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Q&A: Stamps alum and doc producer Razi Jafri’s “Three Chaplains” to stream on PBS

Saleha Jabeen at Fort Sheridan Army Reserve Base, Illinois. Credit: David Washburn

Razi Jafri (MFA 22) is a documentary filmmaker and producer whose work focuses on race, religion, immigration, democracy, and human rights. 

His most recent documentary, Three Chaplains,” premieres on PBS on November 6, 2023 at 10 p.m. ET. The film will also be available to stream on the PBS App.

The film profiles three Muslim chaplains who aim to make change in one of America’s most powerful institutions — the military. 

In this Q&A, Jafri discusses the film, his artistic practice, and Stamps experience. 

Stamps School of Art & Design: Describe the film in your own words. What is it about? 

Razi Jafri: The film is directed by David Washburn and produced by myself. Three Chaplains” follows a story of three Muslim chaplains navigating issues around Islamophobia, multiculturalism, and religious freedom within a military context. The broader issues in the film are not only their life and work as Muslims in the military but also their life and work as Muslims in America. They serve an institution tasked to protect a country that doesn’t always protect them and stand up for their rights. It’s a complicated space for them to hold. As chaplains, they serve members from all denominations and all religious backgrounds in their unit. They have a unique task in providing mental health counseling and clinical pastoral care.

What was your role in this process? 

I was the producer of the film. Producing is a broad term, and it’s different from project to project. I started working on Three Chaplains” in 2018 when David Washburn reached out to me, as he was looking for a creative partner to bounce ideas off, manage some of the workload, advocate for the film, and go on shoots. Throughout this process, I have conducted some interviews, operated a camera, sat in editing sessions, and traveled on shoots by myself. My job as a producer is to advocate for the film through production companies, broadcasters, and grants and fundraising. We were able to secure several grants. In terms of production, we had large grants from the Doris Duke Foundation and ITVS, which is the main PBS funding arm.

Three Chaplains Razi Jafri
Razi Jafri

You mentioned that you started working on this in 2018. How does it feel to be so close to the première? 

It feels amazing for the première to be right around the corner. It feels elating to complete the project after working on it with David for five years. We’ve had such an amazing journey. This film is about Muslims in the highest levels of government, which is important because we don’t typically get to see Muslims portrayed in the media in leadership roles like this. Therefore, having the Muslim community portrayed at this level is important. It’s allowed us to speak to communities, such as the military, that we wouldn’t normally have access to. For somebody like myself, in my political views, it allows me to speak to audiences I don’t have access to. It’ll allow me to connect and relate to audiences we can build bridges with. One of the things that’s exciting about this release is that we’re showing the film around the country – to dozens of universities, seminaries, churches, synagogues, and mosques.

We want to make an impact with the film and show it to communities that wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with the story, so that they can learn something from it. It also allows us to talk about multiculturalism in a way that is a little bit different than my previous film, Hamtramck USA,” which dealt a lot with Muslim engagement in the election process in local politics. This one deals with some of the same issues through the military experience.

Khallid Shabazz counseling Muslim soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Credit: David Washburn

How would you describe what you do? What’s your artistic practice? 

As artists, we do many different things beyond our core competency, whether it’s painting, ceramics, or film. When I describe myself as a filmmaker, I choose the documentary and nonfiction form to produce and tell stories through because of my identity as a Muslim, as an Asian American, and as an immigrant. The stories and issues that are salient to those communities and those identities are also salient to me. Much of my work is centering those stories and those perspectives to promote understanding. Sometimes, that means making films. Sometimes, that means working on exhibitions. 

I worked on a large scale multimedia group exhibit called Halal Metropolis. I worked on it with Stamps professor Osman Khan and Sally How­ell, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Arab American Studies at UM-Dearborn. So much of my work includes curating, cultural activism, and education. I’m very grateful for the teaching experience that I got at Stamps while I was a graduate student there. It’s prepared me to take teaching roles. I can teach workshops, I can work at a university, and I am an advocate for my community and other social causes as well. My creative work is advocacy, cultural activism, organizing, and curation. It’s all anchored in storytelling, primarily through the documentary films that I make.

Omar Alwahaishy, a Yemeni refugee currently living in Seoul, makes his living delivering carryout meals throughout the city. In this photo, he brings documentarian and Rackham alum Razi Jafri along for the ride.
Razi Jafri is collaborating with Omar Alwahaishy, a Yemeni refugee currently living in Seoul, in his documentary Sanctuary Purgatory” (working title).

What’s your favorite part of your job? 

My favorite part of my job is meeting the most interesting people. I get to travel around the world, and that’s exciting, but what’s more exciting is I get to meet the most fascinating people with the most interesting stories. And I have the privilege of telling their stories. I think of my thesis project at Stamps. I made a short film about a Yemeni refugee living in South Korea. I met him there in South Korea while I was doing research. It turned out that his parents lived in Dearborn, Michigan. There was this huge global, local connection. It was just so serendipitous getting to meet him and becoming good friends with him. Now, we’re working together on a documentary about his life. Through him, I’ve also learned about so many other incredible Yemenis and other refugees. His story of reunification with his family is completely fascinating. 

I’m working on a project about Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Secretary Jocelyn Benson about the politics in Michigan. Last summer, I was able to travel all over the state while they were running for reelection. I got to interview them and spend time with them on the campaign trail. There are so many other projects in the pipeline that I’m working on that are in such a range. 

Are you based in Detroit? 

I live in Hamtramck, and I’m based in Michigan. I travel a lot for work, attending film festivals, shooting for my documentaries, or attending conferences. I love Michigan, and I love the Midwest. I’m based here. 

Overhead shot of student editing a film in a computer program.
Razi Jafri edits a film in 2022 at the Stamps School of Art & Design.

What was your MFA experience like? 

There were a lot of reasons why I chose Stamps. I wanted to stay in Michigan, and Stamps was a very flexible program. And Stamps is not discipline-specific. You can be a part of any background, and you’re accepted based on the merit of your portfolio. The experience itself was remarkable. I maximized my experience so much despite being in school during the COVID-19 pandemic. I also treated Stamps as a professional development experience, and that was my mindset going into it. 

I didn’t need hand-holding – I just needed resources and a little guidance, which is precisely what I got at Stamps. I had a great relationship with David Chung, the director of the MFA program, and amazing advisors with Endi Poskovic, Stephanie Rowden, and Melissa Phruksachart. I took all kinds of interesting classes outside of documentary filmmaking. I’d recommend Stamps to anybody from any artistic background. 

Did you take anything from Stamps that sticks with you? 

I think one of the biggest things is to be ambitious. I don’t think I would have thought of doing some of the projects that I have done on my own. I just needed a little bit of encouragement, which is sort of built into the MFA program and with the fantastic faculty. I could be ambitious with my work because I had this environment at Stamps. The faculty supported me and encouraged me to be vulnerable and ambitious. 

To learn more about Three Chaplains,” visit three​chap​lains​.com.

Story by Katelyn Stuck.