17th British Shorts, Berlin
"I think in this industry, especially with big studios and bigger budget films in the more established networks, the scale and hierarchies can have drawbacks."
January 18, 2024
A young receptionist forms a coincidental bond with a patient over the phone, who helps her reconnect with the world and her place in it.
Hi Tara, thank you for talking to TNC. How does it feel to be at the 17th British Shorts with your latest short film Bridge?
TA: We are so excited to bring the film to British Shorts and the audiences in Berlin to kick off the new year.
How important are festivals like British Shorts in creating a platform for short films and filmmakers?
TA: Short films are a very particular artform. There’s sometimes this idea that because they are short, they are easier to make. And in some respects that’s true -- fewer shoot days mean smaller budgets, shorter commitments from cast and crew, and perhaps simpler stories. But I’ve learned as a journalist that being precise and pithy can be even more difficult. And because shorts don’t have the kind of economic reach that features or television have, they can be difficult to finance. So it ends up being a labour of love with a team of passionate collaborators, often as a stepping stone to future opportunities. I personally have loved being in this space especially as I started making narratives and connected with incredible talent and collaborators who’ve been so generous with their time and skills. Yet all of this hard work wouldn’t be truly celebrated without short-focused festivals like British Shorts, who understand this delicate ecosystem and embolden it.
What more can be done to make short films more visible to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?
TA: The easy answer is that there is an existing audience for shorts, more than ever, by virtue of our dwindling attention spans and our Tik-tok-trained speed of processing visual information. So it’s mostly a matter of tapping into this audience, and streamers and distributors are becoming more aware of it. It’s really delightful to sit and watch through a carefully programmed series of shorts at a festival. And it’s equally fascinating to be transported on any given day or time or place to a contained cinematic story for a brief moment. I think short stories are what novellas were to epic novels, they are their own craft, and we can do with having more of them available to all.
How has your background in journalism helped you in your filmmaking approach?
TA: Both my journalism and academic work prepared me a lot. The first thing you understand as a journalist is that stories are everywhere: on the bus, in the queue at the grocery store, or among the comments of a stranger’s post. You also learn that things are never binary, they are multifaceted and everyone has their own rendition. That’s given me confidence not just in development and building characters, but also on set; I’m constantly discovering new layers of the story, with my actors, with the creative department, with the technical crew…we’re all contributing to this living and evolving organism and as the director my job is to observe and listen and then, as I did so as a journalist, tell a version of it. Working on docs, you’re often dealing with real people and volatile circumstances, and you must problem-solve quickly and react spontaneously, which again is helpful on set. There are many useful transferable technical skills, from producing and editing, to interviewing people who may be reticent to talk and establishing trust; something that’s essential in working with professional and non-professional actors. Deadlines, quick turnarounds, revisions, notes, these are all familiar parts of the process to me, and I embrace research and I (mostly) have the discipline for it. So I’ve learned to plan and prep aplenty, whilst staying present when it’s all happening.
Iran is renowned for its film culture and women directors have been especially celebrated, how influential has this history and legacy been for you as you started your filmmaking journey?
TA: It’s interesting because I actually grew up knowing the names of more Iranian women directors than I did non-Iranian women: Samira Makhmalbaf, Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Tahmineh Milani, Forough Farrokhzad. There’s many, many more now of course but back in the 90s and early 2000’s these women were already big players in Iranian - and world - cinema. I remember watching Samira’s Blackboards in the cinema and I was amazed by it. I saw her photos walking the red carpet in Cannes and I felt such pride. Forough Farrokhzad’s legacy as a poet and filmmaker, who died way too soon in 1967, remains as one of my main inspirations artistically and in terms of her career and what she dared to imagine for herself. I was lucky to grow up in the artistic scene in Iran with my father being a painter and my mother an architect, among people like director Abbas Kiarostami and poet Ahmadreza Ahmadi and many other artists. Even though I’ve been in exile for many years, I was exposed to an eclectic and resilient group of people who truly believed in the value of art, and hustled for it every day. Time will tell what kind of an artist I am, but I can tell you that I have no shame in hustling, in pushing and trying. When you see the kind of challenges artists face in places like Iran to simply create, you understand what a privilege it is. I think in this industry, especially with big studios and bigger budget films in the more established networks, the scale and hierarchies can have drawbacks. I’ve learned a lot from filmmakers like Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf who have a great command over the overall production, personally manoeuvre a million different obstacles, working with small crews and budgets, just to make the damn thing.
