand down a final ruling in June—ICE agents rounded up and deported immigrants, notably 199 Iraqis and 91 Somalis. In this atmosphere, many Muslim Americans fear they'll be suddenly forced to leave the country. This threat is the basis behind Chicago filmmaker Ali Abbas's fantastical webseries The Girl Deep Down Below. All seven ten- to 15-minute episodes premiered online in March, but there will be a public screening next week at the Chicago Cultural Center.
In Abbas's version of Chicago, Muslim women are going missing one by one; the disappearances seem to be linked to an enigmatic monster in a business suit. A group of university students joins forces to solve the mystery of the disappearing women—and to protect themselves from becoming victims. The series has plenty of light and funny moments, but the overall tone is unnerving. It's meant to give viewers a sense of what Muslims in America feel every day.
"I would not have thought that we would get the [positive] kind of feedback that we're getting now if it had not been for things like Get Out and the fact that the horror genre is now opening up to women and people of color who have been going through horror in real life," Abbas says. "I didn't want to mince words. I didn't want to separate it too much and be too metaphorical."
Viewers see the villain flash in and out of dark alleys and hallways, leaving behind torn pieces of a pin-striped suit as clues for the intrepid journalism students investigating the case. The Wall-Street-meets-Slender-Man image represents the specific brand of patriarchy and toxic masculinity that Abbas finds most terrifying. Once he created a physical representation of that evil, he focused on building a group of eight fully realized, diverse female protagonists who are not defined by their religion or culture but just happen to be Muslim. Abbas says he prefers to write women because he finds male characters boring and because Muslim women even more than Muslim men are put in a box in popular media, often portrayed as either trapped by their culture or rebelling against it.
"I feel like in the past couple years the sort of counternarrative and the counterculture to the whole terrorist Muslim has been to make Muslim characters a point of innocence like, 'Oh, look, they're not bad people,' which then you just get sort of dry, boring Muslims," Abbas says. "I wanted to create more complex Muslim woman characters in the sense that I want them to be problematic. I feel like every character has their strengths and also their glaring flaws."
The catalyst for the story is Maya (Sabeen Sadiq), a well-meaning but far from perfect student who decides to pursue the mystery behind the disappearances in an attempt to finally get a good grade on a journalism project. She ropes in her friend Rem (Nada R. Abdelrahim), an unapologetically stubborn and proud straight-A student, and as the investigation continues, they recruit several other women from their community.
The series' cast and crew is entirely Muslim. For many of them, this was their first time working in the entertainment industry simply because they never thought they would be able to maintain their religious and cultural values working within it. The on-camera talent assumed acting would lead to going after parts that either required them to change their appearance or perpetuate stereotypes. That's the reason Abdelrahim, for instance, had never considered it despite an interest in theater. She originally became involved with The Girl Deep Down Below as a stylist, but once she read the script, she knew she had to audition for an onscreen role.
"It felt human," Abdelrahim says now. "I had to go for it. You don't get these opportunities, especially being a woman who wears the headscarf in this industry."
Variety in representation—whether that be through the physicality of the characters, their relationships with their families, their interests, or the way they fit into specific genre archetypes—was the goal of everyone involved. Samira Baraki, who plays introspective Amel, is a black Muslim, which she calls the minority within a minority. Abbas wrote the characters with different backgrounds in order to create parts for people who might not normally get to represent their specific community. Baraki says she's happy to show other women like her that they can be a part of the entertainment world while also proving to non-Muslims and white people how similar all people really are.
"Specifically with Muslims, the media really does paint their image, so if you've never been around a Muslim, never gone to school with one, lived next to one, worked with one, you don't really know what they're like," Baraki says. "They're really just regular people living regular lives and dealing with issues that other people of color deal with also."
Abbas says that while recruiting cast and crewq for this project, he didn't set out to involve Muslims only, but the response proves that there are plenty of people in his community who have just been waiting for an opportunity to work in television and film. A second season is in the works; he hopes to start production come winter. In the meantime, he's screening the series around the country and in Pakistan to see how different audiences respond to the story and characters. The more control unjustly maligned groups have over their own narrative, he feels, the easier it will be to assuage fears too often associated with the unknown or "other." The entertainment landscape, in turn, can be enriched by new and compelling accounts of modern life yet to be explored.
"We need to find the people who have the talent who also want to come into these industries and level-up together," Abdelrahim says. "How we all get into it is pool our talent and make good work and show them there is a talent and something positive and worthwhile in the stories we want to tell." v