Bentley Brown, director of the exciting new film ‘Faisal Goes West’, spoke with me about migration, building a cinematic bridge between Sudan and America, and lawyers turned pizza delivery boys.
Could you tell me a bit about how ‘Faisal Goes West’ came about?
Well, the story is about Faisal, a young man in a family who move from Sudan to the US. We never specifically mention why they move from Sudan to America, but it’s implicit; in the US, its usually the case that if you come from that part of the world, you either come on a green card lottery visa, or seeking political asylum, claiming refugee status. But, in the film, we never specifically address this. We don’t want to get into politics, we want to tell the global story of migration.
In this way, the film highlights a more global story, of human (in)equality, the dignity and indignity of the migrant experience, as you know — especially in the US and parts of Europe, people coming from Africa are often profiled in a negative light, never given the benefit of the doubt that they are intellectual human beings. This is something our film feel seeks to question. Specifically, in ‘Faisal Goes West’ we are focusing on a reality in America, on the absolute over qualification of immigrants. For example, in the story Faisal’s father was a professor in Sudan, but now in America, he is first a mechanic, then a taxi driver. This mirrors the lives of many people who arrive, in fact one of our main actors has a similar experience himself; he came on a green card lottery from being a lawyer in Sudan, now he’s delivering pizzas.
In an interview with the BBC, you said something that interested me; you said, ‘we’ve always been migrating’. How do you think your film distils this general fact of contemporary existence into the singular story of Faisal?
Well, I wrote the film based on my experience moving from the US to Chad. My main actor, who is Sudanese born, moved to Egypt and then to Kansas. All of us involved had something particular to us, and this experience to draw upon. We had all moved from one place to another; there is a shared sentiment, a shared approach.
But even overall, America is a land of immigrants, though it seems to forget this on a daily basis. People are very fast to forget their migrant histories — anywhere in the world in fact … Sudan, Chad, anywhere. In that interview with the BBC, I said, “there is no such thing as a native”, and behind the glass my executive producer, who is from Sudan but living in the UK was waving his arms in panic, telling me not to say this, there are whole political parties based on the idea of native.
But for me it’s a myth, I mean the US brags about its constitution, showing off about tolerance and equality — but it still promotes this shocking notion of an American identity and ethics. So, I think this film speaks to two kinds of audience in the US. Firstly, to a generation of migrants, for whom there are direct parallels with the story told in the film. The second audience are the Americans who don’t really have a conception of their migration to the US: America is very quick to assimilate. In the 60s and 70s, immigrants specifically moved away from speaking any languages other than English, but this is an important debate; should other languages should be ‘official’ US languages; Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Spanish?
So I want the film to be a window into the American experience — a window into a life that happens every day, but isn’t really noticed.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the cast? How did you all come together?
I have worked a little bit in political analysis, but my passion is filmmaking, ever since growing up in Chad, I made films. I have a firm belief in art; art as a way to transcend politics, or stereotypes, to transcend the imagined boundaries we have between us, and to deal with the problems and questions that politics throws up.
When we had our fundraiser on kickstarter — I had a lot of people contact me who wanted to get involved in some way, lots of people — from Sudan, from the Sudanese diasporas, people from the US. That’s how we found our lead actor: at first, he wanted to donate some music, but instead we asked him to audition. Funnily, I had two pitch videos; one in Arabic and one in English. The English speaking one had at most 2000 hits, but the the Arabic one got 250 000 hits, but that’s not the original video I made, instead it was continual re-edits that people made; downloading and re-naming, re-cutting. It was brilliant, bringing people together to contribute, to discuss. After all, identity is only what we make of it.
And when can we expect to see the film?
We’re at the rough cut right now, we’re in the Cannes short film corner in a couple of weeks. The biggest thing for us is that we don’t want to compromise the film’s quality; we want some time, to compose, to finish the music and sound. There are so many contributions by Sudanese and American artists … it’s all very exciting.
As a medium length feature, our most natural market will be TV; in Chad, Sudan, the Middle East, network channels. In the US, it will be limited to smaller independent networks. One of the things that is on our side is the shifting away from DVDs to film on demand — we can reach the whole world with that.
After all, I want this film to be a platform, to get people to work together, to talk, to discuss through the power of drama, this fictional story. When I wanted to tell this story, fiction was the first that came to mind; it allows limitless freedoms. I love to give everyone involved freedom, to improvise and author the story in their own way.