This tale of two filmmakers begins where all good stories should; the Library. The Law Library to be precise. Azeem Bhati and Elham Ehsas met at University and bonded over a love of film. At this point it was all theoretical, watching and discussing movies as students do. It wasn’t until after they’d graduated that their journey as Filmmakers began, leading them to create two short films, the companion pieces; Our Kind of Love and The Postman.
I met Azeem and Elham on a Monday evening to drink coffee, chat film and discover more about their journey to becoming the filmmakers that they now feel comfortable saying they are. The conversation flowed naturally, one topic segueing in to the next before looping back around to the original question. It seemed there was so much to talk about, we could have spent hours discussing the themes of their films alone.
Incredibly open and brimming with positivity, both equated their first film shoot to an intense film school experience. Throwing themselves in to the project as joint Writers and Directors, it was a baptism of fire and they learnt quickly. But how did they end up at this point and where exactly did it all begin?
The journey to their first film all seems rather serendipitous. After graduating, Elham was entering the acting world (having previously acted as a child in The Kite Runner) and with a desire to create brewing in Azeem, he picked up the phone to his friend and Azana Films was born.
Elham credits Azeem with introducing him to the world of short film, telling me it is not something he had explored or knew much about. When he began delving in to what others were producing, he was “blown away". Realising what the short form could achieve, both became excited at the prospect of creating their own work.
Bound together by a shared understanding of deep rooted culture and traditions, Elham had moved to the UK from Afghanistan when he was ten, whilst Azeem was born in the UK to Pakistani parents. The immigrant experience was key to the stories they wanted to tell and they felt those stories should carry a sense of gravitas. It was (and is) important to them that they depict worlds they feel they don’t readily see on screen. Which neatly brings us on to discussing their debut film.
‘Our Kind of Love’ is the tale of Samira, a young woman from an Afghan village who arrives in London to meet her future husband. Here she finds Harun, (played by Elham) a second generation Afghan born in London. The film details their first dinner together, the weight of expectation, the awkwardness, the sadness, humour and hope. At its core, ‘Our Kind of Love’ is a simple tale of love and life, which succeeds in telling an incredibly personal story that is entirely relatable regardless of culture or ethnicity. Beautifully shot with vibrant reds dominating the colour palette, the film has a warmth that the actors build upon, drawing us in to their tale of potential love. For a short film it manages to convey the underlying complexity of the world that we live in.
When I asked about the genesis of the film, Elham smiled and told me that he was initially interested in documenting a friend’s arranged marriage (and honeymoon). Unsurprisingly, his friend politely declined the offer of being followed with a camera but the seed was planted and morphed in to the story that became their first film.
Recalling the creative experience with animated smiles, Azeem tells me that the title for the film struck him in the early hours of the morning and that he had to pick up the phone immediately. They both laugh as Elham remembers being woken up around 1.30am, with Azeem just shouting ‘Our Kind of Love’ down the receiver. I can’t help but smile along with them, as their passion for retelling the story is both vivid and infectious.
As co-writers I asked about their writing process. How did they craft a cohesive script and did they find it a challenge? They were both very pragmatic about it, explaining that they individually wrote drafts, swapping them back and forth with notes and comments. Eventually, determined to nail down the final script, they locked themselves away in a room during Ramadan, throwing ideas back and forth until they emerged six hours later, bleary eyed but with a script they were both happy with.
The next challenge they faced was co-directing. Sharing Directing duties would be unthinkable for some but I wondered if, for first time filmmakers, having the support of each other actually strengthened them? I think it’s fair to say that it did. When facing criticism and feedback, they were able to share ideas, choosing whether or not to make adjustments or stick to the vision they had created. If you can imagine brothers who are supportive, playful, but have each others backs, that’s the sense you get from this creative partnership. I'm sure there must have been moments of tension and disagreement, (I think it would be nigh on impossible to create without them), but there is certainly no mention of any specific arguments. You get the sense that if those moment existed, they are long since forgotten.
With the casting of the film, they both wanted authenticity and were prepared to forgo acting experience if it mean they could find an Afghan girl for the role of Samira. However, as with everything else, fate led them to Afsaneh Dehrouyeh, a second generation Iranian actress who beautifully portrays the strong yet nervous Samira. I think this casting actually worked in their favour. The film relies heavily on great performances and a non actor may have struggled with the portrayal of Samira. As it stands, Afsaneh was well rewarded with a best actress nomination at the Underwire Film Festival.
Azeem and Elham both ascribe to the 'if you don't ask you don't get’ school of thought, so they approached a new restaurant in Central London to ask if they could use it as their location. The answer was yes but with the caveat that it had to be on the one day they were closed - Sunday. This meant that their planned two day shoot became a one day shoot, as they did not want to lose the momentum of the story by shooting over two consecutive Sundays.
Another grin passes between the two as they remember finishing their extremely long day at 2.30 in the morning when they unloaded the expensive kit in to to Elham's mum’s front room for safe keeping. In a charmingly relatable parent moment, Elham tells me when his mother saw the amount of equipment spread out across her living room floor, she took one look and just asked him “why not just shoot it on an iPhone?” It seems that mums are the same the world over then.
Having finished the film, they released it to the world and it was well received on the festival circuit. But what next? With the adrenalin still buzzing, Elham realised he still had lots of Afghanistan footage that he wanted to use. Chatting with his co-creator, Azeem pondered the question, what about the people Samira left behind in Afghanistan. Perhaps a story of a lost love that Samira did not even know about? It was a simple concept (as all the best usually are) and working on the script together, ‘The Postman' was born. Set after Samira has moved to London, the film tells the tale of the Postman (in early drafts he was a milkman) writing a love letter he never had the courage to express in person. For this film, Elham took over full Directing duties, with both receiving a Producer and Writer credit. Elham was understandably nervous during the editing process, as the direction now lay firmly on his shoulders. He is self deprecating as he recalls the experience but it is clear that Azeem was there to reassure him. Currently working its way through the festival circuit, the finished film stands alone as a fantastic short whilst sitting alongside ‘Our Kind of Love’ as a brilliant double handed piece of filmmaking.
As we near the end of our chat Azeem tells me that Elham has been out of the country every time ‘Our Kind of Love’ has been screened for an audience (bar the initial cast and crew screening). Demonstrating again their brotherly relationship, Elham light heartedly reminds Azeem that when the film played at the London Film Festival, he was meant to send him minute by minute text updates and pictures. Needless to say, Elham is still waiting.
So, what's next on the cards for Azana films? Both are working on their own projects, but agree that they will definitely turn to each other for support and guidance. I ask about the potential of a feature but it’s still early doors as far as they are both concerned. They want to consolidate their knowledge and build their short work. The thought of a feature is daunting, so for now it will be more short films for both.