Political exile and award-winning filmmaker, Nadira Murray, tells Film Forums’ Aiysha Jebali exactly what inspired her cinematic rendition of the UK former “Fast Track” deportation system in her film Locked In (2017). When we think of such a topic as detention centres and deportation, we often expect to see it in a documentary format. This can sometimes feel quite detached and almost cold. We may even be less connected to the very raw subjects featured than we are to the characters in a far less realistic Sci-Fi movie.
It was this knowledge and Murray’s personal love of cinema that spurred her on to bring the stories of so many in suffering to life in a narrative film with characters we could relate to. Her RADA training and strong acting background meant that Nadira was dedicated to finding the right people to tell this important story via crucial casting efforts.
Not to mention, it has been over 16 years since Nadira herself has been able to return home to Uzbekistan, since fleeing for political protection. Nadira knows this story all too well and has stood hand-in-hand with many others who are new to the UK and desperately trying to navigate our seemingly complex immigration systems in order to literally save their own lives.
FF: Can you introduce yourself, Nadira?
NM: I’m Nadira Murray. I’m based in Scotland and I have been working in film production. Before producing I was an actress, but I found my passion behind the camera. Since 2015, I have produced two short films, two feature films, I have another short film in pre-production and a feature film in development.
FF: So, you started out as an actress in front of the lens, much like myself. What was it in your acting journey that led you to start thinking about writing and production and telling people stories?
NM: As actors, we love stories and characters; that’s kind of inevitable for actors.
Everything pretty much started for me with telling my own stories. I wrote a one-woman theatre show and it went really well. I love theatre, I wasn’t very much of a film person, so I wanted to explore storytelling through script writing, through writing stories, and the subjects that mattered to me – those that I knew, or I had experienced.
I wrote my first film Locked In (2017), which is about the asylum seeking process in a UK detention centre, because I knew the theme very well and I knew the characters. It was based on real stories, real people.
I interviewed a lot of people, both NGO’s and members of the police force. I took in thousands of voices online, thousands of asylum seekers’ voices. I also have a few friends who applied as asylum seekers and refugees, so I kind of absorbed all of those stories.
Writing about that was just pure joy for me, like exercise, but at the same time, it was my passion.
I put it all together, and then I tried to create a 15 minute short film from it. That was my first writing product, and I ended up producing it in 2015. I never thought I would produce, I tried to search for producers but I couldn’t secure one, so I thought, ‘Well, OK, if I don’t move my own vehicle, nobody’s gonna move it for me!’ I asked a lot of favours and found a way of producing it and making the film happen. It was purely out of curiosity to produce a film, and honestly, I fell in love. I never studied at film school, so I jumped from acting to producing hands-on on a movie set.
I basically learned filmmaking from there, through my experience. Of course, I’m still learning, I don’t know everything.
FF: I think quite a lot of actors have gone a similar route. We’re creative people by nature, so it’s not that we’re only ever in one ‘lane’ called acting. A lot of us are multi-skilled and have multiple interests. So it makes sense that you would want to get behind the camera and start creating your own studio, and you’ve had tremendous success doing that as well.
You started your own company, SYLPH Productions, which for a lot of people can be quite a complicated process. Can you talk a little bit about how you went about that, and maybe who you got involved to help you make that happen? What kind of things did you need to employ to make that come together?
NM: Well, creating a company is not difficult or expensive, it’s quite easy – but maintaining a company is real work. I took a career path route, I didn’t take the route of working for someone as a freelancer.
I studied at a media business school, it was a three-and-a-half-month residential course in Spain, EU funded. After that, I did two internships with a company making big budget films. While there I observed everything, the paperwork, the way they worked, and so on.
Then after doing Locked In (2017), I opened my company and I put my own capital in there as a start-up business (that’s how I made Locked In (2017) happen). After that, Locked In (2017) took me to festivals around the world, and I ended up traveling. We went to BAFTA and other Oscar-qualified festivals. I really love the feeling of festivals.
