There are plenty of fireworks of other kinds in Musa Syeed’s “A Stray,” but during one day of filming, the writer/director was concerned with literal ones. After discovering the Minnesota State Fair was happening nearby his Twin Cities shoot, Syeed saw an opportunity to add a little production value to the micro budget film about a Somali refugee named Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman) adjusting to his new life in Minneapolis when he unexpectedly inherits a dog he looks to quickly divest himself of, given how he’s barely able to take care of himself.
“We just showed up there, and were waiting and waiting and waiting, and then we said, ‘It’s too late, let’s just go,’” recalls Syeed, a day after the film’s premiere at SXSW. “We were walking back with our equipment to the car, and then all of the sudden, [the fireworks] started and we just moved the camera [from the original spot]. It actually became a much better composition.”
“I almost took my clothes off!” enthuses Abdirahman, still giddy from the night all these months later.
This kind of happenstance was likely key to making “A Stray” feel so lively and unexpected, a tale from the Midwest that hasn’t been told before of its quite vibrant Muslim community, just one of many cultures taking root in America’s heartland and a creating a community of their own. Syeed, who came to narratives from documentaries, has followed up his Spirit Award-nominated “Valley of Saints” with another slice of life that feels as if it’s been captured rather than produced. Over the course of a day, “A Stray” follows Adan throughout the city, stopping by mosques and community centers, visited upon by the FBI, hustling college students, finding a sympathetic ear with some Native Americans, and generally trying to keep his head above water as he’s sought out for all the wrong reasons.
As the filmmakers roll into Minneapolis again this week for the film’s premiere at the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival, Syeed, Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed, who plays one of Adan’s few confidants in the film, spoke about the rare opportunity to depict an underrepresented population, how reality and fiction intertwined and the right way to work with a dog.
Musa Syeed: My work is mostly very community-based and I like to find communities that I create a film around. I had been through Minneapolis on a road trip a few years ago and I was very interested to get to know more about this community [since] it was a community not a lot people knew about, or have a lot of representation in film. Even though it’s a fairly young community, it’s a built a lot of institutions — not just restaurants and mosques, but a museum and other things that helped really visualize the identity issues that are being navigated. Having all that made it easier to make the film real.
Barkhad and Faysal, how did you get involved in this?
Barkhad Abdirahman: The minute I read the script, I really liked it and I really wanted to be a part of it. It was touching on all the the topics that I was interested in as an actor.
Faisal Ahmed: [Barkhad] called me on my phone one night and he was telling me, hey there’s this project about this, and he actually made very interested in it. And I was like, “All right, I’ll do it, just because of what you told me. I’ll believe you.” So that’s the way I went with it, but the more I got involved, and I met Musa, and I talked to Jamilia [Wignot], the producer, it really felt like it was the right thing. It was hard to pass up, because to be a Somali actor, it’s very rare [to read a script with Somali characters].
Barkhad Abdirahman: And the fact that it’s being shot within the community.
Faysal Ahmed: Yeah, the community, which is an area we grew up, that part was like, you can’t refuse it.
Musa, once you had Barkhad and some of the actors who came from the area, did you actually involve them in the development of the script?
Musa Syeed: Yeah, I started going to Minneapolis last January, every few weeks and sometimes a month at a time, just volunteering at events, or going to different dinners or community events to get a sense of what’s going on. I would talk to people or interview them informally. Then I wrote the script, and I met [Barkhad] in April, and shared the script with him and a few others, and got a lot of feedback. Even as we were shooting it, we were constantly work shopping things, and we did rehearsals.
Especially with the first scene in the movie [where they’re fooling around], we got all those guys together and they were just riffing on each other, and I would observe, letting them do their thing, and shaping the scene around their dynamics. With Barkhad, the more I let go, the better the performance and the dynamics of the relationships [became] because obviously they bring their life experiences, and as much time as I could have spent, it wouldn’t have been the same as what they brought to it.
Barkhad Abdirahman: You adjust the character to the way you want it and the way he wants it, put it together, and that’s when the magic happens.
It looked like some of those scenes on the street, you were interacting with real people. Was that the case?
Musa Syeed: Yeah, there were some scenes with college students on the street, where we were just let [Barkhad] do his thing, talking to people. With the Native American community, some of them were actors, but some of them were regular people and for that conversation [scene], I had something scripted — like a half-page script — but we just let the cameras roll and let them talk about what they wanted to talk about, and it became a whole different kind of scene. For me, for me, that was about knowing what a scene could be about, and just seeing where it could go once we’re in the moment on location.
That’s one of the film’s most fascinating scenes since it deals with immigration from two completely opposite perspectives, yet there’s a complete understanding. How much of the seed was there?
