For many people, televisions offer a portal to the world. But while in developed countries it might be something you have on while you scroll the news on your phone, for people in war zones, it can be an absolute lifeline — providing a glimpse into a different world. For the football-obsessed Tala in Syria, it is a chance to watch Lionel Messi as he dances past defenders. When ISIS take over her town and ban all television, she is forced to take drastic action as we see in Murad Abu Eisheh’s Tala’vision (تالافيزيون), a touching drama about the conflict between childlike idealism and the brutality of war-torn regions. Made during his time at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, it has already won Best Narrative from an International School at the Student Oscars and has been short-listed for the upcoming Academy Awards. Ahead of the final list being announced on February 8th, we caught up with Eisheh to talk about finding the right actress, being inspired by true events and filming in a refugee camp.
I heard that this story is inspired by true events…
It’s inspired by certain parts of reality, but it’s not really inspired by true events. In 2014, I came across a small article on like the sixth page of this major newspaper in Jordan talking about how ISIS was banning televisions in the areas that they control. It had a very interesting picture of a lot of televisions piled on top of each other. It bothered me because I grew up really attached to television sets, they really formed me as a person. We didn’t have internet at the time, so when you are banning TV, you’re controlling the narrative and what children grow up to think.
A couple of years later, I was working at the Syrian-Jordanian border, doing some reports. There was this group of migrants coming across the border and it was a complete desert: there’s nothing there. There was this little girl following the crowd. She was an orphan. Her face stuck with me. I kept asking myself: “What could be this little girl’s story?” These two ideas came together and formed the script of Tala’Vision.
I grew up really attached to television sets, they really formed me as a person.
That’s both the opening and the ending shot! Did you always know you wanted to start the movie with the TV being chucked out of the window?
I did, actually. We had a lot of arguments about how exactly to do that. At the end of the day, it was a student project and there were certain limitations but I wanted the film to start from that perspective: it’s the only shot in the film where it’s not from the perspective of the little girl.
And I’d love to learn more about casting Aisha Balassem? Was it difficult to find the right person, especially with a Syrian accent?
From the very beginning of the casting process, actually even when we were writing, we had discussions about it within the production. I knew that we would not be able to find a seven year old actress who would be ready to take on this role. One of them is that the acting industry is not the biggest in Jordan. There are very few child actors and I was very keen on finding someone original with a Syrian accent — although a foreign audience wouldn’t know. We embarked on this really long journey looking at hundreds of children until we found the one.
What struck you about her?
I saw around 200 girls. I was doing small exercises with each of them, just 10-15 minutes, trying to break this first barrier and see if there’s something more. The exercise was: “Imagine if you’re coming home and you saw someone hitting your friend outside and you couldn’t help them and just ran inside to your mother.” And the casting director was supposed to be the mother. They would have to tell their mother what was happening so she could go out and help the friend.
We embarked on this really long journey looking at hundreds of children until we found the one.
All the other little girls were really trying to articulate how they felt about it, except for Aisha. When I told her the narrative she didn’t ask any questions. She just stood up from the chair, went out of the room, closed the door and acted as if she’d run in from outside to her mum. She was the only child that did that. It’s just a small thing, but it struck me. Then we did a camera test and she was just mesmerising in front of the camera.
Considering the film looks like it was shot in a war-zone, I imagine the production design must have been quite a challenge!
Yeah. We shot the film in a small Palestinian refugee camp, outside the capital of Jordan, Amman. And it’s a refugee camp from the 40s, so it’s not actually just tents. Now it’s buildings and alleys and that sort of thing. The Production Designer Julian Knaack had a huge undertaking, but his team did an amazing job. If you see the location beforehand, it’s actually a nice, normal street. They managed to mess it up quite well. Even the interior of the apartment was completely different. It was a really huge apartment and we had to construct walls to make it more claustrophobic and make it feel smaller.
The nice thing about the camp is that it’s just one square kilometre in the middle of the desert, so it’s easy to control the crowds and block streets. They’re used to filmmakers and had a lot of other big films shoot there. We actually hired a lot of people from the community as assistants and in production design.
When you have a girl that young playing this type of role, do you have to be very careful to make sure that she’s comfortable?
This was actually a very major point for us. The entire prep time before shooting, I didn’t use it to train on the script. I actually just used it to gain her confidence. She didn’t really have an understanding of what a film is or a story. I was trying to articulate it to her. We would draw three pictures together and show her how in three pictures you tell a story. As I was getting to know her more and more, I realised that she is extremely traumatised from the war. We had a serious conversation within production about this and sat with child psychiatrists and people who deal with child actors. I definitely didn’t want to damage her as a child.