With my first short film done, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to carry on with this company. I know I can do this.’ I mean, it’s not an easy answer, right? You need to know where and how far you want to see yourself go, I guess. If you’re an actor, you want to do a short film to showreel yourself, but then are you still bothered to open your own company?
You’re asking a lot of yourself, and asking a lot of favours from friends, and that’s just for doing one short film. Even so, I thought, ‘I’m going to tell my own stories, and for that, having a company is a must.’ That’s why it wasn’t difficult for me to quit acting.
I wanted to concentrate on just one aspect: how you maintain your company, how you keep it going. It’s not just a pure showcase for myself as an actor, I took it as a career path, and that’s why I keep going. It’s quite a lot of work, but I enjoy it. It’s a hustle.
There are many companies out there where I can get some mentoring on how to run my company. Then there’s some funding as well that keeps you going. They do mentor you, the people within those companies. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
FF: Yeah. I totally understand. For me, watching you was really interesting, because you really did go hard at it from the very beginning.
A lot of new indie filmmakers just work together, as you know, a collective of individuals. But like you say, you took this on as a real business venture, as a career, and you invested in it yourself. You put your own money up, and you made sure that your very first film had a budget as well, which is rare.
People normally work on a budget for a few films before they even try to put in their own money or secure other funding. But that’s why you produced an excellent quality film the very first time because you made sure that you had things in place.
NM: Yeah, thank you Aiysha. Production value is important to me. It’s basically a label for your company to have.
I wish I had a qualification in filmmaking, but I just couldn’t do it. First of all, it’s too expensive to go to film school. I thought ‘For that money, why don’t I just make a film and learn from that film?’ It depends what path you’re taking. I could have taken that money and gone to film school to study writing and directing, but if you love stories enough, I guess YouTube is your best school. It’s school.com basically, there’s so many things available online.
I taught myself, I sat myself down and learned, and because it’s your own money you work your ass off. I’m sure it would have been a lot better if I had had formal training or something, but considering I don’t, my film hasn’t done badly either. It’s been doing really good at BAFTA and Oscar-qualified festivals.
I’m quite happy, and I always think, ‘Okay, my next one will be better.’ I’m always looking forward to the future. That motivates me, that energy is very strong. ‘Okay, I know this now and I learned this from this. For the next one, I won’t let this happen, I will do it this way or I will do it that way.’ It’s like you are always strategizing in your brain.
Recently I’ve started to collaborate. That’s another thing, because with another producer, and with other people’s money, that’s a real business. It’s like you have never fully learned something, you’re always learning more.
Every project is different, and the people behind it are going to be different, and getting to know the way they work is crucial. It’s not always about my way just because I have been doing things my way. It’s fascinating to really see what people’s ways of working are, I love that aspect. I love challenging how people work. The way people work is different from mine, the energies are different, the way they strategize is different. So finding a deal, somewhere in the middle, it just fascinates me.
I really love talking. Communication is so important and the art of communication. How I can make someone understand what I want, or vice versa. So it’s a lot of listening. It’s a new path for me.
FF: So what I want to move on to is a little bit about genre. You already know I am a huge fan of the type of stories that you tell. Obviously it’s quite a niche market of films, which is, I think, why I find them so interesting. I would say that your films speak to people particularly of an international background, people who have their own stories to tell as well.
What was it in your own background that made you want to do social realism films, rather than say, horror, or comedy or regular drama? What was it that attracted you to telling those really raw stories?
NM: Again, as I said, it goes back to stories. I’m from Uzbekistan, I came to the United Kingdom in 2004. I was in exile, I couldn’t go back, I haven’t been to my own country for over 16 years now. I have had the feeling of being an immigrant in this country from the very beginning, and what it is like to live in exile. You lose a lot of your identity, and you take a long time to search for where you belong. It is a constant question in your thirties, it just never leaves you. Where do you belong, who you are, your identity – all those kinds of questions. Of course, you’re automatically surrounded by these kinds of people as well. I have friends who are refugees, who have run away from war torn countries or dictatorship countries, or for being who they are within the LGBT community.
