Category: Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival 2017

Interview: Enemies Within

French director Selim Azzazi brought his captivating short “Enemies Within” to the Lift-Off film festival this year in Manchester. Over a run-time of 27 minutes the audience could very well be watching a play due to Azzazi’s attention to detail, sharp dialogue and use of only 2 lead characters in one space. These elements emphasize the multiple layers to this necessary short about the scars of France’s colonial past.

After asking Azzazi himself questions on the subject of “Enemies Within”, we begin to delve into these layers, and if you would like to read a review of the short click here.

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Beginning with the production process, Azzazi explained that it started in May 2015, gathering around €100 000 through the CNC’s financing (French National Centre for Cinema). This allowed them to pay every crew member and build a set. An important aspect this budget allowed them was to rehearse for two weeks with the two actors, “just like we would for a play”.

As the subject has such depth and the actors’ performances are so gripping, I could have imagined a full-length feature version being equally as powerful if it could hold the same high-standard throughout. But Azzazi had always imagined “Enemies Within” being a short film and was meant to remain that way, making it clear that he “never imagined or hoped on doing it a feature version”, and was always meant to be “only worked as a 20-30 minute intense duel”.

Despite only being a half hour long, the script took three years to write and to gather the financing, then taking ten months to produce entirely. This time was essential to the development and perfecting of details, such as the feeling of claustrophobia. Azzazi stated that “the sound was crucial in order to get that claustrophobic atmosphere”, turning the space into an anechoic chamber that absorbs sound instead of it reverberating.  To do so, they made use of “several huge velvet curtains” with which they surrounded the set, and hung large acoustic foams from the ceiling. The set’s location being in an unused government building, they managed to reduce the original cathedral like sound “to a very pure dry sound”. An important factor for Azzazi, in order to “enhance the feeling of claustrophobia for both the actors and the audience”.

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In an article published on the Qualia Films site, Azzazi mentioned rehearsing for a play that centred around the HUAC (House of Unamerican Activities Committee), and how he made the link between America’s despising of communism and their “enemies within” and France’s refusal to see Algerians as French, especially after the war of independence. I asked if he could go into more depth about how he felt the way HUAC dealt with communism in America was similar to how France dealt with Franco-Algerians, to which he replied:

“There are similarities in the way a society builds up the image of ‘an enemy from within’. In France for example it was the case after the 1870 war against Prussia after which many accused French-Jews to be responsible for the defeat. Antisemitism grew on that idea and it led to the Dreyfus case 1894. The same with the French -Muslims originating from North-Africa (mainly Algerians) especially when the independence war started in 1954. In the mind of many, every French-Muslim became a possible threat. So this idea that North-African people are a threat from within has been around for over 60 years now and it’s been very costly to our society (lack of integration, inequities, unemployment, riots, etc)”.

He also pointed out that it is easy to find the same mechanics in the Soviet system “with the ‘enemy of the people’ image”, in addition mentioning a British play he loves that deals with that called “Collaborators” by John Hodge.

Hassam Ghancy and Azzazi worked together as actors in an adaption of The Sunset Limited, of which the setting was also in a singular closed space. This was another source of inspiration for “Enemies Within”, with actors Hassam and Najib’s insight and feedback enhancing the quality of the script. On this subject, Azzazi responded that “great playwrights are always inspiring as they manage to bring characters to life from what they say/do or don’t say/do. So working as an actor was definitely crucial for me in order to grasp what writing was about. The same with working with Hassam: his feedback was very important to me because although he isn’t a writer, he could tell me when what he was reading didn’t feel right. He would say it with his own words, which would necessarily translate into answers for a writer, but which would point out problems to solve. It is very important when you have no experience to be able to trust the actors you work with. Both Hassam and Najib were dedicated to help me bring out the best of this script”.

“Enemies Within” is powerful because it’s topic is the much-ignored bloody colonial history of France, which led to questioning France’s trouble facing this past. Azzazi expressed disappointment and shame, observing that France’s political debates constantly overlook the subject. Azzazi does not mince words— “There is still a large amount of my fellow countrymen who refuse to acknowledge that the French military went into the undifferentiated slaughtering of a massive number of people in order to invade their land. You can call that however you’d like: the fact remains that the French army came to Africa and they burned, killed and expropriated. We have to live with this. Yes France also built cities, roads, railways and hospitals but it doesn’t wipe out the slaughtering. To get over this and happily live altogether with this common history will remain difficult if this isn’t at least acknowledged”.

This led to the government’s paranoia of enemies within the country, and looking at when this idea of enemies from within started. Azzazi located the French-Muslim target as a problem coming “at least from the Algerian independence war in the 50’s”. It is in fact from a book by French sociologist Mathieu Rigouste that covered this area called “L’ennemi intérieur”.

