Five minutes with: Nikola Vasakova
We spoke to Girls in Film founder Nikola Vasakova about career highlights, advice for new filmmakers and her next moves.
As her latest film goes on worldwide release, we spent five minutes with producer Elhum Shakerifar
What are you working on right now?
As for most people, this is a strange time, and nothing is quite as it was before. As documentarians, we are used to things not going quite to plan… the French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once wrote that “life has a lot more imagination than us” – which speaks to why I am inspired by the space that documentary opens for storytelling and for understanding the world. At such a time of uncertainty and sadness, I feel that the experiences I have been privileged to have through filmmaking and crucially the people I have met along the way, have equipped me with perspective. The grounding that perspective can give you is my current bedrock – as a producer, whilst it’s important to think of the immediate, and long-term impacts of the present reality, it is equally important to not lose perspective on the subjects we’ve been reflecting on for years, to remember that we’ll only understand the big picture with some distance. These reflections are very much tied to two films that have been at the forefront of my mind these past weeks – Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, which received its World Premiere in F:ACT Competition at CPH:DOX… online. It was strange, of course, to not be able to experience the film with an audience, especially after 7 years in the making, particularly given the film’s subject matter – forcible disappearance in Syria, told through the prism of two women looking for their loved ones. One is Bassel Khartabil, software developer and Syria’s Creative Commons representative, the other is Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, the well-known Jesuit priest – essentially two men who broke boundaries literally and metaphorically with their work and believed in a more connected world.
Ayouni is a story of hope and courage – of communities forming to challenge and stare down abuses of power – that we shouldn’t lose sight of at a time of global uncertainty.
I’ve also been working closely with Steven Eastwood on the development of a new project (currently titled “Neurocultures”) that questions what cinema would look like if it had been conceived of from a neurodiverse, rather than a neurotypical, perspective. It is one part of a Wellcome Trust project exploring the relationship between autism and cinema, and it has been interesting to reflect on how self-isolation and quarantining at home are not equalising situations, but actually highlight how the world operates according to rigid norms. Some of the flexibility we’re seeing emerge around communication, engagement and access, indicate that it is possible to conceive of how things can work differently – the neurodiversity movement is fast growing and emphasises a paradigm where the autism spectrum is seen as a result of natural variations in the human brain rather than a disorder to be cured; it suggests that different people have different minds and different styles of thinking, and that environments need adapting, rather than individual behaviour.
The autistic community has long been managing social exclusion and isolation – there is so much to be gleaned from that experience, and insights from those experiences offer benefits for every community.
The project as a whole highlights a question we should be asking ourselves right now: what new social dynamics are possible if we shrug off the restrictions of an old world built on hierarchies?
What/who originally turned you onto film?
The piece of work that marked a turning point for me was the three-part documentary entitled Memoires d’Immigrés (Immigrants’ Memories) by Yamina Benguigui (1997). I watched it, aged 17, in a philosophy class where it was meant to illustrate the question “what is history?” It literally changed my world. Combining archive and first-person testimonies spoken direct to camera, the film explores North African migration to France, firstly through the stories of the men who arrived alone as cheap labour after the war. The second part turned to the women - the wives who came to join their husbands some years later. And finally, the third part focused on the children – most of whom were born in France. It is a very simply constructed documentary and yet contains some of the most affecting interviews I have ever seen on screen: words and anecdotes of family, migration, lives an experiences that still move me to my very core. It also features some of the region’s raï music, lyrics that speak of love and exile, melodies that echoed through my childhood in France.
I am British-Iranian, I was born in London and my family spent much of my childhood in France because of my father’s job – France was an unexpected new culture, language, school system, friends and a new process of assimilation and integration for all of us. The story of North African migration to France was not really representative of my life, of my history or of my parent’s migration to the England, where they met in the mid 70s. And yet at the same time, it opened my eyes to everything I didn’t really understand about the society I was born in, the one I lived in,how it saw me and who I was.
