By LAUREN PEACOCK
For Montclair Local
Montclair resident and Seton Hall Professor Jeffrey Togman’s movie “Mayor Mohamed” was introduced to the world last month at the Brooklyn Film Festival, but its story began in Montclair.
“The entire film started with us meeting in Montclair at the [Congregation Shomrei Emunah] synagogue,” Togman said.
Togman sees the ongoing Syrian civil war as “the great humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, with 12 million people forced to leave their homes and 500,000 killed.” He’d been seeking a way to bring a greater understanding of the devastation to more people.
He was already working on the early stages of a documentary about the war in 2016 when he heard about Congregation Shomrei Emunah on Park Street hosting a panel that invited Syrian American guest speakers to discuss what they were doing to help those suffering amid the fighting. Togman himself was not a member of the synagogue, but he went because he was interested in learning more and meeting the guest speakers to see if any of them could be potential subjects for his film.
Togman watched Mohamed Khairullah — who since 2006 has been mayor of Prospect Park, and is the longest-serving Muslim elected official in New Jersey — speak at the panel, and immediately introduced himself. There was an immediate spark, Togman said.
He described Khairullah as “compelling, friendly, nice and generous with his time.” Khairullah, who fled Syria in 1980, was exactly the subject Togman was looking for. He was Syrian American who could bridge the gap between the two countries, a part of both worlds who aimed to make life in both better.
Khairullah gave Togman his card, and the Democratic mayor soon agreed to become the main subject of Togman’s film. He brought more perspectives on issues and the Muslim American immigrant experience to the film than Togman imagined possible.
“The documentary took on a life of its own after I met Mohamed,” Togman said. “Although I thought Mohamed was going to teach me about Syria, he ended up teaching me more about America.”
Khairullah and his wife, Mona, also an immigrant from Syria, introduced Togman to the Muslim immigrant experience in New Jersey. They brought the filmmaker and his crew to immigrants’ rights rallies as well. One, in the film, in Passaic, shows supporters advocating for immigrants in the country without authorization to be able to get driver’s licenses.
“Mohamed is a strong advocate for immigrant rights in general, and I attended several events he was a part of. His attendance and support show how he is committed to helping people beyond his immediate community,” Togman said.
The film shows the hate and discrimination a Muslim American Mayor in New Jersey faces. Khairullah receives death threats and hate mail, with comments including “You are sick mental disturbed animals, need to be exterminated every last one of you animals” and “I cannot wait till Trump takes this nation over and sticks his foot up your scumbag syrian a— now go f—- your mother.”
Togman said through his work on the documentary he “got to see the type of hatred that so many American Muslims face in this country.”
In one 2017 incident shown in the film, then-Prospect Park Board of Education member Maria Emma Anderson tells Khairullah during a meeting: “this is not Sharia law, this is an orderly session” while he addresses the board about special education. A video published by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which called for her resignation, captured the comment as well. In 2018, Anderson ran for mayor as a Republican against Khairullah and lost.
In the documentary, Khairullah also travels to Syria with a cameraman. It shows him standing among the rubble of destroyed buildings, dodging bullets and providing aid such as food and clothing to war victims and children.
Although Togman and some crew flew into Turkey with Khairullah, he did not go into Syria with him, promising his wife that he would only travel as far as the Turkish border. Instead, Togman hired a cameraman in Syria to film.
On their way back to the airport in Turkey, Togman’s and his crew’s SUV were stopped at gunpoint by eight Turkish officials with machine guns, he said. Togman was ordered to destroy the footage he had just filmed by the airport, with the officials saying filming near the facility was illegal, he said.
“Mayor Mohamed” is Togman’s third documentary. “Home,” a look at the affordable housing crisis that also addresses issues of race and gender identity, follows the story of a woman with six children trying to buy her first home and escape the violence and drugs of her Newark neighborhood. “We’re Not Blood” follow’s Togman’s own journey to find his biological parents.
“Mayor Mohammed” will be brought to other film festivals and Universities within the upcoming year and will be shown next at Seton Hall University on Sept. 23.