Navigating Grief and Loss While Making My First Feature

Zeshawn Ali on how the passing of his father while making his debut film, Two Gods, shaped the film into a meditation on death and renewal.

Setting out to make a film about death is not something you ever plan on doing. In the same way that loss finds us unexpectedly in our lives, I similarly found the world of my film Two Gods and Hanif, its main subject.

Back in 2015, I was a young filmmaker curiously exploring the world around me with a camera in my hand. My brother Aman, who was a journalist at the time and is the producer of Two Gods, had just finished his successful 30 Mosques in 30 Days series (about Muslim Americans during the month of Ramadan) and he and I were building off that work, creating nuanced profiles featuring Muslim-American subjects and experiences. At first, we thought we’d make a new series of short films. In the process, we ended up at a casket shop in Newark, New Jersey, where we learned about the pivotal role funerals played in the Muslim community there.

Zeshawn Ali filming Two Gods.

In Islam, the tradition after someone dies is to wash their body in a specific way, known as the janazah. Because the deceased can no longer wash themselves as they normally would before prayer, the tradition states that the janazah washing must be performed before the person enters the grave, to ready them for their final journey into the afterlife. This washing is done by close family or community members, and follows a specific series of steps to ensure the person is prepared according to religious tradition.

It was at a washing that we first met Hanif. Rashad, the owner of the casket shop we had started filming in, had asked us that day to join him at a nearby funeral home to observe a washing that he was helping with. It was there that he introduced us to Hanif, who worked at the casket shop with Rashad and also helped with washings at the funeral home. When I arrived there, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was soon confronted with what I realized was my first experience of being in the same room as someone who had passed. It was surreal, intense and spiritual, all at the same time. Hanif, sensing I was navigating a difficult wave of emotions, took me aside after the washing and offered to talk about the experience. My brother and I joined him for lunch, where we shared stories of our lives and learned about Hanif’s work and the many obstacles he had faced and overcome in his life – of years caught up in the criminal justice system, his struggles with addiction, and countless years lost to systems which prevented him from finding a path toward success. When Hanif learned about casket building and washings, though, he’d seen an opportunity for himself to find redemption. As soon as I learned that, I knew Hanif had a powerful story to tell.

We spent the next four years continuously filming with Hanif, documenting his story and his daily life while he took two young men in his neighborhood – Naz and Furquan – under his wing, teaching them about his work and mentoring them as they navigated challenges in their personal lives. These years of filming and growing closer with our three subjects led to the creation of Two Gods, an exploration of how the rituals of death can become so delicately intertwined with the pivotal moments of a young person’s coming of age. We captured moments in casket shops and funeral homes, and many moments of everyday life. Once my brother Aman and I had hundreds of hours of footage, we felt ready to weave the film together in the edit.

Zeshawn Ali (left) and his brother Aman (right) with their subject Hanif.

Then, the unimaginable happened. One winter night, I was workshopping some footage with a group of friends. I remember the air feeling particularly chilly as I made my way to the subway. My phone had died earlier, so it was only when I finally got home and started recharging it that I saw a message from one of my older brothers that I will never forget: “Please call. Urgent. Dad.”

That night, my father had passed away unexpectedly, after a complication from a routine surgery he had recently undergone. When I hung up the phone with my brother, I remember how still everything around me felt. The quietness of the nighttime took on a feeling of palpable fragility. I know there were tears, but all I can remember feeling was that stillness. The next few hours felt like a blur and before I knew it, I was on an airplane seated next to my brother Aman, on our way home.

Winter started settling into our small Ohio town, the morning after my father passed. I saw snow falling from the window as I held his hand in the hospital room where he lay, my fingers intertwined with his. The coldness of his skin startled me. Like a gust of Midwestern wind was pulsing through his veins. I held on as long as I could.

Zeshawn Ali’s late father.

The next day, his body was to be washed. That morning, I did what I was so used to doing at that point: I called Hanif. We talked for a long time, but at the end of the call he made sure I remembered what he had taught me about the different steps of the janazah.