Whilst Azzazi could not divulge much about his future projects, he did say that he will “keep on writing about identity and the French colonial past but not only!”

His inspiration is fuelled by great plays and character driven stories, which led to me asking him which in particular touched him the most. Too many coming to mind, he settled for his three personal favourite playwrights: “Shakespeare – Ibsen – Pinter”.

Along the same lines but mostly just out of interest, I asked him for his personal top five films, responding “That’s very difficult to say. There are so many. All I can say is that my favourite films would involve Kurosawa, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Tarkovski, Lumet and The Monty Python!”.

“Enemies Within” is a rare window into the paranoia of the French government. Azzazi’s profound knowledge on the subject in addition to his background in theatre are very much what made this short such high quality.

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews.

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Manchester Lift-Off 2017: Where the Windmills Are

Where the Windmills are was the third and final feature film shown at the Lift-Off film festival in March 2017, and was very popular amongst the audience at Texture in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

The plot is set in a small town in Denmark, centring around thirteen going on fourteen-year-old Thomas. Shy, different, and a little bit bored, he tries to capture the attention of the dangerous and exciting Vikki. Thomas knows how to make bombs, and with this knowledge befriends Vikki’s boyfriend and their gang who plan to get back at one of their teachers for some petty fight.

The day after the gang blow up the teacher’s bike, they are satisfied to find out that he has taken sick leave and won’t be coming back to teach for a little while. After the event’s success, Thomas is welcomed into this strange, menacing gang with which he shares no interests and has absolutely nothing in common. The only thing keeping him there is his attraction to Vikki.

From this point on the film was a pain to watch for me, although I could recognise that for a practically entire teenage cast, their acting skills were quite impressive. The problem might have been that the targeted audience was for a lower age than mine, being difficult for me to believe in the plot. There were many sequences during the film that seemed easily solvable and had no need to blow up in such a way. What the film did was underline how at fourteen, we rarely know how to deal with love, fitting in, or making rational decisions. This follows through as most of Thomas’ decisions are fueled by either his feelings for Vikki or wanting to fit into the group.

Thomas is introduced to a new world of parties and beer, but this all feels very wrong. He isn’t amidst friends, on the contrary, these kids are always looking for trouble and basically bully him into doing things he doesn’t want to do. During one of these gatherings, it is thought that Thomas and Vikki have a sort of relationship going on behind her boyfriend’s back. As a result, she is hit repeatedly by one of the idiots of the gang, and when Thomas is asked to hit her too, he refuses. For some reason that escapes me, Vikki ends up being mad at Thomas asking him to hit her, which again he adamantly refuses to do. Turning up to school with a black eye, she lets everyone believe Thomas is the culprit.

Vikki ruined this film for me, and Thomas’ seemingly unrelenting feelings for her through everything didn’t help much in redeeming it. Clearly Vikki has problems, but her actions towards Thomas were unfounded and callous, making it impossible for me to muster up any empathy for Vikki.

What I did enjoy about this film was how it caught the quicksand of bullying on screen, and how difficult it is to come out of. Too often teachers overlook what is going on outside the classroom, and how deeply it affects a person who is growing up and becoming the adult they will be. We know Thomas will be scarred from this period of his life forever, and what started out as a bit of fun to escape his monotonous life ended up having consequences that are more than skin deep.

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews

In Conversation with Nicholas Connor

Director Nicholas Conner came to Lift-Off on Day Two to present his film Northern Lights. Before the showing took place I managed to interview him about his film and his opinions on filmmaking in general. The ‘quick five minute’ interview ended up being a 43 minute conversation about his films, plans for the future and IMDb. If you would like to read my review of the film before reading our conversation then click here.

First of all congratulations for getting your film into lift-off, are you hoping to win an award here?

Thanks! Hopefully, I think it’s all off audience vote and if you do well you’ll go onto a ballot for the next one. We’ve got quite a good turn out so it’ll be nice to see the reactions. That is what it’s all about for me, see how the audience feels about it. The venue (Texture) is a really great space, I’ve not been here before and it’s a different experience to the typical film festival. I would love to have another screening here in the future, it’s perfect for my current film too because of the red brick. It is set in Manchester and all about retaining the traditional lifestyles.

The setup of the festival is really useful for filmmakers, the scorecard the audience fills out along with the notes section must be incredibly useful for you to learn from?

Yeah, it’s quite intimate as well. You don’t often get to sit this close to the audience and be able to see their reactions. I’ve not watched this film (Northern Lights) in a few months now, the last time was probably at the premiere.

So have you been trying to avoid it?

Well I have just finished my next one so the focus has really been on that. Northern Lights has been on the back burner for the moment as a result.

When you rewatch the film are there things you think ‘Oh I should have done that better?’ or vice versa?

