Over ten years have passed since 9/11 and our country is still grappling with its ramifications; we have been forced to deal with issues of fear and terrorism in an unprecedented way. Since that day, we have had to ask ourselves what American values are we willing to put aside in the name of national security and to what lengths are we willing to go as a nation?
Sam Malkandi was an Iraqi-American refugee living outside of Seattle, WA when 9/11 happened. Sam was born in Iraq and his life story spans many of the most influential times and places in Middle Eastern history; from the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, to refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan; culminating in his family being chosen out of thousands to immigrate to the United States.
When the 9/11 Comission Report came out in 2004 Sam’s life changed forever. His name appeared in a footnote on the report, linking him to one of the most high profile Al-Qaeda operatives, one Tawfiq bin Attash “Khallad.” Khallad, was the mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing and claimed that a man, whose name sounded like “Barzan” (Sam’s childhood nickname) tried to get him a visa into the US to be one of the 9/11 hijackers. Sam and his family now found themselves at the center of a terrorism investigation.
As a filmmaker, the personal story of Sam Malkandi’s life is utterly compelling. Here was a man that fled Sadaam’s army to find a safer life in Iran. After arriving in Iran his wife kills herself via immolation. Out of fear of retribution from her family he flees to Pakistan with his young daughter and finds safety in a refugee camp. There, he finds hope in a new wife and together they are miraculously chosen for resettlement in the US.
As a person, I felt drawn to this story for many reasons. On September 11th, 2001 I was 18 years old and a sophomore at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. I can clearly remember that day as if it were yesterday. Standing on the roof of a dorm building my friends, I watched as the second tower fell to the ground.
Sam Malkandi Outside the Former Saddam Prison in Iraq
9/11. Terrorism. Al-Qaeda. Immigration. Iraq. The American Dream. I have been living with these issues in the forefront of my mind for most of my adult life. I had always been interested in politics and government, but 9/11 sharpened my awareness. Life in NYC in the years after 9/11, almost demanded that you pay attention. The country was using that tragedy as an excuse to go to war and to blanket the country in fear.
It was this culture of fear that repelled me the most. The way fear was being used as a justification to make drastic decisions that would end up ruling our nation for over ten years. It’s these deep-seated issues that brought me to “Barzan.”
Fast-forward ten years. I moved to Seattle, WA in the summer of 2008 and teamed up with some friends to make video under the banner of the Last Quest. In the winter of 2011 friends of ours, who run the non-profit journalism outlet the Common Language Project, headed out on an epic Middle Eastern reporting trip that would bring them to, among other places, Northern Iraq. While in Iraq Sarah Stuteville (Barzan Writer/Producer) and Alex Stonehill (Barzan co-Director) spent some time with a man named Sam Malkandi.
Writer/Producer Sarah Stuteville and Co-Director Alex Stonehill on Turkey Mountaintop with Comic Artist Sarah Glidden
When they returned they called a meeting with the Last Quest and the story of Sam Malkandi came spewing forth.
Sam’s story touched on so many of the key ideas that had been strings in my life starting back to my early years in New York City (fear, xenophobia, terrorism, immigration) and I was instantly drawn in. As a Producer, it was the kind of film that one dreams about.
There’s something incredibly unique and moving about this story. At the core is a deeply personal story of a man who has tried everything, at all costs, to find a safe place for his family. Amongst it all, they find themselves intertwined with some of the world’s most contentious modern conflicts. It also offers a personal and in-depth look at a high-profile terror suspect, something we really haven’t seen in film (or in the news).
The story seems to be in constant battle with itself – is Sam Malkandi the innocent family man he seems to be, did he just get caught up by a culture cloaked in fear and xenophobia? A culture that was aching for retribution for 9/11 and that was deeply afraid of anything (or anyone) from the Middle East?
Or is it darker than that? Could Sam Malkandi really have done the things he was accused of? Did he try to get a high-level Al-Qaeda operative into the US to be one of the 9/11 hijackers?
Malkandi Family Celebrates the Fall of Saddam in 2003
It’s something our film deals with but also that we, as filmmakers, have had to wrestle with as well. The hard evidence against Malkandi is weak but his own story leaves lots of questions that seem to lead to some dark places.
Our film tries to tell this story as objectively as possible, but just ask importantly this film gets to the core of some of the huge issues of our time and that I, as a person, have been dealing with. After 9/11 the world was a scary place and I can’t help but think that if I had heard Sam Malkandi’s story in 2004 I might have been just as quick to judge him, thinking, “even if he’s the tiniest bit guilty, do we want a guy like that in the US?”
Hindsight is usually 20/20 but this situation is so complex that distance doesn’t necessarily make it clearer but presents a new perspective. It offers us distance from the culture of fear we were enveloped in when Malkandi was first tried and allows us to step back and look at the bigger picture.
We can see the government agencies that were under duress from the federal
government to bring as many people to trial as possible, to make examples out of them, to prove that they were doing something in this domestic war on terror.
Sam Malkandi Prepares for Interview in Iraq
We can see Sam Malkandi as a father and husband and not just the scary Iraqi that many people want to see him as. We can now see the totality of this man’s life and to judge him on that and not the color of his skin or his ethnic heritage.
Ultimately, our audience will have to decide if they think Sam Malkandi was guilty of the crimes he was ultimately accused, but not convicted of. But mostly we hope that our audience will also be able to look beyond their fear and beyond what the media tells us to think and to see Sam Malkandi as a person. A person who may, or may not have done bad things and that may or may not have been caught up in the United States’ urgency to protect itself at all costs, even if that meant giving up some of our freedoms along the way.
Check out the Kickstarter page for "Barzan" here.
Cassidy Dimon is a Producer at the Last Quest which has partnered up with the Common Language project to produce the feature film "Barzan".
Cassidy is a photographer and filmmaker from New York, now residing in Seattle, WA. She worked for four years as the Acquisitions, Festival & Education Coordinator for the film distributor Film Movement where she actively assisted in film acquisition and was responsible for the non-theatrical distribution of over 100 films. Her most recent short film, "Woman Seeks Man for Date on Friday" premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival.
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