I was surrounded by a circle of people that I could get on well with, and we could tell our own stories. So my first film Locked In (2017) was based on this, because I knew about these things, they happened in front of my eyes and they happened to my friends.
When you look at the asylum seeking process, it is quite a dehumanizing system in the UK. Someone who’s running away from a war torn country, or from a dictatorship, or from being abused by the police or by their government, they’re applying for asylum seeker status, and they then have to go through this dehumanizing process as well. It just didn’t make sense.
I wanted to tell the story of what it was like for me. It might sound like a documentary, but I’m not a documentary filmmaker. I like telling a story, and I love turning it into a ‘based on true facts’ story. I like making it more artistic, taking a more cinematic approach, because I really do love the cinematic way of telling those kinds of stories. So I combined those two things together. It could have been more like a documentary, yes, but that’s not the path I wanted to take.
FF: Yeah, and I don’t think you would have reached the same audience either, if you’d gone down the documentary road. I think making a drama makes it more accessible to all different people.
NM: You are right, that is what I was thinking I want. I wanted it to be watchable by a lot of people as well, because the subject matter, the asylum seeking process, is quite a heavy subject, so I didn’t want to put anyone off. I also didn’t want it to be just for a niche audience, like human rights activists or journalists, I wanted it to appeal widely to everyone. I thought, ‘I’m going to grab that angle, and I’m going to tell the story from that angle because that needs to be told.’ So that’s how I ended up telling that story and grabbing that angle.
Then there’s the fast track system; once an asylum seeker is put in a detention centre, they are going to be sent back immediately to their country to their death, or whatever persecution they might be expecting. The fast track system is unlawful as well! I did a lot of research, I thought, ‘Wow, this is unlawful, this is dehumanizing. This is not acceptable, so why is it still done?’
FF: That’s why I was so excited to be involved. Someone said something about detention centers and immigration, and obviously, as a person of colour, and someone whose dad is an immigrant to this country, and a lot of my family are as well, so I was immediately interested.
When I read the script I absolutely fell in love with it, with you, with the whole thing. I had to be involved somehow, because it was just so exciting to see that story be told. As you say, it’s something that maybe you might have experience of and your friendship group, your circle, and mine also, maybe, but the general Joe Public does not have experience of that. They trust the system, and so they think, ‘Oh, it can’t be that bad. They can’t be treated like that, or that can’t happen there. That’s illegal.’ Well, yeah, but a lot of things are being done that are illegal, things like that. It’s the same with police brutality, people trust the police to do what they’re meant to do, they trust them not to discriminate. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case.
So those stories need to be told, and I’m really glad that there are filmmakers like you who are telling those stories.
NM: Thank you Aiysha, if I could achieve that, then that’s why I’m doing this. It gives me more motivation to achieve that kind of thing. I’ve received loads of emails about my film from people with BAME backgrounds who watched it. They say ‘this happened to my auntie, this happened to my uncle, this happened to my mom’. A lot of people connect with it. I’m happy with the way it went.
FF: So just moving on to the next. There are a lot of actors who follow Film Forums. So, I just wanted to ask, what’s your casting process? What do you look for in an actor when you’re casting a leading role? What do you want to see?
NM: For me? Well, if I was writing and directing, I’d rather do the casting process myself, but that’s not always possible. Now I’m working on someone else’s project, where I’m not writing and directing, but I was in love with the subject of the story. So casting that is different.
However, in my own approach to casting, when I write and whenever I decide to direct, I have to go through the casting myself. If I’m casting BAME, first I would concentrate on getting the correct ethnicity. For example, I go with the ethnicity look, and then second I look at their showreel – but if an actor doesn’t have a showreel, then it’s okay, I understand.
FF: So yes, it’s important that they can send you some kind of media of themselves, yeah, or headshot you want to see.
NM: To me, even if it’s not professional work, I just want to see something from them. Some kind of work, something conversational preferably, not just a monologue – although I would like to see a monologue as well. Something more like interaction, I want to see how the actor is listening and reacting. To me it’s not so much just how someone says their lines, it’s also about how they are listening, because to me, I can figure someone out not just from what they’re saying, but from what they’re not saying, how they listen. I love to see reactions to the listening. That’s how I would go about it.
