Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Reel Saddam: A Fil-Am filmmaker's imaginings of a dictator's body double

There was some buzz this summer surrounding Lee Tamahori's film, The Devil’s Double. It was based on the true story of the body double of Saddam Hussein’s notoriously brutal and psychopathic son Uday. But just a few years ago, another film also told the story of a Hussein double. It was a decidedly smaller, quirkier, film that was one of three finalists considered for Independent Filmmaker Project’s first ever $50,000 finishing grant, and for which Patrick Epino was named one of 10 filmmakers to watch in 2009 by the film magazine The Independent. In the dark comedy Mr. Sadman, Epino fantasized about a fictional Hussein double, putting American ideas of identity under the microscope, while also utilizing the new norms of film distribution.

Mr. Sadman
is set in 1990s Los Angeles against the backdrop of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Mounir, a middle-aged man who has made a career out of doubling as Saddam Hussein in pre-Gulf War Iraq. He is proud not only of this talent and the quasi fame that comes with it, but also
of the man he mimics. But when he is unexpectedly let go from his job, a disillusioned and saddened Mounir decides to flee his country and start anew in L.A. There, we follow “Mo” on his somewhat neurotic journey through the wide landscape of American pop culture, from boba tea and fast food to basketball and Prince. While grieving the loss of his old life and also learning of his beloved dictator's true evil nature, Mo befriends a struggling actor, swaps his old Saddam persona for other ones (such as Bruce Lee and Michael Jordan), encounters a myriad of characters and finds himself getting more lost than found. It’s as much a film about being an outsider as it is an observation of the American identity.

Mr. Sadman was filmed in 2009 and, with the exception of Tim Kang (The Mentalist), was comprised of a virtually unknown cast. It had a brief festival run, screening at the Chicago Filipino American Film Festival and Disorient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon, but never made its way to the general public via the traditional theatrical or home video distribution. In fact, like most other films these days that are self-distributed, it’s garnered most of its following through the internet and the viral power of social media. The film has a Facebook page and an iPhone app, and can also be downloaded for free at its website: The website also offers uniquely premium packages, such as the Digital Download Deluxe, which includes an HD download of the film and soundtrack for $9.99; The Dictator Pack for $59.99, which includes a personal Q&A with Epino; and the Dictator Deluxe Pack for $333.33, which includes a game of H.O.R.S.E. and a personal tour of Epino’s favorite east L.A. bars, where the H.O.R.S.E. loser buys the first round of drinks.

Born in San Francisco and raised in the bay area, Epino grew up in a Filipino-American household. And, although Mr. Sadman is not what you would think of as a typical Asian American film (at least, not one that deals with Asian American themes and issues), Epino insists it was both his American upbringing and the Filipino culture that had a lot to do with the story he wanted to tell. I chatted with Epino about Filipino culture, the American experience and self-distribution. He jokingly indicates that I will be receiving an invoice for the Dictator Pack Q&A.

How did you get into filmmaking? And were your parents supportive of your career choice or did you feel any pressure to go a more professional route?

I have a brother who is 18 months older, and he's a doctor. And when I was going to college in Chicago, there were times when I thought about becoming a lawyer. But my folks were always super cool. I didn’t really get any pressure from [them]. As long as you found what you loved to do and did it as hard as you can, then they were happy with that. And they knew I was always a little bit out there [and] off kilter.

I studied sociology as an undergrad, and then I took a couple years to study design. Then I ended up getting into film school on a lark, because I thought about applying, and I had missed all the deadlines for the schools I wanted to go to, except for San Francisco State. So I was just going to do a practice run since their deadline [had not passed] and they took me. I finished the [MFA] program in two years and then moved to Los Angeles.

So tell me about your decision to make this film. It's not what you would think of as typically Asian American.
Mr. Sadman is essentially a movie about my American experience. I just had this idea about taking somebody that had this face of evil, per se, and then trying to make him a really sympathetic character. And essentially his experience throughout the movie is kind of what I think it means to be an American. [It’s] about how people are constantly looking for some kind of attention or adoration from external sources; how they put on different costumes all the time to fit in. To me it’s a movie about Americans and America. But also, Filipino culture, to a large extent, is a copy cat culture because of its history, being colonized by the Spanish and being run over by the Americans for so long. And that’s a big part of what I saw as well. A lot of people on face value just saw this silly premise and this farce. But for me it was critiquing a lot of what I saw growing up in myself and in other people and just taking that American experience to the nth degree. Because we all [grew] up idolizing different people. In the movie he becomes Prince and Bruce Lee and Michael Jordan and those were all people I looked up to at one point or another in my formative years, and even to some extent, when I was a grown man.