Part of this recollection is also that it didn’t really change anyone else’s world – our philosophy teacher was very enthusiastic, slightly erratic and also permanent exasperated by the lack of interest and focus that she was met with by our obnoxious teenage minds. She was furious that nobody had bothered to even think about the essay she had set around the film. I was singled out as the only person who had put any thought into their work. Of course I was a geek. But perhaps this assignment mattered to me more than it mattered to anyone else. Perhaps it spoke to the very core of what I was trying to work out at the time. Benguigui has reflected on the making of this film as something that enabled her to “rebuild” her own identity, to rethink the story of migration from Maghreb to France. Benguigui’s film re-framed the narrative in such a way that it gave people a place in history on their own terms.
The power of this was a game-changer for me. It made me realise that there are those who write history, and those who write stories. History for so long has been written by the dominant order. Inclusive, questioning documentary can reverse this. The films I make today all take root in this realisation and in the necessity to look for stories that are locked out of dominant narrative. They are no less and no more part of the big picture, but often quieter, less visible, more fragile. And therefore vital and often need to be fought for (to be understood as valid, often to be funded, to be shown, even to be made at all).
What’s your connection to the British Council?
I have been supported by the British Council a number of projects over the years. I was part of the British Council’s Creative Leadership Initiative back in 2011 – and that is where I met many creative collaborators, including Dan Gorman, who then became my colleague at Shubbak (the festival of contemporary Arab culture, for which I curate the film programme) and now Director of English PEN, Zviad Eliziani from the Batumi Film Festival in Georgia, with whom I worked fora few years developing workshops and showcasing Georgian film in the UK. More recently, the British Council supported us to take one section of the 2019 Shubbak selection, focusing on Arab British identity, to Cairo’s Independent Cinema, Zawya, and showcase the work at their annual Panorama of European Film – and to reflect on the notion of dual identity in a context where that identity suddenly becomes entwined with the notion of diaspora.
What has been your career high so far?
Seeing the impact you make on someone through your work is a deeply humbling experience – a few moments I reflect on when I need some energy are: I remember screening Even When I Fall by Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon to a group of youth leaders from Youth London at the V&A. One of them said afterwards how moved she was by Saraswoti’s journey, and told me “if she can do that, I can do anything”. Many people have been sharing film recommendations for people at home at this time of uncertainty and this is mine: Even When I Fall is a film about overcoming the odds, about resilience, about rebuilding. At times enchanting and uplifting, it is also a nuanced portrait of a difficult reality. These are not easy times, and I channel this resilience of Saraswoti an Sheetal from the film when I think about the strangeness and sadness of today, and the uncertainty of the road ahead.
This year, Shubbak showcased the work of a young photographer Hassan Mousaoy; I didn’t know anything about this until I looked at the programme itself and was blown away: I first met Hassan over a decade earlier through a community project through which I taught him how to take photographs. He now works as an engineer but continues to do photography projects, often connecting and enabling young photographers to hone their skills and vision – proud isn’t a strong enough word for how that makes me feel.
Finally, a piece of work that gives me particular solace is the experience of making ISLAND with Steven Eastwood. It is a film about death, and looks to give an image to end of life. In response to the powerful audience and professional responses we were getting to the film, we developed a toolkit with the help of pioneering palliative care doctor Kathryn Mannix, which is available for free on our website to accompany the doctors, nurses and carers who want to use the film as a resource – to reflect on and prepare to have to deal with death, to reflect on the act of care. It was deeply moving to see when we held screenings for the nurses of Mountbatten Hospice, where Island was filmed, that many of them came with their families, who saw first hand, often for the first time, what their work entailed. I think we are having those reflections as a nation right now, and I hope that ISLAND will continue to play its part in giving space to reflect on death and dying – the last taboo – and to continue to be a balm to those who feel the need to sit with death in order to better understand their emotions in relation to it
I came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in a community centre with unaccompanied minors (young refugees who are separated from their families) – I was working there when I first met Saeed Taji Farouky and was intrigued by the film he was making, about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara. I first did some fundraising, and then become progressively more involved – eventually more formally becoming the film’s Producer. I hasn’t conceptualised the role of the producer very much before stepping into those shoes (probably because producers are less visible in the spaces that celebrate filmmaking), but was drawn by the combination of creative, strategic and financial aspects of the role I began to forge in the making of that film. I now know this space intimately – ten years on – as a space also of managing a team at the peak of everyone’s vulnerabilities (the process of making a documentary – a work of art grounded in reality), of risk taking (the space between vision, confidence, belief in someone, in something, when it isn’t fully formed but yet has distinct promise), and it is sometimes as lonely a space as it can be gratifying.