Yeah I mean the budget was a lot lower than the film we just finished. So I’ve just been looking at it thinking ‘What could I have done with a bigger budget?’. That said I do like it as it is. There are little things there, things critics have picked up on that I actually really do appreciate that shows they understood the film. I have learnt a lot from this. There are so many things I wish I could have improved on from Northern Lights. Pacing is a problem I’m sure you’ll spot, the dialogue is also a little long at times. It’s nice because you don’t always expect that they will understand it. As well the audience seemed to understand it which is perfect for me. I’m happy with the feedback both positive and negative. All I want is a response, if people don’t know how they feel about it then I haven’t made a good film. There is nothing worse than a review that says absolutely nothing either way, it doesn’t help me to progress as a filmmaker.

I agree, a well-writen negative review is preferable over a neutral review as it help you understand what areas you need to work on.

Exactly and I think this (Lift-Off) is a really great platform for that purpose. It doesn’t feel too capitalised, rather it is audience centred which is nice.

I read that you went through over 20 rewrites of the script before you got to the final version, was that difficult for you or was it preferable as you could keep evolving it as you went along?

It was lovely because I got a sense of what I was making through so many drafts. There were characters that were cut. There were whole scenes that were shortened or lengthened. As a result of having such a long preproduction stage which we didn’t have with the film before it, I really benefitted from being able to analyse and make the dialogue richer with meaning. It’s something to learn from as well, similar to writing a novel actually because it was more about writing a story than writing a script. It took about 5/6 months to write the script so kind of a long time I suppose.

How long after the last draft was it before you began filming then?

I think the last draft was about a week before. I’m always in contact with my crew, not so much in my next film but in this one particularly because I was friends with the crew and knew them really well. I would just send them a draft and the communication would be very direct, no going through agents or anything like that. It was a friendly process. There wasn’t really a stress so much as we all want to make a good film with the very short time we had to shoot. I don’t think I’ve heard of a 55 minute film being short being shot in 6/7 days before. It was crazy.

Why did you choose 55 minutes as the runtime? It’s half way between a short and a feature length film. Was that purposeful or how it ended up being?

It ended up being that way. I am one of those people that just makes a film the length it should be rather than the length that festival would want. It’s not necessarily a good thing, I should probably be looking at festivals and going ‘this is the time restraint’ but Northern Lights shouldn’t have been any longer. If it had been longer it would have felt too pacy and it already is a little too long. In hindsight I would have cut 10 or so minutes. If I had made it longer it wouldn’t have been right for the narrative and if it was shorter I wouldn’t have been able to build up the characters.

I think that is preferable though, making it the length that is right for the story you are telling rather than needlessly adding or cutting from the film.

On other films I’ve had to cut like 37 pages to 30 pages just because of the shooting ratio which is so annoying. You don’t want to cut stuff that is precious. I like to film something anyway and then have the option to cut it in the edit. There has been times where we had to cut something on the set due to time constraints.

Is that painful for you as a director?

It painful but it’s the evolution of making a film. It is never going to go entirely smoothly. You sign up for that at the beginning and you have to understand that it will happen at some point.

The budget of Northern Lights is around £12,000, has the budget of your next film gotten larger as a result of the positive reception of this one?

Definitely! We wanted to step up the actors in terms of the weight behind their names I guess. Getting a great set of people involved and up the ante because we didn’t want restrictions this time. We did have restrictions in terms of days to shoot. I was privileged to have a really beautiful crew where they all understood what I was doing. There is nothing more painful than people not understanding or sharing your vision. It will be about £40 thousand including distribution for this one through the funding of Cherwell Productions which is based in Oldham. They have been funding me personally and I have been very very lucky with that.

If this film you have just finished gets the same positive reception, will you step it up again?

Well I’m currently writing a feature, which will be a feature, it won’t be a 55 minute film. I know that one is going ahead but it depends on the reception of this film how large the funding will be. The future of what I do will always depend on the how well the films do. I just love directing so hopefully with recognition from festivals like this one I can continue to make films. It’s hard to get good actors if they have never seen any of your previous work and when they have seen some of my films it really helps me to boost myself. The script isn’t always enough I don’t think to get someone to sign on.

Is your ultimate goal to become a blockbuster director or do you want to remain an independant film director?

I love making independant films, I don’t think I would ever go into Hollywood. British cinema is my thing. I could potentially see myself making a Hollywood film if it had heart to it. There is something lacking at the moment that I might be able to bring. At the moment I am just loving working with actors who aren’t say Leonardo di Caprio. British actors from the north (of England) is what I am about right now. Most of the actors I cast I’ve sort of nicked from Ken Loach. So like Crissy Rock or Kate Rutter. Great actors, they’re not Hollywood actors. I go for talent over the name power.

