We were fortunate enough to see “A Stray,” which premiered at SXSW. Directed by Musa Syeed, the film centers on a Somalian refugee (Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi) in Minneapolis after he is kicked out of his home and picks up a stray dog. We had the chance to catch up with Syeed, Abdi and co-star Faysal Ahmed for a Q&A.
TC: To start off, what drew you to the Somali community in Minneapolis specifically?
Musa Syeed: For me, a lot of my work is very community based and trying to immerse audiences in a particular place and have a real sense of specificity and texture. And I’d been wanting to do a story about a Muslim community in America for a while, and I think the Somali community in Minneapolis is very unique.
I think a lot of people associate Muslims or what they look like with someone that looks like me. You know, a brown guy with a big nose and long beard. But Muslims look like anything and everything. So, I was interested to tell a story from a different community so I could also learn in the process and explore and challenge myself. So, those were all reasons.
The community has built up so quickly, and there are so many institutions we can draw on: mosques and restaurants and the museum. There was just a lot of richness there that could also help visualize the tensions and different aspects of this person’s identity and who he is.
TC: Were you able to draw your experiences with the community into your performances at all?
Faysal Ahmed: For [Barkhad’s] character, yes. For mine, it’s less likely. We do have a little bit of both, to be honest. There’s the violent side, and there’s the peaceful side.
Barkhad Abdi: The thing about this project that interests me a lot is that it’s touching what happens in the community and recent events and stuff like that. And, to be honest, it’s actually why I chose this project. For me, you don’t get these kinds of characters from Hollywood or stuff like that. No one wants to show you the glamorous or the good side of this community.
MS: No one film can be the end all be all representation of a community or even a person. I hope that this can open the door for more films like this about the community and for members of the community to also tell their own stories.
The issue of diversity is not that every community needs to have its representative elected and make their film to represent that community and that we’ve checked them all off the list and it’s done. That’s an unfair expectation for the filmmaker to say, “This is the one thing that’s going to represent the community.” Because a community is so many things and this is one small story of one person who has a particular experience. It touches a lot of things that happen, but I’m not trying to take up all the space and say this is the definitive thing. If we want true diversity, there needs to be a multiplicity of voices. There needs to be a lot of people and power to tell their stories.
This is a film that was financed in an untraditional way of getting grants from non-profits which rarely happens for a fiction film especially. But that allowed me to make the film the way I wanted, to work with the talent that I wanted because, otherwise, if I was pitching this to the typical Hollywood agents, they would have a particular trope in mind of this troubled young man and he’s Muslim and “what do you think he’s going to do?” You know? There would be those expectations. It was good that we were able to make it in the way we wanted to do it.
TC: We noticed that a lot of the film is in Somali. Was that an intentional choice?
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MS: I initially wrote it in English and was planning to do more of it in English, but, you know. [Gestures at Abdi and Ahmed] You guys have talked about how you feel performing in Somali versus English.
BA: Somali gives you that sense of story and moves you, and the community we’re trying to play is Somali. And we actually add Somali and English together when we speak.
FA: There is more flow to it, and at the same time, it’s like you’re attracted to it somehow, not intentionally. The fact that you hear a different language, you just want to read in and see what’s going on within the story. If [the whole cast] had spoken all English, it would have seemed a little bit off.
MS: Subtitling is its own art form in a way. You know, I wrote this script, then I gave them free reign to put it in their own words. And there are a lot of interesting turns of phrases in Somali that they use that I didn’t have time to translate or that would be too distracting in a subtitle form. So there’s some creative translations. The subtitles are to explain it to people that don’t already know what’s going on. So that’s an opportunity to clarify things.
TC: One of the defining moments was Abdi’s character’s monologue about straying from God and the struggle to be righteous. What was the thought behind conveying that message?
MS: I think with a character like this, you really get to hear their internal thoughts. We don’t often get that kind of access to a black character, to a Muslim character, to really understand what their faith means to them. This part of themselves, what does it look like, what does it feel like, what does it sound like? For me, it was important to weave that in throughout the film to get a sense of what he’s wrestling with and what he’s negotiating. [Some people] see Muslims, and they’re like automatons. And they’re just like robots. “It says this, do this.” But there’s a lot of human frailty and shortcomings or whatever in between God’s will and reality of life on earth. So, just trying to find a way to engage that and give people access to his mind and his heart.
TC: Faysal and Barkhad, was that an attracting factor for you two?
BA: Since I met Musa, I [have been] wondering about my religion. And there’s an imam in the movie. And every time I had a script or a script in front of me and I don’t understand anything, I’m actually trying to go through with him and the imam who is actually telling me what to do and how to create this character. For me I’m not that religious person. I grew up in America, you know? I had a cultural identity and issues with me because I’m an American, I’m born in this country, I’m black, I listen to hip hop.
MS: You talked about how you tried to find the balance.
BA: Yeah, so I had balance issues too. This movie actually opened a lot of ideas for me and get close to me to my religion and stuff.
TC: You mentioned how this was financed mostly by non-profits. Compared to your last movie, what was the difference in financing there?
MS: It was actually similar. That one was also mostly financed by grants as well. I don’t like the term “social issue film” or whatever, but I am trying to engage some of that space, so I think foundations are more amenable to that even if it’s not a lot of money. Writing grants actually helps me elucidate my vision a little bit more. If you just wrote a script, you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. If you write a grant, it helps you sort of step out of the script for a second and sort of see the bigger picture and connect it to things. That was actually helpful for me to zoom out a little bit and connect it to what’s going on in the world.
TC: Do you have suggestions or tips for students who want to get into the field?
MS: For me, the important thing is, you know, most stories in the world have been told already. You know, the man and dog story has been told. But each person has his or her own unique experience that inform a specific voice. The more you can find that voice as opposed to trying to replicate other people’s voices, the more you’ll be able to articulate a unique vision that will be yours and that people will gravitate towards because you’re providing something different. You’re providing a new way of seeing the world that other people maybe are not seeing yet.
And as part of that, there are gonna be a lot of gatekeepers that are gonna say, “I don’t understand you so I’m not going to support you. The thing is not wait for permission, not wait for someone to validate you, but to pursue what you believe to be important and what’s authentic to you. You have to be scrappy. You might not get as many resources as other people who are making things that are more easily sold or more easily marketed.
But it’s worth it because you’ll have a sense of self-fulfillment. That’s what I tell myself. [laughs] But I feel good about it because I get to meet great people and do work that I am passionate about.
BA: My advice to any film actor or filmmaker that’s trying to get there is just to shoot. Shoot stuff. Get out there now. You don’t need anybody’s permission or stuff. Just shoot. Make short films. Get yourself out there.
FA: I believe personally that everybody is different. Just like we all don’t look the same. We’re all different. We all have our unique ways. And, you know, try to do whatever you want to do in life. One thing I tell myself is that if it’s meant to be you, then there’s nothing in the world that will stop it from happening. But if it’s not meant to be you, then there’s something that’s waiting for you. So, start going forward.