This is what Tina Gharavi was told when she tried to get funding for her first feature film I Am Nasrine. Three years later, it was released and quickly seemed to disappear.
The Creative Director of Bridge + Tunnel Productions is a delight to interview. During our chat I wished my shorthand was better, so I could truly capture the essence of her immense personality that belted through the phone and put a smile on my face.
Gharavi is in a great mood. She says she’s over the moon and is a very very happy. And so she should be. Her directorial efforts for I Am Nasrine have been recognised with a Bafta nomination for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.
The accolade falls on her shoulders easily, because she simply didn’t expect it. When programme makers ignored it, audiences welcomed the complex characters and their emotional journey from East to West.
The story starts with Nasrine, a teenager living a comfortable life in Tehran. When circumstances force her and her brother to escape, they must deal with a different type of despair in what they thought would be paradise.
Tina Gharavi was a refugee who became an artist. She is living proof that asylum seekers do need art, as well as clothes and shoes. Everyone, she says has a basic desire to express themselves and tell their story.
So for some people I Am Nasrine isn’t just a movie. It was a cathartic experience that gave them a chance to put their own troubles aside and create something… something that could be award winning.
Congratulations Tina it’s your first feature film and you’ve been nominated for a Bafta. Do you feel the pressure? I don’t feel any pressure at all. I’ve been nominated, what pressure could there be? Haven’t I won already? I really had no expectations at all. I am totally happy.
But you have other features in the pipe-line don’t you feel that they need to do well? Oh…like second album syndrome? I don’t think so, no not yet. I didn’t even think Nasrine was going to be a hit, so getting the film this far has been remarkable, although it’s been very hard.
In what way? We didn’t get accepted by any of the normal routes to get the film distributed. We didn’t know why it was so complicated. We weren’t part of any of the A list festivals. We didn’t get into any of those usual ones. We did play at the Brooklyn festival, though not a major festival. How could we go from not getting into anything and then get nominated for a Bafta? It was so out of the blue.
On facebook I notice you ask people to like your page so it can show distributors that there is an audience for your film. Have people been closed minded? The audience has been great. It’s the people in the industry, particularly distribution, that don’t have a clue. The people who are programming and buying films don’t understand their audiences. They don’t know what the audience wants. I am no expert in all of this, but we know our audience loved it, but we just couldn’t find anyone to distribute it. However, our box office has been pretty strong.
Your patron Ben Kingsley said it’s a film of vital importance, why is it? It’s important because it’s about the people who are under-represented in this country. They are the ones most at risk.
Critics have given the film 4/5 and 8/10. Do you think there is anything you could have done better? I don’t know if I would have done anything better. It’s not a perfect film. There are things I wish were different. But I did everything I could to make the best out of it. Everyone who knows me knows that. I was a mad thing trying to get this film done (she says laughing!). I would wait months and months to make sure I got the right person. Some people told me to just get it done and that it didn’t matter. But it did matter and it was important to me for it to be as right as it could be. I might never have that chance again to be so meticulous.
The aim of your charity Bridge + Tunnel aims to make a positive impact on the community, but how can you do that by teaching someone to use a camera? We do mean it when we say we want to have a positive impact, but it really dawned on me when one of our asylum seekers said that the charity changed his life. He said he felt suicidal and making films saved him. It helped him to feel normal. I’ll never forget the day when he said that. If this is what I can do for somebody else, it’s worth all the headaches and all the Saturdays that I’ve put in.
Working with a camera gives people the outlet to express themselves. When we tried to get funding for the project they said asylum seekers need shoes, food and money – not art. Telling stories is a vital power of human existence. People don’t want to give that right to people who are already suspicious of being here. There is a lot of mental illness in migrants that come to Britain. Social scientists are trying to figure out why, but I think it’s not being able to deal with the trauma and the rupture of being a foreigner. I am a refugee myself, why did I become an artist? I think I had that basic need to express myself and they don’t fund that.
Arts cuts are happening in the North East, before your nomination were you worried? My company was about to look for an exit strategy. We were struggling and funding had dried up.
What difference has it made now you’ve been nominated? I think you should come back to me in six months. I’ve had loads of interest, but whether that translates into work we’ll see. You always think it will get easier, but people still struggle many years later. There should never be an illusion that things get easier. Perhaps one should never think making films is going to be easy.
Back to the film now – there are lots of themes in it – migration, sexuality, love, freedom, survival and race. How did you keep your focus? Oh that’s a good question… (pause)…There was a need to tell a story and that story didn’t have one narrow focus. It was really broad and that is what I stayed true to. People say they love it because it meanders and no one knows where it’s going. That’s not the way to make a film, but it does work well. I don’t advocate this for all films, but I had to work to what was true to this story..
You give students a massive opportunity. Rather than making tea you really got them involved. The majority of film was funded as a volunteer scheme. It was about training them up. People had to buy into the idea and they did. It was like a teaching hospital. I knew it would make the film process slower, but we had to take them on the journey. Our trainees had amazing energy. I met my locations manager the other day – he was one of the trainees. We ended up doing a director and location manager’s commentary for the film. In it we talked about how it was for him to be involved. It meant a lot to these guys and their energy added so much to the film.
Why are you based in the Northeast? Were you ever tempted by London? I have never lived in London. I lived in New York. Maybe you don’t set up things likeBridge + Tunnel in Newcastle but London was too scary, too big. Some people like the city. I am a country mouse.
Does the community help or hinder asylum seekers? There are people in the North East that took me in. They were accepting of who I was and that is the true portrait of the North East for me. Because they have nothing, people in the North think of themselves as outsiders. They have a heart of gold and a real acceptance, which I think the film talks about.
There is a bit in the film where Naserine says to her brother it’s a bit late to pray now. He responds saying “I didn’t need it then as much as I do now.” In reality are things worse in the UK than the places refugees have come from? Even though they have freedom, it is relative freedom that they have in the West and that comes with great challenges. Her brother is dealing with his new found freedom. He’s dealing with the fact that he’s gay. I’ve worked eight years with asylum seekers and refugees and there’s always trouble in paradise. They are still fighting for things. A lot of people come here they encounter the racist and they struggle to believe that people don’t like them because they come from somewhere else. I tell them it is papers like the Daily Mail that have corrupted the British mentality on migration. They need a common enemy and asylum seekers have become it. British people aren’t racist by nature; this is a permissible form of hatred. That’s a hard conversation to have with someone – now I am free, I am suffering, this shouldn’t be happening.
I am now putting the pees on and the Yorkshire pudding in the oven.
Ha…has any part of this nomination been glamorous? I have not had the chance to think about the dress. Every person who’s been nominated has to think about it. If there are any up and coming designers out there who want to help me create a show stopping dress, then let me know!
Would you like to win? Right now, I couldn’t care less. Maybe on the night I don’t want to have that disappointed look on my face. Of course I want to win. It might ruin me though. I might have to deal with the person I might become. I am just really enjoying this now. I’ve not stopped smiling. I am incredibly happy. I am pleased that the film will get a release and this nomination has helped.
So after this interview, I imagine you sitting on the couch, watching the telly, eating your dinner with a big grin on your face. Yes, I’ll definitely be smiling and eating my fish cakes.
I Am Nasrine will be out in more cinemas soon.
Ena Miller is a Journalist. She is an ex ITN news trainee continuing to learn as much as she can at the BBC. Her career delights so far include a radio package for BBC Woman’s Hour, reporting on the London Riots for the Hackney Citizen and doing a mini documentary on cage fighting women.
There are so many ideas in her head, just ask her and she might reveal one. Travelling, cake with coffee, vintage dresses, writing and laughing make her very happy.