After escaping from her homeland and being abandoned by the man she loves Medea must find strength from within to fight against the growing injustice she continuously faces. Director Riffy Ahmed’s reinterpretation of Euripides’ original play places the Ancient Greek tale in the contemporary context of a migrant fighting to give herself a new life. It’s a stark, cinematic and experimental take on a mythological text which is revitalised through a BIPOC gaze. Ahmed conveys Medea’s story formally through the combined methods of narration and movement, using the heavy metaphorical imagery of her derelict location to convey her extraordinary journey. The London based filmmaker joined DN for an extensive conversation about her adaptation as Medea begins its festival run, to talk about the power of Greek myths, her experimental approach to narrative storytelling, and the importance of telling this story, specifically through a BIPOC lens.
What was the first seed of inspiration for Medea as a film?
As a director I was very intrigued to take on the challenge of telling a reinterpretation of a classic piece of Greek mythology like Medea, an original play by Euripides, through a modern BIPOC gaze. I worked closely with Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, who adapted and wrote the monologue, and Shivaike Shah, producer and founder of Khameleon Productions.
What drew you to the text of Medea specifically for this reinterpretation?
The story and character of Medea are often summarised as an anti-hero who committed heinous acts in the name of revenge after being abandoned by the man she loved, Jason. But upon researching her story further, I realised how deeply layered it was, especially in terms of being a migrant who crossed oceans and made sacrifices to build a life to only be abandoned and rejected again.
Were you always set on a more experimental approach to the visualisation of the story? The narration and metaphorical imagery make it especially gripping.
Initially when Khameleon Productions approached me, they were looking for a performance of the monologue filmed on a stage, so very simple and minimalist. In typical Riffy style I knew we could do better than that. Coming from the visual art world where I started my career in the moving image, I mapped out the monologue into sections of emotional and visual states that Medea takes us on a journey through. I worked collaboratively with the writer and HoDs to build a world that is beautiful yet haunting.
As a director I love telling stories about ‘unlikely heroes’, characters who are at a turning point in their life to reveal their inner truth. It was my aim to visualise this monologue in a visceral, immersive, emotional and cinematic experience whereby Medea navigates the audience through spaces revealing her story, and emotional states of mind in a modern and relatable way. The ‘house’ is a metaphor for the structures migrants build, how they come to assimilate and set foundations and yet be told they don’t belong and fit in. Using light and darkness in this faded grandeur space I wanted to express a duality of both Medea and society’s emotional cracks and revelations to enlightenment. The wounds are where the light pours from. Rejection and heartbreak are painful things to experience, and I wanted to present Medea’s inner turmoil and pain questioning their sense of belonging and roots.
It was my aim to visualise this monologue in a visceral, immersive, emotional and cinematic experience.
What do the other members of the cast represent for you, thematically, in Medea’s journey?
The Chorus surrounding her are multi-faceted in their roles, ghostly figures who represent the past, present and future, extensions of Medea’s emotions, as well as commentary on society from a BIPOC experience to a transformative place. I wanted the film to end on a positive note that despite all adversity and inner turmoil experienced, the greatest revenge is to be present, connect and stand up: “We are here when we shouldn’t be.”
How did you find the process of developing the movement and choreography with the cast? And, similarly, the visual palette of the film with your cinematographer?
It was the first time I had worked with dancers and movement artists and worked closely with the fantastic Monique Jonas who choreographed all the movement, and it was an absolute pleasure. The film was shot by the amazing Nathalie Pitters, a fellow graduate from NFTS. I love working with Nat as she is bold, adventurous and plays with light so that every image looks like a painting.
How did your other collaborators inform the piece?
Selina Jones, currently in Ridley Scott’s Raised By Wolves season 2, who plays Medea is an incredible actress and woman, she really immersed herself in the role and has a presence that is regal, mysterious and deeply emotional. It was an absolute honour to work with the diverse cast and crew to make this piece of work which I hope people will connect, learn and see themselves in.
Post-production wise I worked closely with fellow NFTS graduates, Editor Ona Bartroli Portel and Sound Designer Yin Lee. With this being an experimental film, we worked on both the sound and image in parallel to aid the journey being visceral both visually and sonically.
The house itself feels like an integral part of the narrative. What was it about this location that made you decide on it? And how long were you shooting for there?
We shot for three days on the Alexa Mini with Cooke lenses at 10 Lancaster Gate/Averand hotel, a location where Killing Eve and Joy Crooke’s music videos were shot. The house is an important character in the film as it represents the building of ‘home’, roots, belonging yet its derelict faded state represents the haunting of foundations built and broken, a limbo state.
