A Conversation with filmmaker
by Editor Joyce Chen
To represent the complexity of the human condition in writing is no easy task; to attempt to capture the layered textures of a person onscreen is arguably even more difficult. Because film is such a visual medium through which to tell a story, filmmakers often have to tussle with the labels and assumptions that viewers might project upon the characters themselves.
But having this burden is also an opportunity; it was exactly this struggle against stereotypes that so intrigued me about director Jay Dockendorf’s first narrative feature, Naz & Maalik. The film, which debuted at SXSW in March 2015, literally follows two young Muslim men as they wander through Brooklyn one hot summer day. (The film is now available on DVD and VOD via Wolfe Video.)
The premise is simple enough: both boys are coming to terms with various parts of their identity — their religion, their sexuality, and their place within an ever-complicated society in post-9/11 New York City. But the execution is much more complex: dodging the stereotypes that accompany each of those labels (“Muslim,” “gay,” “black”) while maintaining a believable fluidity of character onscreen.
I recently spoke with Dockendorf about Naz & Maalik, imploding assumptions, and what it means to reckon with the “danger of potential” in a time when people’s reactions and actions are so often driven by fear. Below is the result of our meandering conversation, an attempt to capture the workings of a mind that is constantly reexamining and redefining the labels we’ve come to know.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: First of all, congratulations on the film. I know it’s been circulating on the festival circuit, so you’ve probably heard that a million times over, but it’s still worth saying! I actually just screened it two days ago, so it’s still fresh in my mind. And I’m curious: On your end, how does it feel to be screening the film in New York, where the story itself takes place?
JAY DOCKENDORF: Well, I’m particularly excited to be screening again in New York because I think New Yorkers have access to a few additional levels of specificity in the film that I think they might enjoy. I think having been to the Fulton Mall makes the second sequence all the more fun, for instance. And certain scenes, like the subway sequence, hopefully will lend a certain specialness to the film for New Yorkers. I made this film with the hope that it would reach people who are just like the characters, or who can identify with the characters, living here in the city, in similar circumstances. So I’m excited and optimistic that it can reach some people who have never really seen characters like them onscreen before.
TSW: That’s a really important point to make, that the Brooklyn that was onscreen in Naz & Maalik is the Brooklyn that actually exists right now, because there are so many films and TV shows that choose to portray a very small segment of the borough and try to use that to represent all of Brooklyn. So in shooting, how did you make sure that the film was authentic in that sense?
JD: That was a question that we worried about and enjoyed trying to answer as best we could from A to Z. The moment that I first called Brooklyn my home, I was living in Bed-Stuy. I only lived there for about a month but it really can’t escape anybody living in Bed-Stuy that Bed-Stuy is primarily an African American community. And it’s the heart of Brooklyn and it’s a historical, longstanding center of African American culture. So when I thought about making a movie about Brooklyn, that’s where I started. I also wanted to create a film with a lot of documentary aspects, so a lot of the characters you see in the film either just wandered into the frame and participated in the scene, or they were cast from the street some way or the other.
I also had to make sure it was all shot on location in a way that made spatial sense. So if the boys were walking through this world, people can recognize the places Naz and Maalik are walking and actually be able to retrace their steps in a logical order. This was important to me, because in the telling of this story, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting a character or misrepresenting a community or portraying a stereotype that’s tired or harmful or hurtful.
TSW: Good point. One thing I feel is that in dealing with a film and a storyline that is so much about stereotypes and imploding them and assumptions and labels that do and don’t make sense, you have to be so precise. And there were so many nuances to these characters that I don’t think viewers could call them any one thing. In writing the characters, then, how did you make sure that they weren’t just 2-D stereotypes?
JD: Characters for me come from a combination of places. Some of what you see in Naz & Maalik springs from a few real-life people that I know, a bit of what you see springs from people I don’t know but have seen in the street as I was writing the movie, conversations I would overhear on subway trains. And some of what you see onscreen is a reaction from the entire team to the question: How do we make a three-dimensional character? It’s a concerted effort by everyone, from producers to the cinematographer to the actors to me. The challenge is in creating characters who cannot be explained easily. A lot of these things happened automatically or were just part of the shared impulse of all of us to do this in a specific way and not do it another way. Not do some sort of action thriller about young, suspected terrorists on the run, for instance, but to make more of a neorealist psychedelic portrait of two guys who are plausible but improbably representative young men.
