The West Bank of Minneapolis has come to be celebrated as “Little Mogadishu” and “the Somali capital of America,” as well as being vilified by people who know nothing about the neighborhood or its history. Fitting, then, that filmmaker/musician Eric Tretbar’s new film, “First Person Plural,” is set in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
A direct reaction to these divided times, “First Person Plural” is a love story between the son of a Somali imam (played by actor Faysal Ahmed) and the daughter of a Baptist preacher (Amanda Day). It’s often said that art creates an alternate reality to current events, and that artists are driven to create realities better and deeper than the ones we’re living through.
To that end, the “First Person Plural” production brought together actors, artists, composers, musicians and community leaders from the Twin Cities’ Somali, film, theater, and music communities to tell a story of love conquering all. The film stars several Somali-born actors of “Captain Philips” fame and employs Tretbar’s oeuvre he’s dubbed Cinema IRL (i.e. “cinema in real-life”), depicting a story of two Twin Cities filmmakers who fall in love and bring their estranged families together for Thanksgiving dinner.
“With the rise of political extremism worldwide, I asked myself how I could express the truth of our common humanity,” Tretbar writes in the director’s statement. “What are those things we keep from each other, or are kept from us? And at what cost? In the last decade, Minnesota has become home to the largest Somali community in North America, joining other East African and Southeast Asian diasporas to make Minneapolis an increasingly international city. Set in this new Minneapolis, ‘First Person Plural’ points beyond its specific setting toward the many conflicts now threatening to take shape around the world. While posing questions about gun control and the exploitation of vulnerable youth, this story of happy love and sad love encourages viewers to see themselves in each other.”
“First Person Plural” screens Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center, with a post-screening discussion with the actors, filmmakers, and faith leaders.
Wednesday afternoon At Campus Café, which sits tucked between Rep. Ilhan Omar’s campaign office and the KFAI-FM studios on the West Bank, MinnPost sat down with Tretbar, Abdirizak Bihi (aka “the unofficial mayor of Riverside” and host of “Somali Link” on KFAI-FM), and actor/playwright/author Ahmed Ismail Yusuf (who co-wrote the Somali immigration play “Crack In The Sky”) to talk about love, religion, racism, filmmaking, and common bonds.
MinnPost: The film was created against a backdrop of increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric; anti-Semitism; hate crimes; hate speak and death threats being slung at Ilhan Omar; the Pittsburgh and New Zealand massacres, and a world that seems impossibly fractured. Broad question: Can art in general and this film in particular provide hope, with all this division?
Ahmed Ismail Yusuf: Yes. In my book it does. When you are just talking somebody who is actually hateful in just an [anonymous] way, it is not touching you, personally. When you are presenting it and it is art and you are living in it and you are somewhat detached … art and film expose the emotions that are not exactly hidden, but emotions that are not accessible.
Eric Tretbar: We used the close-up in the film, and the close-up is unique to cinema. The close-up brings total strangers nose-to-nose with the audience. You can’t move to the next table or walk away, and that instant undeniable intimacy is what bridges all gaps, chasms, politically wedged divisions that are trumped up and orchestrated and foisted on the human race. It’s easy to kill a person from a great distance with a rocket or a rifle, but when you have to get up close it’s hard because you get nose-to-nose and it’s like, “Oh, this is my fellow human being.”
That was a basic strategy I used as director, and I think we all felt a really fun and friendly intimacy in making this film. As kind of a social experience, we would all tell stories about our families the whole time. Like, I would say to a Somali cast member, “So a preacher’s kid in a Christian community, they’re the crazy wild ones. Are imam’s kids like that? “Oh, yeah, they’re the worst!”
So I was working from some kind of intuitions based on my approach that people are more similar than they are different, and it’s really our exteriors that distract us from our similarities. Our exteriors are used as political mechanisms to divide us.
MP: Now more than ever.
AIY: Now more than ever.
ET: A hundred thousand bucks of Facebook ads and you can divide the human race? Wow, that was easy. OK, let’s use the same mechanisms to create intimacy and connection rather than division and hatred. Because those same mechanisms are at work inside of us intuitively, that create suspicion and anger, but they also create love and intimacy and friendship.
The two families in the film are matched. There’s the same character in each family: the mothers are similar, the fathers are kind of reticent and proud and noncommunicative and have their own secret problems they won’t deal with. The two oldest children have been exiled from their family. The little brothers are both religious fanatics trying to please their fathers, who ignore them.
These are two families who we’ve kept being told are enemies, these Muslim and Christian families. “Oh, that’s the enemy, that’s the infidel,” says either the Christian or the Muslim about the other, and the conservative Jewish communities say the same thing. But in the story, when they actually do come together, they’re all peas in a pod.
Abdirizak Bihi: I do cultural presentations for universities and other institutions, and I encourage students to ask anything, and a lot of people are showing interest in what does a Muslim or Somali home look like? That’s a big question that people don’t ask, but are interested in. So what I found from the movie is that a house is something that a lot of people think is rude to ask about, but would love to see. A lot of Minnesota people are very nice. They don’t ask hard questions to learn, but they would like to learn a lot of things about you.
