Elhum Shakerifar is a programmer and a BAFTA nominated producer, behind an increasing number of features including A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister, 2015), Almost Heaven (2017, Carol Salter) and Even When I Fall (2017, Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon). Formerly programmer of the Bird’s Eye View Film Festival (2012-14), Elhum is now an Programme Advisor for London Film Festival on films from MENA, Gulf Regions & Iran, and Associate Curator Film for Shubbak, festival of contemporary Arab culture. This interview took place in relation to some of the films selected for the London Film Festival in 2016.
What are your thoughts on the current state of cinema in the Middle East? Is it far to say this is a particularly exciting time for the cinema of the region?
If you look at the range of films from the Middle East that we have in the programme, I think it’s exciting. You can see a real variety of things that are being developed and produced. There’s not one type or genre, its a real mix. That’s very exciting. The Middle East does have a history of strong cinema that has also been revived by things that have appeared in the region over the past decade. I think that all eyes are pointing towards the Middle East because its much more present in the news. I feel somehow in my role that I’ve been particularly interested in challenging those meta-narratives that are created by the news, the reflection of this area of the world simply as a conflict area. This is one side of the picture, but not a very full one. It’s interesting to bring perspectives and views from all other the region, but particularly those that contrast this view of the area as a conflict zone.
Farouk: Besieged Like Me alongside The War Show makes for a great diptych. They’re like two sides of the same coin. This question mark of what is going on Syria? How do we understand the reality of the country that people are seeing and experience, that which we see through The War Show, which chronicles 2011 to 2015 through the eyes of one man? Farouk questions exile in the role of culture in understanding and bridging, creating and recreating identity. In what we usually see we are just assaulted by images. There is a clear sense of compassion or complete despair. There’s no change on the bigger community level in terms of stopping anything happening.
Is it difficult to try to subvert traditional expectations of the region’s cinema, to convince people that there is another side to the filmmaking output of these areas?
I think the understanding of the region very much impacts on which films get made, and then with which get seen. Some films will have greater traction because they fit into the narrative of what is expected of the region, and this is very much where this meta-narrative is also created. Thats where cinema has the role of shining a light in a completely different way, of broadening understandings, of making things more personal and palpable, letting us understand beyond that news bite image that we are constantly being relayed. Equally, that news-bite image might be why someone might come to find out more about something. Its a double edged sword in some ways, but one that is very present when talking about perception of this region at this time.
Does programming work with a regional approach?
I think it is one way of getting a breadth of world cinema into an audience facing festival like LFF. Our role is about thinking about audiences, UK or London audiences. How can we find a film that can be best understood or appreciated, what can we really support and how can we angle it. That’s the role of a regional programmer. I think with a festival this big, there are so many ways to select a film, and I think this is quite an interesting way of looking at such a complex, diverse region.
Do you think filmmakers are making films with a more international outlook. Are they more savvy to the industry, to promotion, to festival submission processes etc. How co-operative are national bodies and film organisations, and how difficult has it been to get the films and the filmmakers here?
I don’t know how to answer this question. There is one reality to bare in mind when talking about the UK that is worth mentioning is that there are several filmmakers from this region specifically that didn’t get the VISAs needed to attend the festival. That is purely down to our government's approach to issuing VISAs to foreign nationals and there fears in other ways. This is a disaster really, when you are thinking on cultural terms and what the presence of a filmmaker could mean to the broader understanding of a region, but also to understanding that arts and cultures are really important areas of work, and to support filmmakers internationally. It makes me very angry.
There is another thing that is stopping filmmakers giving more visibility to their work. The UK is a difficult country when it comes to distributing foreign language content, or anything considered to be more risky or challenging films, which essentially means anything that is not commercial Hollywood content.
There are a lot of things developing across the Middle East where filmmakers have more visibility and opportunity to showcase their work. There is more regional grassroots support for filmmakers. There are a number of co-productions, which does to some extent change the narratives which are emerging from the region. It might produce slightly more unusual films sometimes, because they wont fit expected narratives.
Which of these films is your favourite? Can you tell me what you like about it?
Starless Dreams is a real achievement in storytelling, in going back to the original sense of the role of the filmmaker in documentary. The director worked for years to get access to make the film in a female juvenile prison. I think what is really special about it is that there is no sense of judgement. He doesn’t shy away from thinking about his role and his position as a filmmaker within this space, and what can add to these women’s stories or what he takes away by being there. I find this very powerful, but also very brave. There are so many different types of documentaries being made. The kind of film that you have to put yourself into is the most harrowing type of filmmaking. it asks big questions about society and how we think about crime. Their crimes range from very small to very shocking things, yet there is no sense of judgement. It thinks about the idea of how are we treating the people in the margins of our society, and how are we supporting them to be part of our society. That is not something specific to Iran, nor is the film specific to Iran.
What do you see for the region going forward?
It is a region undergoing a lot of change at the moment. Therefore as a filmmaker there are different ways you can approach trying to make films that reflect what is happening. You can look back to try and make sense of the present, or you try and make sense of the present through the work you are doing, and in a way try to look forward by doing that. I think its quite difficult, particularly with documentary, to take a step back to make sense of the big picture. This is where the most poignant films are successful.
It’s hard when there are big changes in the backdrop, accepting yourself and the life that you live, the things you believe in and the people you live with. Everything around you. In the process of telling stories, it’s being able to weave that into the process of the filmmaking, in a way that makes sense to the viewer to then accompany you on that process, or to take a step back and capture something very specific that lends context to the changes happening in the background.
These are the two ways that I expect documentary to reflect changes happening across the region. Equally its about challenging meta-narratives, and I hope that there will be films that don't feel that they need to reference everything that is happening on a day to day basis, and can be more intimate, personal and show unusual and unexpected things. That is really the power of film, to be able to make us look at things in a way that we don’t expect to look at them.