Asad short film (full)
SA’s Somali Refugee Child Stars To Oscars
After narrowly winning a race against time to get extended refugee status, passports and visas, brothers Harun and Ali Mohammed are flying from Cape Town to Hollywood today for Sunday’s Academy Awards, where their film Asad will compete in the Best Short Film category.
The Somali refugee child stars will be accompanied by their father, Mahdi Hassan Mohamed, and will meet up in Los Angeles with Rafiq Samsodien, Asad’s South African producer, who’s had sleepless nights making the trip happen.
Speaking at Tuesday’s double screening of the Western Cape’s two Oscar-nominated films, Asad and the Rodriguez documentary Searching for Sugarman, Rafiq says, “I haven’t slept in 24 hours. I’ve been trying to get these guys extended refugee status documents, passports, and visas, which is not an easy task. Arranging this trip has been the biggest production of my life: what we’ve managed to achieve in three weeks would normally take four years, so I need to thank Minister Naledi Pandor, The Department of Home Affairs and the American embassy for coming through for us.”
Written and directed by acclaimed American commercials director Bryan Buckley of Hungry Man, Asad is a coming-of-age fable about a Somali boy struggling to survive in his war-torn land, where he must decide between falling into the pirate life and rising above it to become an honest fisherman.
Asad was shot in Paternoster just outside Cape Town, using a cast of local Somali refugees. “This was the first time they had been in front of the camera and I think they did an amazing job,” says Bryan, who was voted Commercials Director of the Decade in a 2010 Adweek Readers Poll.
He singled out the two child leads, Harun and Ali Mohammed, who live just outside Cape Town with their parents and 13 brothers and sisters. Harun, 14, plays Asad, while Ali, 12, plays Ali.
Before filming started, neither Harun nor Ali spoke English, so Bryan and producer Mino Jarjoura had to deploy a translator. The boys had also never attended school, so they were illiterate and had to memorize their lines without a script or written point of reference.
“These two boys had just come to South Africa from Somalia,” Bryan says. “They had never been to school; they didn’t have that opportunity in Somalia. When they came here, they were basically illiterate but they memorised the whole script, start to finish. They had never been in the water before, so they had to take swimming lessons too.”
“These two kids were diamonds in the rough,” Rafiq says. “But if you’ve seen the performances, they shine much brighter than any diamond I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Since the film ended, Bryan, with the help of associate producer Matt Lefebvre, has placed the Mohammeds in school for the first time. “They started in March this year,” says Bryan. “They’ve gone from illiterate and unable to speak English to third grade. It took me fourteen years to get twelve grades, so that’s pretty incredible.”
The short film was sparked in part by a United Nations short documentary, No Autographs, which brought Buckley and Mino to refugee camps in Kenya and Sudan in the summer of 2010.
“The Somalis have an underlying humour and are not afraid to laugh,” says Bryan. While the film clearly shows the often brutal nature of life for ordinary Somalis, a gentle sense of humour runs as an underlying thread throughout the story, creating a film which has as its essence a sense of hope, rather than despair.
Due to the political instability in Somalia, Bryan decided to shoot the film in South Africa, which has a vibrant film industry and many diverse locations.
Casting director Jeanne Wegner plucked the cast out of their obscure environment in the down-at-the-heel part of Bellville, where she set up temporary audition facilities in the local library.
Language barriers between cast and crew were overcome as Paternoster became transformed to resemble a Somali fishing village. In the words of Somali actress Laila Jamal, the cast “were crying, remembering their country,” and in the process delivering what judges at the Tribeca Film Festival described as “an array of brilliant performances.”
Asad has scooped awards from 13 festivals around the world, with all prize money going towards the boys’ school expenses.
Asad has just received a glowing endorsement for Nobel Prize winner and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Tutu says, “South Africa is a relatively young democracy only recently emerged from the shackles of tyranny and prejudice. We have much to learn and we also have much to teach. Asad is at once a painful reminder of the xenophobia that shamefully still exists in South Africa and a heartwarming tribute to our special ability as members of the human family to heal ourselves.
“The young Somali actors Harun and Ali Mohamed are the stars of a compelling show. They are also real life stars in an inspirational South African story about hope and reconciliation. So are the filmmakers – South African Rafiq Samsodien and the US partners Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura. Before Asad the children had never attended school; now, thanks to the director, they have received catch-up private tuition and enrolled in a home school system. They are being equipped to contribute to our shared South African future. Their film has been nominated to receive an Oscar. They deserve two Oscars: one for the creative endeavor and the other for contributing to our collective understanding of our dependence on one another.”
Rafiq thanked everyone who made the children’s trip to the Oscars possible, including Melanie Mahona at The Provincial Government of The Western Cape, Nils Flaatten at Wesgro, The City of Cape Town, Myatt International, Woolworths, Dr. Anwar Nagiah, Marcel Golding, Tahir Salie, Munier Parker and Oryx Media, and The National Film and Video Foundation, who are sponsoring the flights and accommodation, among other costs.
The Academy Awards take place on 24 February 2012 at The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
At the film’s South African premiere, Bryan told the assembled cast and crew that he hoped to be back in Cape Town soon to shoot a feature film based on Jay Bahadur’s book, Pirates of Somalia, which he aims to film with the same Somali community.
For more information, visit http://www.asadfilm.com/.