Syrian-American filmmaker Sam Kadi did very well at the film festivals this year, where he screened his first feature film, The Citizen. To date, the film won five awards, along with several nominations. The Citizen features a powerful cast, including its highly activist, notable, principal-actor from Egypt, Khaled El Nabawy (Fair Game), in the role of Ibrahim Jarrah. Kadi acquired distribution for The Citizen from Monterey Media, who secured all rights to the film in the United States and Canada.
Syrian born, Sam Kadi began his career as an engineer, though he always had an affinity for the theater. He attended the College of Engineering at the University of Aleppo, where he also founded the Marya Halab Theater Company. In the year 2000, Kadi moved to the United States with the dream of becoming a citizen. In his spare time, he studied filmmaking at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan. He graduated from the school in 2007. Prior to The Citizen, Kadi made several award winning short films, many of which are documentaries.
Well known for speaking his mind about controversial matters concerning human rights and injustice, Kadi’s medium of choice is cinema. Sam Kadi was invited to speak before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, The Netherlands on June 16, 2012.
The Citizen tells the story of a Lebanese-Muslim immigrant named Ibrahim Jarrah, who flees his homeland because of the Lebanese civil war. Ibrahim moves from one war-torn country to another, and eventually wins an American green card lottery. In keeping with his less than perfect luck, Ibrahim arrives in New York City on September 10th, 2001, exactly 24-hours before that fateful day when al-Qaeda launched four synchronized, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. In addition to Nabawy, The Citizen’s cast includes Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Agnes Bruckner (Blood and Chocolate). The Citizen project was five years in the making, and its script (co-written by Samir Younis (Browntown)) took over three years to write. Kadi is very proud of The Citizen, which he describes as a patriotic film created from the unique perspective of an Arab-American.
For those who believe that The Citizen is a bit too contrived, with boundaries and a final cut too cleanly pro-American, keep in mind that Sam Kadi (in spite of his entrance to the US through a theatre-invitation, as opposed to something more dire and exciting) is no stranger to activism and speaking his mind about the Syrian crisis. Politically, Kadi urges a worldwide intervention to stop the atrocities in his country of birth. He is also a strong advocate for the peaceful coexistence of all men and women, no matter what their heritage, and uses his films as his “political” forum:
How did your evolution toward filmmaking begin?
I began with an interest in theater when I was in college, where I studied engineering. This was in Syria. I wrote directed and produced theater, as a hobby.
No.—definitely not classical— but more contemporary-comedy— concerning issues that people go through.
Well back then, it was really hard to be political. You tried to play it safe, and portray things indirectly and in a very smart way.
What enticed you to move to the United States?
I wrote and directed a play. Then, when I was 24-years old, a theatrical group in Michigan invited me to the United States. I became involved in theater there— did stand-up comedy—and studied filmmaking. I also had a radio program, and at the same time, found a job in engineering.
So theater was still an avocation when you moved to the United States?
Yes, but I always had my eye on the prize, as they say.
Are you still working as an engineer?
No. I’m a full time filmmaker, now.
That’s great! How did you gain recognition as a filmmaker?
I made several short films, and a couple of short documentaries. After that, I made my first feature, The Citizen. I’m also working on another documentary.
Are any of the documentaries controversial?
One of my documentaries was invited to be screened at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, where I also spoke.
What did you speak about?
In the speech, I ask the International Criminal Court to hold the Syrian regime accountable for the 15,000 murders— for the 200,000 Syrian prisoners…
What really possessed you to move to the United States in 2000 and become an American citizen?
The American Dream—which is also why I made the movie, The Citizen. You know, having the ability to find myself…
Did you come to the US with your parents?
No, but I did have a brother in the US. Coming to America was like a dream-come-true for me. It gave me the opportunity to follow my heart.
What does your family think of your cinematic success? Are they proud or embarrassed?
They’re absolutely proud—though at the beginning, when I told them that I planned to make a feature film, I think they thought I was just kidding.
Just like any parents! The Citizen is a universal film, because we’re all from immigrants in the US— whether or not people wish to admit this.
Is the film entirely autobiographical, or based on true events?
I’d say that most of the film really— somehow, somewhere, happened to somebody that I know of or heard about. I collected these [events] and connected them together to create a journey. A big part of the film and what happened to Ibrahim was inspired by a true story [including] the court scene at the end, which came from an actual case. Even the part that happened on the street, with the Jewish kid, really happened.
I think these gave the movie a great deal of credibility.
People believe in fiction more than reality.
That’s for sure. Reality often feels unreal.
And reality is so harsh that people can’t comprehend that something like that could actually happen.
Was there really a character like the woman Ibrahim eventually married?
No. That was fictional. That was the portion where I as director…
Could exercise your creative prerogative?
Yes. I tried to present this big contrast between east and west—all the way from color to tradition. The way you dress, the way you act, the way you talk—and tried to basically say that all of us can find a common ground. It’s all about your heart, and not the color of your skin.
So you’re setting up a continuum of sorts?
Yes. It’s all about progression in this movie, and how [the conflicting characters] all get together, change, and find common ground.
Was it realistic that an immigrant with a dream could be as beaten down, as Ibriham was, and still retain that dream, without becoming tainted or violent?
I’ll be honest with you. I have a lot of friends who are in the same boat as Ibrahim. I’ve seen where the bad things flow to the surface. Still, I’ve [also] seen the good people who are really determined—and they really work hard and never give up. They are the immigrants that work day and night, fighting to make it. But you never hear about people like them.
So true—you only hear about those who give up, and turn toward a negative path.
Maybe the fight for the dream is not for everybody. You’ve got to earn it.
You have to earn the right to fight for your dream?
Yes—and you have to have a strong character.
Ibrahim DEVELOPS a strong character over time. He makes a decision to take action—to speak up and defend himself in court. Ibrahim understands that he has to move forward.
And other people might not want to do the hard work to move forward?
That’s right. But stories like Ibrahim’s do happen. I’ve seen them happen.
Are you concerned about the timing of The Citizen’s theatrical opening, and the brewing events between Syria and the US?
It’s very frustrating and concerning. But the way I look at it, we cannot control the world. When we made this movie there were so many challenges during pre-production. On the way to our first investors meeting, my partner[s] and I got into an accident. So many things happened, including health issues.
Oh no…It feels like scenes from The Citizen.
[To make a movie] you have to be challenged every step of the way, because you’re making something really unique. You must be sure that you’re ready to accept the challenge and that nothing will stop you. That’s how I always felt.
In terms of the present crisis in Syria, possible inaccuracies in the media’s presentation of facts, etc., etc.—what is the strongest message you want to present to the world?
The main message in The Citizen is for people to understand each other, and to accept each other without fear. I spent five years of my life working on this project and wanted to make a movie that really matters to people— and that leaves something for them to think about [long] after they leave the theater.