If you had the budget to make a biopic on any person of your choosing who would it be?

Can I say two?

You can say as many as you’d like

Well there are two biopics I have always wanted to do.

One is about Florence Lawrence. Not many people know about her. She was the first ever film star and the stardom killed her. She ended up committing suicide. There is a big story there about her and who she is as a person. It’s something I really want to do and it would be set in America in the early stages of Hollywood. It is interesting to look at someone like her and compare her to a modern day movie star and see how stardom begun.

The other biopic that I want to do is that of my Grandad who passed away before I would be able to understand who he was. He has a great war story, I don’t want to give too much away but it would be set in a prisoner-of-war camp and it’s a very touching story that I feel needs to be told. That would be the big budget one.

Touching on the first one, would you shoot that in black and white? Using only the filming technology from the era to make it as real to that period of time as possible?

That is a really great question that I haven’t actually considered. I’ve always wanted to shoot it on 35mm or 16mm, definitely some sort of celluloid. Not sure about black and white but I definitely want that grain structure. I love black and white and I love contrast so I may decide to go with that. I think strong reds come through that pre-depression, pre-Gatsby era. I think it would be interesting to film. But yeah that really is a great idea.

Thank you very much, I’ll be sure to ask for a little thank you in the credits when it is released.

With that film as well I think it would be an independant production. I don’t think I would want any big names…well I say that it would depend. It is definitely a great role for someone. She actually killed herself with ant poison and it was a very horrific event.

Still in the real of fantasy, if you had to pick one or more actor that you really wanted to work with who would it be?

Actor-wise I would probably say Michael Fassbender or Eddie Redmayne. I think both are very diverse and they are just strong yet fragile actors. One second you can see them weep and the next second they are just so strong. There is something really beautiful about that. For women I would say Alicia Vikander or Marion Cotillard.

Marion Cotillard is actually my favourite actress

That is amazing! I just think she is so powerful. The variety of roles she, and Alicia Vikander, can do is just so incredible. Like Rust and Bone is one of my favourite films. Also I didn’t mind her having a french accent in Lady Macbeth, I love that film too and just everything she does really. She is an artist of a actress and you don’t see that often. I’m glad you like her too. All of the actors I mentioned too are all European so maybe there is something currently going on in Europe that has a realistic edge in comparison to Hollywood.

Hollywood at the moment seems more mechanical, churning out very formulaic, similar films. This is the opposite of your films which feel a lot more real.

For me it’s about making real characters with real stories. Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose is almost like how I would do Florence Lawrence. It’s a great tragedy. Amy Winehouse as well is a great biopic to do. Her life is almost Shakespearian in ways. I also loved the Steve Jobs biopic.

Which one? As there was two

(Laughs) Not the Ashton Kutcher one. The Fassbender one. Aaron Sorkins way of writing is so Shakespearian, it’s all about fatal flaws. It sounds pretentious but I want to be like him in that way. I feel he’s actually quite European in his style. There is something to be said about realism in cinema. I strive towards realism but it’s a representation of realism. It’s not about filming a tree and letting the tree’s leaves fall, it’s about watching a tree and making it interesting. I feel as though I need to add a little bit of surreal into my films too to make it interesting for the audience. Full realism can tend to get quite boring unless done by someone who has mastery in that like Ken Loach. I would love to be Ken Loach and Fellini at the same time, merge them both together. Show real stories in new and interesting cinematic ways.

So what would be your top 3 or 5 favourite or most influential films? Would Ken Loach feature?

I would actually move away from Ken Loach. For starts I would say Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. There is something so beautiful about this film and Dolan’s cinema. Next I would have to say Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.

Isn’t there a poster for Cinema Paradiso in your film?

Yes! Also there is a poster for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, which is another of my favourite films.

I saw that as well on the IMDb connections page too. It is surprising how much detail there was about the film, was that done by you?

That was done by me. IMDb is actually one of the things that got me into film. I was honoured the other day to have met Col Needham the founder and I completely fanboy’d and went up to him saying ‘Can I show you how many films I have rated on your site?’.

How many may I ask?

1301 I think. It is such an amazing platform for filmmakers. I used it for casting mostly and showing the audience connections in my films that they may have missed. I literally almost cried when I met him and he’s from Manchester too it’s crazy. Sorry for going on another tangent but I just love IMDb.

On the topic of IMDb, I’ll keep it over here, the page for Northern Lights mentions two goofs. One was a visible microphone and the other was a script on the bed. How do you feel about those mistakes?

