Yusuf Al-Rahman had a lot of blessings to count this Thanksgiving, and the seven African Movie Academy Award nominations for his independent feature film, Niya, ranked pretty high on his list.
The 36-year-old graduate of Sacred Heart University’s film & television master’s program (FTMA) grew up in Queens, N.Y. (“in the shadow of Shea Stadium” he says, holding on to the old name and neighborhood of his childhood), before going off to Pennsylvania for his undergraduate degree.
Al-Rahman’s love of performance and writing continued to gnaw at him, however, and after he had tinkered for some years, a friend in the film industry recognized his intuitive understanding of a dramatic beat and encouraged him to apply to film school. At 34, the actor/writer and amateur director was accepted to SHU’s FTMA program.
“Yusuf was an incredible student,” says Justin Liberman, assistant professor and director of the FTMA program. “He’s a model of the kind of filmmaker our program graduates.”
Niya tells the story of a young Muslim family facing hardships that put the father, played by Al-Rahman, in a bind between the straight-and-narrow path and a lucrative, though potentially deadly, one.
“I wanted to show a Muslim family in a film that has nothing to do with terrorism,” Yusuf says. “You never hear that word anywhere in the script. It’s just everyday problems that get out of hand, and the struggle of triumph over tribulation.”
Initially, the plan was to cast someone else to play the male lead, but Al-Rahman and his co-producer/co-director, Hasan Muhammad, just weren’t satisfied with anyone they auditioned. “Eventually, Hasan said, ‘You know this story better than anyone else. You wrote it. It’s got to be you.’”
That proved to be sound advice. The seven awards for which the film is nominated include two each for Al-Rahman and Muhammad as directors and producers, as well as nods for best supporting actor, best actress and another for Al-Rahman as best actor.
Making the success even more impressive is that the film was shot on a shoestring—what the industry refers to as “ultra-low budget”—of around $5,000 for 21 days of production and only another $2,000 for editing, which took around three months to complete.
Those are pretty good results for a script the writer nearly scrapped. The self-confessed action junkie was looking for a bigger idea for his degree thesis, but Damon Maulucci, visiting assistant professor in the FTMA program, advised against it.
“Just tell your story,” Maulucci told Al-Rahman.
The African Movie Academy Awards ceremony was due to take place Thanksgiving week at the National Art Theater Igamu, Lagos, Nigeria. However, it was postponed to a date that has still to be announced. Al-Rahman says he doubts he’ll be able to attend the ceremony itself when it does occur, but he will be standing by in New York as the awards are announced.
Whatever the outcome, “I couldn’t have made this journey without my FTMA professors,” Al-Rahman says. “I’m truly humbled.”