‘Adnan’ is the story of an imaginative ten year old Syrian refugee boy who has had to flee his home country with his mother after the rest of their family were killed and their neighbourhood destroyed.
Hi Steven & Mark, thanks for talking to TNC, how is your 2020 going?
Hi TNC, it’s started great! In the first couple of weeks we’ve had a flurry of festival acceptances and we’re hoping for a lot more as the year progresses.
Congratulations on having Adnan selected to British Shorts, what does it mean to you to be part of such a great showcase for British Films?
It’s so amazing that Adnan has been selected, filmmaking is such a long and somewhat isolated process and it’s easy to feel disconnected from the end goal which is for people to actually see the film. We’ve heard that British Shorts is a great festival with packed screenings and audiences who truly love film, and we hope they love ours!
This is your second collaboration together, how different was your approach to this film compared with your first co-production Dorothy's Theory?
We love our first child dearly but in terms of scale Adnan was in a whole different league. From the beginning it was hugely ambitious in what we wanted to achieve, the increased budget alone brought with it new pressures and the set design was a beast of a job! Also, we knew we needed some experienced, safe hands involved and were lucky enough to have some very talented people come onboard, not least our BAFTA-nominated DoP Kit Fraser who shot ‘Under the Shadow’.
Do you ever get nervous when a film is screening at a film festival?
Adnan is right at the beginning of its festival run so for sure we’re very nervous about how it will be received. We put everything into making this film and we’re currently experiencing a cocktail of anxiety and excitement around how it will be received by audiences.
Can you tell me a little bit about Adnan, how did this film come about?
We’d just finished Dorothy’s Theory and the refugee crisis was in the news daily. Mark had been building shelters in Calais and we felt we wanted to tell a human story in response to all the desensitising news and what better way to do that than through the eyes of a child. At its heart Adnan is about the power of a child’s imagination and how robust that can be in the face of horrific events.
What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
Without giving too much away about the plot, we wanted to represent the arduous journeys that people are making and the effects they have on those involved. We wanted to do this in the most creative way and to this end the film works on two levels: it is a film about a boy trying to break through his mother’s PTSD but it is also a very unique way of depicting a journey made by many. Narratively, we’ve attempted to be more poetic with the story arc, creating an emotional trajectory.
Adnan is a story about a child refugee - how important was it for you both to use a real refugee in your film?
It was crucial. This whole project was in many ways more than just a film and we worked with so many Syrians that it would be unthinkable for the leading man not to be a Syrian refugee himself. Ayham was such a fast learner and in a way he represents all those refugee children who have been forced to flee their homes and are rebuilding their lives somewhere new. This is what Ayham has been doing for the last few years and this is what Adnan does in the film.
How did you meet Ayham Kabi?
We put the feelers out with various contacts in the Syrian community and somehow the message got to his father who sent us in a 22 second self tape of Ayham. We saw this nervous, cute little boy and felt instinctively he was our Adnan. Steven and our co-producer Hassan Akkad drove over to Bristol to meet him and were so warmly welcomed by his family. The old adage of “when you cast a child, you cast the family” couldn’t be truer and Ayham’s mum, dad and two brothers were so supportive and played a huge role in the success of the film.
Did you have any apprehensions about him not having any previous acting experience?
In the beginning yes but we just worked with that. When directing children you don’t want them to act, you want them to be so our whole process was to get him totally comfortable and to understand everything that was going on. We didn’t give him the script and ask him to learn his lines and to this day he hasn’t read the script. Instead we hung out a lot, did a lot of activities to get him in the creative headspace of making (like origami, building wooden dinosaurs and playing jenga) and rehearsed scenes in a freeing, playful way. We also consulted regularly with Miranda Harcourt who was the acting coach on ‘Lion’ who gave soooo much good advice and we brought in Acushla-Tara Kupe as Ayham’s acting coach and she was absolute gold!
When co-writing and co-directing a film how important is the collaborative nature between you both?
Also crucial. We need to be speaking the same language and pulling in the same direction so it’s very convenient that we have the same tastes! Collaboration is so good for having someone to bounce ideas off and when you have a project as complex as Adnan two heads really are better than one. We also come from very different disciplines in filmmaking that are complementary to each other: Steven is from an acting and screenwriting background while Mark’s skill lies in cinematography with a history in fashion films, music videos and commercials.
"Simplify where you can and only be involved in projects that you care about deeply because it’s A LOT of work and you can only get through it all because you love it."
What was the most challenging aspect of making Adnan?
When you see Adnan you’ll probably imagine that the set design was quite a mission… it was! Camillia Langoux & Ben Reynolds were our production designers who turned their home into a workshop for several months to create Adnan’s world. We also had a set build to recreate Adnan’s apartment which was a direct replica of the 10th floor council flat location we used in Stratford. We were so lucky to have this build managed by the incredible Lucy Yates who brought with her a vast amount of experience and know-how. Also, although not dialogue heavy, the film is all in Arabic which brings its own set of challenges, especially as we don’t speak it.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Absolutely. We both feel we were raised on cinema. It’s easy to cite directors like Spielberg as an influence but the way he presents real life issues in fantastical ways resonates massively with us.
Do you have any advice you would offer someone thinking about getting into filmmaking?
Be realistic. Everything takes longer than you think…Simplify where you can and only be involved in projects that you care about deeply because it’s A LOT of work and you can only get through it all because you love it. Also, think about your endgame, think about your festival run before you go into production.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment we’re totally wrapped up with giving Adnan the widest audience but we’re bouncing around a few ideas. Safe to say, in line with our previous two films, our next project will again tackle something topical seen through the eyes of a child.
And finally, what message do you want your audience to take away from Adnan?
We worked closely with the charity Help Refugees throughout and their slogan, as you’ve probably seen emblazoned on many a t-shirt, is ‘Choose Love’. Although sometimes it is easier to see differences in people, we hope this film will help demonstrate how we’re all the same.