While the two America-involved Gulf wars often overshadow discussion of Iraqi history, their conflict with Iran in the 80s was also a dark and destabilising era for everyday people in the country. With his Student Academy Awards Semifinalist/BAFTA shortlisted film Aziz (Beloved) – telling the story of three friends called in to identify their lost friend – Iraqi-American director Ramiel Petros was inspired by his own father’s story, turning the past into a tangible road movie that slowly uncovers the brutal cost of war upon regular lives. Made as a way to understand his own father’s experiences, this DN premiere uses intimate camerawork, a careful collaboration of contrasting characters and a fine use of empty spaces to create a touching portrait of the difficulty of finding hope in a land rent apart by conflict. We invited Petros to talk to us about discovering his father’s story, finding the Iraqi desert in the United States, and how he filmed the movie’s most pivotal, emotional scene.
This was influenced by your own father’s history. Tell me about hearing it and why you wanted to turn it into a short film of its own?
Many years ago I had seen a photograph of my father and his three friends and when I asked who they were, my father told me they were his best friends growing up. I asked what happened to them and he told me that the friend on the right had died at war while my father was in college. They had to identify the body, and he lost contact with the friend on the left when he fled Iraq.
At the time it was a story I brushed off, having no concept of what it would be like to experience such horror in your 20s, and finding it inconceivable with the life I had. When I set out to make my thesis film I spent a lot of time thinking about the day my father experienced, and how my worst day is so far removed from his growing up in a country at war. I wanted to tell this story because it was so foreign to me yet so close to me at the same time. I wanted to take this foreign country, foreign language and foreign war, and tell a universal story that I could connect to about three friends on a final road trip together, looming towards this unimaginable task most of us will never need to confront. I told this story as a way to understand my father, my family, and the life I escaped when my parents immigrated to the United States.
Is this history something that people would talk about a lot or was it something you learned about later?
Making this film I realised how little you actually know about the people you have known your whole life. There are rarely organic times to hear stories like this from your parents, and as kids, we asked so few questions about where our parents were from, and their lives growing up. I made most of my opinions from movies, television, and the news. When the story was mentioned in passing it became something I started researching a lot before talking to my father about it. I worked on the script for months, reading about the war and time period before showing it to my father. The Iran/Iraq war was devastating for most civilians but was overshadowed by the wars after. It was an important piece of my father’s history I was able to learn about.
I’d love to know more about finding the right location that could stand in for the Iraqi desert. I also noticed you blended in special effects. What was it like using that?
Finding the location was a lot of research and luck. During winter break my DP, producer, production designer and I hopped into a car and travelled to Nevada, Arizona and California looking for the right place. In our third state we had no luck and began asking locals around Joshua Tree when we were at the park. A local woman told us to head to the Salton Sea. It is a toxic man-made lake that has slowly receded and left beautiful desert sand. We drove straight there (about two hours from Palm Springs) and knew we had found the perfect spot when we pulled into this small town called Bombay Beach and saw what would become our military base.
Truthfully we had intended to do as much practically as possible, but a process trailer in the desert on unpaved roads ended up being more difficult than expected. We definitely did some last minute backup planning and had to quickly learn how to get proper plates for post. Such is the unpredictability of filmmaking!
I told this story as a way to understand my father, my family, and the life I escaped when my parents immigrated to the United States.
Were there any logistical challenges involved with shooting in the middle of nowhere?
Getting a small crew out was key. The nearest gas station/grocery store was about an hour out, so a lot of planning of meals and locations was key. Once everyone was on site we stayed at a local trailer park hotel, and it was quite cozy and fun once we got there. We filmed in spring and the heat was pretty brutal – it would have been impossible in the summer as even the hotel closed for the season the week after we wrapped.
Most of the logistics were complicated up front – getting crew and equipment there, working with the police to close roads as needed, and doing small company moves every day.
I loved the camaraderie between the three men. What was it like working on their relationship and making it feel realistic?
Whenever I’m on a trip with friends I find that everyone fills a role – you have the planner, the comic relief and the renegade. It was really important for me that each character had a distinct personality so that we could see how they might each respond to tragedy. What really ended up happening was casting three amazing actors who also were so similar personality-wise to what was scripted. They all shared a trailer cabin the whole week, and our rehearsals involved a lot of hanging out more than rehearsing the text. I think the time spent together off-set really helped their dynamic on set.
So much rests upon the actors in general. What was that casting process like? What did they bring to the film?
Casting was the most important part of this film for me, the audition process was more like going on dates and would often last 30 minutes. We’d spend most of the time talking with the actors about their background and experience and trying to find men that were the characters they were playing. Finding Arab-speaking talent with limited casting resources is difficult so we posted flyers in Facebook groups and churches. I had a wonderful casting director and we were able to find a killer cast.
Some of the cast had no acting experience prior to filming. Several of the actors had fled their countries during war, and one had actually had to search a morgue for his cousin as well. All of this shared family and personal history we have in the Middle East really allowed them to understand the intent and moment of each character in a unique way. But at the end of the day, they each brought themselves to the role, and letting them add that to the written characters made them feel so much more dimensional.
The most striking scene for me was just the camera staying still on Noor Hamdi’s face as he cries over the loss of his friend. Was this a scene that you always had in your mind when writing your film? What was it like trying to get it right?
This was one of the first scenes I thought about when writing the film. My father is part of a generation and culture that rejects most forms of public emotion, so even when telling me this story it was always so matter of fact. I really wanted to dissect how one processes such emotion in a time and place where it goes against masculinity and culture. I wanted to have a moment for the audience to grieve. As people who grew up in countries without war, we think of war-torn countries in a desensitised way. I wanted the audience to sit with the true emotional trauma that everyday people have growing up in wartime.
How did you want to create this sense of intimacy in the film through the cinematography? What was it like collaborating with the DOP and what equipment did you use?
The film turned out more beautiful than even I had imagined from DOP Stefan Nachmann. As a director I usually am much more performance and production design thoughtful, so a lot of the stylistic ideas came from us discussing what we wanted the audience to feel and when. We really wanted the audience to feel like they were on this road trip with the characters, then slowly leave them behind when the film takes an unfamiliar turn. Stefan and his team were the force when it came to lenses, using the Alexa Mini and lighting the exteriors.
On a set as challenging as this, where we had a lot of scenes and everything being daylight dependent, there were certainly times of stress: when to spend extra time on performance and takes versus going again for camera takes, or just having enough coverage. It was certainly taxing with a small crew and ambitious project but they did a wonderful job.
I wanted the audience to sit with the true emotional trauma that everyday people have growing up in wartime.
What was it like to be shortlisted for the BAFTA and Student Academy Awards?
It was very surreal to be up for those awards. More than anything it was humbling to see so many other talented student films from around the world. The student BAFTAs allowed us access to meet each other and watch each other films, and it was so awesome to get to chat with all these filmmakers who had made beautiful films.
How much did your family know about Aziz while you were making it?
My father got to be on set and was the humvee driver, and my two cousins played the military officers. It was really lovely to get them to be on set and help; it certainly feels like a family project in that way.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently a Creative Culture Fellow at the Jacob Burns Film Center, so through that program I am making two shorts with them. I’ve just finished preproduction on the first short and am entering production soon on the second short next month.