Yusuf on the phone in Accept the Call
Filmmaker Q&A

Filmmaker Accepts the Call to Tell Story of a Father and Son Divided

January 14, 2020 by Craig Phillips in Behind the Films

Filmmaker Eunice Lau, who is originally from Singapore (and boy does she have a story to tell you here about the experience of showing her film back home), was once a journalist at Al Jazeera Network. She has a penchant for telling stories concerning social justice, from dowry-killing in Bangladesh to uncovering corruption in Sarawak that decimated forests in Borneo. Her short film Through the Fire, which was nominated for Best Short Documentary at AMPAS Student Academy in 2013, took her to Somalia to explore the reasons behind that country’s devastating civil war from the point of view of three women. 

From then on, she became fascinated with the plight of the Somali people, and of Muslims who’ve immigrated to America. Her new film Accept the Call is an extension of that, focusing on one Somali family in Minnesota, through the eyes of anguished father Yusuf Abdurahman, who is desperate to understand why his young son would leave his American life behind to attempt to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. The documentary, which was aptly called “a vivid tale of father and son” by The New York Times, powerfully demonstrates how a parent’s worry and pain are universal. The New York-based filmmaker talked to us about how she approached telling this complex but personal story, how it explores what it means to be an American today, and why she approached this story – and family – without any preconceptions.

Why did you feel the call of making Accept the Call?

I wanted to explore why we are seeing this phenomenon where thousands of Muslim youths around the world were pledging their allegiance to a terrorist organization, and to examine the consequences of bigotry against Muslim Americans in contemporary America. At the same time, I am interested in the acculturation gap between Yusuf, a Somali refugee, and his American-born children and explore how identities evolve, and expand the definition of what it means to be American.

Who do you hope the film impacts the most? Or what do you hope audiences take away from seeing it?

I hope by sharing Zacharia’s story, young Muslim Americans know they are not alone in the suffering they have endured and how they can avoid the mistakes Zacharia had made. And for our non-Muslim audience, that this can be a teachable moment to avoid stereotyping what we are ignorant about, and be reminded of the fact that bigotry – no matter how casual – is deeply hurtful.

Filmmaker Eunice Lau
Filmmaker Eunice Lau

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

There were many challenges behind the making of Accept the Call. One of them is distilling the complexity of this story into a palatable 84-minute film. As I journey with the main characters and delve further into the story, I realize there is no clear answer to why Zacharia had felt compelled to leave home. Besides the blatant bigotry he endured growing up in a post-9/11 America, there is also the confusion over his hyphenated identity, the acculturation gap between him and his immigrant parents, and the theological differences within his family and the community.

Understanding the push and pull factors in Zacharia’s world requires a nuanced understanding of Islam, as well as an understanding of Somalia’s history that shaped the experiences of the Somali diaspora in the U.S., and then distilling all of that for the mainstream audience who may not be familiar with Islam or Somalia. That made it a difficult subject to sell and find funding. And yet because it is, in my opinion, such an urgent story for our times, we have to think of ways to make it entertaining and accessible enough for the casual audience to watch and hopefully compel them after the movie, to think about how our bigotry – that casual remark or stereotyping – has consequences.

I heard you had an interesting experience trying to show your film in Singapore? Can you tell us about that, and any other interesting audience interactions when showing the film? How have Somali communities reacted to the film?

When Accept the Call was selected to screen at the Singapore International Film Festival, I was thrilled for the opportunity to share the film outside of the United States. But on the day online tickets went on sale, my film was unavailable to the public. I was very surprised to learn from the organizers that it was still pending approval from the Singapore government because they had some concerns about the film. I was confounded by their reaction because I thought the universality of this father-and-son cautionary tale would resonate with audiences across cultures and ethnicities. The festival organizers worked hard to get the film rating approved, and it finally did – just days before the screening.“I think it is integral that it is Yusuf’s and Zacharia’s story to tell, and my role as the filmmaker is to distill their narratives into a fluid and cinematic tale.”

As a result of the publicity surrounding the film release, we were sold out within hours of the ticket sale. And I am glad we persevered because the reaction from the audience was fantastic. They appreciated the complexity of the film, the myriad push factors that contributed to Zacharia’s decision, and they empathized with him. A Chinese-Singaporean grandmother of three said she identified with Yusuf, and the film made her realize “why we must always overcome our prejudices and stereotypes.”

Closer to home, we also received positive feedback and accolades as we traveled across film festivals from New York to San Francisco. A young Hispanic American who saw the film at Lincoln Film Center shared how Zacharia’s story resonates with her; a white American at Woodstock confessed that her perception of Islam was shaped by the news headlines until she watched our film and learned much from Yusuf; a filmgoer who considers himself a conservative said the film made him question if the convicted teenagers deserve such long sentences.

At the invitation of Pica Headstart, the pre-school where Yusuf works, we also screened the film in Minneapolis to about 400 people. Among them, many were Somali. We could not be more grateful at the outpouring of love and support Yusuf received.

One Somali dad said he hopes the film will galvanize the community to do more to support kids growing up in single-parent households, while another Somali parent said he was going home that night to tell his children he loves them.

Yusuf and his son back in happier times, family photo at graduation
Yusuf and his son back in happier times

Something that was clearly crucial to telling such an intimate and personally wrenching story: Getting the trust of Yusuf and his family. How did you approach that?

I shared with them my work as a journalist, and the short documentary Through the Fire I filmed in Somalia back in 2012 which explores how the civil war forced millions to leave home.  That gave them the confidence that I am approaching their stories with an understanding of their history and journey here.

As a documentary filmmaker, I do not believe in having a preconceived notion of the story I am filming, preferring instead to journey with the rightful voice to tell it. Particularly in the case of this complex story, I think it is integral that it is Yusuf’s and Zacharia’s story to tell, and my role as the filmmaker is to distill their narratives into a fluid and cinematic tale.

Was Accept the Call originally going to include other stories or be less personal than just focusing on the Abdurahman family?

We started following the story on a broad scope, which includes filming with community elders and activists, and perspectives from former U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and Chief U.S. district Judge John Tunheim. But when it became clear that this is a film about Yusuf and his family, we had to take out some of these good scenes that I would have liked to include.

Do you have any updates on Zacharia you can share with us? 

Zacharia spends most of his days in the prison chapel reading books ranging from subjects of religion, to geography, to ethnic fiction. With the support of Solomon’s Porch, a Minneapolis-based church group, he is enrolled at Ohio University and looks forward to obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Is there one particular scene in Accept the Call that made the most impact on you?

The scene where we see Yusuf handing out fliers on the streets and outside the mosques has to be my favorite because it is multi-layered, dramatic and forward-moving in terms of story-telling, and at the same time it allows the audience to see the juxtaposition of complex emotions that Yusuf is experiencing. It is a portrayal of a father in grief; a father whose heart was broken by first, the betrayal of his son pledging allegiance to the very kind of people he warned his community about, and then by his government, for entrapping his son in order to convict him instead of giving him a second chance.

His anger stems from his sense of helplessness that he could not save his son. I felt his pain during his journey to find answers, and capturing his emotions on the streets that day reminded me of the deep love between parent and child, and with that love, comes pain and suffering when your child is preyed upon and hurt.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

In the making of Accept the Call, I drew inspiration from some of my favorite filmmakers and films such as Errol Morris’ Wormwood and Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, and for the visual style of the recreated scenes, I drew a lot of inspiration from Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

For my next project, I am exploring a story on climate change with my long-time collaborator Yasu Inoue, who edited Accept the Call. We want to take a non-partisan, yet entertaining approach to the story so as to draw a broader audience to this urgent issue.

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Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.