Tuesday, July 17, 2018
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Bryan Buckley Brings Somalia Back To Tribeca--This Time With His Feature "Dabka"
Bryan Buckley
Director’s 1st Somalian story at festival came in 2012 with "Asad," which went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Live-Action Short
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Director Bryan Buckley, long known for his engaging brand of humor in commercialmaking via production house Hungry Man, is also developing a reputation for striking a more serious, poignant storytelling vein with work that brings Somalia and its people into context as reflected in his last two trips to the Tribeca Film Festival. The first came in 2012 when he unveiled Asad, a short film he wrote and directed, which introduced us to the title character, a 12-year-old lad in a war-torn fishing village in Somalia who must decide between falling into the pirate life or rising above it to choose the path of an honest fisherman. Providing a moving, almost lyrical look at the spirit of everyday people in Somalia as they battle hardship and adversity, the film went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Live-Action Short.

Fast forward to today and Buckley is returning to Tribeca with the feature film Dabka, based on the true story of fledgling Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur (played by Evan Peters) who after an inspiring chance encounter with his idol (Al Pacino) uproots his life and moves to Somalia. Once there, Bahadur finds himself in over his head. Yet his risk-taking adventure ultimately brings the world an unprecedented first-person account of the pirates of Somalia. The cast also includes Barkhad Abdi and Melanie Griffith.

Written and directed by Buckley, Dabka is based on “The Pirates of Somalia,” Bahadur’s book which also served as a reference point for Asad, according to Buckley. “That book was important for us on Asad because we couldn’t get into Somalia to research or shoot. All of us, myself, my DP, my production designer, read the book.” 

Asad in turn whetted Buckley’s creative appetite to delve further into Somalia. He was surprised that no one had bought the filmmaking rights to Bahadur’s book. “We eventually got the rights,” related Buckley. “We were drawn to the story. It’s a story about Jay, a story that’s bigger than piracy. Jay took a huge swing at life against all odds and came through with a remarkable accomplishment. He lived with the pirates, interviewed a pirate before he took the Alabama [the Maersk Alabama, the hijacked U.S. cargo vessel that was the basis for the Best Picture Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips], learned about the culture and brought that story to the world.”

For Buckley, there were many challenges entailed in Dabka, the foremost being doing justice to Bahadur’s story. “I had never written an adaptation before. We had to play with the structure a bit but my overriding concern was to be true to Jay’s story. Once we figured out the structure, the script came together fairly quickly because we knew the characters.”

Buckley also applied a lesson learned from his prior feature, the comedy/drama The Bronze. “We overshot The Bronze and I was mad at myself because of that. Our first version of the film was three hours and 20 minutes. I was hellbent not to repeat that mistake. Up front we went in very honest about the writing and what ultimately should find its way to the screen. I come from the commercialmaking world which is full of options. You can’t do that, explore all these options, on a feature. You can lose half a day finessing a single scene in a feature. So we made the script as tight as possible. I broke it down completely as a director, looked at it with a different set of eyes even though I was the one who wrote it. I drew up about 2,500 frames, had the whole thing boarded. Once you do a visual drawing of the frames, you start to see the problems. When you do that well ahead of time, you can anticipate what doesn’t belong, how to best tell the story. That’s what we did with this film [Dabka] in 29 shoot days.”

Also incorporated into the film were some animation as well as footage Bahadur shot in Somalia and other locales.

Buckley credited Jane Rosenthal, co-founder and executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival, with bringing his Somalian stories to the forefront. Buckley recalled that Rosenthal--whom Buckley successfully prodded to be an executive producer on Dabka--was one of the first believers in Asad. “She gave it such strong support at Tribeca. She fueled the success of that short. She has so much passion and compassion for people--and that’s what the festival is all about. In interviews, she was talking about Asad. I couldn’t believe that she was talking about a short to the press.”

That sense of compassion and empathy seems all the more needed in today’s current climate. In that regard, Buckley observed that “this is the right time and Tribeca is the right place to come out with this film [Dabka].” He added that he recently screened Dabka with Melanie Griffith who portrays Maria Bahadur, Jay’s mother. And given today’s polarizing times, she felt the film took on a heightened importance.

Buckley’s filmography at Tribeca actually predates Asad and Dabka. He first broke through at the festival with the short film The Wake-up Caller in 2005. Like Asad, The Wake-up Caller earned a Tribeca Jury Award nomination for Best Narrative Short.

And now that Buckley has wrapped two consecutive features, The Bronze and Dabka, he’s re-entered the commercialmaking/branded content arena via Hungry Man. He’s enjoyed some residual benefit from his feature endeavors upon getting back into commercials. For example, Thomas Middleditch, who was in the cast of The Bronze, recently starred in some Verizon ad fare helmed by Buckley for McCann New York. “Without The Bronze, I have no relationship with Thomas,” said Buckley. “Also he would have never had the confidence in me to bring out the best in his performance for Verizon. And the agency confidence might not have been there that he could deliver. The commercial work all came together because I worked with Thomas on The Bronze.”

Buckley’s spotmaking achievements are well chronicled. He’s been a perennial Super Bowl director (with more than 50 spots airing on the Big Game), and is a three-time DGA Award nominee in the Commercials category, having won that honor in 2000 for Monster.com’s “When I Grow Up” from Mullen, E*Trade’s “Trimount Studios” and “Broker” for Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and OnHealth.com’s “Friends” out of TBWA\Chiat\Day.