I think it is very hard not to have mistakes in a film. The general audience can’t tell that it’s a script on the bed but I can tell it is. As it was a rushed filming period these things will happen, it’s part of my journey as a filmmaker. I have learned to be careful. Even in major films like The Godfather I think you can see the DoP’s (director of photography) eyes reflected in a scene. I love mistakes like that, it reminds the viewer that this is a film. I don’t think any film should be perfect, too crisp digital annoys me, I like to soften my images a bit. For the film I just finished I shot a scene on 35mm which I was very lucky to do.

What is your next film about?

So it is called Cotton Wool and it’s about this young boy who’s mother suffers a stroke and he has no help caring for her especially from his older sister who should be helping him. He has to take the role of a child carer at the age of seven. The actor, Max Vento is fantastic. He questions everything and he is only seven. it’s an emotional film with a heartbreaking story inspired by lots of real life stories. We had a wonderful crew too including a BAFTA winning cinematographer shooting the film. It was a big step up from Northern Lights and I will never forget the people that got me who helped me on this film. It was such a group effort to make it.

What are some of the difficulties working with an actor who is only seven?

I don’t mind it, in fact I loved it. There is a little bit of me inside which is still a child so I can relate to why he says some things or worried about some things. I find easier working with child actors sometimes because they do question things and they ask stupid questions. Stupid questions usually cover the things that matter though. I worked with another child actor on Northern Lights called Megan Grady who was also fantastic. It’s a comedic role for the most part but at the end of the film she cries her heart out in a tragic scene. She was just so diverse. Sorry I went off on a tangent again, I love tangents.

What is the length of the new film?

It is about 30 minutes, so a normal short’s length. We are trying to put it into BAFTA qualifying because Leanne Best’s performance as the mother is in my opinion Oscar worthy. That isn’t anything to do with my directing I want to make that clear she was just phenomenal. That’s why we are trying to push it. We also made the film in relation with the Stroke Association to make it as accurate as possible. Child carers is a topic that isn’t really seen on film which is surprising as there are around 250,000 child carers in the UK. I’m hoping it will get onto television at some point. Festivals first of course, would love to come back to Lift-Off and have another screening here.

Going back to the hypothetical, what is your dream festival to be accepted into?

I love Edinburgh, went there once and it was beautiful. BFI of course. I do love Cannes. What is the one I keep aiming for? Oh Leeds. I got into Leeds Young Film Festival.

I saw you won an award there in your IMDb biography section.

I think it’s quite important to push myself in that way to get myself out there and known. I haven’t written everything about myself and my films but most I have.

I think you know you’ve become popular when other people begin to write about you.

It’s weird that with critics. When you didn’t know that they have written a review or an article about you. I love critics even if they are horrible.

What current film critic would you like to review your films? Whether they would like it or not

I would say Mark Kermode, I really respect his opinion. There is a youtube called Grace or Beyond The Trailer who I like a lot too. I do like Robbie Collin and Peter Bradshaw as well. Mark Cousins is kind of a critic and he gave me a short opinion on Northern Lights and he was my idol.

Was it positive?

Yeah it was. He said ‘Touching and Moving’, something like that. We used that on one of the advertising poster.

Taking it back to Northern Lights, what is the meaning behind the title? Obviously it’s set in the north so that is part of it

Chris Cyprus is a pretty well known painter and he paints the north using the orange glow of streetlights. They’ve recently changed to LED’s now which is a sterile colour. He used the orange glow of the old style to give light his paintings and called it the Northern Lights. He inspired me to use that in my film. It’s a play on words a little bit. Some people have come up to me and said the northern lights, aurora borealis, are boring. I tell them they should look at the streetlights in Manchester. It’s a film about the mundane, everyday life and people. About looking at something you wouldn’t even consider and making it magical. That’s what I love about cinema.

Well we should probably wrap it up there as your film is about to start but thank you very much for this and I can’t wait to watch this film and Cotton Wool as well.

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews

Interview: The Botanist

This was my favourite documentary of the four at the festival. Surrounding a former botanist turned part time teacher in rural Tajikistan, we watch as he shows us the inventions that have helped make his life, and the lives of those around him, better. His ever-positive attitude makes this a wholesome watch and I can’t recommend it enough. To read my review of this documentary before progressing to the interview click here.

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How did you initially hear of Raimberdi and his story?

Raïmberdi had been interviewed for a short French TV program about Central Asia. We only saw him briefly on screen but thought he was a very interesting man and that there was definitely more to his story. We were planning a trip to Central Asia and Iran that year (And always reserach interesting subjects to document beforehand) so as soon as we arrived in Tajikistan, we started inquiring about the « old Kyrgyz man who had built his own hydro electric power station ». Eventually, we got lucky and met a German researcher who knew him and he pointed us in the right direction. His village was 2 full days of driving away from us at that moment and we didn’t know if he was going to be home at that time or how to reach him, but we decided to do the trip anyways. We felt it was worth trying!

