Writer/Director Musa Syeed on his Quiet, Moving A Stray

For Musa Syeed, a sense of place, past and culture are indelible parts of his work. A son of immigrant parents, the filmmaker has never failed to create compelling, quietly interesting narratives whether in documentary or fiction film that are uniquely grounded in the communities in which they are set. Previously, the filmmaker made the international Valley of Saints, (which he spoke to The Credits about in 2013) a complex love story teeming with the culture and lush setting of Kashmir.

This time around, Syeed has set his action in a place slightly closer to home with his lyrical and impactful A Stray. Set in Minneapolis and based a small community of Somali immigrants, A Stray follows Adan (played by the wildly impressive Barkhad Abdirahman of Captain Phillips fame), a young Somali refugee whose life is turned upside down by the entrance of a stray dog in his life. It’s a quiet film, but one whose steadily directed hand and careful composition makes it stand uniquely as an updated twist on the traditions of the day-in-a-life film featuring a uniquely necessary look at immigrant life.

At SXSW where the film had its world premiere, The Credits had a chance to sit down with Musa Syeed to discuss the life moment that served as the spark of inspiration, the real life Somali community in which he filmed and the nitty gritty details of his speedy 15-day shoot.

I guess we’ll start at a very basic level, which is where did the kernel of this idea come to you? It’s your second feature and a bit of a departure.

The story kind of came from a personal experience where my wife took in a stray dog. We didn’t grow up with dogs in the house or being very comfortable around dogs and that experience, she sort of forced me to get along with it. And then eventually forging a relationship with this dog, and I ended up giving it up at a shelter and sort of regret that. I had that moment at the shelter where I looked at the dog for the last time before I gave it away and it was a very heartrending kind of experience. So yeah, that’s part of where it came from.

And then you plug that kind of experience into this very specific story set in a Somali community…

Doing a film in the Somali community, with the last film it was a very community based, site-specific film. When I finished the first film I wanted to do something completely different before I realized I really liked making a film that way, really embedding myself in a particular community and getting to know people, building relationships and working with non-professional actors, that kind of thing. But I didn’t want to travel halfway across the world this time to make a movie, so I’d known about this Somali community in Minneapolis for a while, and I just thought it’d be really a rich environment to make a film in, a community we don’t often see in media.

What was filming in this community like?

It offered an opportunity to really immerse myself in a world that’s there already, I didn’t have to create it because there are mosques, the restaurants, the museum, all of these locations we were able to take advantage of because they were already there. This time it was different because I didn’t have a personal relationship to the people necessarily. We connected to a certain extent because I am Muslim, that helped in some ways to get my foot in the door. It took some time to also develop that trust to the point where people are really jumping in and helping to make the film.

Was it a difficult process to get into that community at first?

It’s not a well-known community nationally, but in Minneapolis there’s been a lot of coverage locally and I think in the community people feel as though it’s been very negative, stereotypical, their focus is on the problems the community has and not so much on the day to day. For me, coming in, I think a lot of people were wary of media in general and a guy they don’t know saying things and making promises. But it was good because once they saw me come back and come back and come back again, just spend time without a camera and spend time listening to people, they realized I was there for the long hall. And I also had to be more open in the process like sharing the script earlier on than I usually would and trying to make sure I meet some of their needs as a community in terms of how they want to be represented, so the script definitely was shaped by a lot of their input as the film was being developed. That was a difficult thing for me to be open to that and not be so protective of the idea and to let it be open a little to that kind of feedback. It really helped me tell a more authentic story.

Did you get to cast some of the locals in the film?

Barkhad, the lead, was in Captain Phillips, and I spent most of my time initially there in a community center, in the neighborhood that employs a lot of East Africans and also employs a lot of East African youth. And I was there all the time for these meetings and programs and people thought I worked there, kids would ask me if they could go to the bathroom because they thought I was a counselor or something. [laughs] But I met Barkhad at a town hall meeting about housing issues in the community, and I hadn’t planned on meeting him but a friend introduced us and said, “Why don’t you guys work together?” And pretty soon after, I brought him out to New York to stay with me for a few days and talk about the script and we biked around Brooklyn and just bonded, and I got a sense of who he is.

Yet you've also got a lot of nonprofessional actors?

There are a lot of nonprofessionals, the imam in the film is a real imam in the community, he let us shoot in his mosque which is a really big deal. Mosques have been under such scrutiny, and I shared the script with him and he read it and he liked it and felt like it spoke to some of the issues that the youth in his film were facing. And it was funny because at first he was like, “I’m very busy, one hour of shooting.” And he is a fairly substantial character in the film. We showed up at sunrise and he was like, “Okay, I’ve got an hour,” and we were shooting with him and he started to like it, and he was like, “I’ll give you another 15 minutes, 15 minutes.” So we ended up getting three or four hours each day as opposed to getting an hour. And he was great, he didn’t need a lot of direction, he kind of got it. He’s a natural. I guess leaders of faith communities have to be a little performative, so he used some of that theatricality I guess.

