Over the last decade producer Elhum Shakerifar has established herself as a vital voice in the world of international documentary, working with a range of directors on highly acclaimed films, including A Syrian Love Story and Almost Heaven. She has won numerous awards including the 2016 BFI Vision award and the 2017 Women in Film & TV’s BBC Factual Award; she was also named one of Screen International’s 2018 #Brit50 Producers on the Rise. As she explains below, Elhum is an outspoken advocate of the need to challenge mainstream narrative and to bring quieter voices to the big screen. I sent Elhum a number of questions about her work – her written answers are printed here in full.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be a documentary producer?
I have been making films for about 10 years and 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).
The first film I produced was about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara – The Runner (2015) by Saeed Taji Farouky. I actually became involved in the film out of sheer surprise that I didn’t know anything about The Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is the last colony in Africa, under Moroccan occupation since 1975. I thought that making a film about a territory most people have never heard of – by design – would be the most challenging part of the equation. But I was wrong – it was showing the finished film that was a bigger problem. We were told informally several times that the film “couldn’t possibly be screened”, some screenings were complicated by complaints from the Moroccan embassy, etc. This first experience already underlined that the biggest challenge is being seen and being understood on your own terms – whether as filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, or filmmakers making work that challenges the mainstream understanding of things, which is dictated by the loudest voices.
Making The Runner was in many ways my baptism of fire. I thought that things should be simpler after all the learning of that experience – how wrong I was! I have since produced films all over the world – in Yemen, in Nepal, in Syria, in Japan, 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. And sadly, it has not become easier to do that work – which really says something about the world we live in.
How do you decide to take on a project? What do you look for in stories? Can you give some examples?
I only work on films that mean something to me – there needs to be a strong personal reason and drive to getting involved in a film, because that determination will be key in carrying you through from conception to the finish line, from the good days to the bad. The creative process is a vulnerable one, and it is important to know why you are engaging in that space, even if just for yourself.
I would say that I’m a director’s producer – 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 – teams make films. And so it is also important to work with people who you can have a cup of tea or an ice cream with and really talk things through, talk things out.
For example, Sean McAllister, who I have now made three films with, had been filming in Syria for some time when we first met. The footage he showed me was unlike anything I had seen coming out of the country, and his relationship with the family was intense, direct, and also complicated – just like human relationships really are. I respected this directness and honesty, and it is something that I value in our relationship as collaborators as well.
How has the documentary industry changed over the years you have been working? Is it easier or more difficult to get your films made? How has distribution changed?
I would say that reality TV and celebrity documentary biopics have all but destroyed the mainstream understanding of documentary, and have certainly changed the dynamic of making non-fiction. The prominence of these films have also made variety in documentary filmmaking styles difficult – the space for creativity, to stray from format and ‘known’ values much more challenging. The space for newer voices to emerge on their own terms is essentially impossible without external support (read: trust fund) to enable years of unpaid and never adequately funded work.
The documentaries I have made to date have all been fairly unknown entities at the start of the process. I enjoy the layered space of the documentary journey, rather than contrived formats where you know what you’re going to do and say from the beginning. In the absence of partners who will get involved early and share a creative risk with you, to really develop documentary work, I would say that no: things are not getting easier.
I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms?
Finally, I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms? To my mind, the art of non-fiction filmmaking is in holding a mirror up to the world. There is undeniable value in longitudinal, artistic, unexpected, creative, divergent and diverse approaches. We must see things from different perspectives to better understand the world, but also to challenge ourselves. If we valued the variety of mirrors, of voices and the range that non-fiction can represent – we would be living in a very different world today.
What are the biggest challenges for the films you produce? Do women face particular challenges?
There is a vulnerability to making films that is seldom talked about, and that makes every film into a distinct struggle – creatively and financially. As an independent producer, it is a challenge to take the risk of jumping into a film, time and again – in knowledge that you will be carrying that risk alone for a long time before anyone else shoulders it with you.
My biggest challenge right now is understanding how we are going to challenge the industry’s in-built elitism. How can I keep – ethically, and realistically – producing so called ‘diverse’ filmmakers, in particular people who do not come from an affluent background? How can we possibly expect people with no fall back to take on the level of risk and uncertainty that a documentary requires? How can I ensure that people don’t feel more disempowered by the status quo, when it is exactly these voices that I want to hear? There is some good work being done out there, but I have been struggling with this question a lot recently – I don’t need any more training, accolades or schemes – I need cash funding to pay highly competent people properly.
Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
And yes – women face particular challenges, most importantly to my mind, of not being taken seriously. When I first started working in the industry, people always assumed “Elhum” was a man’s name– sometimes to the point of telling me “no, I’m waiting for someone else”. I have been asked on numerous occasions whether I would like for a male colleague to corroborate my decision. I have been asked by Sales Agents whether I am dating filmmakers whose work I produce. I am currently developing work with a male and female co-directing team – nine times out of ten, people pivot to talk to the man to ask questions about the film, regardless of who had been speaking in the first place. The inability to dissociate women’s gender from their work is a burden placed on women by others. There is great work being done and some good spokespeople but let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
Can you discuss one of the projects you are most proud of, and why?
I am proud of all the films I have produced – the (often long) journeys of making them really are woven into my life, and I sometimes revisit them like I might old photo albums. The people in the films we’ve made become like distant relatives – you share some sort of genetic information and oscillate in and out of contact depending on the order of the world.
