Akram Shibly is Serving Humanity Through Film
By Alyssa Klein
Picture this: it’s 2003. A group of strangers are sitting around computers, pre-Facebook, pre-Myspace, even, collaborating on a script for an animated series based on Lego’s BIONICLE toy. Unbeknownst to most, if not all of them, one of their collaborators is just shy of eleven. The pre-teen screenwriting prodigy is named Akram Shibly. And this is how he got his start as a filmmaker.
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York to Syrian immigrant parents in the early 90s, Shibly grew up hurt by the way his faith and culture were portrayed in the media. Inspired to take matters into his own hands, Shibly devoted his life to filmmaking. At 19, he founded a production company, True Intent Productions, to, in his words, serve humanity through enlightening entertainment.
Shibly, who visited Syria every summer as a child, was heartbroken when the country’s civil war broke out in his teens, in which an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011 and millions more displaced from their homes, according to the UN Envoy for Syria. Shibly’s first short, Heal the World (2013), juxtaposes children building a city out of Legos with the story of a Syrian child whose city was tragically air raided. The film helped raise $30,000 for Syrian relief, and showed the young director and screenwriter the power, and value, of using his art for the greater good.
On a trip to Jordan with his father and sister in 2014, Shibly brought his camera to film inside Zaatari, the world’s most populated refugee camp. The result was Shibly’s first documentary, Waiting at the Door (2015). The film, a glimpse into the lives of Syrian refugees in the camp, went on to be recognized as the Grand Jury Prize at the SUNYWide (State University of New York) Film Festival.
Of course, Shibly’s true love is narrative fiction. Now 25 and an MFA Screenwriting student at Chicago’s DePaul University, Shibly has dreams of writing and directing feature films. His third and latest feature screenplay, Dreamer’s Diary, is an adventure drama about a band of refugee and undocumented children journeying to Canada to escape an immigration crackdown. It follows in the tradition of young adult adventure movies like Stand By Me and Stranger Things, but with the stories of undocumented and refugee youth at its center.
And while positioning Muslims and people of color as heroes in his stories is certainly at the heart of Shibly’s work, it’s not the only way he hopes to bring change through film. Shibly, who’s lost countless friends to suicide, drug overdose and drunk driving, wants to redefine what it means to be happy on screen. He wants to tell stories that touch everyone.
Below, I caught up with Shibly for the latest Storyteller Spotlight.
This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity and readability.
We Have Stories is all about stories. What’s your story?
I fell in love with storytelling at a very young age. I would read a book cover to cover every day for many years, and I started making my own fan fictions when I was about ten years old on forums. I was really interested in this Lego toy called BIONICLE. I would make these little short scripts based on those action figures. Before I knew it, I was collaborating with people across the country to work on an animated series based on these toys. I didn’t think any of them knew at the time that I was only ten and I was writing scripts for them, and they were actually being produced and animated. It was my first kind of foray into filmmaking and it just kind of stuck with me. Eventually it evolved from being a fun hobby to a serious career consideration.
As a Muslim we’re taught to be of service to humanity. I thought I could serve humanity better as a filmmaker than I could as a doctor or lawyer or engineer. Doctors can heal a person’s body, but storytellers can heal hearts. I pursued this career path to tell stories that I felt would enlighten and entertain people and uplift them.
What’s something that inspired you to tell stories through film?
Growing up, Sesame Street taught me English. Since then, I’ve at least subconsciously been aware of the power of film. I think that’s where even at a very young age I kind of developed this love of film and television.
What kind of stories are you trying to tell through your work?
The stories I want to tell are ones that have unconventional heroes that you don’t see in the mainstream, whether they’re of a different background or a different walk of life. Growing up, I never saw any hero that prayed like me or looked like me. I want to change that, and just tell heroic stories but from people of different walks of life. I like stories that kind of bring out the extraordinary in the ordinary, kind of like magical surrealism and just showing that life still has magic to it, even if it’s more grounded in reality. I gravitate towards stories that walk the line between reality and surrealism.
What have you been up to since your days as a ten-year-old prodigy?
Early on in my career I would just make goofy films with my friends. I was making comedic shorts up until I was 18, 19. Around that time, the war in Syria happened, and I kind of felt this paradigm shift. As much as I loved to make comedies and just have fun making films, I really need to also use my talent to give voice to the voiceless, and to the people who are suffering in tragedies like the Syrian War.
