15th ÉCU Film Festival | 2020 
"It means the world to me. I’m overly critical of my work and the film didn’t turn out the way I imagined it would in my head – it never does."
Shereen Lani Younes
 Under Cover 
Arab Special Selection 
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A young woman walks home. 

Hi Shereen thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?

As good as I can be, just taking it day by day. I’m trying to be kind to myself during this time, and appreciate the simple things – remembering to move my body, practice yoga, talk to family. I wish I was able to utilize this time to be more creative and productive, but my brain feels like mush.  

As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative inspiration?

I wish I could say it has. I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything. I try to write poems, work on my films, or even watch movies in my free time (which is most of the time now) but I have to admit I don’t necessarily feel creatively motivated during this strange moment we’re all collectively experiencing in the world. I find myself questioning of the purpose of it all, the purpose of anything. It’s a daily struggle. Wow, this got dark fast – next question?

In 2016 you self published your debut poetry book dime piece, what has it been like sharing your poems with the world?

It’s a bit like letting the world read my diary. My poems are very diary-like in nature – I don’t really edit my poems or attempt to perfect them; I like them to exist as they are in the moment in time I wrote them. To me, each poem is a time capsule of a very particular feeling I felt that needed to be released. Dime piece in particular reads like a journal since it’s chronological, starting when I was 16 and spanning until I was 26. I purposely included poems I wasn’t very proud of because I wanted to present an honest, unpolished timeline of growth. 

Do you have a favourite poem from dime piece?

I’ve genuinely never thought of this before. I’d have to go with “ghost” – I always end up reading this piece when I’m asked to read my poetry somewhere. I tried to articulate a very particular feeling I’ve always felt since I was a kid, so “ghost” is very personal to me (all my poems are personal to me, but this one feels special). The “runner-up” is probably “the flood” – which is basically just one run-on, stream-of-consciousness sentence I wrote in a frenzy one night in college. That one is fun to read out loud too, even though it always makes me out of breath.

What was the first poem you wrote and what can you tell me about your follow up book of poetry?

I can’t remember the first poem I wrote – I’ve been writing my thoughts and mutating those thoughts into poems since I can remember. My second collection is going to include a few older things I “missed” the first time – some dream entries and scribbles I didn’t include in dime piece – and the majority of it will be new work I’ve been writing since October 2016. I’m letting myself experiment with different things in this one, and I’d like to think I’ve been improving over the years. I’d also like to incorporate some of my art in the pages too, which I haven’t really figured out yet. But that’s my intention. 

Your film Under Cover has been selected for the 2020 ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?

It means the world to me. I’m overly critical of my work and the film didn’t turn out the way I imagined it would in my head – it never does. But the fact that it got selected into this incredible festival reminded me why I set out to make it in the first place. As an independent filmmaker, sometimes it’s difficult to motivate yourself and not feel like a complete fraud all the time. At least for me. But getting accepted into ÉCU felt so right to me. Like other filmmakers with films in festivals right now, I wish circumstances were different. It would have been a dream to see Paris for the first time with the context of attending this festival, but regardless I’m really grateful to be included in the line-up and I’m forever thankful the programmers saw value in my work.

Can you tell me a little bit about Under Cover, what was the inspiration behind this film?

I wanted to make a very clear political statement, which is new for me as a filmmaker. I’m a queer Syrian-American woman and I was raised Muslim, but for some reason I never addressed my background in my other film work before. There’s a frightening political climate and culture that has been building up for the past few decades in both the US and the world that ramped up in recent years because of certain deplorable world leaders – especially surrounding immigration and this notion of an “other.” I knew I wanted to use my voice to express something and to make others feel less alone. This felt like the right time. 

How important is collaboration when working on a project like this?

Extremely! Collaboration is vital. I could never have made this film without the help of every single person on the team. My family helped me so much in this entire process; I love them so much. The cinematographer for the film, Ben Cornelius, has been a close friend and collaborator of mine since I made my first “official” short film in 2014. His steadfast belief in both me and my strange creative ideas has given me so much confidence as a director and filmmaker, and our creative history really made the process much more manageable and fun. Working with someone whom I not only trust, but who I trust understands me, is crucial to me. I feel so lucky to have friends and family who believe in me enough to meet me somewhere and just make it happen. 

What was the most challenging part of making Under Cover?

Similar to any film pursuit, I had imagined the final outcome much differently. I was overly critical about it not turning out exactly as I had envisioned it would in my head. But I had to let the project dictate itself to me and evolve on its own. Sometimes you just have to let a project exist, and accept it. This was, and still is, very challenging for me, but I learned a lot through making this short film. 

"No one can exist in your mind but you and if you’re able to transfer the uniqueness of yourself onto a screen or page – that’s fucking incredible."

Looking back do you think there is anything you would have done differently?

I’m sure there are a million things I could have done differently but thinking about them will only drive me mad. Everything had to happen the way it did for me to end up talking to you now. I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

I’ve always had a passion for art, especially mixed media, poetry, and photography when I was a kid. As a teenager, I really fell in love with these mediums. I had a camera with me everywhere I went, documenting everything; I practically lived in my high school’s darkroom, developing photographs, experimenting with different methods. When I got to college, I realized that filmmaking was this incredible union of poetry and photography for me. It was a marriage of these mediums and it was exactly what I was searching for – filmmaking became a way for me to combine poetry and photography in a very visceral way. I think starting with a love of photography made me really appreciate cinematography and the power of framing a shot – it gave the visuals in my mind a practical use. I’d say that’s where my passion for filmmaking really started.

How much has your style and approach changed since you started out?

I think my style is still evolving but has always maintained a certain stillness, strangeness, and surrealism. I’m obsessed with strange, surreal work that almost lives in a dream realm, towing the line between reality and dreams. I’d love to really focus on these elements moving forward.  

Do you have any tips or advice to offer filmmakers about to make their first film or first poem?

It sounds infuriating and so very cliché, but just do it. Trust yourself. Be fearless. No one can exist in your mind but you and if you’re able to transfer the uniqueness of yourself onto a screen or page – that’s fucking incredible. The creative fulfillment of seeing something I haphazardly wrote on a paper physically manifest in front of me on a film set is a feeling I could never begin to describe. But it’s everything. 

What are you currently working on?

I’m trying (key word: trying) to write my first feature film. It’s a deeply personal story about Syria so it’s been a very difficult process for me, to say the least. I’m also (again, trying) to write a pilot. In the meantime, I’ve been writing and collecting poems for my second poetry collection. I also co-host and co-produce Ethnically Ambiguous, a podcast on the iHeartRadio network, and I’m in the process of developing new projects that could hopefully intersect the podcast medium with my other creative outlets. Things have obviously been slightly stagnant for a while considering the current crisis, so I’m allowing myself to accept a bit of stillness. Gathering yourself and taking time to be with yourself is important, so even though I admittedly haven’t been the most creatively productive as of late, it’s okay. We all have to be unified in protecting not only ourselves but each other right now. In the midst of all this, I’ve found myself returning to my creative outlets as a means of catharsis, which is what I did when I was younger before the realities of adulthood set in, before social media, before feeling the need to monetize my passions. So, strangely enough, I’ve remembered why I create things to begin with. 

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Under Cover?

I hope people can feel less alone in their otherness. The very same things that can marginalize us are the things that make us stronger. I always felt like an alien growing up; I didn’t feel like I belonged here. But the art that resonates the most with me is the art that reminds me I’m not alone; it’s the art I so desperately needed when I was a weird kid growing up on a planet that didn’t feel like home. But it is. I hope this film can remind someone of that. You are not alone. And you’ve been home this entire time.

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