Why the Saddam Hussein double? Why not just any foreigner looking in?
I remember having a conversation about these doubles for all these various dictators, and at the time Saddam was still alive in 2003 and that’s when the first seed of the idea came. I just thought of a Saddam double, and then thought it’d be an interesting scenario if he lost his job and moved to L.A. and then he didn’t realize that Saddam was this bad guy. And then he tries to stop being Saddam but he doesn’t really know how to be anybody else so he does what everybody else does in America and in western society which is to hop off one persona and turn around and try to be something else.

It’s interesting, too, that you made the character a silent one.
An earlier iteration of the story had him talking a whole lot. And then one day I really kind of pushed for this cipher thing, where he was just a face and you could imprint anything on him, and it automatically made him a little more innocent, a little bit more wide-eyed, a little bit more child-like, to the extent that you could buy him as a character. And this was before I even started casting, so I was imagining the real Saddam in my head being this really innocent guy. So when I took out all the dialogue, I thought ‘ok, this kind of works’ and then I just put some of his dialogue in other people’s mouths.

L.A. is definitely another character in the movie. Was setting the story in L.A. an intentional choice?
Yeah, because I thought L.A. represented those things I was looking for, the taking on of one persona to the very extreme. It matched it better than anywhere else. If it were San Francisco or some other city, it probably wouldn’t have felt just right. And if it were New York City, it would’ve felt completely off for me. In the story, he doesn’t really want to be an actor, he just kind of falls into it, so L.A. definitely added to the idea of this guy coming here and taking on different personas.

You’ve said that your intention was to at least partially self-distribute this film. Did you always see yourself doing that for your films and will you always go that route?
It’s always going to be something that I’m going to want the option to do. You never know. Markets and models are always changing and evolving. And I think right now it’s a really exciting time to try out ideas. A lot of people lament how the independent film world, and the film world in general, is changing and things aren’t how they used to be. I think people who came up in the 80s and 90s had this vision, this myth, of what being a filmmaker was. And you see a couple of successes and it barely existed for those people, and now it doesn’t exist at all. So it’s just something you have to adapt to. There’s just so much media nowadays to take people’s attention and that’s a good thing, to some extent. We’ll see how that pans out with these kids that are coming up with even shorter attention spans than I had.

But you never come up thinking you’re going to self-distribute. The thing that’s changed so much in the last five years is just the opportunity out there. And I think people are learning to adapt. There’s just so many films out there nowadays. Fifteen years ago you had this blank canvas. You put a dot for every independent film, and there was still a lot of white space, but nowadays it's just a completely colored canvas. Where’s the audience for those things? I personally think Hollywood films, as a lot of people feel, have staled, and they’re franchises and they’re not going to make a film unless it’s a book or a graphic novel or a remake. But for independent films … I say this about Asian American films, you see a lot of the same stuff over and over again with the same theme. And it’s almost like people don’t do their homework. I’m not saying that I do all the time, but you should know what’s been done and what’s out there so you don’t do exactly the same thing or so you can build upon somebody else’s work and take the dialogue and discourse and storytelling a little further. And it’s the same for independent films. You hear it more and more often, [that] it’s stale and it’s the same stuff. So where does it go from there? Especially if you’re asking for someone’s 85-90 minutes. So I just think there are other ways and it’s good to see technology changing things up a bit.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Tell the stories you want to tell and really embrace the tools around you. Moving images are relatively young compared to other mediums, and the format's evolving faster and faster seemingly every day, so you can look at new technology as new weapons and your mastery of them as ways you can be more dangerous.

Epino’s next film project is called Be A Man, but most recently he has taken to YouTube, co-founding The National Film Society, alongside fellow filmmaker Stephen Dypiangco (Home Unknown, God of Love). NFS is a new media studio in which Epino and Dypiangco produce and distribute original short content, showcase amazing movies, interview talented artists and pretty much make fun of each other. In honor of Filipino American History Month in October, NFS recently highlighted awesome Filipino American actors, filmmakers and movies.

You can read more about Epino’s thoughts on self-distribution in a March 2011 article that appeared in Filmmaker Magazine.

Sadly, Al No'mani, the Iraqi actor who portrayed Mo, passed away shortly after filming. Here's a clip of No'mani on meeting the real Saddam in Iraq:

Epino’s friend, Goh Nakamura, who is featured on the Mr. Sadman soundtrack, recently starred in the Dave Boyle film Surrogate Valentine, which was the Centerpiece Film and the Grand Jury Award winner at this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Epino also makes an appearance in the film.

And I have yet to receive the invoice for the Q&A.

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