Once you decided to make this short, did you meet him before you began filming?

Before going to Shaymak (his village), we arrived in Murghab, the most populated village in the area. The locals we were staying with had some relatives in Shaymak, so they made a few calls a within minutes we were able to get in touch with Raïmberdi and let him know that we were interested in doing a documentary about him. He seemed enthusiastic and even offered us to stay at his home. In the following hours, we arranged for a translator/driver and the next day we left for Shaymak.

What were the logistical challenges you faced getting to the isolated location?

Transport is an issue, there are very few means to get around in the Pamir and hiring a private driver can be quite expensive. Moving from one place to the next takes some time because roads are not developed nor paved and the terrain is difficult. It took us half a day to get from Murghab to Shaymak even though we were only about 100 km away.

Was the language barrier difficult whilst filming?

The language barrier was definitely a challenge. Our interpreter only had a very basic understanding of english. Knowing this, we had made sure to write our questions in advance and had them translated by an english teacher in Murghab before going to Shaymak. Also, there are other ways than words you can communicate. We’re all human beings and have other ways of understanding each other. Sign language, laughs, smiles, voice intonations. We also knew a few Kyrgyz and Russian words that were quite helpful. However, since our translator had not been able to translate Raïmberdi’s answers very well on the spot, we definitely had a few interesting surprises when we had the film translated afterwards. Thankfully, they were mostly very good surprises.

Raimberdi appears as an incredibly humble and generous person, is there any other qualities that didn’t come across on film?

Raïmberdi has a wisdom that seems to go beyond the boundaries of his own education, age and culture. He is one of a kind and that’s what inspired us to make the film in the first place!

We went back to Tajikistan last summer to show the film to Raïmberdi (The Botanist). We posted this update earlier this year:

“Last July, we decided to go back to Murghab, Tajikistan to show our film to Raimberdi, the botanist himself. We organized transportation so he could come visit us from his recluse village in the Pamir, and organized a small projection event with a few Kyrgyz students. 2 years had passed since we had first met him. He had inspired us with his ingenuity, sense of humour, curiosity and sensibility and it was truly touching to see him again after all this time. When we noticed the tears in his eyes as he was watching the story of his life unfold before him, we knew our mission was accomplished!
The fact of having foreigners coming from the other side of the world, taking interest in his story, his environment and his small daily gestures rooted in a rural lifestyle, inspired him to start a conversation with the students that were present. He discussed the importance of their ancestral practices, of self-sufficiency and of having knowledge of the fauna and flora on which they’re entirely dependent. We have been inspired by Raimberdi’s story and we’re happy to see that he continues to inspire a young generation of Kyrgyz that will have to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world.”

Did you have any moments that you missed as the camera wasn’t rolling? Or you wish you included?

We are happy with the footage we captured while we were there, but there is definitely more to Raïmberdi’s story. We had a very interesting 2 hour interview we had to cut down for the 20 minute film.

Was the narrative style of your short predetermined or was it a result of going over the footage afterwards?

Being with Raïmberdi and his family in Shaymak was very inspiring for us. We remember having the idea of the chapters while we were shooting, right after he showed us his beautiful herbariums and explained each plant’s part’s benefits. We already had an idea of what story we wanted to tell but a lot of the storytelling structure came about while we were editing the film.

The animations you used were very beautiful, how did you decide to add that to separate the narrative?

The titles are a way to draw a parallel between his passion for plants and the different stages of his life. The plants that are displayed in the titles are all plants that you can find in the Pamir and each one of them has attributes pertaining to the specific part of the plant the chapter is metaphorically presenting.

Are you currently working on another project?

We are now working on a short project we filmed in Nepal last year.

Do you see yourself/yourselves progressing to a feature length documentary?

We’re discussing it, we’ll see!

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews

Interview: Cabby

Cabby’s showing at Lift-Off was perfect given it’s Manchester setting. It contained shots of many locations that would be familiar such as Fifth nightclub during freshers week. Giving an interesting insight to the people who aren’t often noticed, I’m sure it’ll spark more people to chat to their taxi drivers on their next night out. If you’d like to read my review of Cabby before progressing to the interview click here.

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Your film was also shown at Manchester International Film Festival in 2015, why was there such a gap between that and Lift-Off this year?

I made the film whilst at University and after I left I decided to set up my own production company. Since then I have just been doing corporate work for companies like Speedo, with the intention of becoming a documentary filmmaker and hopefully one day doing a feature film. It’s been two years since we filmed Cabby and it just makes me reflect, giving me motivation to make more films.

When you do reflect on Cabby are there things you see now and think ‘if only I didn’t include that’ or vice-versa?

