Bryan Buckley Talks Asad and Academy Awards
10th December 2012
Hungry Man director Bryan Buckley has seen his short film, Asad (a clip of which can be viewed above), pick up a host of prizes at a variety of films festivals over the course of 2012 and has recently found out that it has been shortlisted for what most would consider to be the daddy of film awards, the Oscars.
Here Buckley discusses the genesis of his film and how filming a documentary helped him make the decision to shoot Asad. He also talks about the difficulties in getting the film made, casting non-English speaking, non-actors and how feature films are beckoning.
How and why did this come about and what, if any, relationship do you already have with Somalia?
Well, two years ago we shot a short documentary for UNHCR on refugee camp crisis with NBA star and England’s Olympian Luol Deng. Luol was a lost boy of Sudan. He was born in Sudan and we documented his arrival back into his homeland for the first time since he and his family fled during the civil war during the late 90s. The first stop for Luol would be in Northern Kenya at a refugee camp called Kakuma. My producer, Mino Jarjoura, and cameraman Scott Henriksen and I arrived there first and waited for Luol to arrive.
During those days we conducted interview after interview with the refugees who were stuck there. Many of these refugees were new arrivals from Somalia due to famine and brutal attacks by the Shabaab. We just started getting to hear all the stories about what was going on in their country. It didn’t take long for me to realise that there’s a lot that the media wasn’t explaining or helping us understand about the plight of these people. Nor were they capturing their spirit.
About a year passed after we had finished our documentary, unfortunately few people saw it, but the stories haunted me. The human condition in Somalia had continued to deteriorate. One weekend in July 2011, I was reading a story in the New York Times on the famine hitting the country and the inability for UN to get relief into the country due to rebel fighting and it pushed me over the edge. And I put down what I was doing and began to write Asad. It took me two days. It came fast.
Did you shoot the film in Somalia or was it too dangerous?
No, it was way too dangerous in Somalia so we took it to CapeTown to shoot. In Cape Town we went to a community formed by Somalia refugees and recruited people who would be interested in the project. There were no actors there, just people trying to survive.
So, you wrote the film as well?
Yes, I wrote it. And then we translated the whole thing; once we’d translated it, the two boys who were our main leads had to memorise every word. They had never been to school in their lives, and were completely illiterate. I mean completely. It was a huge undertaking. The two boys we cast to play Asad (the main character) and Ali (his young friend) are actually brothers and they had only been in South Africa for a couple of months. Their real names are Harun, and Ali Mohammed.
Harun, was 12 at the time and I originally was going to cast them the other way round but it was quite clear that, at 10, Ali was too young to do the part with all the memorisation that was needed. After we finished shooting I learned from the boys’ dad that the boys couldn’t attend South African schools because they were considered too old for their programme. They just weren’t set up to handle two Somalia boys who couldn’t read. So with the help of my associate producer Matt Lefebvre we set the boys up with a special private school. It took us awhile to find the teachers. But by March we got the programme up and running. We were back down in CapeTown in September and we saw the boys. They are doing amazing now. And have already reached thefourth grade level of reading English.
So, essentially the jumping off point for the short film was to bring to a wider audience the plight of refugees, especially Somali refugees?
Yes. Somali people have an incredible spirit. It came through in every interview we did in Kakuma. A film needed to capture this. Our exposure in the western world of Somalia is from CNN and BBC clips of pirates and famine. Clips don’t capture spirit.
Had you shot a short fiction film before?
Yes, I did a short, I did a couple of shorts, but nothing where I’ve sat there and said, “Okay, we’ll look at this thing as a bigger mission”. And that’s the difference this time.
How hard was it directing people who couldn’t understand what you were saying?
There were layers of challenges. You’re going into a world that you don’t know; you do your Google searches, you check stuff out, but you are still entering into an entirely different world, but you have to accurately depict the culture. So, yes, there was a tremendous amount of research that went into it all, but then you were dealing with the people you had to really listen to what they said, or how they would react or how things would play out.
The intent of this film obviously isn’t to sensationalise but rather to explain it; you know, for it to be as accurate as possible. The kids not being able to read or write meant that the task of memorising everything was just monumental; these kids who had never acted before. And then it was a case of rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. I just rehearsed the hell out of every shot. And nobody there had ever done film before so you had to be very organised. Even things like, you know, the boys had never been on the water because they were from inland Somalia, so we had to give them all swimming lessons; it was a lot of stuff.
So how long did it take you from to shoot the film from start to finish?
We had three weeks there and we shot for five days with about 10 days of rehearsal. We had to sort of, because it was all from memory, it was just difficult in itself, but anyway it worked out and we were pretty much a well-oiled machine. Originally I had written it so that at the end there was a dog. But they [Muslims] won’t hold a dog, they won’t touch dogs, dogs are considered, to Muslims, to be dirty. So I was like, “Oh, I didn’t see that one coming”. But it turned out to be the best thing ever to have a cat. I had already named the kid Asad, that was always his name, and it means ‘Lion’ so that worked out really well in the end.
A happy accident.
Lots of them, honestly.
Back to the casting process; how many people did you see for the main part of Asad?
Overall, hundreds. I had them improvise; it was all I did to start with. We put them in a situation and then they would have to improvise, and then I didn’t know what they were saying, so I just assumed that whatever they were saying was right. And then from that it was, if they’re comfortable with their language and they’re comfortable moving then I could get them back, and then I would do another call-back and just kind of whittle it down from there.
Asad’s been short-listed for the Oscars; how does that make you feel?
Yes; 11 films [on the shortlist] and then we’ll hopefully get to the next stage. I’m super-happy and, and I just think the thing has sort of had its own life. The Oscar thing is quite an honour, but what will be, will be. My dream here is that if we get to the finals we’ll fly the kids out of South Africa to be there on the stage if we win.
When will you find out if you’ve made the final list?
January 10th is the finalists announcement.
And you’re working on your first feature; Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus
Yes. But that’s probably going into pre-production around March. I’m really excited about it.
But that will take you out of ads for a while I would imagine would it?
Yeah. For at least a week. No, it’s a big project, but that’s always been part of what I had hoped to be involved with, so I’m excited and I think it’s a good choice, but I guess I’ll be six months.
But you’ll come back to ads?
Yes, 100 per cent.