Creative Advisor Kathryn Bigelow and K’naan at the 2013 Directors Lab. Photo by Fred Hayes.
Nate von Zumwalt
Those familiar with the work of 2013 Directors and Screenwriters Lab fellow K’naan—as a poet, rapper, singer, and instrumentalist—shouldn’t be surprised by his latest creative endeavor: filmmaking.
K’naan’s penchant for storytelling has seen him shift fluidly from hip-hop musician to children’s book author to screenwriter and filmmaker. After participating in the January Screenwriters Lab earlier this year, K’naan returned to Sundance Resort this June to continue to flesh out this project Maanokoobiyo, a tale that follows a Somali orphan as he embarks on a harrowing journey across the war-torn African nation in search of his last surviving relative.
K’naan took a moment recently at the Sundance Resort in the mountains of Utah to talk about his unique creative journey, the universal language of story, and his upcoming plans for Maanokoobiyo.
Can you introduce your project and share how your upbringing influenced this narrative?
The project is called Maanokoobiyo, and it means “the insane asylum.” The idea of the insane asylum came from the thought that when the government fell in my country, Somalia, in 1991—and the country has been kind of government-less for 20-some odd years—I thought, what happened to the mental asylums? The inmates who would have been in there? The violent ones. And I wondered if they weren’t the ones running the country at some point. Then I did some research and found out that the actual insane asylum in the city that I’m from (Mogadishu), when the government fell, a patient began to run the asylum. So that’s kind of where I get the premise.
You have an interesting creative journey that you continue to expand upon. What was the impetus for this foray into filmmaking?
I didn’t really even come here with a certain ambition, or drive, or total belief that I want to make a film. I came here to find out if I want to make a film. I’m really lucky that I have a creative outlet, and as a storyteller I have some branch of the tree of storytelling. Whether it’s poetry or music, I have some kind of a way out. And film seemed to me—even though I’m a huge fan of film—that it had no choice but to be impersonal.
There are so many people involved and many more equipment requirements. For music, you use your voice, you stand in front of people, and you may never need anything. For film you need a camera, you need a lot of people. I thought it would cause a separation between the storyteller and the story, or the listener and the story. So I wanted to know if that was true. I’m astounded to know how accessible that branch is and how beautiful it can be to tell a story visually.
What have been some of your more memorable interactions or elightenments at the Directors Lab?
For me, the advisors have been invaluable. There were so many things that I was confronted with when telling a story in a new medium, and a visual medium at that. I didn’t know whether poetry could become visual. If I had to choose something, one of [the experiences] that is prominent to me is that I got the confidence that I could use my sense of storytelling in images.
Now that we’re at the conclusion of the lab, can you say with any more conviction whether you want to make a film?
I’d like to make this film. I have this love for changing expressions—changing venues of expression. I love storytelling in all kinds of ways. This particular story, I think, there is no other way to tell it than in a visual medium. There’s a certain commitment I now have to this story that I didn’t have before I came here. Because I saw its possibility even more stretched than I thought for myself before.
Have you put much consideration into how you may incorporate music in your filmmaking?
The thing is that I know that I’m expected to have music in my work. But I’m really a fan of films that don’t have a lot of music. There’s a brave quality to making a film that does not rely on [music]. I think if the story is great without any music and you can watch a film hat way, and then you go back and consider where music elevates the story, I think that’s powerful. The only way I’ll use music is if I can actually move the story forward.