Blackstar Film Fest 2020 Interview: Suha Araj on an Immigrant’s Sleepless Nights Over a Final Resting Place in “Rosa”

Shortly after making the documentary short “I Am Palestine,” Suha Araj was commissioned to create an installation piece for an exhibit at the SOMArts Gallery in San Francisco and while for most, expressing such an abstract concept as the feeling of displacement has on those who have had to migrate from their home would be daunting, that part came easily to the artist. It was getting the materials, particularly one big one that would be the challenge.

“Because Palestinians are all over the world, we’re away from our homes and home is always such a conversation that we’re having, so I had suitcases filled with oranges and lemons and I was [going to put] a tree in a trunk,” recalls Araj. “But it’s like you buy a baby olive tree and it’s tiny, and I wanted like an old 2000-year-old olive tree, so [I thought] how am I going to do this? I went to Golden Gate Park and found a giant tree stump that was abandoned and I literally couldn’t lift it up, but I’m like, ‘I’m not leaving without this thing.’ I don’t know where I found the strength to carry it and put it in my car, but then I found branches that looked like olive branches and I drilled it together and created this giant tree.”

“Rosa,” Araj’s latest film, is not nearly as personal, but clearly draws on the strength, ingenuity and insight into weight as it relates to transportation that the filmmaker found within herself that time she uprooted the tree with an undertaking that’s equally impressive, relating the story of a first-gen Iraqi-American man named Ali (Hadi Tabbal) who is flustered at the prospect of burying his dying father when his final wish is to be laid to rest back home. Getting the corpse from Brooklyn to Baghdad would seem to be impossible, but Ali is tipped off to the services of Rosa (Jackie Cruz), a florist by day who runs a side hustle handling such complex cargo and in telling the story of two immigrants who are brought together to properly honor the customs of one culture, Araj shrewdly considers how much they’ve sacrificed to be part of another, going to great lengths to maintain a connection to their heritage and having to start anew without the benefit of deciding what parts of the past they can leave behind.

The film is as inventive and resourceful as its main character, turning a solemn subject into a spry caper as Rosa works out the details of getting Ali’s late father airborne without the authorities catching wind and it may seem with the film’s premiere rerouted online as a result of the coronavirus that “Rosa” itself may be sneaking in under the radar, but with a bow at the Blackstar Film Festival on August 20th as part of the Gravitaxis Shorts program, it has found a home where it’s bound to make a splash. On the eve of the film’s debut, Araj graciously took the time to talk about the compelling short, the installation that inspired it and getting crafty with a four-day shoot.

How did this come about?

It’s been over 12 years in the making in a sense. I had done an art installation when I was living in San Francisco many years ago for a Dia de los Muertos exhibit, and it was called “Buried in Michigan,” because both of my grandfathers were buried there. I just never really felt that’s where they belonged, and they were both immigrants, so I think [every time] when a patriarch dies of an immigrant family, “wow, Is this what they wanted? Is this the life that they intended?” [For the exhibit] I set up an altar for each of my grandfathers with objects of their lives that really made me think of them, like one could do math quicker than a calculator, so I listed objects that reminded me of them and some of their personal objects and asked guests to talk about where they’d want to be buried. And this has always been a thought of mine, like where are you buried and what does that mean? It really felt like an exploration of home.

So this started from the question of what if you wanted to go home, but couldn’t. I think for so many immigrant communities, from so many countries that this country has gone in and wreaked havoc on in some way or another, a lot of the refugees and immigrants end up here and what if they wanted to go home? When most people leave home, it’s not really plan A. I’m sure it is for a select few, but generally people are escaping something often unbearable and are lucky to emigrate. My artist’s statement for the installation was for the lucky few that make it here and that’s something that goes across cultures. Even our production team came from a lot of different backgrounds, so a lot of people on our team related to it just about their own families and they were from all over.

I don’t want to give away the film, but did you find out about some underground network for burial services? The logistics of this were really intricate.

I felt like by the end of it, “I wonder if we could pull this off.” [laughs] But the logistics were actually a really interesting part of the production — [Rosa] working in a flower shop was key in the sense of [thinking] “Okay, [the occupation requires] something refrigerated, what skill set does she have that could translate?” But no, I don’t know of any of this. And I almost don’t want to know. [laughs] I did make one phone call to someone in New York that prepares bodies for shipment legally who specializes in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He was American and he had really specific details of how he prepped the body respectfully, but for us, it was about how Rosa could preserve a body long enough to get there, and I learned dry ice is illegal on a flight, so that’s something she’s doing illegally and it was interesting to me all the characters that she would have to have on call to be able to pull this off.

As a filmmaker, you must’ve had to make a lot of calls yourself when there are a number of locations, including a flight pad. What was it like securing all those places for shooting?

