‘Burn Country,’ directed by Ian Olds, stars Dominic Rains as Osman, an exiled Afghan fixer who settles in a small, bohemian town in northern California, where his attempt to understand the local culture become inextricably linked with a small-town mystery, and his own quest for purpose. I had the chance to sit down with Ian and Dominic, and discus their film.
What inspired you to tell this story?
Ian: My background is doing documentaries, and I’ve done work in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was making a film about the mechanics of war journalism, focusing on the relationship between an American journalist and an Afghan fixer, and the story that they were pursuing in Afghanistan. During the process of that film, when we were back in the United States, this fixer and translator that we worked with ended up being kidnaped and murdered by the Taliban—really brutal story. We went back to make a film about him, who he was as a person, and what this role of being a fixer is.
Another fixer that we worked with ended up getting asylum in Sweden. He spent his entire life trying to get out of Afghanistan, and once he got to the West he didn’t know what to do with himself. He was facing this kind of existential crisis, and that became the starting point for the desire to write this film—not taking his specific story, but taking that kind of circumstance.
Paul and I (Paul is my writing partner—Paul Felten), we realized that, one, in the West, we’re so used to seeing all these stories of Afghans through the lens of war trauma; it’s always about like, “victim of history,” or “terrorist,” or all these other things. We wanted to write a very complex Afghan character, set him in northern California where he was dealing with a very different set of challenges, and see what layers of humanity that would bring out in him. The other thing we realized is that we wanted to revert this dynamic where we’re so used to seeing stories about a westerner going to the war-torn land and telling us about that place. Instead we thought we’d make a film about an Afghan journalist reporting on America, and so that became this starting point.
Also, I grew up in this area of northern California, so I wanted to go back and look at it through the fresh eyes of the Osman character.
You mentioned being a documentarian. Has that at all influenced your approach to narrative filmmaking?
Ian: That’s a good question; I’ve been grappling with that. On the one hand, I approach them very differently because documentary film has given me this great chance to pay attention to the world, and to go and be present for history and—in the case of these war films—to grapple with our, from my perspective, misguided foreign policy.
I think about narrative films as being more internal; you’re trying to raise the intimate to the level of the essential. The approach is different in terms of camera design, preparation with the actors—all that is very different—but there is of course a sensibility, which you develop over time with work, of how you think about the world. The complexity of people, I think, has informed this.
But if you see my documentaries, they’re very intentionally raw, documentary style, and not nearly as controlled and designed as the shots that we’re using for this film.
This was your first venture into feature-length narratives?
Ian: I’ve done short narrative stuff, but I’ve never done feature narratives.
I spent all this time thinking about the camera design and how to approach it, but working with an amazing cinematographer is what takes it to another level. And you have this great crew to rely on—cause in my documentaries, I’m use to just working with one or two people and we do it all, but here you have this great crew. The other key part is that you make space and room for the actors, who take it over in a way that makes it worth doing for you.
What sets ‘Burn Country’ apart from the clichéd story of the immigrant journey?
Ian: Initially we knew it was an immigrant story to a certain degree, but Paul and I were both aware of how cliché, how familiar it is—we’ve seen so many versions of this story. One thing we did is decided that it wasn’t going to be a film about the asylum process, for instance. It’s the idea of what happens to someone who’s jumped through all these hoops, and isn’t facing overt, red state racism; he’s been invited into this kind of bohemian area that essentially welcomes him, yet he still faces existential crisis.
It was the idea of not having it be about him dealing with past war trauma. Here’s this complex guy grappling with a very specific Californian dilemma. We kept thinking, “Ok, this is a film about a guy who’s trying to find purpose outside of war, and for him, it’s linked totally to his attempt to penetrate the mystery of this place. If he can get to the bottom of the mystery of this place, then he can find a way to be, and find out who he is.”
The other thing we though about is that this isn’t about him trying to assimilate, as is sort of the classic immigrant story. It’s a story about Osman trying to become the fullest expression of himself, which I think is a universal idea, something we’re all quite familiar with. We wanted to move it out of this immigrant story and think about it as, “Here’s this complex character, who happens to be Afghan,” as opposed to, “Oh, it’s about the poor Afghan.”
Dom: There was someone whom I met at the screening in Rio, who was like, “Wouldn’t Osman experience some racism?”
Ian: I heard someone say that.
Dom: It was interesting, cause I thought, thank God.
Ian: Yea, we’ve seen that enough.
Dom: It’s enough of that. Then [the film] is trying to make that kind of a statement; then it becomes political, and I think it’s a lot deeper than that. It’s hard to say, “This is more of an existential quest.” But in a way, we’re born in these different societies, these different cultures, we’re given these labels, we develop these coping mechanisms, and put on jackets that represent these certain things: “I’m a male, you’re a female, I have these roles, you have that role.” We’re told to be all of these things, and then all of a sudden something comes in there, and you get to a place in your life—some people realize it in the funniest ways—where all of a sudden, someone is in there mid thirties or forties and they realize, “Oh my God, I’m still getting older. Oh my God, I don’t look like I did when I was twenty.” Reality sets in.
