Interview - Lifting the Travel Ban with Samy Chouia
Can laughter Trump hate? A troupe of Middle Eastern/American comedians and film makers think it can, and in the battle for America's heart and soul blackened by President Donald Trump's anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, they're willing to give it a go. That is the central premise of film maker Samy Chouia's documentary 'Travel Ban; Make America Laugh Again'.
Produced by Kevin Derek ('The Real Miyagi') it follows the journey of Palestinian/American comedian Aron Kader who following Trump's implementation of his "Travel Ban" put together a troupe of American/Middle Eastern comedians for a comedy special to tackle the rising hate against Muslims and immigrants in America.
Samy is busy working to find a distributor for 'Travel Ban' which has already gained high praise from screenings last year in Los Angeles and New York, and more recently San Jose. Taking time out from his busy schedule finding a bigger audience for his film, Samy talked to me about his life, career and his hopes for what 'Travel Ban' can do to turn the tide against the wave of hate sweeping America.
I’m originally from Algeria. I studied at the prestigious London International Film school. I spent two years in London and those were the two best years of my life. This was back in the mid 1980s. But it was too expensive and I could not afford it, so I never finished my degree. That’s when I moved to Hollywood and went to Columbia College because USC was also too expensive and UCLA admission was closed at the time (1988). I really wanted to land at USC or UCLA and CC was only a third choice.
What you got you into film making?
I must’ve been standing on my head when I got bitten by the film bug. I was just 8 years old in elementary school when I first watched a screening of a Laurel and Hardy film and, like the cliche goes, was immediately swept off my feet. I knew then that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a “filmmaker,” and I thought I was the only one in the world. Little did I know there were legions of small boys like myself who were inhaling from the same pipe (that’s why they call them pipe-dreams, right?).
Certainly is. What was your first job in film?
The day I graduated with a B.A. at Columbia College, Hollywood was the day I started my career as an unemployed filmmaker. I didn’t quit my day job because it was hard getting a job in the industry. I would do gigs as a director of photography, or an assistant editor or something like that but I never landed an industry job. It was all unionised and the only jobs available were in the independent sector and were very scarce. I worked as an assistant cameraman/editor on a movie called “Julie Has Two Lovers” with David Duchovny. Back then he was a complete unknown. I thought he would never make it. The film was a moderate success and I really enjoyed working on it. I was a pretty good DoP and got many gigs shooting independent short films and music videos.
Sounds like you managed to keep busy. How did you get into script consulting? You worked on one of my favourite films “Kingdom of Heaven” are you able to to tell me about the work you did on the film?
I was starving. I needed a job in the industry. I worked as a consultant on the first Transformers, but it was a very small job but then I got hired by 20th Century Fox to work on Kingdom of Heaven, and I think I did it for about a month or so. I checked for historical inaccuracies and signage (I know Arabic), and I also verified a song on the music track and made sure it was not offensive. I really loved that film and wish it had been more successful.
Definitely one of my favourites. So let’s get straight to your new film 'Travel Ban: Make America Laugh Again' - how did you come to be involved in the project?
It was pure coincidence. In 2014, I wanted to make a narrative feature called “Redeployed,” about one night in the life of a U.S. marine trying to prevent an apparent terrorist attack on the eve of his redeployment to Iraq. We had some money but it wasn’t enough so we tried to raise more money but couldn’t. So my producing partner told me that we had two choices, either return the money to the investors or use it to make a documentary film. Since no one likes to return investors money, I chose to make a documentary, The subject matter was purely coincidental. Originally, I wanted to make a documentary about P.T.S.D but then the idea kept evolving until Trump came up with the Travel Ban. It sort of fell into my lap. I realised that telling a story though comedy would work better. And that’s how we ended up telling the story through the eyes of comedians of Middle Eastern origin.
What was it like to work alongside Aron Kader and the rest of the troupe?
Aron Kader was great to work with. Very easy-going guy with a bit of an edge. He’s really a good actor. Someone should give him a shot. I saw his reel and was impressed and he was a natural on set. The other comedians were a either a hit or miss. Some were great to work with. Others less so.
Can you tell me more about the Travel Ban show itself? Was it a one off special or a tour?
Okay, I need to set the record straight about this question since many, including critics, got it wrong. The word “travel” in the title does not refer to a tour but rather to Trump’s “Travel Ban” executive order that banned people from mostly Muslim countries from entering to the United States. The show in the film was a one-time show organised by Aron Kader to respond to Trump’s Travel Ban. It was Kader’s idea to put a show together at the HaHa Comedy Club and to recruit a handful of funny comedians to make light of the political situation going on in the country at the time. Everything worked out great. We invited many comedians to be part of the show but a few couldn’t make it for one reason or another. However, it all worked out great with the comedians who showed up.
Care to share with us any interesting stories from the show, and production of the film?
