Interview: Bassam Tariq on Going Back to Old Haunts for “Ghosts of Sugar Land”

Of all the days it would be convenient for Bassam Tariq to return to his hometown of Sugar Land, Texas, to shoot a short film, it was Independence Day weekend, and like any filmmaker, Tariq was looking for ways to squeeze as much production value as he could out of the sleepy Houston suburb.

“It’s July 4th and we knew fireworks would crack off in some mall, somewhere, so we just had to find the right one,” says the director, who would’ve hardly lacked for pyrotechnics in “Ghosts of Sugar Land” even if he didn’t find some revelers launching sparklers into the sky from a Kohl’s parking lot.

Capturing a place where residents often make their own fun, the filmmaker who previously, with co-director Omar Mullick immersed audiences in the streets of Karachi in “These Birds Walk,” is able to give a lay of the land that you wouldn’t be able to summon from walking around, but is just as present as any physical structure in the area, if not more so. After following the increasingly erratic online behavior of a friend from high school, a convert to the Nation of Islam whose declaration that he wanted to join ISIS attracted the attention of U.S. authorities, Tariq finds an intriguing entry point into something even more fascinating as he gathers his pals from high school for an informal reunion to reminisce about “Mark,” an alias used in the film for their friend, and consider the ways in which he may have been radicalized, recalling him as an easily influenced teen who gravitated towards the rapidly growing Middle Eastern community in Sugar Land when there were few other African-Americans like himself in the neighborhood and took an interest in the Muslim faith stronger than his new friends who had grown up with it.

“Ghosts of Sugar Land” eerily approximates the kind of common conversations that are had between classmates about a friend they lost track of, with speculation often leading to eventual soul-searching about what role they may have played in their personal evolution. However, it’s even more remarkable in conveying a greater truth about the communities that have developed inside America to give it such diverse richness without really able to call it home, as Tariq sets his sit-down interviews in mundane scenes from an American town such as a convenience store or a mall parking lot, places that look familiar to all yet take on a foreign quality with this context, and all the interviewees wear masks out of caution, so as not to be associated with Mark, but the anonymity of imposed visages of Kylo Ren and Spider-Man also suggests a conformity to the larger culture that doesn’t sit quite right.

The absurdity of Mark’s situation might have been initially thought to warrant a comedy, but in fact what Tariq depicts, albeit with good humor, could easily be read as a tragedy, with those in a predominant societal position failing to make minorities feel like anything besides the other under a constantly watchful eye. It’s a film that lingers in the mind well beyond its 22-minute run time and after playing to great acclaim on the festival circuit, “Ghosts of Sugar Land” recently began streaming on Netflix. To mark the occasion, it was a great privilege to catch up with Tariq, currently at work on his narrative feature debut “Mughal Mowgli,” to talk about finding such a strong story in his hometown and the opportunities he seized upon to tell it as boldly as possible.

How did this come about?

I went to high school in Sugar Land and these are all my friends I grew up with, so Mark, the guy that’s missing, went to a neighboring school and he was friends with [the person in the film who wears a mask of] Kylo Ren and Kylo Ren then brought Mark along to our house, so Mark would be over at our house all the time. [After high school] Mark went missing and at that point, everyone [in our circle] had defended him on Facebook because many people thought he was a spy or he was a bit crazy because it felt like he was baiting people to get them to say very extremist things. People didn’t want to be connected to him, but I stayed connected to him, and I had been living in New York, working on other projects.Then he ended up making a post about himself joining ISIS. Many of my friends read it and they laughed about it and they didn’t believe it, but I found that’s quite strange.

I was like here’s really a moment to make a film about this, but I couldn’t really crack a way to do it until everyone just came over to play Smash Brothers at my brother’s house and I was like, “Okay, a way we could all talk about this is with masks” because nobody wanted to talk about Mark. The FBI had raided a few people’s houses in our community and we just didn’t want to have too much attention on who we are, [because] of the fear our community has at this point. People have jobs — they work in IT, they work in security — and they don’t want to their names to pop up with somebody that may be suspected of joining ISIS.