The Runner was completed in 2015 – actually after the next film I produced: Sean McAllister’s The Reluctant Revolutionary, which opened the Panorama Dokumente in Berlinale 2012 – and my entwined experience of making both of those films was my baptism of fire. I thought that things might become simpler with experience… I have since produced films all over the world – from Yemen to Nepal, Syria to Japan, and more recently in the UK. They each have their distinct worlds, issues and surprises. The one thing that unites all of my work, I believe, is that I am interested in the quieter voice, the untold side of the story. This work isn’t becoming easier, I’m sorry to say. But I think what you gain with experience is perspective, patience, and that is an immeasurable gift.
If I knew then what I know now…
Trust your gut, and know what your north star is – why you’re really involved in something (whatever the reason), and what your red lines are. Intention is key because the documentary road is long, and your intention has to carry you through ups and downs, the expected problems and the unknown realities that might otherwise stop you in your tracks.
I work with people whose vision I understand, admire and want to bring to fruition. Shared vision and teamwork enables the strongest films to be made – collaboration is key, teams make films. There has to be strong communication, trust, respect because all of these things will be tested in ways you can’t foresee, at times you won’t expect it. A core team will live a long time together in the process of making a documentary – but one of films’ most beguiling beauties is that it lives on, and documentary films live on in a distinct way – because they place real people in the frame. A film might document of a moment in their lives, sometimes much more than that too. But that responsibility of representation is as precious as it is vulnerable, and not to be taken lightly. Nobody else will experience that responsibility as the director and producer will.
Also: never defer your fee.
What is your favourite British film?
As a child I would have said Bugsy Malone by Alan Parker. Watched regularly and repeatedly by my cousins and I as we were growing up – we always wanted a custard pie fight for our birthdays. As an adult, I’d say Blue by Derek Jarman for the magic in its celebration of the senses and of the power of imagination, but also for its directness, sadness and beautiful honesty.
If you could have been involved with any film ever made, which one would it be?
I would have loved to be on set with Agnès Varda – especially in her early work, for instance La Pointe Courte, or Cléo de 5 à 7. I love the ideas and the aesthetics of that period of French literature and film. Varda’s work in particular was so inventive, full of joy and love, but also subtle and an astute reflection on human relations, fears, constructs. She herself seemed to have such a playful spirit, and I’m sad to have never met her.
What’s the first film you remember seeing?
I can’t really remember the ‘first’ films but Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) made a lasting impression on me early on – in the scene where beauty enters the castle and all the chandeliers - arms holding tall candles - open up to light her way holds so much magic.
What’s your favourite line or scene from a film?
There are so many! The ‘diamonds’ scene in Girlhood by Céline Sciamma; the incredible dance scene in Nana Ektimishvili and Simon Gross’s In Bloom; the surreal black and white Greek myth dream sequence in Youssef Chahine’s epic Alexandria Again and Forever; the final choir song in Sister Act; the scene where Toto learns to dance in Toto and His Sisters; the painting sequence in Michel Khleifi’s Ma’loul Celebrates Its Destruction; the opening scene in Rakhshan Bani Etemad’s Under the City’s Skin; Agnès Varda finding a heart potato in The Gleaners and I; the scene in The Minders, in which director Sean McAllister goes into football crazy Kifah’s bedroom to behold the spaces on the wall where his beloved posters used to hang – this film is such an incredible gem, it remains my favourite of Sean’s.
Who’s your favourite screen hero and/or villain?
Hades, in Disney’s Hercules. His humour, his erratic anger, his useless sidekicks ‘pain’ and ‘panic’ – it’s all so brilliant, and still makes me laugh, every time.
Who would play you in the film about your life?
Adèle Haenel. She is an incredible actress, and I have so much respect for the way she has (literally) stood up for what she believes in.
Find out more about Elhum's work at www.hakawati.co.uk
Elhum’s latest release, Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, is released worldwide on 1 July 2020, via www.AyouniFilm.com. It's available in 7 languages (English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian).