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.”