Burn Country, inspired by a harrowing personal tragedy, took an emotional toll on those making it.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.]
Western journalists can't just fly into war-torn countries and waltz around with Google Translate. Fixers, or local civilians recruited to help reporters, serve as a beacon of light in foreign waters. They utilize their network to pull favors and their intimate knowledge of the area to orient the journalists. Their translation can mean the difference between life and death—say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and there can be no going back.
Ian Olds was making a documentary about the relationship between an Afghani fixer, Ajmal Naqshbandi, and a journalist on assignment from The Nation, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, when tragedy struck. While Olds was stateside raising funds to finish the film, Mastrogiacomo and Naqshbandi were kidnapped by the Taliban. "[Italy] traded five Taliban prisoners for the western journalist, and he was freed," remembers Olds. "Our friend the fixer was beheaded and murdered by the Taliban. It was disgusting. Totally brutal and heartbreaking."
Olds learned about the kidnapping through a ransom video the Taliban posted in which Mastrogiacomo is seen begging for his life. "Off camera, you could hear the voice of our friend, the fixer," Olds said. "It was a really disturbing reminder of the primacy of the western journalists as opposed to the locals."
Fixers are intelligent journalists in their own right, and this fact often falls upon western history's deaf ears. Olds had this in mind when he decided to make Burn Country, a narrative film he hoped would be different from anything he'd attempted to make—and anything that had ever been written.
Starring Dominic Rains, James Franco, Melissa Leo, and Rachel Brosnahan, Burn Country tells the story of a man's life in America after leaving his career as a fixer in Afghanistan behind. But rather than settle into the stereotypical immigrant narrative, which can neglect to address nuance, Olds chose to complicate the story by turning the lens on a small American town. When Osman (Rains) takes a job as a police blotter for the town's local newspaper, he stumbles upon some dark secrets. Without the constant deluge of violence and the specter death that accompanies life in a war zone, Osman must grapple with his newfound existential dilemma.
No Film School sat down with Olds and Rains after the film's premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss his sensitive and insightful portrait of a man facing an alternate reality.
"In film school they tell you, 'You have to always stay with the point of view of the main character.' I've always thought that was total bullshit."
NFS: How did your experience shooting the documentary in Afghanistan inform this film?
Olds: We went back to tell the fixer's story, but that was the end of doing documentaries in war zones for me. I was over that period of my life. I always knew I wanted to do fiction film and was trying to find a story that I really believed in. I'd left the war zones, but those stories still hadn't quite left me.
Olds: We helped one of our other fixers get asylum in Europe, or at least were able to provide supporting documents for him. Once he got there, he didn't really know what he wanted to do with himself. He'd spent his entire life trying to get out of Afghanistan and was now confronting this quieter existential dilemma. I knew I didn't want to make a documentary about him; I didn't even want to make a fiction film that was trying to mirror his life exactly. It was just that circumstance that stuck with me and the realization that you never see stories about Afghans through that lens. You always see stories of dealing with war or war trauma.
My writing partner and I thought, "What if we looked at this character with this rich experience?" Initial attempts created more conventional kinds of immigrant stories and we just didn't think they were good enough. We kept writing and writing.
NFS: What kind of things did you do in the writing process to break free of the stereotypical immigrant story?
Olds: That's a good question. We always assumed that every character has a complex inner life and is striving to become the fullest expression of himself. It's not about someone who's trying to simply "make it" or assimilate.
We had a couple of breakthroughs: one was to bring this fictional character into where I grew up, or a version of it. Two, to make this reversal and realize that as opposed to telling a story about a western journalist exploring some foreign land, we had the opportunity to tell a story about an Afghan journalist reporting on America. That shifted things for us and gave us a new way to explore this character and also to put a lens back on this strange corner of America.
My Afghan friends would keep saying, "I hate being pitied." There are all these stories where it's, "Oh, the poor Afghan," or the Afghan is seen as the victim of war or the victim of history. Where is the sense of humor? Where is the conflicted inner life? Where is this sexuality?
"I want to create films where there's a sense that life is going on outside the edges of the frame."
We started by saying, "This is a complex human being who happens to be Afghan," as opposed to, "Let's write an Afghan." In some ways, that was the freeing part of it. At the same time, we had to acknowledge that this person has a different history. It's not as if this is just another American. It's that balance of taking someone who has that specific history, but treating him as a complex human being amidst a dramatic story.
