The opportunity to meet many gifted filmmakers at 23rd annual Cinequest Film Festival, these past two weeks, presented itself with the rare situation to sit and converse about their projects one-on-one. For many of these filmmakers, this was their first festival and the first showing of their releases.
Others were on a long tour of the country with their films; following the San Jose festival they would be flying to Chicago or New York to continue the festival circuit. One such director premiered his film at the historic California Theater in San Jose’s South of First Street neighborhood (“SoFA”) to sell out crowds.
Sam Kadi brought his film, “The Citizen,” to San Jose with hopes of engaging people’s emotions through the many feelings that are sought in the film. In terms of the film festival and its array of activities Sam Kadi states, “It’s exciting but it’s tiring.” He seems to be relaxed now that his film has had its big premiere. At this point there is only one showing left, and he told me a little about his views on the construction of this film.
“The Citizen” is essentially a story of an Arab immigrant who wins the U.S. green card lottery. Unfortunately, his arrival to this country is one day before the events of 9/11. In the beginning, the main protagonist, Ibrahim Jarrah (played purposefully and charismatically by Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy), arrives at John F. Kennedy Airport and is ecstatic to be on American soil, even if he still has to get clearance by immigration officials in an office room there.
There lies the first of many problems he will end up facing in the movie. According to Sam Kadi, the film is a “Look through the eyes of an immigrant and seeing the American dream through him. Unfortunately he arrives at the most difficult and challenging time.” He also shared that a lot of the situations that occur are amalgamations of several true stories that make up the character of Ibrahim. This method allows people of all walks of life to find a shared connection to this protagonist.
The film follows a total of 10 years of Ibrahim’s life, but the bulk of the narrative takes place within the first year or so of his arrival into the United States. The experiences he has with the people of New York, prior and after the 9/11 attacks, reinforces the idea here is a man who wanted a chance to create a decent life with what he believes are the best merits, hard work, kindness and understanding. It’s difficult to be so kind, especially when he is harassed and hurt by several characters in his story, yet remarkably stays resilient in the most powerful scenes of the film.
Kadi reinforces the sacrifices Ibrahim faces, like most immigrants in this country, by assuring that his film is there also to “remind us what this country is all about and how some people take things for granted, but other people sacrifice to achieve these dreams. You see it through fresh eyes. It reminds you, listen we are pretty lucky.” In the film Ibrahim references his luck, and how it’s usually of the bad variety. It does not matter in the end as all of the luck, good and bad, lead him through a journey worth watching.
Without giving too much away it is this struggle for his dream and unrelenting hope that drive the messages and emotion of the film to the viewer. The final scenes are the most intriguing, and feature seasoned actors like Cary Elwes and William Atherton exchanging thought provoking dialogue on the measure of being an American. As Sam Kadi states, his film is about creating investment with the viewer, and for that investment to affect them when they leave. It’s an eye opener to the effects of a country struggling with identity and what terror meant, and who were the real purveyors of it within our borders. “The Citizen” is a film that should be seen throughout the country, to better understand immigrants and the process of becoming a citizen as Ibrahim did.