Oh yeah, it was an air museum in Long Island and when I wrote the script, I definitely hesitated when writing that in, but I’m like I need the plane. [laughs] I wrote it in in hopes that we could find it and I have an amazing team. That was our first location actually. We had a couple options we were looking at for the flower shop. I wanted it to be in Queens, and the first one I went into, [the first person we met], her name was Rosa, so I’m like, “Okay, this is good,” and it was a family business. It had a great backroom and we wanted a big refrigeration area, so we were really happy to find that spot.

One of the things that also came about on the location scout was, if you’ve driven through Queens, there’s some really amazing views when passing through cemeteries. I really wanted to capture that and we weren’t able to [stop to] do it, but going from one location to the next and I was in the car with my cinematographer [Zelmira Gainza] and was just like, “Can we grab this in case?” So she was just shooting out the window and luckily we were able to use some of it in that final moment.

How did you find Jackie and Hadi to play your leads?

I loved Jackie’s work in “Orange is the New Black” and a producer connected us and I thought it was just going to be a call, but it was on FaceTime and we ended up talking for a couple hours. She was such a completely beautiful soul and she completely got what we were trying to do with the film, so I’m like, “She’s the one.” I definitely wanted a Latina because of this intersectionality that I wanted to get across. And Hadi is a friend and a wonderful, wonderful actor. We actually had a lot of conversations because I initially envisioned the role as a much older man because I’ve got two good looking people on camera and I didn’t want that to take over the story, so it had always been an older man in my head, but I’m so happy Hadi’s performance blew me away and they were really wonderful.

I loved how you established these characters – you see Jackie as she’s moving through the streets and Hadi can be seen at a standstill sitting in his apartment. How did you want them relating to their environments?

The sense of space was definitely one of the most important things for me. There are shots we had to cut out, but we were shooting exteriors in Jackson Heights and it’s one of the most highly diverse zip codes in the country and I felt that’s so important to show where all these immigrants land here and set up their lives. Again, this is a short and if I had more time, I would’ve spent more time in the flower shop with [Rosa’s] aunt and gotten into more of that backstory, but for instance the nail shop where [Rosa] gets her chemicals from Pumpkin, I just wanted there to be a whole system that nobody would ever suspect. It was a four-day shoot and we had company moves each day, and getting around New York, I always actually envisioned a bus rather than a subway, but that was just way harder to steal. [laughs]

But with Hadi’s character Ali, I wanted to really establish a loneliness [with] being here on his own and trying to do the right thing by his father, totally messing that up and trying to get right and Rosa being his only hope of attempting to get his father home. And Ali doesn’t know how to wrap the body — yes, he’s an Iraqi Muslim, but he’s not necessarily [fully] knowledgeable about the customs] of the religion and maybe his dad isn’t either, but it’s what his dad would’ve wanted. Then the singer who comes is traditionally an older woman, but [he’s] having to make those compromises because you’re here [in the U.S.], because you don’t have everything you might need and all the people in the story connecting to that in some way.

What’s funny about that scene [with the singer] is we were getting kicked out of that location and I had about half the time to shoot that day than we had scheduled. It was very tense because we weren’t allowed in and out of the home, so it was just key crew inside and that tension really helped the scene. [laughs] Just like we’re literally hiding in this apartment, which is what the scene was about.

This is tangentially related to the singing – it’s a wonderful soundtrack you put together. What was it like putting together the music?

I had some music in mind from people I’ve always loved like Alsarah and the Nubatones, so I put that in as temp and I was talking to different musicians that I knew. I had originally wanted to go with a composer, but I worked with a music consultant who I love and trust who helped me place things properly and get the right timing down, and I ended up working with four different musicians who were able to give me their own work that they had already recorded. The jazz trumpet over the airplane scene is Amir El Saffar, an Iraqi musician, and that was the last piece of music I was able to find. It must’ve been my music composer because maybe you just need one instrument and the idea of a trumpet brought us feelings of New Orleans. It just felt right. And Alsarah’s song “Jamila,” I just always loved that song and I had sent it to my editor, and she placed it at the end and I’ve just never looked away. I was happy with the way it worked out, but it was definitely a process and knowing that if I were to work with a composer and really compose the music that I wanted, it was going to be completely out of the budget I was going to have access to.

You struck the perfect chord between somber and lively. I know this is going out in strange times, but what’s it like to get to the finish line with it?

Obviously, I thought I’d be traveling around, but no one’s going anywhere, so that realization has been with me for a few months and I’m over that part as much as you can be. It’s not the biggest problem going on in the world right now. But the film also became weirdly more relevant than I had ever hoped for with so much tragedy happening and people not being able to be with their loved ones when they pass. I did not see that element coming at all and I feel so good about opening it with the Blackstar Festival, to be in that community in these times. We’re going to Urbanworld next in New York and I’m hoping it has a good life. Just putting the team together, everyone really gave 200% and the people we brought on were people of color, were from immigrant families and just really connected to the story and everyone gave so much love to the film and I hope that that comes through.

“Rosa” will screen at the Blackstar Film Fest on August 20th as part of the Gravataxis program. Tickets are available here.

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