FC: Where were you raised and what was life like for you at home?
TG: I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran during the 1970’s. It was then, at the age of six, I was sent to live in England with my father and my Scottish stepmother in Shepshed. It wasn’t until 23 years later that I would return to Iran, and indeed to my mother’s house.
FC: When you were a child, did you have aspirations for a creative career?
TG: Ever since I was young I’ve been driven by the idea that I need to make change; I would enjoy storytelling and now I make films because I want to tell the stories that I wanted to hear as a child. Aspirational stories. Certainly the narratives I needed when I was growing up just weren’t there. When the Cosby Show came on it was the first time I’d ever seen a successful representation of a black or non-white family. When your own life is so full of upheaval, when there’s so many things to absorb and understand, there’s this need to tell stories to process everything and that has been the driving force in my career.
“A life enhancing film…An important and much-needed film.”
Sir Ben Kingsley, Patron for ‘I Am Nasrine’
FC: What altered your desire from painting to filmmaking? How are they similar?
TG: When you’re a kid from a refugee background, getting dragged around the world by your dad, always an outsider, processing some incredibly difficult stuff with emotionally blocked parents; the one way it all comes out is through art. Artists are all in some kind of self-therapy; and I think that is the link between painting and filmmaking they both contextualize your emotions or thinking.
When I was studying painting there were some 16mm cameras lying around and I was drawn to them. First into installations, video art, then it slowly became documentary and then documentary with fiction and now it’s fiction with some documentary… but for me, it is all the same thing. You have a powerful tool with documentary filmmaking that can change people’s minds and the course of history and that is something that draws me.
TG: The outside perspective doesn’t only intrigue me it is the core of democracy in filmmaking. As a young ‘brown’ girl I didn’t always want to see life through the filter of a white character. Cinema is not an elite art form, it is a crucial part of the conversation about who we are and the stories we tell ourselves. This is a war of representation. Hollywood speaks for and projects an agenda and I want to disrupt that.
There are a lot of people who don’t have power who are crushed by dominant stories. I guess that’s what independent films can be about; the Arab world championed by Al Jazeera, what you’re projecting onto us is not what we think of ourselves. We recognize that and we want a right to reply. There are lots of filmmakers from very different spheres battling the representations they don’t feel they have any power over. I guess that is what it is about.
FC: What films that you watched growing up and as an adult showcased the types of characters you longed to promote – such as “untold stories and unheard stories,” as your bio beautifully shares?
TG: Whilst growing up some of my favourite movies were ‘Pretty in Pink’ and ‘The Breakfast Club,’ teen films really… films about the teenage outsider. I think that came from my love of stories about transition and finding out who you are. Looking at the identities of the characters in ‘The breakfast club’ and how the dramatic premise set me into the idea of telling a story where people can understand an emotional journey. I’m also a big fan of Francois Truffaut’s work. I make films to seduce the audience. To transpose them… a fine mist against mortailuty.
Muhammad Ali is a real life character I always talk about him being a ‘narrative reclaimer;’ he was always this figure who was like “I don’t care what the rules are, I’m going to do it my way.” That’s why I think a lot of people love him, because he’s always the outsider’s champion. That was a role model I needed growing up. Throughout my life, he has been a champion for retelling the story.
FC: Where were you in life when you wrote I AM NASRINE? (What year was it? How long did it take to complete the first draft of the script, what emotions were stored inside you at this time, and what were you doing for work?)
TG: Making I Am Nasrine has been the largest single challenge of my career. I began writing as a germ of an idea 2002 and my first early draft was complete by 2004. I wrote the first draft very quickly when I was in India. I had gone there on a retreat to block everything out. I was teaching (as I still do) at a University. The writing of it was very challenging as it felt very alive (I had been working with a group of refugees and asylum seekers), so much went into it and the more I did, the more I realized it had to be about me. About my story.
FC: What was it like filming part of I AM NASRINE in Iran and in the UK? How did you approach both areas during filming? (How easy/difficult was each area to film?)
TG: Thanks to an incredibly supportive crew and a few special others, we pulled off the filming. It was such a risk filming in Iran. You know I look back on it now and I think, “What the hell was wrong with me? What was I putting everyone into so much danger for?” But ultimately I left the decision to my actors. I told them, we can film in Turkey, we can film in Morocco, we can film in Lebanon – these places that always stand in for Iran – you have to decide, it’s your film… And the two lead actors said no, they wanted to fight this battle. Luckily I found someone who helped us out tremendously; a wonderful woman who actually made us feel like it was safer than filming in Gateshead. She basically helped us get permission to film by using another film’s permission, as like their second unit, so when we got stopped by the police multiple times during the shooting we’d pull out this piece of paper with a seal and they’d leave us alone. Filmmaking is a hugely popular export in Iran, viewed as too popular and dangerous. Many Iranian filmmakers are being held in imprisonment. So this project could have had massive repercussions.
