Derek Jensen

Sam Fathallah

Derek Jensen
Sam Fathallah

It all started with Sam entering a few film contests in his freshman year of high-school.

Take us back to you as a kid. I grew up in a Muslim, Arab-American household in Marion, Iowa. The cultural disparity I experienced growing up made for a really interesting childhood. My dad is Lebanese and my mom is Palestinian, but they’re both children of 70’s and 80’s American culture. This is particularly true of the music that would be playing around the house all the time. In addition to Arabic music, my dad loves soul music, funk and reggae, and my mom loves new wave pop and the British Invasion. For my two sisters and me, the contrast between our Arab culture and our American culture – particularly in a post 9/11 America – was an important part of our up-bringing and helped shape our views of contemporary politics.

We had an 8mm Sony Camcorder in the house and we'd make little videos that satirized this Arab-American cultural contrast. Our most famous one was called “Jamal’s Big Break” and it has since been lost to the depths of an old laptop. We’d show these videos to our parents, and it made us closer as a family. The cultural customs we shared inside our home were what made our family strong against the backdrop of white, Christian Iowa.

What's keeping you busy? In short – videos. I feel like I’m always on the move, shooting a new film project, meeting about a film project, editing a film project, or just listening to music and imagining an artistic representation of it.

"We’d show these videos to our parents, and it made us closer as a family."

Walk us through the days leading up to starting your own thing? I really loved making videos all throughout middle school and high-school, so making it into my full-time job was a really gradual transition. I think it started with me entering a few film contests my freshman year of high-school and realizing I could make money doing what I enjoy.

How do you focus on the work you love doing? Walk us through a good day. I think it’s important for any creative person to balance the work that pays the bills with the work that they love (ideally, they’d be the same). My favorite films to make are the ones that take place with friends deep in the woods on a camping trip, or kayaking on a long river. I find that if I put myself in situations that have natural beauty, then it becomes really easy for me to feel motivated to artistically express myself through that scene. Natural light, tall trees, big mountains, natural sunlight, open fields – are easy buzzwords for me to start on a recreational project.

What have been the challenges? Who and what has helped? It can be scary relying on myself to operate my own business since I’m only a college student. I’m learning how to run a business by experience alone, so it helps when I can be honest with clients about where I’m at in my life and my education. I’m fortunate to work with clients who value my creativity enough to be receptive to my slow evolution as a formal business.

"Des Moines is a great cultural crossroads between big city hustle and bustle, and Iowa charm and kindness."

Someone is starting a project for the first time, what would you want to say to them? Try not to compare your work to others. Creative self-expression is a personal craft, and envy can be an inhibitory burden. If you surround yourself with people whose work you admire and appreciate, but who also admire and appreciate your determination to learn and grow, then you’ll be in a great place.

Why Des Moines? Des Moines is a great cultural crossroads between big city hustle and bustle, and Iowa charm and kindness. Artists in this area are of a different breed – they care deeply about the people around them, and they’re willing to collaborate and teach others. The community of artists in this area is unlike anything I’ve experience in other places I’ve lived, and I’m excited to get more and more involved in the scene.

Des Moines is growing. What’s one new thing that caught your eye? It’s cool to see the number of small business popping up all the time. I feel like every time I talk to a friend, they’re telling me about the new storefront they’re opening or the creative collective they’re establishing. Des Moines has so much room for new ideas and new projects, without the intense creative competition that you’d find in bigger cities.

"Des Moines is only as strong as the people who live here."

If you could grant the Des Moines one wish what would it be and why? I’d love to see the low-income neighborhoods receive more attention and be victimized less often by gentrification. I think the city could do a better job of developing these areas in the interest of low-income housing, as opposed to luxury lofts and condos. Des Moines is only as strong as the people who live here.

Convince someone new to DSM your favorite place to go on your day off. If you live in Iowa, and you’re a fan of IPR, you’ve probably heard Mark Simmet and Tony Dehner’s show 7pm show Studio One Tracks. What I didn’t know before moving to Des Moines was that they put on live shows at the basement venue of the Des Moines Social Club. Going there for the first time and hearing Mark Simmet interviewing an artist live in front of me brought me back to late nights from my childhood, sitting by the stereo listening to the latest in indie and alternative music. Check the Social Club calendar for Studio One underground (and all the other awesome acts that the venue brings in).

"My favorite films to make are the ones that take place with friends deep in the woods on a camping trip, or kayaking on a long river."

The most underrated thing in DSM is ________. Why? Vaudeville Mews: the tiny music venue and bar on 4th street. Despite their size, they bring in some incredible acts. The stage is nearly at ground level, so you can see incredible musicians up close. In another bigger city, you’d never get that kind of personal encounter with music.

What are you most proud of and why? As I grew up, I learned to be more and more proud of my culture and heritage as an Arab. It wasn’t easy having a distinct cultural contrast from all my white friends in elementary school. For many of our neighbors in our small town, my family may have been some of the only Muslim people they knew of. My parents did a good job of teaching these neighbors, friends, and classmates about Islam and Arab culture during the tumultuous and racially divided time that immediately followed the events of 9/11.

"It wasn’t easy having a distinct cultural contrast from all my white friends in elementary school."

In three months what do you hope to accomplish? I’ll be entering my senior year of college, so I hope to make the most out of this year. It’s my last year to make the most of the empowering social environment at Drake, so I hope to make many more new friends and get to know creatives who do things I had no idea about.

What’s one thing people need to know you really care about? I really am passionate about thoughtful conversation. It sounds idealist, but I think most conflicts can be settled with a thoughtful, graceful, and humble conversation in a quiet place. In a world of negative news and terrifying political dilemmas, it’s tough to remember that humans have a natural disposition toward love and compassion. It’s the whole reason we evolved from our caveman ancestors in the first place. We’re better off if we come together on our similarities, and allow that common ground to nourish the disparities that push us apart.

Photo by Lily Tighe