Philly director turns post-graduate anxiety into award-winning Netflix film

Heidi Saman was in Egypt, mid-recession and mid-postgraduate uncertainty, when she began writing what is now her first feature film.

She was filming her Temple senior thesis, something not a lot of students get to do. But even in that place that was so far away from home, she was still consumed about what would come next.

The first-generation Egyptian American channeled those feelings of doubt into Steven, the main character in Namour. Steven (Karim Saleh) is also a first-generation Egyptian American, a valet driver caught between the expectations of his family and figuring out his life for himself. “He takes on this valet job, thinks it’s going to change. He’s in it longer than anticipated,” she said. “Then a quiet anger starts stirring and builds up.”

Namour starts streaming Wednesday on Netflix after a successful festival run that won it the L.A. Muse Award at the L.A. Film Festival. Namour is distributed by Array, the company founded by Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay (Selma, The 13th), which specializes in films made by people of color and by women.

“She said things I believe in,” Saman said about DuVernay, “that there’s a place for people of color in art-house film.”

Namour’s release is a big deal for Saman, 37, who by day is an associate producer of NPR's Fresh Air.

Saman got her MFA in film in 2007 from Temple. When it came to her family, they at first didn't understand her desire to pursue filmmaking. “I changed majors without telling them,” she said.  “I had resistance. I don’t think it’s totally bad to have resistance. It makes you have to prove something.”

Her senior thesis was the short film “The Maid,” which followed an Egyptian housemaid who comes to terms with the truth of the family she works for.

It was while she was filming “The Maid” in Cairo after she graduated that she began wondering what the future held . It was the middle of the recession, and she was in limbo. She wanted to follow her artistic passion while also supporting herself financially. That's when Steven came to her.

Steven is stuck. He’s caught in a dead-end job that he can’t escape because he doesn’t know what he wants to escape to. All the while, he watches his sister overachieve and his parents’ marriage crumble.

Saman lives in Philly, but she chose to shoot the film in Los Angeles, where she grew up. “The valet culture is a very particular part of Los Angeles. It's one of the last places where classes mingle,” she said. “When someone enters your car and parks it, it’s very intimate.”

Saman shot Namour in her childhood home. She wanted the house to feel like a character. Her camera lingers on the house itself, the living room, the kitchen, the lawn. (Saman’s parents have cameos in Namour, and the movie has taken on special meaning since she made it. A year after they wrapped filming, her father died.)

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Heidi Saman, who works at "Fresh Air" by day, releases her first feature film, "Namour," on Netflix.

Though  Namour is inspired by Saman's personal experience, Steven is not solely a stand-in for her, if only because she consciously wanted to explore this quarter-life crisis through the lens of a man.

“I thought of the familial responsibility of being ‘the man of the house,'” she said.  “He’s a weird combination of myself and some guys I dated who felt like, if they hadn't figured out their job, they couldn’t be good to you as a partner.”

Her brother jokingly says the movie is about him.

In the film, Steven finds himself taking out his frustrations on the people around him and then himself. Saman said it was the pressure of having to do a lot of things he was not ready for.

“This guy was a little bit of a castrated guy,” said Saleh. “He’s wandering around in a wonderland where overbearing women run his life, but at the same time, they’re his anchor in a reality where the men are absent or they represent an obstacle to him.”

The way Saman shoots Namour reflects Steven’s existential confusion. We feel just as lost and numb as Steven does. There's a scene where Steven sits on a beach at night, at a party where he doesn't feel he fits in.  All that can be heard are the crashing waves, while he has his back to the audience as he drunk-texts his girlfriend. His most vulnerable thoughts are typed out above him as he shares them with her. The dark blues and profile makes the viewer feel isolated and alone as she texts back, "this isn't you."

And although Steven is a first-generation American, his Egyptian heritage is not the core of his story. It was intentional, Saman said. She wanted the images to speak louder than the labels.

“I thought it would be a nice opposition of what we see of Middle Easterners in the media,” said Saman. “Let’s be in this nice sort of static frame to see Arab culture in a way that is more meditative.”

Saman, who financed the 18-day shoot through an investor and a $26,000 Kickstarter campaign, got a big boost from Array. Saman found a backer in DuVernay, who started her own filmmaking career making low-budget indies before the accolades poured in for her work on Selma and The 13th (also on Netflix).

"We love how she stylized the film,” said Tilane Jones, executive director of Array, “as well as the story behind it, an Egyptian American filmmaker who tells the story of an Egyptian American family going through transitions in life, and trying to figure out where are you in this world."

Through the process of writing, funding, and making this film, Saman has sort of figured out where her place is in the world, too, something she did not know when she was in Cairo.

She’s working on a TV script and on a period piece set in Egypt. And she wants to try her hand at comedy.

But it all started with Steven, a young adult feeling lost, something that everyone can relate to. Saman said, “I want people to walk away with a feeling of what it means to be human.”

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