What attracts you to telling stories in an experimental style?
My journey into the moving image and film was unorthodox in that I started this whilst I was discovering my path at Chelsea School of Art and Central Saint Martins where I started out as a painter and photographer. I made my first film after my tutor noticed that my photography looked like film stills, a frozen moment in a story. So I started out shooting on a camcorder my dad got as a gift from a colleague and started experimenting. I am so grateful to have started that way as it opened my eyes to the fact that storytelling and the film medium are not only audiovisual but can be deeply emotionally. I was deeply inspired by the works of Steve McQueen, Bresson, Almodóvar, Larissa Sansour and Maya Deren. I have since developed my voice further also in narrative filmmaking, graduating from NFTS directing fiction in 2020.
There is often the misconception that experimental work is free of structure when actually the abstract requires a strong anchor of reality, whether that be an emotion, a moment in time or a character, a theme or an object, as long as it’s real you can bend and warp the path and world around it. As a filmmaker, I love bending time in both linear and non-linear storytelling. I like the challenge of delving into metaphysical states, dimensions and themes in emotional ways that make us think about ourselves in an experience than being expositional. I consider myself a hybrid filmmaker that way.
I wanted the film to end on a positive note that despite all adversity and inner turmoil experienced, the greatest revenge is to be present, connect and stand up.
The colour of the lighting and costuming in Medea is so striking, how did you look to use colour as another storytelling tool?
I worked collaboratively with the wonderful Costume Designer Leena Mistry to choose costumes that had a flair of being classic, cultural yet modern, this is so that this Greek mythological tale could feel timeless. We worked closely to find a palette of hues for the Chorus members that reflected and contrasted with the colours of the house to almost emphasise they are pieces that form the foundation of the house to touch on the fact that historically many of these grand spaces were built by immigrants. Yet the questioning of their belonging, the cycle of rejection is what makes the space faded, derelict and haunted.
We chose fabrics that were ethereal, sheer and flexible to enable the Chorus members to flow freely in the space as ghostly figures. Toward the end, their costumes unravel strong opaque boosts of colour that feel present and alive. We dressed our Medea in a regal electric blue which sang on her beautiful skin. Blue is the colour of the throat chakra, the centre point for voice, expression and empowerment which is poignant as Medea tells us her tale. I also took inspiration from the period film Lady Macbeth whose blue dress gave the main character a presence of power but also a mystery which I wanted the audience to feel seeing Medea.
Working with Nathalie Pitters, who is an incredible cinematographer, we talked a lot about how we could visualise and represent Medea’s emotional state navigating through this house through symbolism, metaphors and most importantly through light and darkness. We broke up the monologue into sections mapping the emotional journey, how it navigates from space to space in the house and how the light behaves in conveying those shifts. Thus the film starts with an even natural light to reveal Medea, but as her tale unravels we chose strong contrasts between light and darkness, sometimes flickering to reveal textures and symbols and strong silhouettes. This way we see Medea’s many different faces and emotions in landscapes that are bittersweet with pain and dreamlike surrealism.
Nathalie is an incredible light artist, the scene where Medea holds her child, is entirely sunlight and a smoke machine, so simple yet so powerful. Rumi’s quote was at the forefront of my mind: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” For me the cracks in the house were a symbolism of heartbreak but also society’s foundations cracking, thus we wanted the light to behave as though it’s the light that pierces through Medea’s feelings and wounds, highlighting her path to dark truths.
There is often the misconception that experimental work is free of structure, when actually the abstract requires a strong anchor of reality.
What will you be working on next?
I am currently in pre-production for a BFI network funded short film called The Call which follows Athena who goes to visit her single immigrant mum, Cora, who has worked as a nurse most of her life. Visiting mum has its highs and lows, but this time Athena is intent on having ‘the chat’ about her mum moving in with her, as she worries about her mental health declining as she gets older. Cora on the hand is far too concerned about an asteroid that is about to hit the earth. Their mindsets are stratospheres apart, yet this ordinary day in this high-rise council flat suddenly becomes extraordinary upon Cora revealing her secret: she is a superhero.
This charming story is dedicated to immigrant/single parents who had to do everything to save the world as well as love and raise their children all at the same time. And to the kids who had to adapt and assimilate to ‘fit in’. It’s a contained yet layered story about the relationship between a mother and daughter, the misunderstandings and power struggles that can occur between parent and child, where sacrifices on both parts can be misunderstood yet reveal they are more connected through a strength and gift that is shared. We are shooting this in May! I am also developing a feature idea and TV series idea as my aim is to elevate my career in long form film and HETV.