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Stay for the Discussion: Musa Syeed Shares Valley of Saints with Audiences in BiH

Musa Syeed, Director, Valley of Saints

Musa Syeed, the director of Valley of Saints, documents his experience with FILM FORWARD in Bosnia and Herzegovina where he screened his film and engaged in dialogue with local audiences.

It’s hard being an independent filmmaker today. To navigate the harrowing journey from fundraising to seeing the final product on a screen (hopefully with an audience) takes a certain intestinal fortitude. You have to persevere through endless rejections and fight against all that is logical to realize your unique, crazy dream. You have to endlessly assert yourself, be your own advocate, shamelessly self-promote—because only you have your best interests in mind. While that kind of self-defense is necessary, at times I’ve let it be my focus, bordering on self-entitlement. And when that happens, I start to miss what this is all really about.

In a lot of ways, traveling with FILM FORWARD—particularly in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH)—was a humbling experience, reminding me to be grateful that I’m in a position to make films and share them with audiences.

First, there’s the technical stuff. For a filmmaker, checking the actual projection of your film is a nerve-wracking experience. Here is a film you have labored years on, scrubbed over every frame countless times, tried your best to get it perfect despite constraints of budget/time/reality. You want it to look and sound like the work of art you know it to be.

However in BiH, the culture of cinema-going is still being restored after years of war made it impossible. So, we often we were not screening in actual cinemas, but in venues not set up for film screenings. Stacy Peralta, my fellow traveling filmmaker and an all-around inspirational guy, and I had to roll with the punches:

-We can’t cover the windows completely during this daytime screening, so the projection of your beautifully color-corrected film will be a little faded out by the sunlight.
-Um, OK.

-We have to play your incredibly layered and complex sound mix through PC speakers that might be a little blown out.
-I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.

-We have a problem. The electricity went out. Can you just talk to the audience instead?

But a funny thing happened. The film held up. The audiences were engaged. The screening of my film became less about me and more about the audience and our shared experience in exchanging ideas.

Which brings me to the audiences that FILM FORWARD connects us to. Part of the program’s goals is to bring the film to underserved audiences. While there is debate about what that means, it was clear that most of the people we reached in BiH would not otherwise have access to these films or know about them. And that made for some very engaged audiences, whose gratefulness for the experience made me realize how grateful I should also be to be with them.

Whether I was screening for the gray-haired members of a retirement community, hip youth activists, or a rural women’s collective, the audiences in BiH were some of the most vocal and appreciative. That’s not to say they just lauded me with praise either. When I told the audience in one of my intros, “If you liked the film, stick around for a discussion, and if you didn’t like the film, tell me why”, I meant it as a joke. But sure enough, in the discussion afterwards, a couple audience members voiced their opinions of how they thought the film should have ended. In my first all-female screening, the mostly middle-aged audience demanded more romance. These kinds of interactions don’t happen as often with festival audiences.

By the last stop on the trip, in the small town of Siroki Brieg, I was fully aware of how much of a blessing it is to be making and sharing films. In this small town that I would have never heard of otherwise, I had one of the best screenings of my life. Technically, it was not great—the Blu-ray playback seemed choppy, the sound was a little fuzzy. But the audience’s interpretations of the film, the mutual energy we fed each other, the good-natured jokes we made about each other—it was a reminder of why I make films.

While my FILM FORWARD trips may have come to an end, I want to find a way to replicate the experience for my future work. How to make that sustainable, how to find time for it, how to plan it—these are all tough questions that make it seem impossible. But as a filmmaker, I know a little bit about chasing crazy dreams.

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