So do you speak Somali? Because it’s certainly not an English film, it’s about 50/50.

I don’t speak Somali, I speak Arabic and there’s a good crossover so I could sometimes understand what was going on more or less. I wrote it to be mostly in English, but I realized it would feel more fake if they were speaking English in environments that they wouldn’t in real life. In the community, there are people who have been there for different times, some people have arrived a few months ago, some were born there, so you have varying levels of language abilities or whatever, but I just felt like Barkhad was most natural when he was speaking Somali, so it just made sense. He could be more creative with the language then, too.

Is it difficult to direct a language that you’re not super familiar with?

I think in some ways it helps because you get to focus less on the pronunciation or the correct intonation of a word or a syllable, you can just sort of really be about how they look on camera. That ultimately is what sells the performance—not if they put the question mark in the right place. In some ways, it’s easier. Subtitling is its own art where afterwards you have to decide how you translate things, but I don’t mind directing in languages I don’t speak.

Can you talk about finding the dog?

Sure, we worked with a local animal talent woman, who just has a massive database of dogs, all animals really. So she just sent us lots of pictures of dogs and we sort of made our choices. We narrowed it down to three or four just from photos and we met them at a dog training facility and we brought Barkhad in person for the casting session to see how he interacted with them. The dog we ended up casting, Aila, she’s a pet of her owners, but they train her for agility and for sports competitions. But she was great. The big thing for me in terms of casting a dog was looking for a dog that had eyes you could look into and make a connection with. So Aila, aside from her scruffy look, she kind of had that. And she had the right personality of being very chill and calm, she’s friendly but she’s not like a puppy.

Oftentimes in American film, dogs are really framed as super lovable, and it was interesting to see that cultural difference of looking at dogs as sort of dirty or not friendly. It was certainly unique to see a dog character that was treated with a healthy distance.

Yeah, man and dog is sort of an American thing and it’s sort of a barometer of how American you are to some people, so I thought it would speak to a lot of questions around assimilation and how do these things that seem irreconcilable, how do they find connection and how do they work through that and negotiate that.

It feels kind of specifically necessary to be seeing films about immigrants at this point in time in America and in the world, was that something that sort of coalesced organically or were you spurred on by current events to pursue something like this?

I come from an immigrant family so for me it’s always been an interesting topic. I’ve done films in different immigrant communities and I thought the refugee experience has been one that hasn’t been explored enough. The Syrian refugee crisis has been going on for three years, but it hasn’t really been become a prominent story until this past year and the discussion was hitting its peak after we had finished shooting it, but I tried to weave it in as best as I could. I don’t think they even say the word refugee in the film, but it was sort of part of the environment of making the film ultimately. There’s always going to be questions of what’s American and what’s not, I think.

So, this is your second feature. Is there anything you learned working on the first one to this one that you knew you had to do or had to avoid this time around?

It was pretty different in that our main actor Barkhad was SAG for one thing, and we were shooting on a 15-day schedule as opposed to in Kashmir for the first film we were shooting over the course of 2 months. We had planned for a month shoot and it became two months because our pre-production and production got scrambled because there was a military curfew so that shoot was about finding ways around that. But doing that really helped this film in that even though we were shooting on a much more compressed timeline, we still had locations dropping out at the last minute, actors would drop out at the last minute. We were trying to shoot this very scheduled film in a community that is working and has their own things. Things would come up and we’d have to show up at a random location and hope it worked out or we wouldn’t see a location until we were setting up the camera. On the first film, we were always saying, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” and that kind of mentality of embracing the limitations that we had helped. Obviously we didn’t have a lot of money either, so how do you confront everything head on and not be too precious about a specific location or a piece of art direction. Go with the flow. Especially working with a dog that became even more important because there were things you couldn’t do or needed more time or be lenient. So that mentality of embracing the limitations became really important.

From the time you submitted the film to SXSW to now, how different has the film been in terms of tune-ups?

It was fairly different, but it was just a compressed timeline to get the sound and the music and everything else done, a lot less time than I would have liked but it was good. At a certain point, you’re just looking at the film like, “What’s going to happen now?” I was getting to the point where I was feeling more like it was done than I had first submitted. And it was nice that even at its point of not being finished someone thought it was good enough to accept and then I had a chance to sort of finish it up from there.