I’m a massive perfectionist, so when I’m watching it I just shake my head at all the mistakes. In the development of making the film I spoke to at least 70 taxi drivers and they can be quite flakey and hard to track down at times. There was one in particular who dropped out last minute which was a shame as they had some really interesting stories.

Was Cabby your first attempt at a documentary?

I’ve done a few documentaries before, for example one about the street art in Manchester. Cabby was my final project though. I love meeting people and always had experiences of going on nights out chatting to taxi drivers and just having random conversations. It’s because of this that I wanted to document the characters.

As you progress through your career, what are the shorts you’d really like to make given free range?

Personally I really like obscure cultures and scenes. The different ways that people act that are unique. In the same way I’m a big fan of Louis Theroux’s social commentary documentaries.

Do you watch lots of films or do you concentrate on documentaries like Theroux’s to get filmmaking ideas?

We are starting to see more and more documentaries incorporating a cinematic style which is taken from films. I love both and watch a diverse range of things in order to learn about different styles I could use. I can only see myself making documentaries though. The stripped back feel, just getting to know people and learning about their life experiences. There are lots of topics which have already been done so I try to find the more out-there people.

Are you working on another film? Or have plans for the next one?

Not currently. I want to be a filmmaker but I want to make a living being a filmmaker and sometimes you have to compromise in order to make the films that you want to make. As I said I’m such a perfectionist and once I meet person or subculture I’ll immediately know. Wherever I go I’m always on the lookout for my next topic. Everybody I meet I try to read them and suss them out to try and see if they are short worthy. There is a gut feeling I get when I know I’ve found the right thing.

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews

Interview: Ascension

Rajnish Sharma’s Ascension was an abstract addition on by far the most outlandish day of films. Sharma’s short was set in a post-apocalyptic world and followed the story of a father who abandoned his family to give himself the best chance of survival. It was a very interesting short that is well worth a watch. Click here to read my review before progressing to the interview.

I began by asking about the inspiration behind his short. ‘I wouldn’t say there was a singular inspiration to the short film, but the main inspiration was to see if I could make a good film that looks good with an engaging narrative using the very little resources I have. It was pretty much the Robert Rodriguez philosophy of making the best with the very least.’

There was another inspiration to the short as he continues, ‘the other inspiration behind the short was to make a Post-Apocalyptic drama that centred around the impact of those left behind and abandoned rather than the monsters looming outside. The Survivor’s selfishness to preserve himself and abandon the family was something I wanted to explore. I find it’s more interesting when you explore the character rather than the flashiness of monsters or zombies.’

The character’s sole motives for leaving his family were never addressed and this was intentional by Sharma. ‘I wrote it in a way were the Survivor left his family as his instinct and myopic desire to survive lead him to fend for himself and abandon the family. When working on the characterisation with my lead actor, he came up with the backstory of abandoning his family due to fear of not being a good enough father and husband to protect his family…to protect them. Without giving too much away in terms of the underlying meaning and subtext. The Survivor left his family, but it wasn’t his choice to do so.’

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Throughout the short we never see the world outside his hideout. This was purposeful on his part as ‘nothing I created would’ve been as interesting or exciting as what the audience would perceive. Plus the outside world wasn’t really the focus of the narrative I was going for. But if I were to say what it would look like, I would imagine a desolate, destroyed place like modern day Syria. A warzone with limited quaratine zones and people too concerned with surviving. A place of death, war, bullets and destroyed buildings and lives.’

There was unfortunately a few major issues during the production period that completely changed the story. He told me that ‘the third scene was meant to be a lot more intense and deliberate and the ending was originally supposed to be this destructive confrontation with the Valykries outside of his hideout. Both scenes had to be scrapped due to a technical fault with the camera that destroyed 11 hours worth of filming and the garage door breaking on location. With both elements changing and the fact I only had two days of the crew before losing them for 5 months on another project out of my own. I decided to film three more hours that day and sit my DOP down and tell him the entire restructured story and what I wanted changing. There was one shot in the film that was taken out due to narrative flow with the Survivor walking off screen with a weapon and make shift shield, but creatively it didn’t work and was left out.’

As a result of this there are several things he would change. ‘I’m very proud of the film but all I see now are the mistakes.’ he said. ‘I would secure a good and reliable First AD (Assistant Director), we had one scheduled but didn’t show up, essentially leaving us without a First AD meaning my DOP (Director of Photography) had to do both roles. I would have had all my actors properly rehearsed with at least a week rehearsal before filming instead of on set hours before rolling, I would have sourced better props and I would have changed the second scene to allow more breathing room.’

This was a debut film for Sharma and was a steep learning curve. ‘I wish I could have made that film now as the Director I am today, as I feel more confident, more knowledgable, better prepared and just a better filmmaker then I was when I originally directed it. But hindsight is always 20/20. There’s no point on dwelling on what could’ve been. Things will always go wrong on set and creatively, you’re never really satisfied. I count my blessing and proud of my Debut short film, I feel I’ve done well with my first ever film with the budget of £220. I’m just using it as a learning experience and carrying forward, I’m glad it happened the way it did because now I feel I can do even better.’