"When your background is writing, you have access to this transcendent space of operating in the creative act, starting and completing a piece by virtue of having a pen and a paper -- it’s liberating."
How important has gaining Mohsen Makhmalbaf as a mentor and what was the experience like for you attending his Masterclass at the London Film Academy?
TA: Mohsen Makhmalbaf is not just an incredible artist and human, but he’s an amazing teacher. He is deeply generous and vulnerable with his students, as well as friends and strangers, in sharing his life-story and what he’s learned from his successes and his mistakes. He gets tantalisingly excited about a good story idea and is a brutally honest and supportive mentor. Makhmalbaf lives his life as he teaches -- with humility, with the idea of being a positive force, and always experimenting, never staying stagnant. I’ve seen egos of some directors expand into entirely suffocating entities and he’s not like that. So for someone like me who hasn’t gone to film school and learned to write and direct on her own, the workshop was a really inviting and safe space and a massively impactful opportunity as Makhmalbaf tried to demystify the entire filmmaking process. I also loved being among a community of filmmakers and film lovers in London, and we are all still in touch -- something that Makhmalbaf always insists on, and encourages us to do and help each other. Other than his support and guidance on my projects, there are other ways in which he inspires me-- like the way he protects his privacy, boundaries, and creative process, which for me is still a work in progress.
What where some of the lessons you took away from making your debut short film The Ride and how did these impact your approach to making Bridge?
TA: That was my first time working with actors and really understanding my own directing style with performers -- which I really enjoyed. The main takeaway on that aspect was my job as the keeper of the thread, of the characters and their arc and how important it is to oversee that. I also started to understand the delicate balance of taking notes, which only gets better with experience and as you find your voice -- when to let an idea in and when to move on. It’s like painting, you only get better at it by doing it more often, studying how the colours combine and if they are still in service of that original vision, and importantly not be trapped by the vision either.
Can you tell me how Bridge came about, and what was it about Gemma Barnett’s screenplay that connected with you so much?
TA: I had known Catherine White and Kusini Productions, whose slate and ethos I’ve always appreciated, and that’s how I first heard about the project which was produced by Cat and the amazing Nina Georgieff. It wasn’t necessarily something I was seeking as I mainly work with my own concepts, but then I found out about the distinct background of the story and how writer/actor Gemma’s award winning poem was the foundation. Poetry being my earliest passion and vocation, I was immediately drawn to Gemma’s work and fell in love with it, and her. The poem of Bridge is beautifully whimsical and deeply intimate, and came from Gemma’s own experience having worked as a GP receptionist during the pandemic. Once the four of us had a meeting, I felt inspired by what we could do and excited by the challenge of working with the material. Because of Gemma’s unique theatre and poetry background, the script had some unconventional qualities that I wanted to cultivate. It was easy in a way because Gemma and I understood each other’s language as women as well as artists, and we both respected the process. It was a very collaborative and creative development period as we continued to work on the script and allow the film to find its shape outside of the poem, while trying to maintain the essence of what made that piece sing for us.
What was the biggest challenges you faced bringing Bridge to the big screen?
TA: The main one was interpreting the story in a cinematic way. Originally there were narrative excerpts from the poem that interspersed the film -- but the tighter the story’s throughline became, the less that felt necessary. I was also really searching for Bridge’s personal journey, which reads differently in a poetic context when you have access to her internal world and the emotive abstractions of the mind. So the question was why this day? And why this call? And from there a whole new set of beats sprung. Another challenge was the events of the story happening primarily over a phone call, and finding a more dynamic expression of that. Which is how the idea to see Kirsty’s character in her home came about, and the relationship between those two characters deepened. The surgery was a difficult location to find -- and whenever you have a lot of characters and not a lot of time, that is of course a huge challenge. It was also my first time working with a child actor as young as five, but Phoenix was a star and once we played together a bit and became friends it was pure joy. We had a very resourceful and dedicated group -- from Kia and her team behind the camera to our production, the set, then Joan’s patient editing, Hollie’s musical Pandora's box and Alex’s sound work. I was deeply reassured by the performances too: Gemma’s incredible command as Bridge, Bianca as Kirsty, and Sam as Ollie, which carried such honesty and subtle metamorphosis.
Is there anything you would have done different on this film?