Going from years of filming and observing so many washings to having to wash my own father was something that is hard to fully put into words. Suddenly the world of the film I was making unified with my own. In that moment, it wasn’t just about the ritual, it was about the way my brothers and I delicately washed my father’s body, knowing this would be the last time we’d be able to hold his hand. The rituals were not just about spirituality, they were also about the feeling of touch between the person being washed and every other person in that room. The washing was a physical act of care, of love, of tenderness.

After taking some time off from the film to be with my family and process everything that had happened, I came back to New York to continue working on Two Gods. Going back to the film was a form of escape, but also became part of my healing process. And, unexpectedly, it brought a new layer of meaning to the footage we had shot.

An image of the janazah from Two Gods.

As I was experiencing grief in real time, I found myself with a desire to capture the experiences I’d had in the edit we were building. I talked a lot with the film’s editor, Colin Nusbaum, about creating a feeling of reflectiveness and care in the storytelling – not just within the scenes, but also in the ways we moved between them. I wanted the rhythm of the film to mirror how grief can feel like an unraveling as much as it is a reconstruction.

When you lose someone close to you, it feels like your life falls apart in that moment. The process of grief involves delicately putting those parts of yourself back together. All of these scattered pieces are formed into something new – delicate, but still whole. That’s what I wanted the film to feel like: soft, patient, spiritual, and deeply meditative.

After having the experience of washing my father, I also wanted the sounds of the film to feel as present and real as possible. Composer Michael Beharie and I thought of ways to integrate instrumentation that evoked a vivid sense of intimacy. When I was navigating loss, I could remember specific details of the world around me: rain on a windowpane, hands rubbing together in the cold, the echo of the call to prayer in the halls of a mosque. So, in the process of scoring the film, we tried to find ways to capture the rituals of washing and prayer, through layered horns and strings that echoed textural elements of water and the long haunting call to prayer that opens the film. For a feeling of physical closeness, we recorded harps, violas and soft organs in a live setting, keeping in the small details of breaths, keys, and plucks to make the film feel as textured and immediate as possible.

Zeshawn Ali and friend editing Two Gods.

Finally, I collaborated with cinematographer Emir Fils-Aime to create a series of composed visuals that are woven into the film, elevating certain key emotional moments into a place of spiritual escape. These visual metaphors – textures of water, hands being washed, images which represent the beauty of the washings – afforded us space in the edit to really linger in those moments and feel the details of the rituals. All together, Emir’s images created an unbroken thread that wove together all of these scenes. It felt simultaneously intimate, personal and tangible.

Two Gods is a film about redemption, loss, and coming of age. Through the many scenes of Hanif’s mentorship of Furquan and Naz, we see the ways all three subjects navigate both the obstacles in their lives and personal loss – loss through death, loss of innocence, and loss of opportunity. It shows how grief is not one-dimensional, as I discovered in my own life. It is filled with moments of softness, tranquility, joy and deep contemplation.

Losing my father was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, but this film would not be the same if I hadn’t experienced that grief. I can’t help but think back on how loss has shaped the way I see the world around me in so many ways.

Hanif and Furquan in Two Gods.

My experiences over the past four years taught me that our lives are about holding on to the moments in front of us and relishing in them. The sights and sounds, and the way you can linger in time. This journey of making Two Gods was very challenging, but I’m so thankful to have this time capsule of all the many emotions that everyone involved in the film experienced. In the small details, you can see the pieces of loss delicately woven together. Two Gods, in many ways, is a love letter not only to these subjects who became like family to me, but also to those we said goodbye to and the many ways we remember and honor them, over and over again.

All images courtesy Zeshawn Ali.

Zeshawn Ali is originally from Ohio and is a graduate of Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. His feature documentary debut Two Gods, about a Black Muslim casket maker who takes two vulnerable teens under his wing, launches in theaters and virtual cinemas on May 21 through 8 Above. Two Gods received support from ITVS, Tribeca Film Institute, Ford Foundation, Sundance Institute, Doc Society, Points North Institute and IFP. He is a member of Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective and Meerkat Media. He is currently based in New York.