FF: Okay, great. Good to know. The next thing that I wanted to ask was about how you waited a little bit to make your directorial debut, because you produced Locked In (2017) and then stuff you directed yourself? What was it that kind of influenced that decision to wait a little bit longer before taking on a film?
NM: That’s because I didn’t have formal training, and I didn’t believe in myself. It took me a really long time, even though when I did this second short film it was mostly experimental. It’s about the stress and anxiety of coming of age. I didn’t have any dialogue in that particular scene. I had chosen for myself the most difficult, non-dialogue based, eight minute short film. I wanted to tell a story through camera movements, design, sound, music, and colour. I focused on a very cinematic approach of telling a story without dialogue, and it took me a long time because I am still searching for my style as a director. For the next one, I would love to direct something more dialogue based, with more casting involved.
FF: Okay, that’s great. Another hot topic, obviously, for indie filmmakers, is budget. Could you tell us a little bit about how you’ve achieved budgets for your different films? Obviously, some of it was self-funded.
Are there other things that you’ve explored or had any success with, like investors?
NM: Yeah. The first couple of films were self-funded, and there were a couple of deals I got for the exchange of credit. With the third and fourth feature films it was mostly pulling in investors’ money. You can always show an investor what kind of product you could do, and who you are. I can show them my previous films and show them the quality of film I could deliver.
There’s me, and I have another director, producer, and partner, Hassan Nazir. I work with him quite a lot, and between the two of us we’ve attracted other investors as well. They need to see what you’ve done before they can invest, and they could see the quality of my two short films. Of course, Hassan has done five feature films, and he’s distributed them. It’s all about who you are teaming up with, and then what you are packaging together and putting out there.
Another approach is a short film I’m currently producing with other producers, which is a public funded film. It’s about female genital mutilation as a subject, again, a meaningful subject to me. It’s a short, very punchy sweetener, just to introduce what this subject is about. Maybe not introduce, but to create a debate between communities. Why do they support FGM? Why are they still supporting FGM? So we decided to put in an application for public funding and we got it, so there are other ways. I suppose you need to find the right team, it’s never one person’s job.
That is another aspect I really like, working with others, working together, pulling that money. You always need the right team, the right filmmakers with a track record. You mostly get refused, but then one project would be their cup of tea and then, voila, you’ll get financed a different way.
FF: Sure. So, have you ever attended any film finance markets or any festivals that are geared towards financing films or anything like that?
NM: Yeah, when I said earlier I took filmmaking as a career path, that doesn’t mean just making one film for the showcase – what I meant is you have to constantly keep investing in yourself, and not just in the film.
You have to go out there, to Cannes, to the Berlin Film Festival, you have to go where the markets are. Go where the filmmakers are, even the Edinburgh International Film Festival, all those big market-based and major festivals. They always have conferences, there are sessions and master-classes you can attend. It’s not cheap, that’s the pain of it, but it will pay off. You meet a lot of people, and this is how you build your network.
I started going to Cannes in 2012, but I didn’t start anything up until now. However, all those people I met back in 2012 and 2013? Well, now together we have created a solid network, and we’re working. This is how you meet people. Things don’t happen immediately, but it will happen, even if it might take five or six years. Constantly taking master-classes about producing and co-production, that is how you connect with others, how you unite in the end, and then eventually you find the right partner to work together with. Investing in yourself is how you make things happen.
FF: Absolutely, Nadira. I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important for us, whichever side of the industry we’re in, that we keep investing in ourselves and making sure that we’re improving and growing.
That is all that we have time for today though. Thank you so much for coming on. We will be back with part two, where we will be talking about the importance of locations and doing Recchi Women in Film and also being a female of color behind the camera as well. So, thank you again. Thank you also to our listeners. We hope to see you again next time.
Interviewer and Introduction: Aiysha Jebali
Transcription & Edited by Ben Kelly
Second Edit and Banner Artwork: Richard Williams
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.