How Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi Accurately Capture Somali Culture in 'Dabka'
"The news only gives these snapshots of famine, piracy, terrorists, but oh my god, the Somali people are so funny," says director Bryan Buckley of the adventure tale, based on Jay Bahadur's early career.
"You know those out-of-body experiences where you look around and say, 'This shit isn't happening to me?'"
That’s said by Evan Peters in Dabka, the absurd adventure tale in which an incredibly inexperienced Canadian reporter spontaneously embeds himself in Somalia with the lofty goal of writing a book. It's a line that could probably be applied to the entire movie, as a heavily bearded Peters is shown laughing with government leaders, chewing khat leaves with pirates and never getting shot while abroad.
But Dabka, which makes its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is quite closely based on the true story of Jay Bahadur, the notable journalist who wrote the book on Somali pirates and has advised the U.S. State Department on the matter. His engaging Daily Show with Jon Stewart interview caught the eye of Bryan Buckley, the seasoned Super Bowl spot helmer who craved a Somali-centric feature after his Oscar-nominated 2012 short Asad.
"Jay's plight is insanity — who would do that?" writer-director Buckley tells The Hollywood Reporter. "He was born to be a reporter: insightful and fearless to an astounding degree. It truly is crazy, what he pulled off, and subsequently since then."
Beyond the opportunity to tell Bahadur's fish-out-of-water narrative was a higher priority: to fully capture the Somali culture often overshadowed by headlines of violence and terror. “The news only gives these snapshots of famine, piracy, terrorists, but oh my god, the Somali people are so funny,” he explains. “They’re busting on us, on each other, they laugh so much. They will call you out in a heartbeat; they will not hold anything in. The people as a whole come from a good place."
Adds Peters who portrays Bahadur, “The Somali people are real people with families and a fascinating clan culture, and they're constantly talking and laughing, despite any hardship had in the country. These people maintain a sense of humor about life that's beautiful and inspiring."
Most importantly, the script's authentic portrayal earned the approval of Barkhad Abdi, the Somali actor who broke out with his Oscar-nominated performance in the Tom Hanks thriller Captain Phillips. "The Somali culture is welcoming, that's who we are," says Abdi, who portrays Bahadur's guide. "I honestly didn't want to do another pirate movie, but this explains the whole pirate situation in depth: their motivations and how they're people outside of the society. They're not living amongst everyone like kings; they’re just trying to make money. It even helped me understand this whole thing.”
Before the 29-day shoot in the scorching heat of South Africa came the casting of Somali non-actors, most of whom are refugees. "Barkhad was instrumental — he's like Marlon Brando to the Somalis; he's a legend and he's the man," recalls Buckley. "He worked with all the first-time actors and built their confidence, and served as a translator at times."
The film also includes footage of Somalia shot by Bahadur, plus animation sequences of various backstories and heightened inner-monologue moments. And the only fictitious character is an editorial mentor played by Al Pacino. Buckley stresses, "The biggest thing is making sure we're accurately capturing the culture, and not doing anything to further stereotypes."
Peters says Dabka has changed his worldview. "It was an immersive experience, and I really had an amazing time with them," he explains. "I was ignorant — it's all happening while you get your coffee and hang out with your friends, there are families over there suffering. It opened my eyes and makes me much more empathetic to their plight and situation."
Ahead of Thursday's world premiere, Abdi tells THR, "I'm so excited for the world to see this movie. I hope people understand the hospitality of the Somali people who put their lives at risk to keep this guy safe. They had been working hard to establish some sort of law or government in Somalia for a very long time, but the pirates and the thieves gets more credit. I want people to appreciate those who are doing anything possible."
Buckley hopes the acquisition title (via UTA and Bankside Films) translates to various audiences, especially those who echo Donald Trump's stance on refugees in the U.S. "If this film reaches the very Midwest voters who were fearful of this, I think they'd actually look at the refugee ban slightly differently," he says. "Jay is a really good example of bringing change, and we all have the capability to do it. And in Hollywood, we're all in a position of actually helping people understand each other better. But you can'’t accurately talk about a conflict if you don't even begin to understand the culture."