When Jay Kamal's compelling short film "Baba" was screened last night at the Crazy8s film festival, he didn't do it alone.
The Lebanese-Canadian writer-director's picture focuses on a resilient 12-year-old boy, Samir (played by Kingston Gomes), coming to terms with the death of his father Malik (played by Abraham Asto).
What makes this gorgeously shot film stand out from other films exploring this theme is that Samir is the product of a mixed marriage. His father is Muslim and his mother, played by Helena Marie, is Catholic. And the boy witnesses the death rituals of both faiths.
The acting is magnificent and the sets, including a cemetery overlooking the river in New Westminster, are memorable.
What wasn't readily apparent to viewers who saw the world premiere of "Baba" at Crazy8s is the tight bond between Kamal and the producers, Panta Mosleh and Javier Badillo.
They had both created films with Kamal's help in the past, and they were more than eager to return the favour.
Badillo's upcoming film, Roads of Ithriyah, features Kamal's cinematography. Mosleh is developing a feature-length script for her 2018 short film, "Pass the Salt", which she also starred in. Kamal was the camera operator on that production.
Badillo told the Straight by phone that Kamal was raised in Edmonton, where there are significant Catholic and Muslim communities. And the idea had been percolating in his head for quite a while, but never made it to the screen because he was so busy on other film projects.
An earlier Kamal film, "Terrorist", won the best short film prizes at the Edmonton International Film Festival and Montreal World Film Festival for its depiction of an Arab child encountering racism after the 9/11 attacks.
Kamal presented the idea of "Baba" to Badillo.
"I thought it was fantastic," Badillo said. "I helped him write the first draft and prepare the pitch for the Crazy8s—and he took it from there."
Badillo credited the associate producer and location manager, Zoltan Barabás, for securing a 120-year-old church where many of the early scenes were shot.
"He happens to live in the rectory of a church in New Westminster," Badillo explained. "He was able to recommend the actual church in the same area where he lives.
"All he had to do was propose the idea to the Archdiocese of New Westminster," he continued. "They were all very, very receptive to the script, mostly championed by Zoltan himself, who was also taken aback by the script."
Mosleh told the Straight by phone that she was encouraged when the Crazy8s judges cried with every new cut.
"It was a good sign," she said. "It's a very authentic, beautiful story."
As a Muslim herself from West Asia who was raised in Singapore, Mosleh appreciated how the script reflected the best of her faith.
"It's lovely to see our culture in a different light in a world where the Middle East–West Asia is represented so negatively in the media, for the most part," she said. "It's changing ever so slowly now."
Then she added that it's still extremely unusual to see a Muslim as the "leading, handsome man" in a western movie.
She made her remarks during Ramadan, when Muslims around the world are fasting. As a child, her own Baba (dad) told her that going without food from sunrise to sunset during this month was important to learn compassion for others who had so little.
Mosleh praised Kamal for covering many other lovely aspects of Islam in a story that also paid respect to Christian traditions.
"There are lines in the movie that hint at accepting everybody for who they are and not forcing our religion on them," she said. "And it truly is that. You know, Jesus is one of the prophets of Islam. It's just a beautiful way to connect everyone in the community."
Mosleh pointed out that there isn't a large community of actors of West Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry in Vancouver. But Kamal knew Asto, who played Baba, through his theatre work.
Gomes, who played Samir, was discovered through a casting call.
"For myself, watching auditions, I never get really teary and emotional," Mosleh said. "But watching him in the audition, I told Jay 'I felt it. I really felt this guy.' And Jay was like 'Man, I know. This is the guy.' "