A good recent example, however, would be Island by Steven Eastwood. Island follows four individuals to the end of their lives, including one, Alan, who you see breathing until he doesn’t breathe anymore. When I first met Steven, I was already juggling quite a lot and certainly wasn’t planning of getting involved in another film, but the visceral connection I had to his idea of giving an image to death – a reality that we all too often turn away from – was something I had to listen to. I truly believe Island to be a film of distinct, bold beauty. I have seen it countless times, but it still mesmerises me, as if it had its own magnetic field. I am incredibly proud of having produced it, and I am moved every time it is screened. I am proud to know that it is a film that has challenged and helped many people reflect on death and dying – we still receive emails and messages to this effect, particularly from people as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one, or reflect on the death of someone close. Challenging the silence around death was important to me on a personal level, but I am also proud of the relationships we build with the hospice where the film was shot (Mountbatten, on the Isle of Wight), with the families of the beautiful individuals in the film. We are currently developing pilot toolkits for the film to be used for training NHS junior doctors and nurses – this was a tangential outcome, but really underlines how far a film can travel when a story is told with intent.
How many projects do you have on the go at the moment, and what work of yours can we look forward to seeing soon?
Making creative documentaries is an all encompassing, all consuming reality. Whilst you might develop several ideas at once, I have learnt (the hard way!) that it’s too much to be involved in full production of too many films at once. You never known how long a film might take – A Syrian Love Story ended up being made over six years; Even When I Fall over seven. And once the film is finished – its festival journey, distribution, future…the full span of a film’s life is long. When you make documentaries, you’re also working with real human beings, whose life you have depicted in a moment in time, but the relationship exists far beyond the film. Does your responsibility to that representation ever end?
At the moment, I am developing a few exciting projects with emerging directors Ana Naomi de Sousa and Omar El-Khairy, as well as working on new ideas with Steven Eastwood, and Sean McAllister, which I look forward to sharing more information about in due course. I am currently putting finishing touches on a film called Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, which reflects on forcible disappearance in Syria through the prism of families searching for their loved ones. We began making the film five years ago, after Father Paolo, the subject of a film we were making at the time, was forcibly disappeared in Raqqa. We still have no concrete or reliable information of Paolo’s fate, though the Italian press have recently been reporting on new evidence that would suggest he was killed shortly after he was disappeared. The film depicts his sister Machi’s search for him, alongside that of Noura Ghazi, lawyer and wife of Syrian Creative Commons developer and hacker Bassel Safadi, who disappeared in 2014.
On the curation side, this July will see the return of Shubbak, the festival of contemporary Arab culture, for which I have once again curated the film programme at the Barbican (it runs 3-7th July) around the thematic of generational change in an exciting programme of films from Algeria to Tunisia, and a focus on Arab-British directors, a hyphenated identity that is rarely discussed in these terms, which is in itself quite interesting.
How do you think the industry will change in the next few years?
I don’t know, but one thing I hope for is greater support for producers. Receiving the BFI Vision Award in 2016 was a game-changer for me – it gave me an insight into what working with a secure overhead could be like, it enabled me to develop new work from scratch and so to champion projects that were too malleable and raw to be pitched to funders before being more fully developed. Essentially: to be supported to take risks. It also positioned me amongst my peers – most of whom work with fiction exclusively – which also gave me a lot of insights into the bigger picture, broader industry. The way that I see it, documentary hardly has a place at the table.
I also think that there is a discussion around mental health that needs to be had in relation to both creative processes, and the industry. I found this recent Filmmaker Magazine article “Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession” painfully pertinent, and have seldom seen this addressed in a meaningful way. There are so many complex questions that need to be discussed, that would challenge the reality of this profession as a particularly lonely and complex space. Should independent producers be supported to be more mobile and visible in a dense and competitive international space? When do you pay for someone’s time – taking part in panels, hosting events, imparting wisdom in other ways? Should there be budget lines for therapy worked into complex projects? Shouldn’t the ‘aftercare’ for subjects of complex films be the responsibility of all film partners, and not just the filmmakers? I could go on. Rebecca Day is doing interesting work in this space, having recently set up Film in Mind and offering tailored therapeutic workshops, support and consultancy.
I know you also do an impressive amount of work outside of producing creative documentaries, including film programming, translation and publishing. What underpins all the work that you do, and does your other work inform your doc producing?
I would say that all my work looks to challenge a mainstream narrative. In the film world, I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed. I crossed into distribution space after producing A Syrian Love Story and realising that if nobody inherently saw the ‘value’ of the film, that we would have to create the conditions for it to be understood – our self-devised release strategy enabled a reach of over two million people in the UK in the month of release alone.
Perhaps the film’s framing and visibility was so important to me because I had spent a decade working in a community centre with young refugees – in the years directly following the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. I think that all the different hats and spaces I’ve occupied – from translating Persian poetry, to producing photography (and even once upon a time, a band!) – have contributed to how I understand the world, and to the work I am doing today.
I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed.
I think there is real value in this kind of cross pollination, and don’t believe that everything needs to necessarily follow a certain pattern or format. I remember walking around Paris’s empty streets on a hot August day (I grew up in Paris), wondering what I should do after school. I was drawn to the postcards outside a bookstore – one was a stunning piece of Arabic calligraphy, in brilliant blue. Its meaning was a saying by Lao Tseu “Le parfait voyageur ne sait pas où il va” – meaning, a good traveller doesn’t know where they are headed. That postcard (by an Iraqi calligrapher called Hassan Massoudy) has been up on my wall ever since. I interpreted it then as having the confidence to not always know the exact answers. This doesn’t mean not having plans or goals, but being open to enjoy the journeys that life takes you on, to see the opportunities as they present themselves. Similarly, Rebecca Solnit has written about getting lost in a way that reminds me of the creative process. (Apart from the fact that I have a terrible sense of direction ) I think it says a lot about why I make the films I make.