One of the stand out films presented at the NFTS graduate showcase earlier this year and also nominated for the 2019 Student BAFTA Award (alongside fellow NFTS grad Charlie Manton’s November 1st), Myriam Raja’s powerful coming of age short Azaar tells the story of a spirited young girl who yearns to wear a veil and become a woman, despite the costs this may entail. A film which explores the tension between personal desire and societal obligation, Raja joins us today to discuss her time at the NFTS, doubling rural Spain for 1800s India, and utilising the power of silence in her storytelling.
As an NFTS grad how do you feel your time at the film school and the projects you created there helped you grow as a filmmaker?
Attending the NFTS was a great opportunity for me to hone my craft as a director and have the freedom to make the films I wanted to. During my first year, I experimented with an experimental short, and then made a film called The Third Sorrow which explored FGM (female genital mutilation) through the experience of the mother.
One of the best things about the NFTS has been the people. I have been so lucky to have met and worked with incredible people during my time there. The collaborative process is so important to nurture when it comes to filmmaking, and it really is through others that you grow the most as a director I feel.
The collaborative process is so important to nurture when it comes to filmmaking.
Where did the idea for Azaar come from?
The idea for Azaar has been brewing for quite some time. I came across an article about a French photographer who during the Algerian War was drafted to a small village and tasked with unveiling the women in order to take photos of them for their national identity cards. The unveiling was forceful, and the women posed for the camera unwillingly but I found the photographs really powerful, the way the women defiantly look into the lens. This became the starting point, and soon the idea was for a story to take place within a tribe of women who wear red veils.
I chose Azaar, the young girl, to be the protagonist in the story – the audience are then able to access the narrative through her, learning alongside her. I’ve always wanted to explore the concepts of honour, womanhood and land – and how they might intertwine. We come to understand the values of womanhood and honour through the three generations of women; the grandmother who has become the patriarch of the village in the men’s absence, the young mother who has sinned and the little girl who comes to understand the cost of womanhood.
A lot of the responsibility for conveying the emotional complexities of this community lies with your young lead. Knowing the importance of that role what was your casting process?
The main cast is all British and it really was quite difficult for us to find the perfect Azaar. We had the very talented Casting Director Jemima McWilliams whom I’d worked with on a previous short during my first year at NFTS. Our primary concern was finding an actress who would be able to speak Urdu or Hindi. Our pool was therefore pretty limited. We only auditioned 4 or 5 young actresses but I remember meeting Aashima Mehra (who went on to play Azaar) and we were completely taken with her.
The role of Hidayat is played by the talented Kiran Sonia Sawar. Kiran and I had actually worked together quite a few years ago, while I was at the Arts University Bournemouth. I already had her in mind when I was writing the script and so she was offered the role very early on. Kiran actually attended the casting sessions for the actresses playing Azaar, because the chemistry between mother and daughter was an incredibly important aspect of the film. Aashima and Kiran were completely natural and had a good rapport from the very beginning so the decision was very easy to make.
How did you then work with the full cast to ensure the subtleties and conflicting desires of these women’s lives came through?
There is a reticence that can be felt throughout the film and this was how I approached working with the cast. We would shoot extra moments of ‘silence’, especially between lines, because I find it fascinating when characters aren’t able to fully express themselves verbally yet their faces betray them. The portraiture in the film is very choreographed and we almost always dedicated more time to the close ups.
The film is in some ways about redefining womanhood, within a culture and tribe where men aren’t physically around anymore but their presence can still very much be felt. To me there needed to be a balance between strength and vulnerability and this really shows through in each of the women. Neelam Bakshi, who plays the matriarch Shehran, really commands such power on screen through her close ups and yet retains a lining of vulnerability. These women, and eventually Azaar, are in constant conflict with what their desires and true emotions might be, versus what the code of the tribe is.
Where did you shoot? Were there any aspects of production which turned out to be particularly challenging?
The film was shot in Almeria, Spain – it is the only desert in Western Europe and the mountainous region we shot in had a climate and landscape not too dissimilar from India. Within the short, the culture and location are never outwardly specific, and religion is never mentioned – we wanted to have a timeless feeling.
We would shoot extra moments of ‘silence’, especially between lines.
We found out about a set of an Egyptian village that was built for Ridley Scott’s film Exodus and left behind in Almeria. Nathanael Baring (Producer) and I took a flight to Almeria and drove up to find this set. It was in poor condition, battered by the weather and sun, but still standing. Our Production Designer Lauren Taylor and her team spent 2 weeks doing the set up. We also walked around a lot to scope out the mountains and landscapes.
Before shooting the film, Michael Filocamo (Cinematographer), Lauren and I had agreed that we wanted the landscape to feel almost masculine. The women’s lives have been confined to this small village, within the mountains and they don’t know what lies beyond it. The war is also happening beyond the mountains, where all their men are – and so it was really important for us to find the perfect landscapes.
This was quite a difficult and tight shoot overall. I had only visited the set twice before shooting, mainly because of budget and time constraints. The Cinematographer Michael Filocamo and I had spent an entire week on location prior to the shoot just taking photographs of the locations under every hour of the day to see what the sun’s light and shadows looked like. This helped us decide how to shoot it precisely, as we relied mostly on natural sunlight.
When it came to shooting, we were particularly struggling with the heat which was harsh and temperatures would be as high as 35. There was one scene which required it to look like nighttime inside a hut, but we shot it during the day and had to essentially shut ourselves off inside this small hut. It was like being inside an oven.
Not to mention we were also dealing with animals (including a runaway chicken that had to be chased around set), children and numerous extras.
On the surface, the world of Azaar may seem quite removed from that of Western viewers, are there specific elements that you hope resonate with audiences regardless of where they hail from?
The world is very small for Azaar throughout the film. Her village only has a handful of women, one other child, and she hasn’t seen her father in years. All they know is that there is a war happening beyond the mountains, but there is an ominous presence about the mountains; they don’t quite know what lies behind… or if they have been forgotten by the wider world.
At its core, this is as a coming of age story of a young girl learning about the harshness of the wider world.
It helps having a child as a protagonist with whom the audience can discover the world, as she does. We learn about the rules of the tribe at the same time as she does. Her mother is the protagonist in her coming of age story, and so we may only see parts of certain events. At its core, this is as a coming of age story of a young girl learning about the harshness of the wider world. It’s about belonging and identity; how does one carve out an identity within a tribe that doesn’t agree with your worldview?
SPOILER: Azaar’s mother is driven to commit suicide for violating a code of honour, enforced by the tribe, and yet she still passes on the red veil (a symbol of the culture) to her daughter, telling her to respect it. Azaar is too young to understand these implications at this point, but the film very much questions what kind of woman she will grow to become, especially when faced with the intrusion of the wider world.
What are you working on next?
I have just begun developing my debut feature with Film4. I am also developing two other scripts, and recently directed 2nd Unit on Netflix show Top Boy so looking to do a bit more TV in the future too.