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While you might not know the name Brian Buckley, you're probably familiar with his work. Dubbed the "30-Second Auteur" by the New York Times, Buckley has directed dozens of notable commercials, many of which have aired during the Super Bowl. Occasionally, he dabbles in the world of narrative filmmaking. Asad, his latest effort, tells the story of a young Somali boy (Harun Mohammed) whose village is run by a band of marauding pirates. The boy has aspirations to join the pirates, but an elderly fisherman deters him, encouraging him to lead a more peaceful and productive life. The film is a tender if highly conventional coming-of-age tale, pleasant in its own way but short on style and ambition.
In many ways, Asad resembles another Oscar nominee, Behn Zeitlin's surprise hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, particularly in the precocious, indefatigable nature of its child star; at different points, both films even feature their main characters on ramshackle boats surrounded by a seemingly endless body of water. Furthermore, both films are essentially observational dramas about marginalized communities: Beasts of the Southern Wild, through thinly veiled allegory, depicts the poor treatment of lower-class New Orleanians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, while Asad sets its marks on the tattered nation of Somalia.
A title card at the end of Asad reads, "This film is a tribute to our entire cast, who have lost their country, but not their sense of hope." Indeed, each actor in the film is a Somalian refugee who has fled to South Africa. Buckley met the majority of his cast while shooting his 2010 video short No Autographs, a documentary commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council that features Luol Deng—a former Sudanese refugee and the current starting small forward for the Chicago Bulls—and his visit to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and southern Sudan.
Zeitlin's a native of New York, and his co-opting of backwoods southern culture comes across as opportunistic at best. But Buckley, while he hails from Massachusetts, tastefully represents his cast of young African refugees by refusing to sensationalize or romanticize their plight. While it might not be the most exhilarating aesthetic design, Asad's stern commitment to realism is anchored in an honest reverence for world issues that are often misrepresented or otherwise exploited—I'm looking at you, Kony 2012.