As for the UK filming, it really has been a community effort. It was those with the least who helped make this film happen…. The unemployed, working class, the gypsies and travellers, asylum seekers…. And a few gangsters from the North East! People in the North East have been incredibly supportive, everyone involved really pushed themselves to make this happen. I think the North East has been very misrepresented by people who want to show it as very grey, dark and miserablist. In my personal experience and throughout my time filming ‘I am Nasrine’ I’ve found that Geordie people (what people from Newcastle are known as) are amazingly open and welcoming. Nobody has ever questioned my right to be there.
My interest in the diversity of British identities is evident in I Am Nasrine. It is a love letter to the North East and England in particular but it is also a harsh reflection… not everything is rosy because there is plenty we have to be vigilant against.
TG: Yes, filming in Iran made it as realistic and raw as it should have been. The actors wanted to be there and we took all the help and safeguarded as much as we could. The film was worth the risk and I would do the same again. The only difference is, I now know we could have been more confident in the choices we made. We had a beautiful, brave crew and now I know how astonishing the results are.
FC: Do you have advice for other artists going into an uncertain landscape to shoot/film, especially if they are unfamiliar with the language/culture?
TG: The best thing is to go in with an open heart… One of the most over-rated thing is the verbal language. We learn a lot more about people from language that is not verbal. A smile and openness goes a long way. And it is important to remember that people are the same everywhere in the world. Treat people with respect and you will get the best film possible.
FC: How did you obtain Sir Ben Kingsley’s quote? How would you advise another filmmaker on approaching a respected individual for the same reason?
TG: I first met him in person in the waiting room at the BBC whilst I was there for a meeting. After a few minutes of not saying anything, I turned to him and said: look, if I don’t talk to you, I’ll kill myself later. Kingsley replied with “Lets save a life today.” He was very sweet. So I started telling him about my project, he seemed interested by it so we exchanged contact details. He read the script, and offered an endorsement.
I think it’s one think being in the right place at the right time but it’s another thing to act upon it. I could of held out in silence for that few more minutes, but I knew that would be a regrettable decision. Just get yourself out there do your research and make those opportunities and contact details work the way you want them to.
FC: You’ve mentioned putting parts of yourself in every film you make (such as character composites for narratives or story choices in documentaries). How many of your films were an obsession from the mere idea? Did all of them have to be made no matter the costs or circumstances?
TG: Absolutely. There is a lot of ‘me’ in it. You know, because a lot of my work is about documentary and I’ve always tried to find truth in the actors and writing it with them. I had a really difficult time growing up in England as a foreigner. I still have a difficult time. Most places are not colour blind in my experience. It’s a battle that is still being fought to accept people as who they are and to stop making judgments on the colour of their skin, or their religion or their sexual orientation… difference is still an issue. It’s an alive conversation.
Everything that I’ve made has been worth the time and importance, I think you decide that when you are set on a narrative, that it will be costly as there will be risks, however my motives and beliefs are consistent in my work. I am trying to humanize the asylum experience against a backdrop of media hype and misleading reports, such as those disseminated by the Daily Mail, which scapegoat immigrants and stir anti-asylum racism and xenophobia. This, we believe, led to the murder of Peyman Bahmani, the brother of one of the refugees I worked with, in 2002. The film is my response. The only thing I could offer: a response.
FC: Have you ever left a project unfinished or walked away from one? (Why/why not?)
TG: I never leave anything. I still think I will go back and sometimes elements of a project will get combined into another. But I am not known for walking away or quitting. Sometimes projects go on the back burner…. or they evolve… but they never disappear. That creative energy doesn’t disappear. It transforms.
FC: When embarking on your first time as a director – where did your own sense of identity as a filmmaker emerge to allow you to “own” that experience?
TG: I am unsure I understand this question. There isn’t anything to own…. I feel entirely comfortable being at the head of a small army. I am a natural conductor who enjoys leading a team in believing in themselves and working in harmony. This has never been an issue… the only issue is that some other people don’t see it. That is the only usual problem I have. Sometimes commissioners don’t see that someone who fits my profile fulfils the role… and sometimes, but only occasionally, some crew might question it. However, I have never doubted it and it is hard to know where that comes from.
“How did you fund it?”
“What you would change/improve in the film?”
