How to Go From Shoot to SXSW in 4 Months: Musa Syeed's 'A Stray'

"It was a 15-day shoot and a very run-and-gun spirit. That fit with the movie, which is all about this person in perpetual motion."

At its best, cinema is a portal into another world. A Stray catapults the viewer into a little-known community of Somali Muslim refugees in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It's the kind of community that you wouldn't know existed unless you went looking for it; these people are absent from the media. Inside their world is a wealth of unique perspective and experience, captured by director Musa Syeed (Valley of Saints) in his film.

When Adan, a Somali refugee, is kicked out of his house, he is forced to take to the streets. He relies upon the good will of his Muslim community, which embraces and rejects him in equal measure; As is the common plight of the refugee, he's caught between two worlds. A flâneur of sorts, Adan wanders the Minneapolis cityscape with his new stray dog companion, with whom he slowly but surely develops a strong bond.

No Film School spoke with Syeed and actor Barkhad Abdirahman (Adan) at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival about turning the film around in less than five months, the portrayal of Muslims on film, and more. 

NFS: Congratulations on premiering the film this weekend. How did it go?

Musa Syeed: Yeah, we had our World Premiere on Sunday, and it was awesome! I hadn't really screened the film that much—we shot it only in September—so it's been a really quick turnaround. I was only just editing it on my laptop a few weeks ago. But it was the first time the actors saw it, too.

Barkhad Abdirahman [Adan]: It's always good to see yourself on the big screen. Musa did an outstanding job!

NFS: You were only just editing a few weeks ago? What was the turnaround for this film, then?

Syeed: This is the quickest turnaround of a film I've ever done. I went to Minneapolis for the first time, just to do an exploratory research trip, in late January of 2015. We started shooting in August. I think the reason it came together so well was because I had been thinking about these ideas and scenes for a long time. Also, there was so much inspiration to draw upon from the community. I had my own preconceived notions of Minnesota, from Fargo and whatever, but seeing the Somali community and the other interesting things about Minneapolis—it has the largest urban Native American population—[changed my perspective], and we were able to work these things into the film. There have been tensions between the Native American and the Somali community, because when you've got two marginalized communities, there's a competition for resources. It's cool that the film created the space for that interaction to happen.

"There's this binary created in film of the 'good Muslim' or 'bad Muslim.' I just tried to build a real person."

A Stray
Credit: "A Stray"

NFS: What was the very first kernel of the idea for the story?

SyeedAfter I first got married, my wife took in a stray dog that was sleeping under her car. I was a little conflicted about it. We were both born and raised in Muslim families, and, at least in my family, it was a taboo thing to own a dog. I wasn't sure if I wanted to have a dog in the house. But over the course of time, I developed a relationship with this dog. Eventually, we gave it up at a shelter, but I keep coming back to that moment where I had this last exchange with the dog. We looked at each other and I realized how close I felt to her. That moment eats at me because I wonder if I did the right thing by giving her up. 

NFS: Because the film is set within such a specific and insular community, I wouldn't have guessed the dog element of the story preceded the setting.

Syeed: I had been thinking about the man and dog story for a while. The Somali community aspect of it grew out of the fact that a lot of my work is community-based. For me, the unique thing about cinema is the quality of immersion. You can transport people to a new place. I try to find communities or places that we don't often see represented, or that people don't visit. I decided to focus on this community because it's a community that's growing and vibrant, but a lot of people don't know about it, even within Minneapolis. It was a way of opening up and moving beyond people's preconceived impressions of it.

NFS: Did you spend a lot of time immersing yourself in the community in order to gain access to it in the intimate manner that's represented in the film?

Syeed: Over the past year, I've been visiting Minneapolis every few weeks. I focused a lot of my time in the youth community center that's featured in the film. It's the heart of the community because there are so many programs and events. That's actually where I met Barkhad, the lead actor. There was a town hall around housing issues and he was there with his family. I ran a program called the Muslim Youth Voices Project which brings free filmmaking workshops to youth across the country, and I decided to hold the workshop this past summer in Minneapolis. That was a great way of engaging with the community and doing something creative there. It gave me a totally different perspective than I would have had otherwise.

  "Lila [the dog] and I had a great relationship. I was a trained actor and Lila was the best actor in the movie. You can learn a lot from dogs."