NFS: Dominic, what about the character resonated with you?
Rains: My background is Iranian and although I grew up in the West, I had a good foundation of what my culture was. I bounced from school to school as a youngster. I was a brown boy from the East in the middle of the Gulf War in a Texas town that was conservative and within the Bible Belt, which was tough. What that created in me was a heightened state of survival. In order to survive, I needed to fit in. How would I fit in? It was trying to change my dialect, trying to dress a certain way. There was this emphasis, a deep desire to press forward and to not let any of it get to me, although it was getting to me and [I was] pushing down a lot of that struggle and that pain.
I found that very similar to Osman's struggle. There's a lot happening to him that he's absorbing. He's taking the hits. Animals deal with trauma by shaking it off. Humans, unfortunately, absorb it and let it sit. We push it down. Very rarely do we go off in a corner and shake it out, so to speak. I find that very [true] with Middle Easterners—men, specifically.
Rains: Burn Country really informed a lot of what was going on with me. I was dealing with death at the time, and Osman is, too. He is moving away from it and trying to seek an answer from it, but the seeking of an answer is almost like allowing it to be a fantasy. The answer doesn't exist, but he wants to know what it is so it doesn't overwhelm him.
He's trying to deal with death the best he can. He's come from a country where he's escaped death over and over. That consistent trauma, the effect it has on us emotionally, but then what we do in order to survive with all this angst and trepidation within ourselves?
One of my favorite quotes, which is a quote that actually guided me through this process with Ian, is by Carl Jung: "When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate." I felt like that's what's happened with Osman.
Olds: If this character has a flaw, it's the inability to contend with his own pain. That aspect is what leads him to charge forward to keep going and going and going. We never expected this to be on a surface level for the audience, but on a deep, primal level, he is someone who is trying to free himself from death. He wants to fix it, get to the bottom of it. To penetrate the mystery so I can know how to live, be here, but what happens when you get to the bottom and there is no bottom? You can't fix it. Then you're contending with this existential crisis and have to decide how to live on past that.
"It's not simply about trying to just tell a dramatic story; it's about trying to create a world, and a deeply human journey that passes through that world."
NFS: Did any of your experiences as a documentarian inform the way that you shot the film or approached the production?
Olds: Yes, a little bit. I was filming in Iraq in a barracks and I remember filming the scene and hearing, off camera, something really interesting going on. I couldn't point the camera at it yet. Eventually, we slowly find our way over to this thing and it was a profound realization for me about the value of off-camera things. I think a lot about that as a director; I want to create films where there's a sense that life is going on outside the edges of the frame.
You come into a scene and we can imagine a very specific world happening in there. Our scene passes through it and as it leaves, there's a whole other world going on after that. I resist hermetically sealed films that are too simplistic and don't seem to evoke a larger life. It's not simply about trying to just tell a dramatic story; it's about trying to create a world and a deeply human journey that passes through that world.
NFS: I'm thinking of an interesting shot in the film where you show us Osman's car driving up a driveway, but then suddenly the camera moves backward and we are following a different—empty— road.
Olds: In film school they tell you, "You have to always stay with the point of view of the main character." I've always thought that was total bullshit. It's a simplistic way of thinking and that's not the way the world works. There are ways of shifting perspective that allow you to ask, "What's going on here? Why am I down this road and not with this other person?" It creates a tension that I think is useful. It also expresses that the world is broader than just this experience.
NFS: And it makes you consider different outcomes.
Olds: Exactly. Different roads taken.
NFS: What do you think was the biggest challenge in making this film?
Rains: Poison Oak.
Olds: It was daunting because we were—and this is sort of obvious—trying to make a film of [a small] scope with a limited budget. That manifested in many, many locations for a small film. People kept telling me, "Just combine this and do this." I'm quite stubborn and I was like, "No, we've got to do this."
We had such a great crew that people rallied to do it, but the only way we could do it was because people were so committed and thought we were making something special, from the actors to the crew. By the end, we were asking people to do really long nights and continuous night shoots. People were in physical pain, but they kept working. Someone told me later that they were thinking about getting shirts that said, "Burn Country broke me."