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A Top Director Takes A New Look At Somalia With Tribeca Short, "Asad"

How a documentary for the UNHCR about Sudanese refugees prompted a director known for his blockbuster Super Bowl ads to bring humanity and humor to the story of Somalia.

For most people, any associations with Somalia likely involve warlords, pirates, and the ravages of famine. Or maybe K’naan. News coverage brings headlines of terrorism in Mogadishu by Al-Shabaab militants, or of outlaws taking hostages on any boat that dares veer near Somali waters.

Rarely, however, do we hear human stories about the hope or humor of the Somali people, which is what makes the short film Asad—screening at the Tribeca Film Festival this week—so interesting.

The short film was directed by Bryan Buckley, an A-List commercials director best known for his big ticket Super Bowl spots. Set in a Somali fishing village, Asad follows the titular character as he faces a choice: to follow the village’s young men into a life of piracy or to become an honest fisherman. The film begins with a pint-sized Asad eagerly following the older boys to the shore. Wanting to join them in their pirating excursion, he’s beckoned by an old fisherman intent on keeping him on the straight-and-narrow who gives him a huge fish for his family and the village market. When a run-in with a visiting militant group causes Asad to sacrifice the large catch to save his friend’s life, he’s forced out to sea to provide food for his community. The biggest problem? He’s never caught anything. At sea, Asad faces the brutal realities of the pirating life and finds his way through the discovery of a truly remarkable creature: a ridiculous white Persian cat, dressed in a sailor suit, no less. Asad may return home without any food, but his most unusual catch helps define him as the most extraordinary "fisherman."

While the politics and hardships of Somalia are central figures in the film, they merely support the fable of a young boy at a crossroads, making it a delightfully unexpected story. Buckley avoids making any judgment or moral statement on piracy; instead it’s presented the way it actually is—as a simple fact of life.

"Somalia is a bizarre world where in their communities piracy can be accepted as just a job, an acceptable profession, to a degree. The pirates are just trying to survive because there is simply no economy or industry there," says Buckley, explaining that piracy’s roots were in the efforts of fishermen to protect their waters from foreign trollers and polluters, both of which virtually killed off their fish stocks.

"The piracy thing quickly escalated. When the rebels started noticing there was money in it they started hiring the fishermen to do the work. All of a sudden it was a better-financed operation," Buckley says. "No one was supposed to die, but then they started going after tankers. Then when [American tanker] the Maersk Alabama was hit, that all changed. It was no longer just fisherman but organized crime. In the movie I wanted to keep it to the innocence of fishing and to show some of the humor that exists within the culture."

Buckley first became interested in telling a story about Somalia when he was invited to Kenya by the UN High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) to film a documentary called No Autographs about the return of NBA player Luol Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, to his home country. As part of the film, the crew visited Kakuma Refugee Camp, which houses over 46,000 people. The camp had long been a home to primarily refugees of the Sudanese civil war, but Buckley was struck by the influx of Somali refugees coming to the camp, which in 2009 numbered 11,358—nearly ten times more than from any other country. He was also affected by the resilience, resourcefulness, and the amazing stories of the people he met in the camp.

"Our perception of that country is formed entirely by CNN reports. There’s no snapshot of the people," says Buckley, noting the lack of a filmed material on everyday life in Somalia; even foreign journalists don’t report from inside because of the extreme danger. "So you’re talking about, in this modern age, a place that no one really knows anything about and the media stories about piracy and famine are all you have to work off. And humor, which to me is something that the Somalis really have, is not going to be found in a news report for CNN."

Needless to say, Asad was not filmed in Somalia (the shoot took place in South Africa) but it did include an all-Somali refugee cast. The main character and his friend, whose life is saved by the sacrifice of fish, were in fact brothers from the interior of the country and they’d never seen the sea. While it might be surprising that someone from a country with over 2,000 miles of coastline and notorious for maritime piracy had never seen the sea, Buckley was further surprised by the fact that the children, Harun Mohammed (13) and Ali Mohammed (11), were not literate in any language and had never been to any school, ever. And as refugees in South Africa, they were deemed too old to go to school. He responded by starting a school for the brothers, who both finished first grade within a week. "It’s really amazing to see them learn," says Buckley. "If you can educate leaders, and these kids have the potential to be leaders, then you can bring about change—that’s my hope."

This desire to effect change in whatever way possible continues to fuel Buckley’s fascination with Somalia. Throughout the process of making Asad, the director relied heavily on Jay Bahadur’s book Pirates of Somalia for authenticity. An independent journalist, Bahadur is one of the only people to have spent significant time inside Somalia, learning about and reporting on the lives of pirates. Buckley has since obtained the rights to the book and is planning to turn it into a feature film.

"Doing this film furthered the concept to me as a filmmaker—as a person, really—if you have the ability, you can actually shed light and add humanity to a place like Somalia. It might have an impact on someone and compel them to act," he says. "Most people’s cinematic perception of Somalia is Black Hawk Down. The next movie coming out (Captain Phillips) is about the Alabama and Tom Hanks is the captain, and we all know the movie. We just know it. It’s a U.S. cinema perspective. But I like the idea that we can go and tell a universal story like this one, you can learn about a culture, bring it to life, and get it in front of people."

Asad premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21 and is screening through this week.

No Autographs, Bryan Buckley’s short film about Luol Deng’s return to Sudan, on behalf of UNHCR.

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