TSW: In researching and creating these characters, you mentioned not only personal experiences, but also observations of people on the street. Could you tell me a bit about the personal experiences that might have informed the film and the characters?
JD: One of my favorite feelings on earth is taking a long walk with someone I know well, and covering a wide range of topics, where the conversation feels like it never will, or never should, end. And at some point, finding some topic that the two of you disagree about, and having not an argument, but a sort of dialogue, about it. I have two particular friends whom this happens with all the time. And we just end up arguing about a lot of things, whether it’s a personal matter or a political matter or an ethical matter, and the great thing is that when it’s with someone whom you can trust, that conversation can get really wild and it can get close to getting out of hand. I love the tension of that. I love the idea of bringing out conflict that’s scary or outrageous, screaming at your friend on the street in an argument that ends up with you both dissolving in fits of laughter.
TSW: Definitely. And in terms of the walking and the meandering, was there a particular director or film that influenced you, or was that kind of your natural inclination as a way to tell a story since you tend to have those long, wandering conversations in real life?
JD: Well, I think there were a number of films that were a big part of my well of inspiration for this film. The Wedding Banquet by Ang Lee, Happy Together by Wong Kar Wai, Slacker, Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It, Paris is Burning. Russian Ark, that was a big influence. I was really moved by that film, surprisingly. That’s the famous one-take steady-cam film about Russian history. They’re in the museum and it’s more or less like a psychedelic collage of different moments from Russian history. The characters were always walking, and to me, that’s just kind of like what Birdman is, or what Birdman presumes to be, just one single take for the whole movie. For some reason, I wanted to try that at first, shoot the whole thing on my iPhone, but the cinematographer just didn’t think that would be very much fun. Or very good. Or plausible whatsoever. So he talked me out of that, and what you see is what we ended up going with.
TSW: I just realized that I didn’t even ask this, because I had so many questions I just jumped into, but can you tell me a bit about how you first came up with the story for the film?
JD: The idea for the story of the film first came when I moved to Brooklyn and lived in Bed-Stuy temporarily at a random Craigslist sublet with a man who was my friend, who is brilliant, and who was, at the time, closeted to his family, in addition to being a Muslim scholar of the Qoran — no, literally, a PhD in Qoran studies. I asked him if I could interview him for the basis of a screenplay, because I just thought that his story was really dramatic, poignant, and fascinating. He agreed, and that led to a long interview, and a few follow-up interviews after that. That gave me the first sense that I could write something about this topic without completely mucking it up. A few other interviews after that — both formal and informal — had a role in influencing the main characters and getting the thing off the ground. Also, just living in New York on my own for the first time played a huge part in it. I would say that a lot of the things that happened in the film happened to me. The film is more or less based on a true story. I went through the Associated Press articles that won Pulitzers that year, which I guess was 2012, and they were all about the extreme lengths that NYPD and FBI agents were going to surveil Muslims. Those articles were a huge reason why I wanted to tell this story. A certain fatigue with seeing so many movies and TV shows about straight, white male and female characters also came into play. It felt like there was a community that wasn’t being shown onscreen, who might be hungry for representation themselves, to see themselves as heroes.
TSW: Was there a particular stereotype or common assumption that you really wanted to address with the film, or was it just kind of a culmination of all these stereotypes?
JD: I think the film speaks for itself on that particular note. It was important to me to make something that was as meaningful as possible in different ways, while also being fascinating and driven by conflict. That’s something that’s always, when this question comes up, that I find interesting. Because for me, you want characters with dignity who you can admire to some degree, or who you can appreciate for their heroic qualities. And it’s important to me too that they can make a mistake or two for the conflict of the movie to feel motivated by something internal within them, something that they need to repair or need to take more seriously, perhaps. And then they have a certain failing — at least, temporarily. But you don’t want that feeling to be so great, because then the audience doesn’t respect the character, and you don’t want it to be so minor that the film doesn’t feel interesting. That’s the one major theoretical principle we were thinking of, but on the subject of specific stereotypes and so on and so forth, I think that’s in the film.
