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Television 14 & Muslim is a nuanced, rich snapshot of a complicated situation

14 & Muslim follows Sahar, Malaieka and Ahmad as they transition from a private, Islamic elementary school into high school, capturing what it means to be young, Muslim and growing up in the West.

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Do yourself a favour and make a date to spend time with some teenagers on Friday evening. Guaranteed, it will be worth your time.

14 & Muslim (Friday, CBC 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is a gentle, touching and very illuminating documentary about a small group of Muslim teens in the Toronto area about to go from grade school to high school. All raised in Canada, they have been educated so far at the Islamic Foundation School (IFS) and while some will stay there, others will move on to Catholic or public high schools. It’s a fraught time for them and their parents, and they know it.

The first thing we see, as a class at IFS is documented, is a drill. A drill that is done all the time to prepare the kids for a possible attack on the school. That’s your first signal that day-to-day life is very different for these teenagers.

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Then we eavesdrop on a small group of teen girls having lunch and chatting idly. They talk pizza, Gordon Ramsay’s version of pizza seen on MasterChef, the attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and the matter of wearing hijabs outside their own Muslim environment in the school. Again, from the get-go, you grasp without being told by any narrator or reporter, that this is a very delicate situation for these teenagers.

Adolescence is tough enough to manoeuvre and survive intact. But these high-school kids have much more than their physical and mental development to worry about; much more than peer pressures or good grades to deal with. They fear being disliked or even hated by people who simply judge them by what they wear. They fear being attacked. They turn on the news and they hear U.S. President Donald Trump railing against Muslims.

One of them says: “I’m just worried that someone, like, decides to attack here because we’re an Islamic school and if I go to a Catholic school I would worry less … I never have that sense of ease. Like, sometimes I do but like most of the time I’m like, ‘What if something happens? What if something happens?’ ”

Another, who fully intends to go to a public school, says it’s necessary to become familiar with the non-Muslim world and it will help him in the future. “You’re not going to find Muslim people everywhere,” he concludes with a wisdom beyond his years.

A mother tells a teen daughter that going to another school will challenge her but it will be so much better for her in the long run. The girl wants to stay with her friends. There is a grim fear that, not only will she not be accepted, she will never make real friends. “The hijab makes us feel powerful every day,” one student says. There is a force to her argument and, at the same time, you get the feeling this is a matter of bracing for a harsh word outside.

The narrative gets a twist when the IFS shuts down its Grades 9 to 12 classes, thanks to a messy labour dispute. Even those parents who wanted their children to complete their schooling there now have no choice. And their child has not been prepared for change.

We watch a group of the teenagers – the focus is on three girls- as they make the awkward transition to other schools. One girl says: “The second I went into this school, I was having trouble breathing, I was scared.” A boy tries out for the basketball team, full of confidence. A girl sits in a sex-education class and looks stunned at what’s unfolding in the room. Another girl explains how she has to negotiate dealing with guys who give her high-fives or hug her. She doesn’t want to be touched by a male.

Made by filmmaker Wendy Rowland, and filmed over many months, 14 & Muslim is, at an hour’s length, a snapshot of a complicated situation. At the same time, it is the sort of snapshot that is vastly revealing. There is nobody telling the viewer what’s happening or what to think. Everything is rooted in observing the students, listening to what they say and what their parents say. It’s a pencil-sketch as impactful as a full-blown portrait. It is nuanced and rich, as affectionate about its subjects as it is sometimes heartbreaking to watch. Beautifully done.

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