Oscar-nominated ‘Asad’ examines Somalian life beyond pirates and warlords

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TORONTO – Scoring an Oscar nomination is generally considered a career-changing achievement for any aspiring moviemaker.

It certainly feels that way for Toronto-bred producer Mino Jarjoura, who suspects the broad embrace of his 16-and-a-half-minute short “Asad” could jump start his feature-filmmaking ambitions.

“I still have moments (that feel) completely surreal,” Jarjoura says in a recent interview from his office in Los Angeles, where he produces TV commercials for the production house Hungry Man.

“It’s been surreal but it also feels like a major responsibility at this point to be nominated and put this film out there in the right way and have as many people see it and understand why it’s been nominated.”

“Asad” will compete for the best live action short trophy at Sunday’s Oscar bash. The film centres on a Somalian boy torn between life as a budding fisherman and the temptation to become a pirate.

Jarjoura says he and director Bryan Buckley wanted to capture the indomitable spirit of Somalian people, which they discovered while making a short documentary for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2010.

That film traced the story of Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng — a refugee from the Sudan — and his return home. It brought them to a refugee camp in Kenya where they met a lot of Somalian refugees.

“They were definitely a hopeful people despite all of the hardships that was upon them at the time. This was when the famine was really bad and Mogadishu was a really terrible place to be so a lot of people had fled,” he recalls.

“Being in that camp and meeting those people, you really can’t go back once you’ve done that. It affects you. It stays with you.”

He says it inspired Buckley to write the script for “Asad” and with it a portrait of Somalian life to counter news accounts suggesting a nation of warlords and pirates.

“Our goal was to show a different side of the people,” says Jarjoura. “It’s just a little bit more about the humanity of it rather than the sensationalization of a very small group of people that are creating big waves in the media.”

When it came time to shoot, Buckley and Jarjoura headed to Cape Town, South Africa where they knew there was a sizable influx of Somalis. From there, they held a casting call among actual refugees.

“We wanted the film to be totally authentic. So we didn’t go after lookalikes or actors. We really wanted (Somalian) people and of course there is no (Somalian) acting community,” says Jarjoura, who was born in Afula, Israel and arrived in Canada with his family at age 3.

Two boys stood out — 12-year-old Harun Mohammed, who got the role of Asad, and his 10-year-old brother Ali, who plays Asad’s friend. Neither spoke English but with the help of translators, they proved to be enthusiastic actors.

“These kids are geniuses. Despite the fact that both are illiterate and both had never been to a day of schooling, they memorized an 18-page script by having it read to them,” he says.

“And (they) didn’t blow a line and pulled off a masterful performance.”

After the shoot, a tutor was hired for the two boys, paid for by Buckley’s production company Hungry Man.

“Essentially we left the film saying we’ve got to give back in a way and they wanted to go to school,” says Jarjoura. “So we felt we had to do it.”

He notes that the brothers, who live in a two-room house with more than a dozen siblings, now find themselves at the centre of a bewildering whirlwind of attention.

“Something like this will change their lives and it’ll change how people look at them in their own community,” he says.

“(Because of) the amount that the media has been interested in them and the amount that people in general have been (interested), they do need to be equipped to handle that. We do feel like the education and protecting them that way is the way to go about it. You have to arm them a little bit.”

“Asad,” which was shot over five days and made for $260,000, is competing for an Oscar in a category laden with Canadians: Quebec actor Yan England earned a nomination for his mystery tale “Henry,” while Montreal-based producer Ariel Nasr earned a nod for his Afghan-set “Buzkashi Boys,” along with his American director Sam French. Other nominees include Shawn Christensen’s “Curfew” and “Death of a Shadow,” by Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele.

While “Asad” could prove career-changing for Jarjoura and Buckley, it already appears to be life-changing for its young stars, who Jarjoura says were each paid US$3,000 for nearly two weeks of work.

Jarjoura notes that school has “transformed their lives,” and undoubtedly their futures.

“They now both speak English. We talk to them weekly on the phone and they fire right back at us,” he says of the boys, now 12 and 14.

“I think it’s opened their eyes to bigger opportunities and maybe aiming higher. They’re both extremely bright and they’re so young that I would have to think that right now they’re going to focus on getting the education — imagine not being able to read and then suddenly being able to read. It’s like the whole world is a completely different place.”

He says efforts are underway to bring the boys and their father to Los Angeles for the Oscar bash on Sunday.

“There’s a lot of support being rallied around them for this,” says Jarjoura, noting that the UNHRC is spearheading efforts.

As for his own future, Jarjoura says he and Buckley are already working on their first feature. It will be based on the book “The Pirates of Somalia” by Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur.

“It’s something we are driving towards and this only helps,” he says of the Oscar nomination. “This is a great launching pad.”

The Academy Awards take place Sunday.


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