Obviously I wouldn’t want to identify the people in the film, but did you actually choose masks that actually connect with them?

I just brought a series of masks and I think they all chose what they wanted to. For some people, their faces are longer than others, so we had to bring bigger masks. [laughs] And the first goal was to conceal, but the second was to give them some agency to feel comfortable wearing it and allow them to be more present and who they are.

How did the approach come about to set the interviews in the spaces you did?

I had never done a film where I was doing interviews for the camera and I get very impatient. I just don’t understand if this is cinema, there needs to be a strong way to speak about this that isn’t just somebody staring at a camera. I get quite bored of that, so I wanted an environment that spoke to a relationship with somebody that’s missing. We’re making a portrait of my friend, talking about somebody that’s not there, so we wanted to go back to places that we would hang out.

Beyond the masks and the interview settings, I was taken with the way you use photographs – some of them from high school actually inspire scenes that you see in the present. How did they become a guide?

A lot of the photos that you see are actually my brother’s that he took, so all the people in all these locations are places I’ve gone many times in my life, and it’s one of those few times where you end up going into your own backyard to make a film. [But looking through the photos] happened towards the end of the film when I realized that we needed a conversation with the past that’s very clear [where] we all see what we’re negotiating with and what it means to come back here. That’s why we start with this moment of somebody wrestling with the innertubes [wriggling around inside them like a caterpillar inside a cocoon].

The tubes are quiet – it’s really fuckin’ Texas to go tubing… [laughs] and all of us have gone tubing once. Mark and I and all the guys in the film, we all went tubing together. It’s actually one of the fondest memories of my life was [during] my freshman year of college and when I was visiting from Austin, so tubing was quite central to our friendship, and I wanted to start the film with one of our main characters Kylo wrestling with these tubes, almost in a way wrestling with with what is this relationship [to Mark] and with our friends in general and what is this relationship to the past and the complexities of being Muslim in America.

Was there anything that happened during filming that changed your ideas of what this was about?

Yeah, I thought this was just going to be a small little comedy piece about somebody who went missing, but slowly as we were working on it, it started taking a darker turn when the realization hit that maybe we weren’t the nicest people to our own friend. We were a bit tough and we could’ve been kinder — to ourselves and also our friend. It’s one of those moments where you look back and you realize you could’ve done things a little bit differently, but I don’t think that’s something unique to us as Muslims in America or suburban Muslim kids. We all look at back at past relationships in high school and college and think, “Oh man, did I affect the way somebody started to change? Did I play a part in somebody’s life [in a way] that they transformed or become somebody else?”

Given how much I personally connected with it, I can imagine it’s sparked some interesting conversations. What has it been like to see the reaction to it?

I haven’t had a chance to travel with it much, but Farihah Zaman, the producer on the film, has and she told me some great things about how people have connected with it, particularly Muslims, but also other racial minorities are connecting to it, which is important because it’s a film that talks about the burdens of representation and how one screw-up in a community can screw everyone up and [there’s] guilt by association and how that plays out.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of the film, but you add a postscript to address events that happened after filming and it answers some questions while opening up a whole wave of others. Did it change the edit at all?

When the news broke, it was crazy because it was two weeks before we premiered at Sundance, so we were just like, “Do we pull the film or do we keep it?” And what I felt was that this film is a portrait of my friends. It wasn’t necessarily about Mark. It’s a portrait of being Muslim in America, [and more specifically] a suburban Muslim and I wanted to keep it at that, the complexities and the contradictions of Muslim and feeling complacent and being complicit in a possible government that may not want or like you, but existing in that world and how difficult it is to contend with those realities. That, to me, was central to the film. But when the news came out, it was like, “Do we make this a larger piece?” and the way I’m seeing it now is that this is part one in possibly a longer story that I’d like to continue to tell.

“Ghosts of Sugar Land” is now streaming on Netflix. It will have a special screening at DOC NYC on November 7th at 2:50 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea.

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