Growing up, I used to go to Syria every summer. It really hit me hard to see the images of devastation in cities that I would frequent. At about 18, 19 years old, I started making more serious films that touched on social justice issues, starting with the short film Heal the World, which juxtaposed children building a city out of Legos with a child’s heartbreaking monologue after his city was air raided in Syria. That film went on to raise over $30,000 for Syrian relief, and I started to realize the impact that cinema can have to actually make a real-world difference. So I started getting more and more involved in community-oriented productions and documentary work in general.
I ended up traveling to Jordan, spending time in the world’s largest refugee camp at Zaatari and documenting what I called “the resilience of the Syrian people,” and how they actually are not so helpless as refugees, but they will help themselves if given a safe place to stay. That film, Waiting at the Door, went on to be recognized as the Grand Jury Prize at the SUNYWide (State University of New York) Film Festival. Since then I’ve been doing more and more documentary work, and films that are used to bring awareness to causes, such as building a playground in the inner city or building a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and violence.
But given all that, I still want to very much return to my roots as a narrative fiction storyteller. I believe that stories that are on the big screen can have a very large impact, even if it just a hero that kids can look up to, or a moral, or something that just makes people feel empathy.
What are the features you’re currently working on?
My first feature film script that I started writing is called Good Vibes. It’s a story about the American dream told through the eyes of a Muslim teenager on his quest to become a YouTube celebrity. It touches on the issues that teenagers face with identity. Identity crisis is very much heightened when you’re a Muslim-American, and you feel like your country has a certain perspective on who you are as a Muslim, versus your own outlook on who you are as an American, and how that kind of contradicts each other. I really wanted to take this example of a Muslim-American trying to become a YouTuber to show how universally all teenagers struggle with identity and have to learn to find their voice and overcome that.
Currently, I’m writing Dreamer’s Diary. It’s going to be my masters thesis. It’s an adventure film about a group of undocumented immigrants and refugee children who ban together to escape a ravenous immigration crackdown. It’s kind of a hyperbole for what’s happening right now, what we see around the country with the treatment of undocumented immigrants and refugees and the rhetoric that’s going around. I’m kind of imagining a world where this is really cranked up to the extreme, and children are in so much fear that they are willing to pick up everything, leave their families, leave their hometowns, to try to get to safety. It’s kind of like Stand By Me and even Stranger Things, but I wanted to make the undocumented and refugee children the heroes.
Has your storytelling changed at all in the past year and a half or so since November 2018 and Trump’s Muslim ban?
Honestly, my storytelling has not changed much in the past year and a half. I think the big change happened after 9/11, and following the war in Syria. That’s when I started to see how much the media misrepresents us. Although the Muslim ban is a horrible policy that is very recent and very new, iterations of it and the mistreatment of Muslims in this country long precedes that. My family was subjected to horrible, horrible treatment at the border from the time of George Bush through Obama until now. I actually witnessed my parents and my brother and sister and a group of over a dozen or two dozen Muslims stopped at the border, fingerprinted, etcetera. George Bush was essentially making a list of Muslims, like a database. A lot of this stuff has already been in play and has already informed my view as a filmmaker. I think the only thing that’s really changed in the past year and a half is [the fact that] the need for these stories to get out there is growing increasingly important.
Why does representation matter to you?
Representation matters because media has a deep impact on society, especially children, and especially youth and teenagers growing up. We idolize our favorite celebrities and our favorite heroes in films and comic books and television and novels. Those characters that we encounter through stories become our role models and become who we aspire to be. The same thing goes for the villains that we see and the nemeses in pop culture. The qualities we see in villains become the qualities that we learn to detest growing up. When you have the majority of Arab representation being associated with villains, with terrorism and barbarism, I think that definitely has an impact on children. It has an impact on non-Muslim children who see these representations and start to develop stereotypes. But it also has an impact on Muslim children and people of color who see the way they’re portrayed, and start to develop self-loathing and have these identity issues that I’m dealing with in my films. If we can improve representation I think we can improve mental health.
Is there anything that’s been on your mind lately?
I want to do more than just change the way Muslims are represented. I hope through film I can redefine what it means just to be happy. Something that’s universal is this quest, this pursuit of happiness. I’ve already lost countless friends to suicide, drug overdose, drunk driving, and I sometimes wonder if the way the good life is portrayed in film plays a role in how empty many people feel inside. I wonder if that can be changed, and if through film people can be inspired to seek happiness from within. I think the media does have a large impact on what we perceive will make us happy, and sometimes it’s destructive. So alongside positioning Muslims and people of color and the voiceless as heroes in my films, I also want to touch people universally and tell stories that inspire everyone to be content and do good.