Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan has long drawn musical inspiration from his troubled homeland. Now he says he's ready to make a film about his war-torn roots.
The Toronto-bred poet, rapper, singer and songwriter has penned a screenplay he hopes to direct and shoot in Somalia, about an artistic orphan named Maano who joins a mercenary killing squad.
K'naan says he's excited to fine-tune the script and develop his director's vision on Monday, when he begins a month-long stint at the Sundance Institute's annual directors and screenwriters labs in Utah.
"I'm so curious, that's what it is, more than anything else," K'naan said in a recent interview from Los Angeles, where he was working on a new album.
"I'm really genuinely sleepless from curiosity. I don't know how that all comes together and I'm like that about music also — I get obsessive over work, over the idea of a song or the feeling of a song or something I have to do when I get to the studio. But I always wonder how what's in my head, the song in my head, and now in this case the film in my head, will look like."
K'naan's script Maanokoobiyo, is among 13 projects that have been chosen to take part in the prestigious workshop, where creative advisers will include institute president and founder Robert Redford, The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, actor Ed Harris, No director Pablo Larrain, The Motorcycle Diaries scribe Jose Rivera, Argo writer Chris Terrio and actress Alfre Woodard.
But despite the huge vote of confidence in his point of view, K'naan says he's not so much interested in becoming a filmmaker as he is simply driven to express himself in the best way possible.
"It's not really that I'm interested in filmmaking. I'm interested in the instrument of it, you know," says K'naan, who spent his childhood in Mogadishu and was on one of the last commercial flights out of the country before its collapse.
"I'm interested in telling this story in particular through a visual medium. So if the story was best suited for a book I would probably would have been sitting down and writing a book. And if it was for a song, that's what it would have been. But there are certain stories that are best suited for a visual medium and so it's not that I would like to be a filmmaker, it's just that I have a film to make."
As part of the directors lab, K'naan will work with professional actors and production crews to shoot and edit key scenes from his screenplay. Other emerging filmmakers attending the labs come from the United States, Europe, Mexico and Peru.
The Wavin' Flag rapper, who now lives in New York, says his tale is inspired by real people, with the central character — 21-year-old Maano — sharing more than a few traits with himself.
"He's got a lot of me [in him] and his sister is really based on someone that I love and have been very, very close to all my childhood who recently passed away," says K'naan, who also attended the Sundance Institute's five-day screenwriter's lab in January, which he calls "life-changing."
"The film opens as [Maano] is learning that he has one last family member remaining that's alive. He has a sister that's alive and on the other side of the country and it's just how it changes him in the process of searching for his sister, how finding such news, what that does to someone's soul."
While he's committed to directing his own script, K'naan says he doesn't expect to also appear in the movie.
"I just feel like it would be too much to take on writing the film and then assembling a cast, and directing it and probably making music for it," he says.
"I don't want to diminish the work by doing too much. So that's a part of the concern but in this process I've had ... do acting scenes and monologues off of the film for people who are advisers and friends who are around and they just go: 'It's so obvious you have to act in it.' But I genuinely don't have the ambition to act."
K'naan says he'd love to actually shoot the film in Somalia, suggesting the region appears to be stabilizing somewhat.
"It's really changing. The country is having its first rebirth and turnaround now ... economically and governmentally it's really incredible," he says.
"It's a lot to hope for — for Somalia to be safe and stable for good — but that's the dream and that's what people are working for and if that happens I'd love to shoot there."
The Sundance labs begin Monday and run through June 27.