Published April 26, 2012

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Mohammed to Maya Film Poster  

Mohammed to Maya is a feature-length documentary that examines issues of transsexualism, religion, and traditionalism against the backdrop of a single person’s dramatic journey. The film follows one year in the life of Maya Jafer (formerly Mohammed Jafer Ghulam Hussein), a 43-year-old, devout Muslim from South Asia, who undergoes sexual reassignment surgery in Bangkok despite persecution from her family and religious community.

Donna Armstrong recently interviewed Ph.D. student Jeff Roy about his film.

Armstrong: Jeff, first let’s take a look at where you came from, before coming to UCLA as a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology. I know that you are focusing on Indian classical music in your research. When did you start your interest in Indian music?

Roy: I became interested in Indian music when I was an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. I was majoring in sculpture and painting, which, as I quickly found out, were extremely time-consuming. I had very little time to practice my violin, which was still a fundamental part of my life, as I had trained rigorously in Western classical violin for fifteen years. But, after returning from a year-long study-abroad program in South France to learn impressionist painting, I felt that something was missing. I wanted to get back into music, but also something different. So, I enrolled in an introduction to Indian music class at Wash U, taught by my professor and current private teacher, and fell in love with the philosophy of the music. Soon after, I began private lessons with him. I went to his house every other day for lessons. He introduced me to the style of playing I am currently practicing. I play a different kind of violin, one with five strings and additional sympathetic strings built into it. It has a different sound, a different life force.

Armstrong: So when did you start the graduate program here at UCLA?

Roy: In the fall of ’09.

Armstrong: What came first, coming here to graduate school, or your desire to make film?

Roy: Coming here to graduate school.

Armstrong: How did your interest in Indian music evolve?

Roy: I started taking internet lessons on Skype with my teacher.  Then I began to write about my experiences doing that, which I later incorporated into my Master’s paper. My paper, entitled “The Internet Guru: Online Pedagogy in Indian Classical Music Traditions,” talks about the differences between in-person lessons and online lessons using a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods.

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Director/Producer Jeff Roy  

Armstrong: Are you still taking lessons?

Roy: Yes, I am still taking lessons, although work with the film has cut into my free time.

Armstrong: How did you become interested in filmmaking? What came first, filmmaking, or the topic?

Roy: The subject matter came first. I was interested in working with the Hijra community—male to female transgenders who have a rich religious and cultural performance practice. During the summer of 2010, I went to India to conduct a feasibility study, and made contacts there that provided important insight, which will serve as the basis of my Ph.D. dissertation. At the end of the summer, when I returned to Los Angeles, I met Maya.

Armstrong: Please talk about your evolution as a visual artist through this process. How you were changed in this process; how you realized who you were in the process.

Roy: I definitely grew artistically through the filming process. Because I had a tight budget for Mohammed to Maya, I had to do everything, including the shooting, editing, music composition, and producing. Film is an amazing art form because it incorporates everything into it—sound, visuals, and movement. It is an active process that requires a lot of flexibility, both physical and psychological, and incorporates knowledge of both the creative and technical.

Armstrong: Did you have to train yourself? Did you have to take classes?

Roy: I took Advanced Documentary Workshop with Marina Goldovskaya in the Film and Television School. Vivian Umino, another film professor who was filling in for Marina for one quarter, saw I had talent and a good eye for making a compelling story in documentary form, and encouraged me to go to Thailand in order to shoot with Maya. I think I had a month to prepare for it in all. So, I quickly taught myself how to shoot. Marina later helped me during post-production.

Armstrong: Did you have your own equipment?

Roy: At the time I didn’t have equipment, so I borrowed a friend’s camera and rented sound equipment. I used my own money for the trip. Later on, of course, I bought my own camera.

Armstrong: When did you complete the film?

Maya Jafer and Jeff Roy, 2011.  

Roy: I just finished editing the rough cut of my feature-length film a few weeks ago. In August 2011, I completed the short film called Rites of Passage and premiered it at the Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival, to test the waters in a way. It was received very well, winning the Audience Choice Award. That was a major defining moment for me as a filmmaker. After that, the film was propelled into the film festival circuit, winning some more awards and appearing at bigger film festivals. But now the feature-length version is almost ready to be unveiled.

Armstrong: Do you plan to continue making films?

Roy: Absolutely. I know I will make more.

Armstrong: Is your dissertation going to be a written project? Would you submit a film to go along with it?

Roy: Absolutely. I am hoping to submit both. I will have to re-edit the film so that it incorporates more of my academic research in India and the musical aspects of Maya’s life.

Armstrong: What is going to happen when the film gets screened in India? What are you hoping for?

Roy: I hope that it makes an impact. I want it to inspire the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and of course, transgender communities in India, and touch the hearts of its diverse audiences so that everyone can understand the struggles transgenders and minorities all over the world face. It not just about Maya’s story. The story is about being true to oneself, and the hard work that it takes to live free of arbitrary social constraints. A lot of Hijras and transgenders live in pretty destitute conditions in India. This film feels like the perfect way to touch and inspire them, without crossing any boundaries as a researcher, academic, or as an outsider.

Armstrong: You are an outsider in some ways, but you are an insider in other ways. You would not understand what she is going through if you were not also an insider.

Roy: As an American, yes, I am an outsider. But I am also gay. So, in many ways, I also belong to their community. You know, I really feel that there is a universal language that gender and sexual minorities, or, let’s face it, minorities all over the world, speak. It’s the language that is shared among those who have struggled. And, I think the beauty of the LGBT community, in particular, is that it transcends national, ethnic, and, religious boundaries. We are one family. This is what I try to communicate through my film Mohammed to Maya.

Armstrong: So, we have multiple identities.

Roy: Yes, multiple identities. And, as a part of the human family, I believe it is our responsibility to take care of each other.

Armstrong: Thank you, Jeff.

For more information about the film, go to: