An Interview with A STRAY’S Musa Syeed, Barkhad Abdirahman, & Faysal Ahmed

This week at SXSW, I had the privilege of speaking with director Musa Syeed about his film, A Stray, which premiered at the festival. Two of his actors, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed, joined us to talk about their experiences with and hopes for the film.

Talk about your journey to this story.

MUSA: I wanted to do a man and dog story, partially from my personal experience of my wife rescuing a stray dog. Pretty soon after we got married, she found this dog sleeping under her car. It was very dirty and malnourished, so she took it in. We’re both Muslim, and I grew up in a household that was averse to having dogs around. At first, I was concerned with us taking it in. As she started to nurse the dog back to health, it became this really cheerful puppy and was really excited all the time and peeing everywhere. I was like, “What are my ancestors going to think of us having this dog around?”

We were developing this relationship, and then we were moving back to the east coast—we were living in Phoenix at the time—and we couldn’t take the dog with us. So I took the dog to the shelter, think that someone would adopt this cute dog. I took it to the shelter, and I had this moment where I realized that I was saying goodbye to this creature that I had developed this unexpected relationship with. I look back at that moment and think, “Did I do the right thing? What happened to her? Where is she now?” Soon after that, when we were moving, I saw a dog in the street that looked like her, and I chased the people down to find out if it was the same dog. But it was a different dog, but it made me think about what happened to her.

a stray

The man and dog story is such an archetypal thing. It’s a classic story that can be told in a lot of different ways. And with a new generation of Americans—like us—we can tell that story from our perspective and maybe re-investigate our tradition. There are obviously some religious opinions about the impurity of dogs and that kind of thing, but a lot of this is a cultural attitude that is a result of identity politics or post-colonial mentalities or these kinds of things, rather than just about religion. But it has been conflated with all these other things, making it more complicated than it really is. It was easy for me to say, “That’s an impure dog, get it out of here. I’m a good Muslim.” The harder thing is to actually work on one’s character. You can make the dog a scapegoat, but what am I actually doing to be a decent person?

So obviously this is a personal connection for Musa. Barkhad and Faysal, what attracted you to the project?

FAISAL: Personally, it was the neighborhood the story takes place in. It’s a place where I grew up. I was there since 1999, and I still have family and friends that live there. The other thing is that it talks about our background as Somali-American. We [he and Barkhad] actually both lived through [similar situations], and we totally understand [them]. We wanted to share that with everybody, to [give] them a peek into our life.

BARKHAD: I grew up in the neighborhood as well, and this film is touching on the things that are happening to the youth there. The character’s basically 18 years old, and it shows you how hard his life is, and how hard it is to achieve the small things like getting an apartment. It shows you how it is to be Muslim and black from that neighborhood and how hard it is to make it out.

FAISAL: And it also shows the lack of opportunity that we have. There is a lot of stuff that could help that community, like more [social] programs. The most we can do now is to give everyone an idea and to have both sides look at each other and come up with a result.

Musa, can you talk about what drew you to this setting. It’s a story that could, in a way, work in multiple places given its archetypal nature.

MUSA: I decided to set the film there because most of my work is about Muslim communities and identity. In America, many people have the image of me—a brown guy with a beard or whatever—and, for me, part of my pride in being Muslim is the diversity of the Muslim world. I want people to think about Muslims looking like many different things. For me, it was an exploration of a different community that I felt a connection to through being Muslim, but I also had a lot to learn about how to portray it and what issues and themes to focus on. I like to try to immerse an audience in a sense of place and have that specificity. Part of the joy for me was building those relationships and learning new things and meeting new people and first immersing myself in place before trying to figure out how to do that on camera.

And that comes through in the film. One of its many strengths is how you resist over-dramatizing or over-politicizing the narrative. When the film features those religious or political moments, they feel more effective because of the way you’ve established the characters’ lived experiences. And obviously faith plays a huge role in that. Talk about your approach to faith in the film.

MUSA: Part of what inspired this film was a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and the way that she writes about faith is so real. It can be ugly sometimes, but it can be very beautiful and it’s always very sincere, because she herself was such a strong Catholic. Reading O’Connor’s stories gave me a sense of confidence in how I could portray the lived experience of faith [differently] than it has been. Growing up there have been some Muslim films that are maybe a little cheesy in the way they portray faith: “If you do just this one thing, you’ll be okay.” God works in mysterious ways, of course, so how does that play out in someone’s real life, and what does that sort of negotiation like?

Part of my approach was that, in a film, people expect this three act structure with clear character arcs, but real spiritual journeys are a lot of push and pull and back and forth and up and down. Religion is not a race, it’s a marathon. You’ll get ahead sometimes, you’ll fall behind sometimes. I was trying to map that out in this film a little bit, and that’s why it has its own kind of rhythm, which doesn’t adhere to the usual three-act structure. It was important for me to show this back and forth and that he [lead character Adan] is ultimately moving—in constant motion—whether forwards or backwards, even though I feel like there’s a general forward trajectory.

attends the premiere of "A Stray" during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Vimeo on March 13, 2016 in Austin, Texas.
The cast and crew attends the premiere of “A Stray” during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Vimeo on March 13, 2016 in Austin, Texas.

I find it interesting that you bring up cheesy Muslim films, because there are far too many of those types of films coming out of Christian communities. As I’ve said before, yours feels more authentic. Can you talk more about that tension between, say, propaganda films and authentically religious films?  

MUSA: I think those propaganda films come from a place of weakness, where people feel like they have to prove something, get validation in some way, or affirm something. I think part of making this film was also feeling like this story has worth, and I don’t need other people’s validation for it. This character and his journey are important, and I know that, and I’m going to show it in the most real way I can.

FAISAL: I love the fact that it portrays a Somali character, and it basically brings out that community. It’s way of bringing out the new America. We are Muslim, and we are black, and we have our struggle. Even though we all have differences, the good will outweigh the bad.

Speaking of differences, this is such a timely film given all that is going on in the political sphere, much of which seems foreign to the view of the United States I had growing up. In elementary school, we were taught to celebrate diversity, which is something that made the United States great. Now there seems to be a desire on the part of many Americans to embrace a more monolithic American identity. Of course this attitude can be found in Christianity, Islam, and other religions as well.

MUSA: It’s a relief to know that I don’t have to fight for relevance in this confusion that’s going on, because those voices are going to do what they’re doing. I should continue to do what I find authentic and [work on] what I’m drawn to. I want to share with and connect with people, but I don’t want to get wrapped up in that echo chamber of arguments.

What I appreciate so much in your film is the tension between selfishness and selflessness. In the film, Adan is told that God helps those who help themselves. But the film ultimately suggests that God helps those who help others. And the major faith traditions take it even further. We are called to love and care for even our enemies.

MUSA: The hard things that we need to do aren’t always in front of us all the time. Every moment there is a chance to do something saintly, to do something beautiful. What choices do we make? I was trying to focus the film on these really small moments where the character has to make these really big decisions, and hopefully, by the end of it, he has reached a saintly status through the decision that he’s made.

Let’s turn back to one of the political elements of the film, particularly in the character of the agent that convinces Adan to spy on his friends. This puts him in an impossible and, many people might say, an unjust position. Talk about how hard that can be for young Muslim men who are just trying to make it in the world.

FAISAL: That does happen in the community, especially with the youth. We heard stories about young people getting an iPhone for being an informant for the FBI. It’s kind of sad to play on their insecurities. I don’t think that’s right, and we wanted to show that.

MUSA: I went to a meeting with Muslim youth, and someone said that, to the “man,” I’m either a terrorist or an informant. There’s no in between [in terms] of what I can be to them. Where is that middle ground? Can Muslims be critical of policy and still not be considered a threat? Can we speak too loudly? Are people going to be scared? Especially for a vulnerable community like this, which is fairly new to America, where many elders might not know their rights fully, there is an impulse to be quiet and not cause a stir. That’s part of the way we wanted to treat that and to carve out a middle space of what he [Adan] could be. He can be his own person and have his own thoughts.

It’s clear you were very intentional in making this film. But how did this film surprise you? In what ways do you see the world differently as a result of this experience?

BARKHAD: Mine was the interaction with the dog. It changed my vision of dogs. It moved me into that place of liking dogs and to seeing another way [of interacting with them]. It helped me see the importance of having a pet.

FAISAL: For me, it was the interaction with the Native Americans [actors in the film], who said, “Well the government helps you.” The first thing that came to my mind was that I came to America as an asylum seeker. No one gave me that house. I had to basically share a house with my family, and, from that point on, we worked hard. There’s no freebies. Being here in America, you have to work for yourself. That’s how it was since day one, and no one gets a break. But I also didn’t know about the difficulties that they have now day to day. That I didn’t know either. It was a learning experience from that point.

MUSA: In making the film, I had to be more open from the beginning. This community has been so misrepresented by the media. They welcomed me, but they held me responsible. They gave me a lot feedback. I had to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know everything.” I’m here to learn and had to let the story be shaped by the crew, which was really diverse, Muslim, Native American, Asian, white, black. Having those people around helped inform the film. Diversity is not just a moral thing. Having different perspectives gives you different solutions you’ve never thought of before. It was different from ways I had worked before. I had to let myself be open to that feedback even more. It was moreso a collaboration.

What are your hopes for the film moving forward?

MUSA [laughing]: We just say, “Inshallah.” It’ll be fun to travel with it some more.