We made sure to clear things out as much as possible with the parents. No one on set was allowed to talk to her except me. And at the end of the shoot, I stayed a couple of weeks extra to faze her out. We didn’t do a cut on the last shooting day so she’s back to her normal life because it was quite intense being on set. We took her back to the set and showed her the apartment again. They were repainting it and she met the real owners. She was feeling weird because she felt that this is her home. And later, when I was having lunch with Sound Designer Johann Meis, she asked him his name, and when he asked her hers, she responded with the character’s name. It took her a minute to remember her name. I was quite worried at this point so I made sure to spend more time with her. But her parents really helped and treated her the same at home.
What I really liked is that, except for that first shot, everything is shot from her perspective. How did you want to approach the project visually and which equipment did you use to achieve this?
I knew from the beginning when I was writing the script, that the entire film would be through her perspective. Through my discussions with DOP Philip Henze, we tried to break it down and went through several concepts. This one stuck with us the most because it really puts the audience in the chair of what she understands or doesn’t understand. It was important not to make a film about war but from the point of view of this girl. What worked well with us was to light the apartment from outside. This way Aisha felt comfortable in the set as if it was just a normal apartment, creating the most realism we could.
We shot with the Sony Venice. It worked well for the DOP as the actress is quite short. He had to be on his knees or super low the whole time. It’s quite a heavy camera but you can split it in half so the sensor and the lens can be together and the rest of the body of the camera is connected through a cable. He had a backpack with the rest of the camera in there so that was helpful for him to be around her and so she didn’t feel like there was this huge camera in her face.
We sat with child psychiatrists and people who deal with child actors. I definitely didn’t want to damage her as a child.
Were there any camera movements that had to be improvised considering she’s a non-professional and a child?
Definitely. I didn’t rehearse anything with her and we just talked about her memories and life in Syria. We couldn’t plan exactly what was going to happen, but at the same time, we could put her in a situation and try and follow what she was going to do. When the camera started rolling, we deleted all these “ready”, “rolling” commands, and just did hand motions. Then we would, for example, give her a football and tell her to play. Then we would do the hand motions and start rolling. So it was actually just her playing football and the camera reacting to what she was doing. For example, when she hits the chandelier, this was not scripted but during the editing we were like: “OK this is a nice, spontaneous moment” that we ended up using.
What really helped to immerse me in this world is the sound design, which always suggests more than what we see in the frame. How did you work on this?
We didn’t have a concept for it at the beginning and concentrated more on the visual part. But Johann suggested that we push the film into Atmos whenever she was near the window or looking outside — like the world opening up — and switch to mono when she’s back in the room. A lot of people saw it on their laptops, but people who saw it in cinemas had a completely different understanding of the film. So that played a major role for me in the sound design, as well as all these sounds of war.
I don’t know if you heard it, but there are actually a lot of creatures and animals in the sound mix. We were just throwing sounds together and deciding what her fears could be other than bombs. For example, when she’s heading outside, there are sounds of animals that slowly turn into the car that passes by. So you think there’s a dragon or a helicopter and then the sound bends around. Which was quite brilliant of Johann to decide on. Thanks to COVID, we ended up having all the time in the world to really play with it.
It was important not to make a film about war, but from the point of view of this girl.
Tala’vision won a Student Oscar — the first from the Levant to do so — and is shortlisted for the upcoming Academy Awards. What’s that like?
The film industry is such a weird world. We sat on the phone for almost eight months applying for festivals, and all we were getting were rejections. Going from that to having our world premiere in Germany then suddenly having lots of festival wins, then suddenly making it to the Student Oscars was absolutely mad. Winning it was absolutely the furthest thing from reality. I remember when I first started my application for the university here in Ludwigsburg, I was walking down the hallway and they have all these Student Oscars and Cannes awards hanging on the wall. I remember thinking: “I will never reach this level.” It was such a weird moment to reflect back and realise that we actually achieved that.
As a winner of the Student Oscars, we qualified for the Academy Awards. I didn’t feel convinced that we would reach the shortlists to be honest so it was a sensational feeling to see the name of the film next to such big names. And we’re the only Arabic-speaking film in all categories to be participating, so there is a tremendous pressure to represent. So hopefully we are able to make it to the nominations.
What are you working on next?
Actually, when the entire Student Oscar news broke out, we were on set shooting my next film. Tala’vision was my third year project actually and now I’m finishing my diploma. We shot the film and are now in post-production. It’s a story of two young girls in their teens living with their father in the middle of nowhere. They decide to run away from their father and into the mountains. It plays a lot on psychological threats and a story about a creature that lives in the mountains. There are a lot of visual effects as well so I tried to explore a new area I’m not comfortable in.
I’m working at the moment on my debut feature. It’s a story inspired by true events from the Arab world. I’m writing it with a co-writer from Germany. We’re taking it slowly but aiming to shoot in 2024.