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Somali boys on a red carpet quest

LOS ANGELES >> Bryan Buckley is known as "King of the Super Bowl" – he’s a prolific commercial director who frequently helms many of the big game’s highest-profile spots for companies including Coca-Cola and Best Buy. But this year he’ll be at the Oscars, hopefully with some unusual companions.

Buckley directed the Oscar-nominated short fiction film "Asad," a coming-of-age fable about a young Somali boy living in a war-torn fishing village. The project originated as Buckley’s tribute to Somalis he met at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya in 2010, when he was filming a documentary for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. The civil war and brutal famine in Somalia had resulted in a huge influx of refugees crowding the camps in nearby countries, and Buckley was taken by their upbeat personalities despite their dire conditions.
"It’s about their spirit," he said. "My idea was to try and show the human side of the people there. People do laugh in Somalia. They are people. They are not just rebels. They are not just pirates. My intent was to show dimension, show something relatable. Take them through this bizarre world."
Now Buckley is hoping to personally introduce his two young stars to Hollywood. He and his producing partners are inching closer to attaining the necessary visas to fly Ali and Harun Mohamed to Los Angeles for Oscar Sunday. If successful, the long journey will be the culmination of a series of first-time moments for the two Somali refugees, ages 12 and 14.
The film, while set in Somalia, was made in South Africa, where the brothers now live. Buckley found them in a small Somali community there, and just acting in the 18-minute-long movie has expanded the siblings’ horizons: They saw the ocean for the first time, they learned how to swim, they memorized 19 pages of dialogue.
"I felt happy making this movie," said Harun, reached by phone a few days before he was headed to the airport for the first time. "Never in my wildest dreams would I expect this."
Buckley, 49, has also invested in the boys’ education. They were not granted refugee status until they were 10 and 12, respectively. They had never attended school and were not permitted to enroll in South African institutions until their learning was brought up to grade level.
The director, along with the film’s associate producer Matt Lefebvre, set up a private school for the boys, paying for transportation, a tutor, lunch and textbooks. He says they are already reading at third- and fourth-grade levels since they began their education last March.
"I can write my name and I can read it," said Harun. "If it wasn’t for the film, I wouldn’t be able to do that."
Buckley and his collaborators began the work of trying to get the boys and their father to the United States for the Oscars months ago, with the hope that the short film would be nominated for an Academy Award. They have involved the U.N. in their quest to get the boys passports and visas, a lengthy process that’s been complicated by their refugee status.
Buckley is optimistic that his two producers, Mino Jarjoura and South African-based Rafiq Samsodien, will be able to cut through the red tape in time.
"This is a rare chance for millions of people to get a glimpse of the beautiful spirit of two remarkable Somali refugee children," said Buckley. "To say that this public glimpse of Harun and Ali’s success could positively alter the outlook of every refugee who remains anonymous and without a country might be a huge overstatement. But I believe it sure as hell isn’t going to hurt. And it might just help."
As for Harun and Ali, the boys say they are excited to meet some movie stars, though the ones they are anticipating might not be attending the show.
"I’d like to see Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jackie Chan," said Harun.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Steve Zeitchik contributed to this report.

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