MP: Which speaks to Eric’s point about close-ups. We the movie-goers can be voyeurs and get a glimpse into a world we may not otherwise get.
AIY: In the movie, all the animosities or the boundaries are being cleared, and are not there anymore. So that superficial mountain is just exactly … the camera lens moved that away. It’s not there anymore: the mountain of prejudices, hatred, and violence of society. It’s a mountain. So in here, anybody who is watching, is just exactly seeing himself — not particularly himself but someone who is behaving like him or her — and now they are not exactly talking about what they don’t like about the other. They are listening, and they are talking, and they are watching someone who is eating. It is not the same food as their culture, but they are eating, and talking. What are they talking about? Relationships, family conflict, and analyzing life itself.
MP: It only occurs to me now that what many Americans know about Somali culture is fed to them through the White House, and media like the New York Post and Fox News. It’s a machine that can dictate actual prejudice.
AB: Not only that. Not only are we living through those times, but we are actually experiencing those times. There’s the trial of the Somali-American police officer, Noor, who shot and killed, unfortunately, a poor woman who was Christian. When that happened, there was that anger, that whole Somalia community are killers. Not MPD. He was not MPD anymore. Including Michele Bachmann, our former congresswoman. So this [film] is timely.
ET: The White House just hammers it home, and it helps create prejudice. That’s the human mechanism. Repetition creates reality, and belief. That’s just how we’re wired as animals. And like I said, cinema uses these mechanisms and we create human consciousness. So that repetition can create prejudice, but it can also create love and understanding.
MP: In real life, what is your experience with love in terms of your communities? Do you know of similar stories of interfaith marriages, or interracial dating? Maybe this is one of those Dumb Minnesota questions, but …
AB: Yes, yes. Of course. I have a son, who’s 23 years old now and in college, and his mom is Caucasian. So inter-marriage happens. It’s common, but it depends on where you are located in the arrival charts as immigrants. The newcomers might not know how to handle it, if it’s right or wrong. It depends on the family dynamics, too, and that exists on both sides.
It’s not out of the blue. But for some, yes. For new immigrants — I’ve been in this country for a long time — with people I work with, it’s not that they have a prejudice, but it’s that they have this fear that everything is being taken away. That their mosques and religion are being taken away and they think — not everybody, but some — that people are trying to convert them. That’s that fear.
ET: And that’s the same fear that’s being exploited by white middle America: “Sharia’s going to take away Christianity, take my children away from me.”
AB: Or these people are doing this because “they want to rule us with Sharia [law]. Cut our hands off.” That’s a fear. [Laughing] We can’t even rule our households. That’s the biggest threat we have.
AIY: This is the point. There is the fear in the Christian families that their children or faith is just going to be diluted. The Muslim parent is actually following the same methodology. But on the other hand, what exactly is bringing them together in the film? The idea of America, itself. The idea of speaking the same language and living in the same area and looking for the same item [at a camera shop] over-rules all the stupidity and superficial prejudice. That’s powerful.
MP: It’s the classic American immigrant love story: Two people getting together beyond the dogma of culture and religion and realizing they love each other and “I’ll give up my family and faith and all of this because I love YOU.”
AIY: “I’m going to abandon everything for you. For love.”
AB: It’s very common.
ET: It’s my great-grandparents’ love story. They were both immigrants. It was not inter-racial, but it was inter-cultural in the Midwest in that time. They came from different countries, and both families frowned upon it because they only wanted them to marry people from their own countries.
AIY: And they were both white?
ET: Yes, both white (to laughter from AIY and AB).
ET: This is really what “Romeo and Juliet” was about. This is not a full-blown Romeo and Juliet story, but there are similar elements in the story. People forget the end of Romeo and Juliet, but [death] is the only thing that actually wakes the parents up to their own prejudice and the consequence of prejudice, the message of which is, if we continue with this prejudice, we will kill our own children. We will kill ourselves, too.
AB: People say “art imitates life and life imitates art.” That’s exactly what’s happening. It’s showing us how we should react. My daughter brings a white kid to home, and she falls in love. From this movie, I don’t know how to handle it, because supposedly I don’t know what this kid’s family behaves like. At this point, [the white daughter’s parents] might think that, “This Muslim … I saw on Fox News … they’re terrorists … he lives in Cedar-Riverside … they make bombs there … ISIS lives there, goes there, I have all these prejudices. When I think of Muslim homes, I think of bombs, and bomb-making material.”
ET: Like you walk into a Somali home and you’re going to find a bomb-making factory. One of my favorite parts of the film is when the Baptist family, the white family, enters the Somali house.
MP: What do you want people to know about the film?
AB: For our mainstream neighbors, it shows that, yes, we have nice homes. We don’t eat off the floor. It’s a reality that people don’t verbalize, because they see Taliban in caves, so they just imagine we share everything, not only faith. It addresses a lot negative perceptions. So this film answers a lot of questions that a lot of people will not ask.
AIY: What is shown here is absolutely the opposite of what is just shown from the White House. So anyone watching this movie is not aware of that baloney or propaganda. When you’re watching this film, when you are in that actual moment, that’s totally obliterated.
ET: The majority of the movie is about how powerful and easy it is to love people, and things in cultures you know nothing about. Just let your heart open and let your intuition fly.