‘Your Story Matters:’ Heidi Saman’s Blueprint to Making a Successful Debut Feature

A conversation with Heidi Saman about the making of her debut film 'Namour.'

I first heard about Heidi Saman on Tumblr. An insightful quote from the festival darling about the blasé acts of racism that erupted in the process of funding her debut film, Namour, proved that she was a perfect mix of professionalism and well needed candor in an otherwise politically mute industry.

Namour revolves around Steven Bassem, wonderfully portrayed by Karin Saleh, a twenty-something Egyptian-American valet at a top tier restaurant grappling with adulthood in the face of parental aspirations and the 2008 economic recession. Namour resides on the nexus of middle class anxiety and cultural assimilation, a heavily overlooked diasporic experience in visual media that’s only recently being remedied by portraits of first generational immigrant life from shows like Master of None and Jane the Virgin.

From the beginning of our phone call, an instant kinship was formed despite the anxiety of talking on the eve of Namour’s Netflix debut. Saman and I both fell in love with the art of cinema due to early exposure of Italian neo-realist classics; both unlearning the pervasive way racism has impacted our navigation of the film industry, and we’re both attracted to building a genuine film community that primarily uplifts the narratives of people of color. Given the highly accomplished debut that provides an amalgamation of style and substance, Saman, who is also a full time producer at NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, has guaranteed herself apart of a league with some of the brightest up-and-coming filmmakers and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for her next!

Let’s start at the beginning, you originally went to university to become a journalist, what made you take the leap into narrative filmmaking?

As a matter of fact I went into university only thinking about journalism but actually enrolled in a bioengineering major at the University of California-San Diego. I had the traditional first-generational aspirations of becoming a doctor but as apart of my literature requirement I took an Italian film course and that really changed the course of my life entirely. I saw a lot of classic neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves and Rossellini’s Open City, movies that I didn’t have access to before and without telling anyone, I started taking more film classes and switching my major to literature without the knowledge of my family or friends, so I consider that the beginning. Opening myself to liberal arts and taking different courses that weren’t apart of the regular curriculum set me on a course to filmmaking.

Would you consider that leap from the sciences to the arts a difficult one to make emotionally speaking? Especially as a first-generation—did you feel like you were disappointing your family?

It just felt wrong, hence my reasoning for not telling anyone I was doing it! It felt transgressive like I was breaking some sort of rule, and in some odd way I was never really upset with my parents about it because having those restrictions was actually quite good for me. Having to prove myself with so many obstacles actually makes me feel grateful. So after my sophomore year of college I saved up enough money, took out a loan and enrolled in a photography class and thought ‘Oh my God, this is it, this is something I can do’.

Youre short film, ‘The Maid’ was in competition at Cannes, the script for Namour was apart of the Sundance Screenwriters Workshop and yet it was an uphill battle to find financiers. It might be a difficult question to pose from the outside looking in but do you think race played a factor in this given the fact that the film is a nuanced portrait of the fluidity of Arab-American life that doesn’t use weaponized stereotypes?

I think it’s a new thing for Americans to witness Arab-American storytelling in a stylized art-house way. This type of filmmaking is more conducive to Europe [as opposed to The United States] and in essence this story is about a depleting middle class, so it doesn’t have what I call ‘poverty poor’ where cultures impacted by poverty can unfortunately be a marketable tool in moviemaking. [Namour] isn’t necessarily a ‘sexy’ subject matter despite being a common one for immigrants in this country. It’s not about oppression or overt racism, it’s not framed around religion or a marriage or impending marriage, so it doesn’t hit all those checks that are ripe for standard immigrant storytelling, which added to difficulties in securing funding.

As a result, you launched a successful Kickstarter campaign but also compared crowd funding to ‘running for office.’ Would you consider that the most difficult part of making the film? If not, what was?

I would say raising money and the distribution process to be the two hardest parts. Frankly, I didn’t learn how to do either in film school and I think more and more filmmakers need to learn how to be business people. We need to know how to raise money, pitch, take the film through the exhibition process and since distribution models are constantly changing, you need to stay on top of where your audience is and where they’re going to find your film. I didn’t know how hard it would be. I had no clue how soul soaking it would be because you’re constantly getting no's. Any sane person would just stop but you have to keep going. Somewhere down the line you have to dig deep and find the resources to keep going so I applied to every grant possible and somehow my parents gave me money and my brother and I took out a loan. But it’s truly a crushing experience because you think ‘if this many people are saying no then I should just stop it must not be a good idea.’