Some interesting facts would be: It took us two years to shoot and edit the film, with the editing alone taking almost nine months. The bar scene in the film was completely unrehearsed and took an hour to shoot with two cameras. No comedian was coached or told what to say or what joke to tell. An interesting anecdote from the shoot would be the day we shot at the Griffith Park Observatory. We had to hike for two miles to get to the top of the mountain overlooking the observatory. I didn’t tell Aron or my producing partner Kevin Derek. I just told them there was a nice spot we should do that day’s interview at. Neither of them brought hiking shoes or proper gear to prepare them for a rather brutal uphill hike. Along the way, they kept asking me if we were there yet, and I kept saying we were almost there. Midway I pointed to the spot where we wanted us to be and they almost fainted. But then, they had no choice but to continue hiking because we really were almost there. In the end, they loved the spot and thought it added production value to the film.
That's a great story. The film’s darker aspects show just how easily and scarily people have turned on immigrants in America. I asked Peter Shariari this question and I’d like to ask you - why does hate and bigotry sell so easily over love and acceptance, especially in a country which is a melting pot of lots of different cultures?
The easy answer would be “hate sells.” It’s much easier to sell people on hate because it would easily distract them from their own miserable lives and failures. Let’s face it, a happy, successful person doesn’t have time to hate or let others live rent-free in his head. Creating scapegoats and assigning blame to minorities in order to achieve a political goal has been practiced to perfection in the past century by the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the Serbs, and the Hutus just to name a few. The irony is that America is a land stolen from the Natives and built by immigrants, many of whom were forced into slavery. Now the likes of Trump and his white supremacists base are using fear of immigrants to sell hate and further their political agenda, which is white supremacy, evangelical Zionism and personal financial gain. It all boils down to money in the end. Some comedians rightly pointed out that this hate has always been there. It took Trump to let it all out. So he didn’t create it but rather encouraged it to come out. His supporters, most of whom are sincerely ignorant and passionately stupid, have gone too far with the hate and it would take a lot to reverse the damage they’ve done to the country.
Can art, especially comedy, turn the tide of bigotry in America, and also here in the UK?
I am not sure if it can turn the tide completely but it sure helps fight it and hopefully reduce it. Racism stems from ignorance and insecurity. People would need to dig deep in their subconscious and learn how to overcome their ignorance and insecurity before they can overcome their racism. It’s everywhere really. You have it in the UK and Europe. European soccer clubs are currently struggling to overcome racism on and off the pitch. It’s pure ignorance for anyone to feel threatened by the pigmentation of someone else’s skin or feel the need to dehumanise the other because he doesn’t conform to the concept of “sameness.” Diversity is what makes a country great. On the other hand, sameness is a purely Nazi concept.
What has been the response to both the Travel Ban show, and the film? Was there any negativity, or problems from some who took exception to the positive message?
The Travel Ban show was a huge success. We had a full house and the audience laughed hard throughout the show. The film just had a festival showing at Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California (it’s been around for 29 years and USA Today readers voted it as the ‘best film festival in the United States’) and the audience response was just overwhelming. Our best screening was on Saturday, March 9, in San Jose, where the film played to a huge audience that simply loved the film and laughed exactly on cue. They really got the jokes and enjoyed the film enormously. The film screened three times at the festival and Travel Ban: Make America Laugh Again ended up winning the coveted Audience Award for Best Documentary.
What message do you hope people will get from the film?
Laughter brings people together and builds bridges between cultures. I think one of the comedians said that laughter is a statement or something. If people came together to laugh, it’s an agreement that they recognise each other’s humanity and are less likely to hate each other. I hope this film educates people more about Muslims, Middle Easterners and immigrants. Immigrants are the backbone of America, they made it what it is. We can’t turn our back on immigration now by banning people based on their religious beliefs or national origin. There’s only one race, the human race, and we’re all brothers and sisters, and this earth is big enough for all of us, and we should learn to share in peace and harmony.
When will the film be more widely available for people to see?
As soon as we get a distributor, it’ll certainly be on a major platform. My personal wish is to get a worldwide theatrical release as I certainly hope to share this film with the world.
So what do you have planned next in terms of future projects?
I am pursuing “Redeployed.” It’s my pet project. I have to have it made. I am currently talking to investors and looking for more investors. I need to raise around $2.2 M to get this film made. It’s going to be one hell of a political thriller.
What advice would you like to give readers with regards to film making as well as the issues raised in “Travel Ban”?
Please make an effort to see the film once it’s out. Make sure your family and friends see it too. It might change the way they look at people from the Middle East.
With regards to the issues raised in the movie, I hope to educate people who don’t know much about the Middle East or Middle Easterners. I also hope to raise the issue of Islamophobia and educate people about Muslims through laughter. If you can make someone laugh, they can’t possibly hate you. That is the crux of the film I think. Laughter brings people closer together and humanises the other.