Credit: "A Stray"

NFS: So much of the film hinges on Barkhad's performance. How did you recognize his potential?

Syeed: I spent time with him biking around the city and just hanging out. We shot a demo reel with him and one of my friend's dogs so I could get a sense of his physicality, his sense of improvisation. He told me a lot about his life and I tried to shape [the character] around that.
 
Barkhad: The story was already about a Somali kid and a dog by the time I got it, so I just had to put my own little weight, or swagger, as we call it, into the character. I live in the community, so I had inside knowledge. I had never been around a dog in my life and I didn't know anyone who had one in our community. Lila [the dog] and I had a great relationship. I was a trained actor and Lila was the best actor in the movie. You can learn a lot from dogs. They're such adaptable animals. 
 
NFS: In some ways, was getting to know the dog the process that actually unfolded onscreen? 

 

Barkhad: We had a lot of cheese on the set. We spoiled the dog. 

Syeed : We wanted him to have a little bit of familiarity with the dog, but not too much. They had a day together to practice with the trainer. This was the dog's first time on camera; she was usually trained for agility competitions. But really, she was just a pet. Her owners were worried about making the dog do this or that, but it was more about striking a balance. Her owners taught her how to bark on command, and she still seems hesitant to do it sometimes. Casting the dog was about finding the right personality of dog.

"We all came from documentary backgrounds, so we were comfortable being adaptive to the changes that were thrown at us."

NFS: To what extent were people from the community involved in the film's production?

Syeed: Because I spent so much time there, people came out to help me. The Imam, for example, in the film, is an actual Imam. He let us shoot in his mosque. He's very well-respected in the community. I pitched the project to him and he was interested. He said he'd give me an hour each morning to shoot the scenes, and he has a good number of scenes, so I was really worried we wouldn't finish. On the first day, he gave us a little bit more time, and then he just kept giving us more time than he planned. He's one of the best parts of the film. It means a lot to me to have been able to shoot in an actual mosque with an actual Imam. These are usually not people that a production would reach out to or engage with like this, and for him to put himself out there was really special.

Credit: "A Stray"

"It was a 15-day shoot and definitely very run-and-gun spirit. That fit with the movie, which is all about this person in perpetual motion."

NFS: You must have had a very small crew in order to be nimble and capture those city-wide experiential scenes. How many people were you?

Syeed: We had, at the most, ten people at a time, and we had several company moves each day, so we had to stay very light. Sometimes locations would fall through at the last moment, so sometimes I would show up at a location I hadn't ever seen before, so we'd have to do very quick blocking and art direction. But Jamila, our producer, Yoni Brook, the cinematographer, and I all come from documentary backgrounds, so we were pretty comfortable being that adaptable to the changes that were thrown at us. It was a 15-day shoot and definitely very run-and-gun spirit. That fit with the movie, which is all about this person in perpetual motion — at least, that's what I tell myself.

NFS: In the editing, too, it feels as if Adan is constantly in motion. How did you achieve this pacing?

Syeed: We wanted to find the right balance, so the film didn't feel too meandering. We wanted some momentum to it. We wanted every scene to feel motivated, and his arrival at every place to feel motivated.

I brought my editor to Minneapolis so that we could edit as we were shooting. He stayed in our house and edited dailies. He was a good sport about it because we set up his edit station in a windowless basement, and he didn't have a car. I ended up editing a little bit, too, because it was a lot to tackle. We split the film up into four sections and each took a pass at each section and exchanged it back and forth until we got to a good place.

NFS: I found the FBI agent character [who enlists Adan as an informant] to be one of the most interesting elements of the story. Where did you draw that inspiration from? 

Syeed: The surveillance and monitoring of communities is an issue across the country, and, in particular, the recruitment of informants has been a divisive issue. It creates a lot of suspicion within communities. FBI agents really do give informants iPhones. I wanted to show that Adan [the main character] could be a compassionate person, but that he could also think critically about these issues. A lot of time there's this binary created in film of the "good Muslim" or "bad Muslim." The "good Muslim" is happy-go-lucky and uncritical. The "bad Muslim" is outspoken, mean, or nasty. I just tried to build a real person who could feel many things, be many things, and think for themselves. It's not something that we see that often. 


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No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom    

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