TG: Sadly there is plenty. For the last film is littered with my inexperience and the lack of resources. Which is unfair to say in many ways since the film has done so well… and been well received. I appreciate the audience for their belief in the film. I wish at times I had remained bolder in my decision-making. Even small things like working with a smaller crew (which is something I wanted to do but was talked out of)… I wish I had held fast to that belief. And some further abstractions which would have been strong decisions. Somehow, I let the voices around be question me… I bought into that and next time, with experience, I will hold onto that which I feel intuitively.
Piecing the financing together was inevitably tricky. The UKFC had been on the verge of backing the project but had to back out when it dissolved. The total budget was between £200,000-£250,000, spread over five years. However, we had just £100K to shoot with (we didn’t have the money to complete) and most of this was savings and/or training schemes for volunteers, new graduates and refugees. So basically it was a training programme as well. However, once we were done with the shooting we had to raise the rest and this was particular difficult because it fell at the time of the recession and the closure of the UK Film Council. In the end, we received equity investment in the film.
FC: What do you want viewers to take away from Nasrine and Ali’s experience?
TG: I Am Nasrine is a film that tells us it is ok to search for who you are… and that in incredible chaos, there is beauty and kindness… those things that are difficult and challenging make us stronger. This is a universal story and if young people can recognise that inside of someone who they don’t recognise on the outside, perhaps there will be empathy and connection. That is all I hope for.
FC: What’s a huge time waster you see other filmmakers engaging in? (I.e., over networking, too much social media, not finishing projects, etc). What are some things fellow filmmakers should be doing more of (building up their online presence, education, travel, people watching)?
TG: I am not sure I know what wastes time for other people as I manage to waste a lot of my own rather successfully. If there is anything I believe in and always offer to my students it is to watch films (and art in general) and to be interested in the world. That is all there is for me… I believe that filmmaking is a big beautiful lense to capture the human experience and the only mirror for man to shield against mortality. In the end, for me, it is always about cheating death. And film does that beautifully.
Tina Gharavi Tina Gharavi is a BAFTA-nominated filmmaker, born in Iran, initially trained as a painter in the United States, later studying cinema in France. She is noted for innovative cross-platform work, working both in documentary and fiction, and has garnered the attention of the film industry through her acclaimed first feature, I Am Nasrine, released in 2012. Movie Scope magazine, named her one to watch and Gharavi was selected by the Film Council as an up-and-coming British director as part of the Film Council’s Guiding Lights initiative where she was mentored by Beeban Kidron.
Fearless in her approach to storytelling, her work has been broadcast internationally and her installations exhibited at museums around the world. Her focus has consistently been risk-taking, imaginative in its perspective, attempting challenging topics in places as diverse as Yemen, Sudan, Iran and Palestine.
Gharavi established Bridge + Tunnel, an award-winning media production company, in Newcastle, England to support “unheard voices, untold stories”. Her first 35mm short film, Closer, was an official selection at Sundance where programmer, Shari Frilot, noted that ‘it takes documentary to the next level.’ Gharavi’s next major production chronicled her return to her mother’s house in Iran, 23 years after the Islamic Revolution. The resulting film, Mother/Country, was broadcast at prime time on Channel 4 in the UK where the national press gave it top billing and the London Evening Standard described it as “genuinely moving.” Her work often explores “the outsider” while always appealing to a mainstream audience.
I Am Nasrine, is currently on release and is a coming of age story of two teenage Iranian refugees. Sir Ben Kingsley called it “a life enhancing film… An important and much needed film” and received the Outstanding Debut nomination from BAFTA in 2013.
Gharavi is now working to develop more features in line with her interests in the Middle East, women and gangsters. For further information about other projects, the film company and how the work gets made, visit here: Bridge + Tunnel.
I Am Nasrine is an intimate journey of self-discovery and the unfolding of a soul.
The film follows the paths of Nasrine and Ali, sister and brother in a comfortable, middle-class Iranian home. When Nasrine has a run-in with the police, the punishment is more than she bargained for: their father orders them both to relocate to the UK. Ali is furious…and yet, for Nasrine, there is undeniable excitement about the prospect of starting a new life in the West, and an eagerness for its promise of new freedoms.
Arriving in Britain, their fate and their future are far from certain. Nasrine is quick to settle into her new life, making friends with Nichole, a member of the Gypsy traveller community. However, Ali struggles with the realities of life in the UK, as well as his awakening sexuality. Then comes 9/11, and a surge of prejudice and hostility from her adopted community.
As Nasrine finds the courage to accept her fate, she discovers that the end of her journey is really just the beginning.
Micsha Sadeghi, Shiraz Haq, Chistian Coulson, Steven Hooper, Nichole Hall
Tina Gharavi, James Richard Baillie, Gerry Maguire