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The Director of a New Somali Pirate Film Says He's Not Anti-Trump

Sarah Bellman
Wednesday April 19, 2017

Courtest of Hungry Man Productions

Brian Buckley says 'Dabka' wants to change people's opinions about refugees by actually telling their stories.

In our current political climate—with the federal government waging war against the press and closing its doors to refugees—Dabka comes across as especially relevant. Filmmaker Bryan Buckley drew from his narrative short for the biopic, which follows the life of 24-year-old aspiring journalist Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters) as he leaves Toronto to interview some of the most dangerous pirates in Somalia. The resulting book, The Pirates of Somalia, cemented him as the leading expert in Somali piracy.

The movie aims to focus on Bahadur's side of the story as well as the pirates', with actual refugees in acting roles alongside big Hollywood names like Evan Peters, Al Pacino, and Melanie Griffith. Previous Oscar nominee and Somali refugee Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) also stars in the film, but the vast majority of Dabka's actors are South Africans with little to no acting experience.

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We spoke with Buckley before the film's world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival to talk about working with refugees, the plight of aspiring professionals in the 21st century, and Dabka's place in Trump's America.

VICE: How did you decide to work with refugees as actors?

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Bryan Buckley: For [his previous film] Asad, we went to South Africa and didn't know what we were doing—we'd go into the community, go to the chief, give them the script, and recruit them. It was terrifying. With Dabka, some people were at least familiar with the process. It was really difficult to cast [Jay's love interest] Maryan—we went into the streets of Cape Town and searched for this person without knowing if we were going to find her or not. When we found Sabrina [Hassan Abdulle], it took a month just to train her. But [Somali people] are very outgoing and expressive—they're very open to acting.

Tell me about working with Evan Peters on this film.

When I first interviewed Evan for the part, I said, "You're going to become part of that world—it's not like you're going into a trailer to disappear. You're going in and becoming part of that community. You have to roll with whatever happens. You will not come out of that movie the same way you came in." When he got down there, he wanted to spend as much time hanging out with people. He became very close with the big soldier. [In the film] they were singing in the car, and that was something Evan and him would do truthfully in between takes. He embraced the experience as a whole and lived it.

One subject Dabka touches on is how many young people are moving back home, as well as the fact that it's not always easy to establish themselves in the field they want to work in.

When I interviewed Jay, we got into his life, and living in his parent's basement, working as a napkin researcher—that's what he was doing. His frustration about how his stories kept getting rejected was real. You sign up for an education, you come out, and you're kind of screwed. Everyone runs into the same problem: Do you try to make money, or do you actually pursue the thing you want to do? Jay took that leap, and that, to me, was the story.

As a writer, getting your voice heard is very difficult now, so I thought his pursuit was inspiring. You don't have to play by the rules to be successful—if you want to make change, you have to take risks. There's no other choice. You can let the system control you, or you can go outside the system and make things happen. 

You filmed most of Dabka before Trump was elected. Do you see the film in a different light now? 

It's become more powerful. The essence that we have to bring change and listen has increased. Trump has pretty much gone against everything this film represents, but I never saw this film as anti-Trump, because you can't talk about "anti-" and talk about how we're going to make things better. You can only do that by educating people and opening their eyes. My hope would be that, somehow, Trump supporters see this film and say, "Shit, these people are interesting and they're funny. They're helping us, and they're positive."

The film business tells these one-sided stories—from Black Hawk Down to Captain Phillips—that are reaching America, but they don't show a whole spectrum of a culture. So I feel that Hollywood is responsible for some of the stuff that's going on right now. When people get fearful and don't understand cultures, they start coming at them. We don't show the other side—just the things that drive box office, really, which is "shoot 'em up" films and heroic patriotism stuff.

It seems like a sense of humor is emphasized throughout the film, too.

When you're dealing with movies about "bad guy" stuff, humor opens things up for you. The Somalis have an amazing sense of humor. They're very New York: lots of yelling, lots of laughing. Everything is with passion, and everyone knows everyone. It's incredible. I was afraid to tag the movie as a dramedy, so I kept it as "drama" because I wanted people to discover the humor. When you tell them it's going to be funny, it changes their perspective. If you want to laugh, you can laugh, because there's a lot of humor there. 

In our everyday life, some moments you're laughing and some moments you're crying. That's the way it is—the spectrum shows humanity, and it's good. I think that, sometimes, people think just because the movie is about Africa or about the resurgence of piracy that humor has no place in that. But if it's real, then that's what it has to be.

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