It was interesting, with this character, to completely shake that up. Here he is, a guy who’s been in a war torn country for so long, and he’s developed this very specific way of pushing through and moving through all of this chaos, and he’s brought that behavior into this very quiet, almost-desolate place. Yes, it has this underbelly to it, as does every place, but he wants it to be bigger than it is. It’s because he just needs it to mean something to him. He’s always needed meaning to it all—to the chaos, like, “Why did I survive? How did I survive the Taliban, or Al Qaeda? I was a fixer for these western journalists, how did I survive all of that?” Actually, from Ian’s documentary, Ajmal didn’t. The idea of this is what would happen if he did.
Ian: Or his other friend who does [survive], who moved to Sweden. Then you have survivor’s guilt. Then the idea is like the line in the film: she says, “Just be here,” and he says, “I can’t just be here, it has to mean something.” Maybe she is right, that he has to just be there, but at the same time, there’s no way that he can. His whole life has been about trying to fix, trying to penetrate, trying to solve problems, so he’s convinced that if he can just keep diving down, diving down, diving down, then all of a sudden he’ll find a kind of peace, a kind of sense of who he is.
That’s again one of the core differences from the immigrant story. We really wanted it to be about that rich exploration, that’s somewhat universal, about us all trying to become the fullest expressions of ourselves. At the same time, we all have different experiences. I don’t have the experience that Osman had in terms of war zones; we’re not pretending that we know exactly all of his past.
But in terms of the way we worked, we said, “It’s really about the deep humanity of this person, so lets have Dominic—this tremendous actor, this open person—come and be as present and as open as he is, and that’s what’s going to reveal the humanity of this character, as opposed to putting on some sort of veneer of Afghanness.”
Dom: A caricature, yea.
Dominic, were you able to relate to your character at all?
Dom: For me it was ultimately finding the common denominators between myself and Osman. Sometimes it’s easy to get hung up on separating myself from a character—it’s easy to do that as an actor. Yes, there are certainly things that you’re adding on, but ultimately, I didn’t want to lose bringing my self to it.
There were questions that I was grappling with; there were pieces of myself that I was ready to face. I feel like one of the best parts about being an actor is that you kind of get to work out whatever is happening in your own mind. It was just like, “Ok, this guy is new to this place, he’s new to the people, the people are new to him. And that parallels when I am; I’m new to this project, I’m new to this place, these people are new to me.” I kind of used that as a springboard to get to where I needed to go. But ultimately, I had a great script, I had a great director, and I had a talented group of people that were around. I think I realized that I didn’t need to do much except stay observant, stay affected, and stay receptive to what was happening.
Ian: To do this is tremendous—I don’t know if it’s an effort—but it’s incredibly difficult, I would imagine. From past work, Dom has done very much with many rich characters, and this requires something very, very vulnerable—this stripping down and being present in front of all these people in a certain way. And the film does not work unless we’re anchored to this human being; it’s anchored to the character, Osman, but it’s actually an embodiment of this actor’s humanity that allows it to happen. Not putting on something like, “I am Osman.” It’s actually what aspect of Dominic’s humanity can anchor us to this character, because we’re saying, “here’s this rich human being, this character; here’s this rich human being, this actor.” We have a script that’s guiding us through the dramatic side, but the humanity is grounded in the person. We intentionally wrote the film knowing that we needed to make room for the human beings embodying it. If the characters and the actors weren’t rich enough, then the film wouldn’t be enough; it would be flat.
Dom: One thing [Ian] told me that really stuck is, “Don’t play the whole film in every scene, focus on the scene at hand.” We’re capable of an array of emotions, and I think the possibility to take a very simple scene in so many different directions is inevitable. You’ve read it, you know what it is, and then it’s just about staying focused on the matter at hand, not feeling like you have to bring the end into the middle, or the beginning into the end. It’s just really trusting where it’s at, and ultimately a lot of that came from staying very receptive to what was happening.[Osman] was really a soundboard for a lot of what was happening. There was a lot happening with him; he was becoming a reflection of his external world. A lot of what he had been internalizing, a lot of what he had been identifying with—he was able to finally come to a place where he could bring that out and start looking at it.
I had some experiences prior to the filming of this, and I was grappling with some things that were happening internally. I can’t really say this about every project that I’ve been a part of, but this has been one of those rare moments—I think—that will ever happen in my career, where what I was going through was really paralleling where this character was. That doesn’t always happen, it was just serendipity in that sense.
Ian: Of course every moment—we’re trying to milk it and make it as dramatic or as strong as possible—but at the same time, there’s a cumulative effect of this human being that happens. It’s not just each scene, it’s between the scenes—this cumulative thing. You’re trying to evoke something that’s beyond what you’ve seen or said. That’s what requires the commitment to one scene at a time—not having to do the whole movie in each scene, and trusting that the cumulative effect is going to become more than the sum of it’s parts. It’s the scary part of the process, but it’s also the one that’s the most rewarding—when you realize that the work does cumulate into something bigger than just the mechanics of doing a scene.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Ian: For me, it’s promoting and getting this film out. I’m writing something new but it’s in the really early stages, so nothing to pitch in that regard.
Dom: After I had the good fortune of working with James [Franco] on the film, he and I worked again on a couple of his other projects, which I believe are going too come out in 2017. Those were called ‘The Mad Whale’ and ‘Institute,’ and then I did another feature film that should hit the festival circuits this new year, called ‘Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf,’ by a film maker by the name of Susan Youssef, who had the short film version of that at Sundance back in—I don’t know if it was in ’09 or when it was, but sometime like that. Those were fun projects to be a part of, and the rest is just seeing where everything lands, where the chips fall.
‘Burn Country’ comes out December 9th.