TA: That’s hard to answer. Every time I rewatch something I’ve done I come up with tens of new/alternative things I’d do. But I’m really proud of what we were able to achieve and how everyone brought so much of themselves into it.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
TA: I was always watching films and discovering directors, and writing my own scripts and stories. Sometimes I think I was a filmmaker who was preoccupied with other things, buying time before stepping into the dark side. I say dark because the machinery of the industry was intimidating. When your background is writing, you have access to this transcendent space of operating in the creative act, starting and completing a piece by virtue of having a pen and a paper -- it’s liberating. As a journalist this expands to include the subject you research, those you interview, and say the editor that you work with. You are a vehicle for something else, for the story, and it’s still quite contained. Growing up in a country with such political turmoil and heavy censorship, as journalists continuously are imprisoned and fighting for freedom of speech, I had a great sense of purpose trying to dismantle the regime’s narrative. I enjoyed dipping into various new reports and territories and characters, but I also felt restricted. I felt like I wanted to dig deeper and you can only do so much via articles and essays. I paint also, and at some point curated and ran an art gallery, which titillated my visual and artistic mindscape. But filmmaking brought all these tangents together in a magical way, and suddenly felt like home. What I also love about this work is the kind of community you can create with each project, which really resonates with my life philosophy as an activist.
Who are some of the filmmakers that have/do inspire you?
TA: There’s a long and evolving list. I’ve named some of the Iranian ones already and the list is quite long (Forough Farrokhzad, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Asghar Farhadi…) but I also deeply admire filmmakers like Celine Sciamma, Agnes Varda, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Mia Hansen Love, Lee Chang Dong, Charlotte Wells, Jean-Luc Godard, Bunuel. It really depends on what I’m working on at that moment, which gives birth to a new constellation of gods and muses. But some of these filmmakers are the ones that made me fall in love with cinema.
What does Bridge say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell in the future?
TA: My experience as an Iranian woman, and awareness of socio-political dynamics, is the lens in which I see the world and I think it subconsciously guides what I find interesting or worth talking about. All types of accidents and moments catch my attention - be it from my own experiences or bearing witness to the worlds around me, and then I have an unyielding desire to unpack and gaze deeply into it. This desire is sometimes borne into a scribble in my journal or a conversation with my husband, sometimes it’s the inception of a scene or a character or dialogue. And sometimes I see a whole film from start to finish flash before me. The downside of filmmaking is how long it takes to make them! But There is a simplicity to life that generally interests me. Like the threads that make us painfully predictable as humans, the good and the bad. And on the other hand, we are such psychological beings, so full of blindspots and weirdly susceptible to all types of belief systems, full of shame and secrets and bizarre motivations; such nuances are so interesting to capture. I like stories that are tackling the in-between spaces, the surreal moments, and the precise ways in which life does not make any sense beyond a handful of guttural feelings --it’s entirely absurd. I don’t know what Bridge says about me as a filmmaker but I know it embodies some of these curiosities.
You’re currently working on your debut narrative feature, as you able to tell me anything about this or
TA: Not too much to say but that the subject matter won’t be surprising if you are familiar with the worlds that I navigate. I’m still (and hopefully forever) in the space of discovery with filmmaking, and I like making new correlations between different genres, stories and styles.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone wanting to get into filmmaking or journalism?
TA: Saying yes is key -- I often mention this. Saying yes and doing and failing and learning, but also, backing up your promises and commitments with research and prep and effort. I find it bizarre how in the artworld there’s sometimes a delusive expectation on “the artist” to have all the answers a-priori, as if from a well of eternal knowledge. So ask, dig, and do. Watch tons of films and find what you like, then make what you like. Similarly with journalism, exposing yourself to material that inspires you and finding ways of being included. My first real journalism gig I did for BBC Persian without any broadcast experience (I studied print journalism), but I offered to make the package and for them not to air if they don’t like it. They did, and I got my first reporting paycheck. For filmmaking, especially as women or part of the global majority, you need to establish a sense of trust within yourself, your own voice, your gut feelings. And to work with people who both respect and nourish it, and challenge it constructively.
And finally, what message would you like audiences to take away from Bridge?
TA: Bridge is a tender film -- and that’s something that we can always have more of in contemporary society. We have a loneliness epidemic in the world. We have a heavily digitally connected and corporally disconnected society. Bridge is about how we as humans need to be seen, for our pain and our happiness to be witnessed and recognised. It’s about the care and connection that may arrive from all types of unexpected places and their transformative power. And it is hopefully an invitation to be an agent of that care. The poem and the film try to make sense of some sincerely human emotions: loss, love, friendship, being parents, mental health, ageing. In my view, it all points to the fact that we all share them, that these are the bridges that connect us, and walking on them is beautiful.