Musa Syeed: It was something I didn’t really know about beforehand, but as I was walking around [Minneapolis], I noticed there was a large Native American population and eventually, I found out it’s the largest urban population of Native Americans in the country. There’s actually a little bit of tension between the Somali community and the Native American community — their neighborhoods butt up against each other, and between two groups that might be marginalized, as happened in the past with African Americans and the Irish, there’s sometimes tensions between these two communities, so I thought it would be cool to write a scene that showed some interaction that wasn’t necessarily awe-inspiringly positive, but that also wasn’t violent.
I was working with Rhiana Yazzie, our script supervisor who is an actor and also a director of New Native Theatre, a theatre group in Minnesota, and I just told her the idea that I had generally – this passing encounter with one Native American guy in a wheelchair — and she was pitching me on making it a bigger group of people. Then she invited me to sit with a group of her friends and they gave me input, so we worked out the scene a little bit. When we shot it, again, I had this half-page script, but I let them talk and it became more interesting once they were just saying the things that they wanted to say because they often don’t get the chance to really sit down and talk to each other in that way. Suddenly, they were talking about the misconceptions that they have about each other, about taxes or welfare, and those kinds of things, and it became a very real conversation.
One of the things I really loved about this film was how you used the architecture of the city and the lights to make it feel like a cage. How did the visual approach come about?
Musa Syeed: Part of it was just from the schedule, which was really changing from day to day, sometimes hour to hour, and having to [shoot] documentary-style, which is the background the cinematographer Yoni Brook and I have. We wanted to work quickly, but keep the camera a little fluid and use natural light. But the architecture — the geometry of the Riverside [Plaza] towers, where a lot of the community lives, has a very distinct look to it, a very defined grid pattern, which is very recognizable, and it says a lot about the design around how people are meant to live. There was something restrictive about it, but at the same time, the people still make it their own. People find a way to live within the strict geometry of the architecture they find themselves in.
The story so fluidly throughout each area of the community, did the locations actually dictate the structure?
Musa Syeed: I tried to make as it location-specific as possible and [we’d ask ourselves], was it realistic that he would reach this place by this time? The more that we shot, the reality of place to place it changed a little bit, but locally, people will recognize locations and it’ll make sense to them. Most of the crew is from Minneapolis, so we relied a lot on them to inform us.
What it was like working with the dog?
Barkhad Abdirahman: He had his troubles in the beginning, but it worked out because he was very well-trained, and it was great working with him. We came to an understanding at the end. We needed a lot of treats in order for him to perform well, but it was good.
Musa Syeed: Yeah, she was great. There were a couple of moments where, as a dog, you can’t expect her to be an actor all of the time, and she would see a squirrel and totally focused on the squirrel…
Faysal Ahmed: Instantly!
Musa Syeed: That’s her instinct, so we had to wait until the squirrels were gone, and we had [production assistants] chase them away, up into the trees. There were also certain stunts that we had planned, so we had to work around her abilities. But we cast a dog that people could relate to, that we could look into its eyes and feel a presence there, so she definitely had that.
As is pointed out in the film, the dog isn’t allowed into several places because of its religious significance. Did that actually make it difficult when you were going into some of those same places to shoot?
Musa Syeed: Yeah, that was interesting. Dogs in general [represent] a convergence of a lot of cultural and religious attitudes, so there’s a lot of different reactions that people have to them, but when we were shooting in the community center, for example, the dog owners brought in [our dog] covered up in her kennel so that no one could see her coming in, then they actually wouldn’t let us shoot in that bathroom there, so we shot it in another community center and made it look like it was theirs. We didn’t want to offend people, so we tried to keep it out of sight as much as possible.
Barkhad is in every scene of this movie. Was it a different experience carrying the film on your shoulders?
Barkhad Abdirahman: It was difficult, especially because it was the first time I worked with animal on screen. That weighed on me a lot in this movie and I had to adapt to the situation we were in. And it’s a very emotional movie, but at the end, it worked out beautifully and hopefully it will touch people’s hearts.
Musa Syeed: The first morning of the shoot, [we started at] 3 am or something, for one of those early morning shots, and [Barkhad] and I just to get started, sprinted down the river to get our energy up. It was like it never slowed down after that. It felt like we were just running for the next 15 days.
What was the premiere like for you?
Barkhad Abdirahman: I was overwhelmed. When I came to the stage, I was actually nervous, and they gave me the mic to speak, and I was speechless. It captured the whole Southside.
Musa Syeed: I’m not from [Minnesota], but going into it, the stereotypes that people have of it, like of Fargo, you think like tall, blonde-haired people, which there are, but there’s also this huge African community, a big Native American community, a big Hmong community, and that’s like the changing face of America in general, especially in the Midwest. It’s different than what it was 50 years ago, and we have to embrace that, know that’s the way things really are, and you don’t often get to see that.
Faysal Ahmed: Seeing it for the first time, I was actually moved because whatever I expected to happen, it was totally different. It caught me by surprise and I was really happy at the end [because] I believe that it sends you to a different life. It shows a lot about the Somali community and basically just gives people a peek of how our life is, being there [in Minneapolis].