Sarnia native Sami Khan can’t quite believe he’ll share the red carpet in a few weeks with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and other Hollywood stars at this year’s Academy Awards.
Khan will attend the glittery affair in Los Angeles with Bruce Franks Jr., the subject of the film Khan co-directed with U.S. filmmaker Smriti Mundhra.
Their project, St. Louis Superman, is nominated in the short documentary category.
“It feels a little crazy, as you can imagine,” said Khan. “I don’t think the full weight of it will occur for years to come.”
Ten years ago, Khan was in his final year of film school at New York’s Columbia University and shooting his thesis project in Sarnia. 75 El Camino used the Chemical Valley and streets of south Sarnia as the backdrop to a story about what home means.
It drew enough critical acclaim to premier at the Toronto International Film Festival and jump-started a career in a very tough industry.
Fast forward a decade and Khan, 40, has earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the 28-minute documentary.
St. Louis Superman tells the story of Franks, a charismatic activist and battle rapper from Missouri. He was elected to the mostly Republican House of Representatives, where he tirelessly advocated ending the gun violence that killed his brother and countless friends.
Audiences at the Hot Docs Canadian International Festival in Toronto voted St. Louis Superman the top short film. It also won prizes on the festival circuit, including at Tribeca, Hot Docs, AFI Docs, Traverse City, Indy Shorts, Pittsburgh Shorts, Hawaii, St. Louis, and Rhode Island.
Sarnians had a chance to see St. Louis Superman in November at a cineSarnia series, which Khan attended.
“There’s a depth to Bruce’s story that you don’t find that often,” he said. “For me, it was like working with a dream team.”
Franks “storytelling superpowers” made the film successful, he said. “And, I think for Bruce, it helped him continue to do his work.”
Franks and Khan spoke just hours after the Oscar nomination was announced, when “all our phones were blowing up,” Khan said.
“He’s keeping it real and realizes this will be a whole new level of exposure. His story will travel the world.”
The Northern Collegiate grad finished his thesis in Sarnia in 2019, graduated from Columbia, and hasn’t stopped working. He usually has more than one project on the go.
Currently, Khan and his wife live in Toronto where he’s a writer on a primetime medical drama, The Transplant, and is in post production on a doc about Cuban defectors who dream of playing baseball in the U.S.
“I always work. It’s my nature,” said Khan, the son of Sarnia’s Anne and Dr. Rauf Khan. “But there’s a difference between working and working with pay.”
Success in the film industry does not come easily, and the past decade has been a lot of hard work, especially to fund his many projects.
“It’s really difficult to find money for films, especially short documentary films,” he said.
“You need to find champions who will take a risk on you and understand why it’s important to tell stories generally not covered by mainstream media.”
He hopes an Oscar nomination will make it easier for him to find those champions.
St. Louis Superman was produced by Khan, Mundhra, and Poh Si Teng for AJE Witness, and was acquired by documentary executive Sheila Nevins for MTV Documentary Films after its Tribeca Screening last spring.
St. Louis Superman is one of five nominees in the short documentary category. The 92nd annual Academy Awards takes place in Los Angeles on Feb. 9.