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SARNIA THIS WEEK: Sarnia filmmaker brings his internationally-acclaimed film back home

By Carl Hnatyshyn, Postmedia Network

When Sarnia born-and-raised director Sami Khan was a student attending Northern Collegiate in the mid-to-late nineties, he said that he had no premonition whatsoever that he would one be screening his own full-length, critically-acclaimed feature film in front of audiences in Mumbai, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“I loved movies, but at that time no, I really didn't think that I would be doing something like this,” Khan said in a phone interview from his home in New York. “At that time I had no idea you could make a career out of filmmaking. It was only in university that I realized that it was possible, but I really had no idea when I was in high school. I made films in high school that were terrible, just an excuse to hang out with friends and get out of doing written assignments.”

In spite of his less-than-stellar cinematic beginnings in the hallways of Northern, Khan's passion for storytelling and filmmaking led him to New York's prestigious Columbia University, where he received a graduate degree in film in 2009. After getting two of his short films screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, in the summer of 2015 Khan released his first feature length film, Khoya.

Khan will be making a homecoming of sorts this Saturday, Nov. 26 as the film group cineSarnia will host a special screening of Khoya at Sarnia Public Library Theatre, along with a question and answer session with the director as well as a reception following the film, beginning at 2 p.m.

Khoya is the captivating, contemplative tale of a Toronto man who, following the death of his adopted mother, returns to India to try and find out about the birth family he has never known. Starring Rupak Ginn as protagonist Roger Moreau and set in both Toronto and Jabalpur, India (Khan's father's hometown), the movie is an introspective and highly-intriguing look at one man's odyssey trying to make sense of his place in the world and find his true 'home'.

The genesis of Khoya came from a very personal place, Khan said.

“A few years ago I had a long-lost sibling and as time passed I started thinking I wanted to look for them and to reach out to them, and those were the first iterations of Khoya,” he said. “Just me working out the feelings and experiences that might arise from that situation. Khoya is fiction but it was inspired by a real search and that was the genesis of it – the idea of searching and a reunion.”

Six years in the making, Khan's film survived a series of normally-fatal obstacles, difficulties and dilemmas before finally being premiered at the renowned Mumbai Film Festival in 2015. The fact that the film was so personal and so near and dear to him gave Khan the motivation he needed to see it through to the end.

“That's what carried me through some of the more difficult moments – on our second day of shooting in India religious riots broke out and two weeks before we started principal photography, we lost our lead actor. But the personal connection to it and the fact that the film was so close to my heart, that's what allowed me to continue,” he said. “I don't think I would have felt that way if it was a film about a superhero fighting off a doomsday machine or something like that.”

Since the film's release last year, both audience and critical reception to the movie have been extremely positive, something Khan said that he was pleasantly surprised by.

“It's a nice surprise because it's such a difficult and lonely process making an independent and personal film,” he said. “Everything these days is a sequel or a reboot or an adaptation of a comic book or a book, so to make a really personal film is a lonely experience.”

“I did have realistic expectations that maybe nobody would ever see the movie,” he added with a laugh. “So it's really nice to have people watching the film, but then to have critics write positive reviews, it's just gravy.”

Khan's interest in telling stories through the medium of film began in the hallowed halls of one of Sarnia's old movie theatres - the Industry - he said. It was by watching countless movies there that he was able to learn more about Canadian and western culture, cultures he was not entirely familiar with as the son of immigrant parents.

“When I was a kid, there were at least two or three movie theatres in Sarnia – there was one called the Industry. I had so many memories at that cinema – I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Home Alone there, it really had a big impact on me,” he said. “For me, because my parents were immigrants, movies became a necessity to learn about the culture because there were some things my parents didn't know about, so movies taught me. Things like how to ask out a girl, I had to figure out that stuff through watching movies.”

While Khan's influences are legion, he said that early films by directors Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee guided him towards where he is today.

“I just loved Steven Spielberg movies. He was an outsider, he was a Jewish kid growing up in the southwest and I could identify with that,” he said. “As I got older and became more aware of my cultural and religious identity and struggled with it, I really enjoyed watching Spike Lee's movies and see how he was able to explore really complex subject matter about racial identity and about America, his country. Those were two huge influences on me as a young man and they both inform me about how I go about making films today.”

Screening Khoya in front of a hometown audience will be an exhilarating experience, Khan said, although not one without a few jitters.

“I'm excited to screen the film with people in Sarnia,” he said. “I mean, I'm kind of a nervous wreck watching the film. I actually watched the film on the weekend after having not watched it for a year, and it was tough. I'm my own worst critic, so that aspect I'll have to rise above. But I'm excited to share it with friends and my family and screen it with the cineSarnia group – they've been there for over twenty years championing art house and independent films. I'm sure it's going to be a great event.” 

Tickets for cineSarnia's presentation of Khoya are $15 and include a screening of the film, a question and answer session with director Sami Khan and a reception (with snacks) in the theatre lobby afterwards. Tickets can be purchased at The Book Keeper (500 Exmouth St.) , Gourmet Passions (172 Front St. N.) or by phoning 519-542-3935.

Khoya will also be released on iTunes Canada later on in November. Details can be found on www.khoyathefilm.com.