When growing up in Indiana, filmmaker Musa Syeed couldn’t help but notice that when Muslims like himself appeared in movies or on TV, they were almost always the bad guys.
“In the films that featured people that looked like me, we were usually the villains or the people getting killed,” the director said in an interview this week. “I loved movies growing up, but I knew that there was a major blind spot within film, within cinema.”
Now, as a filmmaker living in New York, he’s working to address this industry-wide problem. His latest effort in that direction, A Stray, is a movie shot in Minneapolis, telling the story of a Somali-American young man who, in a moment of personal crisis, forges an unlikely friendship with a stray dog.
Syeed says he was drawn to make the movie in Minnesota due to his being a native Midwesterner and because of the fact most people don’t know that Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the country.
“I wanted to show that the landscape of America is changing,” Syeed said. “You know, what people know of Minnesota might just be Fargo, they might not know that some of the largest refugee communities are in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities.”
A Stray stars a Minnesota native, Barkhad Abdirahman, whom audiences might recognize from his role alongside Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. Abdirahman plays Adan, a stubborn and somewhat aloof young man who’s kicked out of him mom’s Cedar-Riverside apartment after being accused of stealing jewelry.
Alone and abandoned by his friends, Adan crashes at a nearby mosque, asking Allah to correct his path and give him a shoulder to lean on. Almost immediately, a seemingly heaven-sent friend arrives, offering Adan both a job and a place to stay. But unlucky Adan quickly loses both when he, in the course of an important delivery, hits a stray dog.
This tiny but well-behaved mutt, which Adan is guilted into caring for, becomes quite the problem for the homeless youth. The city shelter won’t take the dog right away, and no one on the street is willing to take the white-and-black pup from him. Moreover, there is a considerable religious problem: Adan can’t touch the animal.
“A lot of Muslims have the opinion that dogs can be impure,” Syeed said. “There’s a ritual purification that one has to do to pray, and dog saliva might nullify that, so you might have to wash a certain way to be able to pray again.”
The untouchable dog ends up going into a duffle bag on Adan’s back. Together, the two roam the landmarks and neighborhoods of Minneapolis. Slowly, Adan grows protective of the mutt, and the dog appears to be the only thing in the city that wants Adan around.
On screen, Abdirahman and the dog make a surprisingly irresistible team.
Syeed, who also wrote the film, said he wanted to show the archetypal man-and-his-dog story from a Muslim perspective. While he admits that some could see the movie, with Adan being ever-reluctant to embrace the dog, as confirmation that Muslims can’t assimilate to Western culture, Syeed has a much more optimistic outlook.
“I think [the story] is proof that people will find a way, as human beings, to connect with those that are different,” he said. “Because, while there might be tension there, ultimately, we want to be together and connect in some way.”
While both humorous and beautiful, particularly in its exploration of summertime Minneapolis and Somali cultural hubs, A Stray also touches on topics of deep local concern.
The lion’s share of the focus here is on law enforcement’s use of informants in the community, something that WCCO has covered in regards to the recent terror trials.
Initially, the informant issue wasn’t in the script, Syeed said, but after talking with the community, he thought it had to be part of story. In the film, Adan occasionally meets with an FBI agent, who offers him a new phone and even an apartment for information on other Muslims.
“I think that the general climate [of distrust] made it difficult at times for me to fully connect with people,” Syeed said, “because, aside from the media misrepresentation, people also had bad experiences with outsiders.”
An outsider that’s soon to greatly enter the space of the Minneapolis Somali community is HBO, with its show Mogadishu, “Minnesota.” Already, there’s been protests about the show’s apparent focus on terror recruitment — something that the show’s writer, a Canadian-Somali artist, insists is just part of the show’s greater tapestry.
For Syeed, however, to focus on something like terror recruitment is to miss so much else in the migrant experience. What he has sought instead is to show a portrait of everyday life for Muslims in America, one that’s grown increasingly tense this past election year, as Republican nominee Donald Trump has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country.
“I feel like things are getting worse,” Syeed said. “And, at the end of the day…I hope my film can help youth in the community feel that their story can be validated and open up space for them to tell their own stories.”
A Stray is opening in Minneapolis this weekend at the St. Anthony Main Theatre. Syeed will attend two screenings on Saturday. Details can be found here. Also showing are films made by local Somali youth that Syeed helped workshop prior to his filming in Minneapolis.