Toronto filmmaker Sami Khan heads to the Oscars with a ‘magnetic’ battle rapper

TORONTO — Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sami Khan says being a successful documentarian often comes down to finding the right protagonist —then knowing when to get out of the way.

At least that’s how he describes making St. Louis Superman, which contends for best documentary short at the Oscars on Sunday.

“It’s a little bit of alchemy,” the Toronto-based filmmaker explained a few weeks before Hollywood’s biggest night.

“I can say we shot the film a certain way… but there’s a lot of magic and good fortune.”

Most of the credit, he insisted, goes to Bruce Franks Jr., a black American man who’s the centrepiece of the film, which is co-directed with Smriti Mundhra.

Franks is a battle rapper, a father, and a state legislator carrying the weight of past trauma. His nine-year-old brother was killed in 1991 when a drug dealer used him as a human shield in a gunfight. The loss still lingers as he raises his own family.

The 27-minute documentary follows Franks as he’s elected to the mostly white Missouri House of Representatives and pushes a bill that would declare youth violence a public health epidemic.

“There’s something about Bruce that’s magnetic,” the first-time Oscar nominee said. “Our job is to just not mess it up.”

St. Louis Superman won a non-competitive special jury prize at the Tribeca Film Festival before it was acquired by MTV’s documentary films division. Last year it also won the audience award at the Hot Docs film festival.

Khan, who grew up in Sarnia, Ont., is accustomed to the stars aligning at the most unexpected times.

When he was barely in his twenties, he briefly worked in the offices of legendary Canadian documentarian Allan King who, at the time, was releasing his acclaimed 2003 film Dying at Grace, about terminally ill cancer patients at a Toronto hospital.

“His influence on me was… incredible,” Khan said of the late filmmaker.

“He was so compassionate and, for me, that’s what I try to pay forward. It’s not enough to tell an edgy story, but the way you make it and interact with people is really important, and will be your legacy.”

During the production of St. Louis Superman he focused on building trust with Franks, realizing that bad experiences had soured him to being in front of a camera.

“He had been burned a couple times by news crews coming in, just kind of there to extract the story,” he said.

“When you need to be right next to somebody to get the shot, they need to trust you. If they don’t, you don’t have a film.”

Khan said he’s spent a lot of time considering how documentarians treat their subjects, and he believes the approach of some filmmakers is in the midst of an evolution.

“Documentary film can no longer be the anthropological method of extracting the story and re-traumatizing subjects,” he said.

“You have to work with the people you’re telling stories about, and be mindful that you’re not retraumatizing them. It was exciting to talk about that stuff with Bruce, but also really terrifying. You’re documenting somebody at their worst. You don’t want to hurt someone.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

A Red Deer County man was arrested for drug possession by Innisfail RCMP on April 19. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Property crime and drugs top Red Deer RCMP priorities in new plan

2020-2022 Policing Priorities Plan going to city council on Monday

RCMP estimate about 500 people gathered on the weekend near Garrington Bridge along the Red Deer River, in a July 28, 2020 story. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Second person charged for alleged assault at anti-racism rally in Red Deer

A second person is facing charges following an alleged assault during an… Continue reading

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees vice-president Bonnie Gustola criticized provincial government layoffs at a rally that drew more than 80 people at City Hall Park on Friday.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
More than 80 rally in Red Deer against government health, education cutbacks

Rally at City Hall Park organized by the Council for Canadians

The higher the education level, the higher the income of some 1.3 million post-secondary graduates surveyed between 2010 and 2015, with master's degrees paying off the most. But the findings also suggest that gender and timing matter. (Black Press Media File).
2020 high school grads won’t get their ceremony

Decision announced by Lindsay Thurber and Hunting Hills high schools, and Gateway Christian School

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

New voluntary measures, including the encouragement of more mask wearing, have been introduced in the Edmonton health zone. “Red Deer has been very fortunate to have relatively low case numbers . . . relative to the rest of the province and the country,” says Mayor Tara Veer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
POLL: Should Alberta have stricter rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Should Alberta have stricter rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19?… Continue reading

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler throws against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning in Game 3 of the baseball World Series Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Buehler leads Dodgers over Rays 6-2 for 2-1 Series lead

Buehler leads Dodgers over Rays 6-2 for 2-1 Series lead

Inter Miami defender Ben Sweat, left, and Montreal Impact attacker Maximiliano Urruti fight for the ball during their MLS soccer match, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez
Rested Montreal Impact looking to collect points with big finish to regular season

Rested Montreal Impact looking to collect points with big finish to regular season

Mariah Bell of the United States, competes during women's short program in the International Skating Union Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Nathan Chen dominates again in Skate America short program

Nathan Chen dominates again in Skate America short program

Lanto Griffin putts on the ninth hole during the second round of the Zozo Championship golf tournament Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Thomas has a fast start for a 65 and a 1-shot lead at Zozo

Thomas has a fast start for a 65 and a 1-shot lead at Zozo

Mariah Bell of the United States, competes during women's short program in the International Skating Union Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Bell, Tennell go 1-2 in Skate America short program

Bell, Tennell go 1-2 in Skate America short program

Team Saskatchewan skip Matt Dunstone flips his broom in frustration following a shot as they take on Team Alberta in the playoffs at the Brier in Kingston, Ont., on Saturday, March 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Team Matt Dunstone considers relocation due to restrictions in Saskatchewan

Team Matt Dunstone considers relocation due to restrictions in Saskatchewan

Most Read