In a way, being delusional is a key ingredient to being a successful [or at least working] filmmaker.

I agree! You have to be the C.E.O of your film and that doesn’t just mean directing—you have to see it as a business, know where your audience is, learn how to build it and engage with them. I believe [independent] filmmakers should be on social media because it’s one way to build community and constantly engage them.

By the time you started contextualizing Namour, you had already been out of film school for years and seemed to have lost that safety net of a film community. Do you consider online film communities to be the next best thing?

I left [Temple University] graduate film program in 2007 and got to travel around with my senior thesis project, The Maid for a couple of years after that and began to think about Namour around the same time. But naturally, my biggest fear post-graduation was ‘I need a full time job’ so I threw a lot of my effort into securing that and was lucky enough to get one but I then I was away from that safety net so [online communities] was for sure the next best thing. I started my Tumblr in 2012 because I missed talking about film; I missed looking at certain frames of film, and the passionate people who cared about cinema so I told myself everyday post something on this blog to remind yourself why you do this to begin with. And although I don’t have a lot of followers I found some good people that way.

Nearly six months went by after you won the Los Angeles Film Festival Film Festival’s LA Muse Award to the announcement that Ava DuVernay’s grassroots film collective, ARRAY, had picked up Namour for distribution. The wait between film festival to distribution is a daunting one, how was that experience like and how did you gain the eyes and ears of one of the world’s top working directors?

I had only made short films up to this point so I was naïve to the reality of distribution models for feature films, especially since the model has changed dramatically in the last few years I wasn’t sure what to expect. [During pre-production] I reached out to Ava DuVernay, who I had met through my day job at NPR during her Middle of Nowhere press tour and asked if she had any recommendations for producers and she gave me two names, one of which lead me to Namour’s producer Matthew [Keene Smith]. Thankfully, the film was a success at L.A. Film Festival, which is where I met her again, but it was only to attend a talk that ARRAY was giving. Sometime in October or November, Matt and I received an offer from ARRAY and we said yes! The reason why ARRAY exists is the reason why I made Namour. I want more original films with people of color by people of color. Ava (through ARRAY) recognized that we need our own canon, she always spoke to my heart and I'm so happy that Namour is part of that!

Given your years-long experience making this debut feature, what advice would you give to a up-in-coming women of color filmmaker who wants to break into this industry? Better yet, what advice would you have given yourself at the beginning of your film career?

My advice would be the same for both questions: your story matters. Racism has a lot of layers, one being the pervasive manner in which it invalidates yourself and your work but you have to believe and know that your important and your story matters.

Namour has enjoyed a nationwide screening tour in select cities and is now streaming on Netflix.

Rooney Elmi is a freelance writer and creator of SVLLY(wood) Magazine, an experimental radical print and digital publication geared toward curating a new cinephilia. Follow her on twitter @zenonthesequal.


The Best African Memes of 2018

Laugh with us into 2019 with OkayAfrica's best African memes of 2018.

Meme culture has become a mainstay on these internet streets. It's essentially an alternate form of communicating, of commentary and of simple laughter. 2018 had its fair share of highs and lows, and young Africans continue to utilize memes to celebrate or to cope with the nonsense.

To reflect on the African memes that broke the internet this year, we tapped contributors and African meme tastemakers to list the best African memes of 2018.

Laugh away below.

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The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.

2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.


J Hus Has Been Sentenced to Eight Months in Jail for Knife Possession

The rapper has been convicted following an arrest in June.

Gambian-Biritish grime rapper J Hus has been sentenced to eight months in prison for knife possesion, reports BBC News.

The artist, neé Momodou Jallow, was arrested in Stratford London in June when police pulled him over near a shopping center, claming that they smelled cannabis. Police officers asked Hus if he was carrying anything illegal, to which the rapper admitted that he had a 10cm folding knife in his possession. When asked why, he responded: "You know, it's Westfield."

Hus pleaded guilty at a hearing in October after initially pleading not guilty.

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