Saint Rose’s John Lyden: Award-winning Director

Published on April 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

By CONOR SHEA
Features Editor

Films are screened, applause is dealt, and contenders wait with baited breath. This gathering is in its simplest form a national competition to discover who among those present is the best filmmaker. No this is not the Oscars, and no the winner is not some celebrity; this is the Peace on Earth Film Festival, and the winner is Saint Rose senior John Lyden. On March 9th in Chicago, Illinois, Lyden, a Communications major (concentrating in film and new media) was presented the Best Student Film award for his short film “Stepping Toward the Lion.”

This 30-minute documentary showcases the intense struggles of one Alaudeen Umar, a young African American Muslim, as he transitions from an all-Muslim school to a non-denominational charter school. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lyden said Umar faced prejudice and bullying in this new environment, something that caused him considerable insecurity. As a proactive step to help him to deal with the bullying, Umar’s family searched out and found a local interfaith storytelling group called “Children at the Well.”

“The film basically depicts his transformation, going from being a bully victim in school being unsure and confused with his religion, to really embracing his identity and becoming a really versatile and talented storyteller,” said Lyden.

Lyden completed this passion project in his spare time outside of school, with little assistance from the Communications department. Lyden said this was more so due to the personal nature of the project rather than an unwillingness to help, and it would serve only to impress the department staff further. Professor Mary Alice Molgard, whom has had Lyden in film-centered courses previously, had nothing but positive things to say about the project. “[His initiative] to me is phenomenal. John found something he was particularly passionate about, figured out a way to be able to tell that story in film, and to reach an audience beyond just family and friends. The Communications department is very proud of John and his accomplishment in making the film, and we are delighted that he is receiving national recognition for his work.”

In high school, Lyden was a member of Children at the Well, and through this common bond he and Umar became friends. “I started talking to him and he opened up to me and told me about some of the things he was experiencing. So I just started documenting his journey through the group and the project grew.”

The project started as only footage of Umar learning from the group how to tell stories, but as the project grew Lyden began to conduct in-depth interviews with both Umar and members of his family.

“That was a process. I mean there were some things that they experienced that they didn’t even want to comment on while on camera, it was so painful for them,” said Lyden on gathering footage for the film.

“It was a collaboration between me and them. It was their story so I didn’t want to tell it my own way, I wanted to make sure they were comfortable with it at all times,” he continued.

Umar, the star of the film was excited but surprised at the national level of attention the film received, saying, “It felt weird getting my story told to so many people, to be honest. At the same time it seems as if it served as an inspiration for many who experienced similar situations.”

“It was definitely weird having cameras around me all of the time, it took away from me being completely naturally expressive,” he continued on the experience of having his every move filmed.

Khalafalla Osmon, another member of the Children at the Well group, and close friend of Umar was among similarly thrilled with the film’s reception.

“It’s a real humbling experience — seeing people watching the experience of one of my closest friends and learning something powerful about it. It’s truly humbling, and it gives me hope in the society we live in,” he explained.

Osmon didn’t find the experience all that daunting. “No, it wasn’t weird for me… I rarely noticed the cameras being on, John and the crew just left the cameras on while we were doing what we do best; tell stories.”

The total filming process for this documentary was a long one, although some portions were deceptively short, taking far less time than one might expect.

“The meetings that I filmed him with, I would say that took a few weeks, but the interviews on top of that probably took about two years. It actually took four years to do the whole thing altogether,” said Lyden with what appears expression of surprise at his own venture.

According to Lyden, the first year of his time was spent planning the project, and in addition to the time filming a considerable period was devoted to editing as he learned how best to craft Umar’s story.

The documentary was officially finished in August 2013, after Lyden completed his work with a composer David Bourgeois, owner of the White Lake Music and Post studio located in Latham.

“Of course as a filmmaker there are little things that you see that you want to change, but you can’t make a perfect film so I just kind of had to let go, and turn it over to this guy to do the score,” detailed Lyden sheepishly, giving the sense he might still feel the project could be improved further.

In late October of last year Lyden submitted his film for review in the student film category of the Peace on Earth Film Festival. Just three months later in January he found out his film was accepted into the festival, which in itself would be quite an achievement.

Not stopping there however, Lyden went to the festival to see his film screened, only to find out just days later of his big win- a win that was according to him somewhat unexpected.

“Really the films were so good; I mean I did not expect to win at all. It really blew me away!”

Lyden further mentioned that even accepting the award was quite an experience, especially given the scope of the festival.

“There was a guy there who had been nominated for an academy award, and he won an award in his category that day as well. It was surreal to be sitting up there with an Oscar-nominated director. I felt like it was definitely the big leagues.”

Not without a sense of humbleness, Lyden said he prefers to stay out of the limelight, and was glad the award didn’t take attention away from Umar’s story.

“After seeing the film people care about Alaudeen and his family. I think that as a filmmaker that’s the best thing that could happen, people care about your characters, and they don’t care about you.”
Regarding his plans for the future Lyden is somewhat undecided, but open to many possibilities.

“It’s exciting… nerve-wracking. I don’t really know what I’m going to do after this. I have some people suggesting I go to LA or New York…but I don’t know if I’m ready for that. Maybe I’ll do some freelance stuff around here for a year and we’ll see what happens after that. I haven’t ruled out grad school; get a master’s in film production.”

In terms of the future of “stepping Toward the Lion” Lyden stressed that this film was made with the intention to make money, saying, “It’s not that kind of project.”

Instead of a distribution deal he intends to build a website in the coming months so inquiring parties might order a copy. Those interested in seeing the award-winning film earlier can attend a screening at the GE Proctors Theater April 6 at 2:00, or contact Lyden through his email at lydenj231@strose.edu.