Heartland Film Festival Interview: Alex Stonehill and Bradley Hutchinson, Co-Directors of Barzan

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Barzan tells a story that you wish didn’t have to be true. Sam Malkandi was happily living with his family in Seattle when the government believed that he was connected with al-Qaeda after a footnote in the 9/11 Commission Report. Now with little understanding of how this all happened, his family was torn apart as they desperately try for justice.

Directors Alex Stonehill and Bradley Hutchinson were following this heartbreaking story as it developed and showed the world the results in this Festival Award-winning documentary. We were thrilled that Alex and Bradley were able to talk to us about the tone of this film, the moral difficulties and read at the very bottom of the article to hear about how the family is doing after the movie.

(There are spoilers in the answer for the last question that is posted after the showtimes.)

Heartland Film Festival: How did you first hear about this story and what was it that inspired you to turn this into a feature film?

Bradley Hutchinson: Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill told me about Sam Malkandi’s story before they left on a reporting trip to the Middle East. We had been wanting to find another project to work on since we made the short film It’s in the P-I. Once they got back from the Middle East I started to go through the footage with Alex. Through editing we quickly realized that with how epic Sam’s life story was, how good his interviews were and that his family was willing to really open up to us that we had to make this a feature length film.

Heartland Film Festival: There is clear sympathy for Sam Malkandi and his family. The tone of this film could have been a lot angrier. Why was it important for you to tell his story in this way?

Bradley Hutchinson: I think that the sympathy comes out of watching really desperate people attain their dreams only to see those dreams dashed by an immigration system that even our own government acknowledges as problematic and in need of reform. It was important to us to tell the story the way we did because we were trying to raise questions and leave judgments up to the audience. As for making Barzan a more angry film I feel like films that take that approach have a tendency to leave viewers more entrenched in opinions they had before they walked into the theater rather than eliciting a conversation based on understanding and compassion… which I think is often the mark of a quality documentary film.

Heartland Film Festival: One of the more fascinating aspects of the movie is that Malkandi is not 100% innocent, but he is definitely not a threat to America whatsoever. What was it like exploring his past and did your opinions ever change about him as the film went along?

Bradley Hutchinson: When we first started working on the film I thought Sam’s guilt or innocence was what we were going to be trying to solve over the course of the film, but as it went on and the deeper we got into the court case the less relevant that question seemed to the story we were telling. We definitely had to keep Sam’s guilt or innocence as a looming question through most of the film, but towards the final act we show that Sam never got anything resembling a fair trial. Once that happens in the film it becomes a question of what happens to Sam and his family and what does this mean for the rest of society?

Heartland Film Festival: Are you working on a next project?

Bradley Hutchinson: Yes. Always. One project I am really excited about is a documentary about a family in rural Idaho that runs a museum populated with animals they have collected and taxidermied themselves.

Heartland Film Festival: What are other moving films that have inspired you as a filmmaker?

Bradley Hutchinson: The films of Chris Marker, Errol Morris, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and recently the film “The Act of Killing” have all inspired me. I love films that play with what reality is as represented in a documentary. Like how much is a person being authentic, telling a story that is true and how much of it is a performance for the camera. I feel like all of the filmmakers I mentioned above use that relationship to their advantage… and in some ways I think that is what Barzan was trying to do.

You can buy tickets for Barzan for the following screenings…

  • Friday, October 18 at 12:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14**
  • Friday, October 18 at 8:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14**
  • Monday, October 21 at 4:15 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Tuesday, October 22 at 12 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Wednesday, October 23 at 7 p.m. at AMC Traders Point 12
  • Thursday, October 24 at 12 p.m. at AMC Traders Point 12
  • Friday, October 25 at 6 p.m. at AMC Traders Point 12
  • Saturday, October 26 at 3 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 12

**Director Alex Stonehill is scheduled to be in attendance for these screenings

(The next question contains spoilers for what happens at the end of Barzan.)

Heartland Film Festival: Do you still keep in touch with the family at all? How are they doing?

Alex Stonehill: As of right now, there hasn’t been any happy ending” for the family that wasn’t included in the film. They’re a really strong family, and have endured more than most of us could ever imagine, but they’re still in a terrible situation, with Sam being stuck in Iraq with no chance of returning to the U.S., and Mali and Arvin unable to visit him because they don’t have American citizenship. It’s not likely that any of that will change soon, but there are literally millions of other immigrant and refugee families facing similar separations as a result of deportation whose situations could be improved by immigration reform legislation.

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