x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Film goes to Canada in hopes of distribution in US

The Syrian-American director Sam Kadi tells David D'Arcy about his distribution hopes for his movie The Citizen.

The Citizen is directed by Sam Kadi. Photo Courtesy Sam Kadi
The Citizen is directed by Sam Kadi. Photo Courtesy Sam Kadi

The Citizen, an immigrant saga directed and co-written by the Syrian-American Sam Kadi, tells the story of a newcomer to the US against the background of the September 11 attacks. To get the film distributed in America, its filmmakers are taking it to Canada.

Kadi will be at the Toronto International Film Festival on the anniversary of September 11, searching for buyers to take The Citizen to audiences around the world. Although the film is not on the festival's official programme, he and the film's producers hope acquisition fever at the event fuels interest in his feature debut.

Kadi, on the phone from his home in Michigan, laughed at associations with the American classic Citizen Kane that his title might conjure up. "That wasn't the idea," he says.

"Let me give you the pitch: it's about an Arab immigrant who wins a green card lottery and arrives in New York City just one day before September 11," he says, stressing that the story is not based on any one experience.

"September is a special month. It's the month that changed the entire world," he notes.

Kadi is just as succinct about his ultimate goal for the film. "I hope that this movie opens a dialogue, so we don't fear each other," he says, calling the US "the greatest country in the world".

Immigration is an emotional subject for Kadi, 38, who grew up in Aleppo, Syria. "I'm an engineer by profession, a filmmaker by choice," says the director, who wrote the script with the Arab-American playwright Samir Younis.

Some 12 years ago, Kadi, who founded the Marya Halab Theater in Aleppo, arrived in the US on an invitation to show a play that he wrote. He stayed, working as an engineer, and studied filmmaking.

"My favourite is [Martin] Scorsese," he says, adding that another inspiration is the Syrian-American director Moustapha Akkad, the producer of the Halloween series and director of the controversial 1977 epic Mohammad, Messenger of God. Akkad and his daughter died in a suicide bombing at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman in 2005.

Akkad was "an ideal Syrian immigrant", Kadi notes.

"He's a guy who came to the US with a dream to be a filmmaker, and worked his way up. He did what nobody else has done as an Arab-American filmmaker."

Kadi counts on his cast to take the film beyond the US, especially to the Arab world. The Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy plays the lead role of the immigrant Ibrahim.

"Having an Egyptian guy playing the lead in a Hollywood movie - I don't think that has happened since Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago.

"This is exciting for the Arab world, to see their star among the Hollywood world playing the lead. And playing a story that's fair - it's fair to the Arab world, it's fair to the Arab people."

The film also stars William Atherton, who plays a prosecutor battling with an immigration lawyer played by Cary Elwes. Also on board is Chris Wyatt, the producer of the 2004 indie hit Napoleon Dynamite.

Kadi would not discuss his budget, but noted that a major chunk came from a group of Syrian-American cardiologists.

Perhaps The Citizen will premiere in a Gulf film festival this year? As for a Syrian screening, Kadi warns not to expect one soon. "What's going on there is heartbreaking - everybody's dying for one man to stay in power."

The Toronto International Film Festival begins on September 6.