TSW: Right. And speaking to that, I love that you’re talking about respect for the subject and just respecting people as people as you’re representing them. I think one thing that felt like an undercurrent was this idea of fear, and fear evolving into disrespect, in a way. Can you speak a little bit about that idea of fear as a divisive element?
JD: It’s a strange thing, fear, because I suppose so many dangerous things in the world are dangerous in potential. I just watched a clip of a man hugging a bear he raised. And the rest of us are saying, “You can’t just hug a bear, regardless of the relationship. Or at any point, really.” But the danger of two young Muslim boys on a summer’s day alone in Bed-Stuy is only a danger of potential. Far more often than not, two Muslim boys would be absolutely lovely and peaceful people, so I think it’s the potential of danger among communities that leads to a media distortion about the identities of the people involved. I’m thinking now about that FDR quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
TSW: That’s interesting. I like that phrase, the “danger of potential.” It’s kind of fearing the unknown, the unfamiliar, rather than a known quantity. That’s fascinating.
JD: Right. I think there’s a real problem in a global society when fear is the first impulse rather than the second. The presumption of things and understanding is not actually a better way to live. That might sound very philosophical, but it’s more of my own personal opinion than the meaning of the film itself. I mean, maybe it’s there [in the film], but I really didn’t want to be giving everyone a set of pills to swallow or anything like that. The important thing to note is that the things we’re talking about in the film are in play already in real life, in society.
TSW: Was there a primary takeaway — not giving somebody a pill to swallow, necessarily — but a kind of hope you might’ve had in terms of how people would walk away from the theater?
JD: On a political level, not really. There are some [messages] that seem coded into the film that I didn’t expect to be there, and there were some that I’d expected to be in there that fell away. But I ultimately thought that I wanted more than anything for the characters to be decently likable and lovable. To be human. I wanted the audience to connect with these two characters, especially by the end. It felt important to me to be telling a few love stories at once, the first between the two characters, Naz and Maalik, and hopefully a sort of sequel love story between the audience and the characters. The movie was other things in earlier drafts, but it ended up being primarily just a portrayal of two people.
TSW: Tied to that, because there is so much emotional depth to these characters — I’m curious if there was a most difficult scene to shoot for you, either in the emotional weight of it or technically speaking or anything like that?
JD: Any time the characters had to really give the other one access to a big emotion or raw emotion, that was tough. Luckily, we had two really talented actors who were willing to give of themselves to the production, a production that was very, very simple and low budget and organizationally challenged the times. So almost any time you see a big moment, that was challenging. For instance, there’s one scene, when the two of them have bought snacks and they’re crossing the street and they’re having a minor climax of their argument, about whether the world is becoming a better or worse place. And the [FBI agent] Sarah is watching them from the car window, and they’re crossing a street and the camera is looking at them head-on as it’s moving backwards. It’s a relatively easy scene to play because we rehearsed it with the two actors and directors many many times, but it was a really difficult thing to achieve technically because we had to film it from so many angles and they had to produce good takes of their fight. Some directors have the luxury of waiting for the perfect light and then only filming for an hour and a half. For us, it was like, we’re gonna have to do this a ton of times because the camera equipment is cumbersome and we have only a certain amount of experience to draw upon. I like to think that whenever you see something like that, whatever was going on behind the camera was very, very chaotic.
A lot of the scenes in the movie were improvised; the love scenes weren’t. Those were choreographed and controlled. We wanted to make sure nobody felt as though they were being thrown into a love scene and that they needed to be putting together a performance for themselves without help from us as writers and directors. We had a plan for how each of those [love scenes] was going to look, and that was pretty tightly executed. And then actually taking that plan and applying it and making it feel passionate was another challenge that we faced, but that, I think, we pulled off successfully.