In 2015, a group of friends who’d grown up together in Sugar Land came across a shocking Facebook post from an old classmate.
“A few months ago, I along with several other people, ran across the Turkish border,” the post read. “I am now currently living in the Islamic State.”
The disappearance of the young man, and the effect it had on his friends, is the subject of a new short documentary now streaming on Netflix. Ghosts of Sugar Land has already received numerous accolades, including winning the Short Film Jury Award, Non-Fiction at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The movie, which runs just under 22 minutes, is a meditation on memory, friendship, the past, and the Muslim experience in suburban America.
The friend, who's referred to using the pseudonym Mark in the film, grew up middle class. His parents were veterans. But he was a social outcast. After befriending a group of Muslim kids, Mark decided to convert to Islam toward the end of high school. Soon, his beliefs grew increasingly concerning. He started speaking openly about his sympathy for ISIS, and posting cryptic messages on social media. Slowly, those friends began to draw away from him. Then, he seemed to disappear entirely.
Director Bassam Tariq, who also grow up in Sugar Land, knew Mark in high school through the Muslim community. He decided to make the movie because, as he says, “Mark went missing, and no one really knew how to talk about it.”
Tariq says his the unique visual style of the film was inspired by Alec Soth, a photographer who makes large-scale photos depicting parts of the American Midwest and the “loners and dreamers” who live there. The result is a beautifully shot, beautifully weird film in which Tariq makes use of various stylistic choices to show “how we are in conversation with the past."
For example, the movie’s opening shot is a man wearing a Kylo Ren Halloween mask, laying inside a pile of tire inner tubes. At first the scene feels silly and out of place. Only toward the end of the movie is it revealed that this is a recreation of a photograph of the man in the mask and Mark, taken when they were kids.
Those masks, which are superimposed each interview subject's face, are another stylistic choice. Mark’s friends, now in their mid-30s, speak about Mark’s radicalization and the danger his beliefs put them in. They also trade rumors and theories—that perhaps Mark was an FBI informant trying to goad them into terrorist ideology. These interviews take place in various locations throughout Sugar Land where the friends hung out as kids: an older brother’s house, an immigrant-owned convenience store, a local park.
The masks, therefore, are to protect the identity of his friends. Tariq superimposes the same mask each person wears onto his face in the older photos. Only Mark’s face is left unobscured.
“We needed to find a way to interact with Mark when he’s not even there,” Tariq says, “and I wanted to visually show how far we’ve come.”
“It’s not that we have to wear these masks because of something we did,” the person in the Kylo Ren mask says to the camera. “We have to wear these masks because of what he did.”
The end of the film includes a coda, which we won’t spoil. But the movie isn’t really about what happened to Mark or what his real identity is. All of us had a friend in high school or college with whom we were supernaturally close, a friend who we lost touch with and whose later life and choices become a mystery. It’s a movie about regret, guilt, and concern.
“I really hope this is seen as a small portrait of Muslim men in suburbia trying to process the disappearance of a friend,” Tariq says.
Ghosts of Sugar Land is streaming now on Netflix.