His thoughts are interesting for any amateur filmmakers. During the process of making any film there will be countless things that go wrong but it is how you react to them that will affect your end product. Sharma’s experience goes to show that even if everything seems to go wrong, you can create a short of really high quality.

In terms of future plans he has quite a full plate. ‘The next project I’m doing is a psychology horror called Eve about a girl getting ready for a night out, unable to leave her room beyond her control trapping her into a fate worse than death. I’m hoping to shoot it in April/May and will have a lot more time to prepare.’

After that project is complete he will begin work on more shorts. ‘I have an experimental piece, a 20 second film challenge at my Local Film society 7/5 Forum in Leicester, writing up two more short films (both that will need funding) and will also be attending Raindance’s Masterclass “Directing Actors” 27th and 28th May.’

‘Apart from that I’m still taking Ascension through the festival circuit. Reading books on filmmaking, researching and practicing the craft of Directing and filmmaking. My limit isn’t the sky, it’s the stars. I’m planning on working harder, making more films and getting better at the craft I love.’

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews

Interview: Hope

Hope was among the most original shorts in this years festival and one of the best Zombie films I have watched in a long time. Directer Adam A. Losurdo took some time from his busy schedule to talk about his film and his plans for the future. Click here to read my review of Hope before progressing to the interview.

The premise to Hope, that the zombies don’t kill/eat human and instead just wander aimlessly, is refreshingly new and opposite to most films in the genre. The idea was different to begin with though as Adam told me, ‘The co-writer Chris Stival had a general idea of the zombie’s loss of hunger. Then, after finding love with another zombie would gain his blood thirst along with the girl starting up the zombie apocalypse once again.’

As the development progressed, the concept evolved as he continues, ‘we ended up changing the original idea and twisting it into the zombies never becoming hostile in the first place, but rather would just roam the world like stray dogs looking for something other than food. Well until…’

The current state of the zombie genre is something he feels need to change, ‘over the years zombie movies have been put on repeat with no real creativity or originality. I strive to bring fresh concepts and incorporate them with elements of the films that we all love.’ His short is an attempt at breaking the cycle and inspiring others to do the same.

On the topic of inspirations, Adam talked about several directors that influenced his work. ‘Quentin Tarantino is one for his raw stylised approach. He is a writing genius, and he also takes a lot of elements from older films and makes them into his own, which we all know works very well’ Another is David Fincher for ‘his versatility in filmmaking and his stylised gritty films like Fight Club and Seven.’ Finally, and especially relevant for Hope was John Carpenter ‘for his old-school style of horror and cheese factor. The 80’s horror films with all the practical scares and effects are the best’

Whilst making the film, Adam tried to include many pop culture and film references. ‘As far as direct inspiration, I was really inspired to take memorable shots from past movies and make them work within our story and style.’ One of those references in particular was from Titanic when Hope and Karl are in love, holding hands and spinning in the field. Another, more prominent reference was from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, towards the end of the film when Karl and the two young girls have ‘what we called on set, “The Mexican Standoff”.’ Fortunetely aside from a few minor scenes and shots here and there, no pop-culture references ended up being cut.

The main antagonists of the film, the aforementioned two young girls, was a curious choice by the writers. He explains that he ‘wanted to emphasise the zombie’s being innocent creatures with no knowledge of their surroundings. Young girls at that age are usually considered sweet and innocent but in Hope, we flipped the roles’. This change in expectation alongside the core concept of the zombies keep the viewers on their toes with constant surprises as the short progresses.

In a look to the future we discussed future projects and aspirations. ‘My goal is to continue writing, directing and producing my projects. I have some concepts I’m playing with at the moment and have some more shorts up my sleeve. I’m also developing two full-length feature screenplays for future productions.’ Continuing to develop his own style is something that is very important to him and he wants to share his visions with the world.

In a step towards the hypothetical, I asked what film he would make if given unlimited scope. ‘I would have to say a horror/thriller. I love classic horror slasher films and psychological thrillers so I’d want to combine the two creating an iconic film that will stand as a memorable piece of cinema.’

We ended the interview with his top 5 films. ‘That’s a hard question to answer. So many favourites. So many! I would have to say Halloween (1978) because it has been one of my favourites for so long, The Ninth Gate, Moon, Seven , and to mix it up Nacho Libre. The list goes on and on with films like Empire Strikes Back, The Abyss, Contact, Alien, Event Horizon, Inglorious Bastards, Kill Bill, Django, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Tropic Thunder and The Secret Window’