‘The Public Square’

By HEIDI EWING and RACHEL GRADY

Published: December 16, 2012

“Since Op-Docs, our forum for short, opinionated documentaries, produced with creative latitude across many subjects, started in November 2011, 46 short films and videos have been published on nytimes.com. Today we begin a new Op-Docs feature: Scenes. It will be a platform for very short work — snippets of street life, brief observations and interviews, clips from experimental and artistic nonfiction videos — that follow less traditional documentary narrative conventions. This first Scenes video presents a classic New York moment, recorded last year. — The Editors

We spent much of last year making a documentary, “The Education of Mohammad Hussein,” inside a conservative Islamic school near Detroit. Overall we encountered a fearful community, mistrusting of outsiders. Muslims of all ages expressed a deep sense of being unwanted and spied-on by those who were quick to suspect them of wrongdoing.

During production, Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who publicly set fire to the Koran in a mock trial (and who recently received a death threat in Egypt for his links to the infamous video “Innocence of Muslims”) came to town to hold an anti-Muslim rally. The event provoked a small riot, arrests and heightened tension in the area.

We followed Mr. Jones to New York for the events surrounding the 10th anniversary of 9/11. One day at the World Trade Center site, men and women in the crowd held signs that shouted “Stand back: I’m on jihad watch” and “We will not submit to sharia law in the USA.” Whenever the term “Muslim-American” was mentioned, boos erupted from the crowd. The hate was overwhelming.

On Sept. 10, we followed Mr. Jones to Times Square. All kinds of bystanders listened, silently at first, while he ranted against the Muslim faith.

Then, incredibly, the crowd responded not with taunts, jeers or indifference… but with the Beatles. The sunnier side of the term “mob mentality” spontaneously emerged, and we were once again overwhelmed by that well-worn cliché that sometimes fits just right: “Only in New York.”

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are New York-based documentary filmmakers. Their forthcoming film “The Education of Mohammad Hussein,” which is on the short list for the Academy Award for short-subject documentary, is to be broadcast on HBO in 2013. Their previous Op-Doc was “Dismantling Detroit.””

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