Micsha Sadeghi as Nasrine
I'd been hoping to see Tina Gharavi's feature film I Am Nasrine ever since I heard about it at the opening in February of the Last of the Dictionary Men exhibition on the Yemenis of South Shields, held at the Mosaic Rooms in London. This touring exhibition was conceived and executed by Iran-born filmmaker Gharavi, who trained as a painter in USA and studied cinema in France.
My chance to see the BAFTA-nominated film - written, directed and produced by Gharavi - came a few days ago at a special screening at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, West London. The screening was introduced by economist Susie Symes, Chair of 19 Princelet Street - the East London-based Museum of Immigration and Diversity, the only such museum in Britain (in a nice touch 19 Princelet Street gave members of the audience on arrival Middle Eastern sweets from Edgware Road).
After the screening Symes chaired an on-stage Q and A session with two of the film's stars - Shiraz Haq who plays Iranian refugee Ali (Nasrine's brother), and Steven Hooper who portrays Gypsy traveller Leigh.
I Am Nasrine is the first feature film of Bridge + Tunnel, the award-winning production company founded by Gharavi in 1998 in the north-eastern English city of Newcastle to support "unheard voices, untold stories". Bridge + Tunnel, of which Gharavi is the creative director, has produced a string of acclaimed documentaries and short dramas, and has several other feature films and documentaries in development. I Am Nasrine had the distinction earlier this year of being on the BAFTA Film Awards 2013 five-film shortlist for 'Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer'.
Patron of the project to make I Am Nasrine was actor Ben Kingsley who wrote a letter of support for "an important and much-needed film." The film has attracted considerable high-profile interest and praise, including from critic Jason Solomons who wrote about it in The Observer under the heading "The Other Argo" (a reference to Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning 2012 film Argo which centres on a phoney American film crew in post-revolutionary Iran on a secret mission to rescue American hostages from their embassy).
I Am Nasrine is relatively short, at 93 minutes, but has a wide scope and its story unfolds with admirable economy and surprising developments. Nasrine and Ali are the children of a comfortably-off Tehran family. Nasrine is hauled in by the police after she is seen riding with a boy on the pillion of his motorcycle. The policemen's interrogation of Nasrine morphs into sexual violation. Nasrine's saying "I Am Nasrine!" is her defiant assertion of her strength in the face of this attempt to crush her. Micsha Sadeghi, with her eloquent facial expressions, gives a powerful, sensitive performance as Nasrine.
Realising that things are likely to get even worse for his daughter, Nasrine's father decides that she must leave Iran for safety abroad, and he arranges for people-traffickers to transport her and Ali to the UK. They reach there with other illegals in the back of a lorry, and claim political asylum. While their asylum claim is considered they are accommodated in a flat on a run-down council estate in the Tyneside area of north-east England.
actors Steven Hooper (left) and Shiraz Haq answer questions after the screening
While Nasrine is a free spirit and open to her new surroundings Ali is a buttoned-up, watchful character, aware of the burden of responsibility for his sister. He and Nasrine have to renegotiate their relationship as they come to terms with their new surroundings. They face problems as Muslim immigrants living in a deprived area, especially after the 9/11 attacks in the USA.
One might expect a relentlessly downbeat story of alienated and desperate asylum seekers in the UK, but Gharavi's film is a nuanced mixture of light and shade. It is a non-stereotypical film with surprising turns. It gives a strong flavour of life in Tyneside, an area with a distinctive character and scenery. Nasrine is befriended by a spirited Gypsy Traveller girl Nichole (played by Nichole Hall) who rides around in a horse and cart. They first meet when Nichole comes to Nasrine's aid and reprimands some men who are harassing her. Nasrine is warmly accepted into Nichole's family, who live in an encampment of caravans. As an outsider herself Nasrine seems to find an affinity with a marginal group reviled by some other parts of society.
Shiraz Haq as Ali
The scenes in which Nasrine learns to groom and ride horses, finding a sense of release and freedom, are some of the most beautiful in the film. One scene is set at the famous Appleby Horse Fair which is held for a week in June every year in the Cumbrian village of Appleby-in-Westmorland. It is attended by thousands of Gypsies and Travellers. In the scene Nasrine and Nichole ride a horse through the river.
Nasrine and the tall, softly-spoken, Traveller Leigh are drawn to each other, but her ordeal in Iran at the hands of the police carries over into her new life in England and she fends off Leigh's physical advances at a certain point. At the same time, over-protective Ali is wary of Nasrine's friendship with the Travellers, and tries to come down heavily on her budding relationship with Leigh. But she points out to Ali that he has he has sexual identity issues of his own to grapple with. He begins to unfreeze and realises he is free to explore new possibilities. The film packs an increasing emotional punch, and some scenes are likely to have viewers reaching for their hankies (OK, I admit I was among them).
Steven Hooper as Leigh
Ali is part of the immigrant workers' sub-culture, working first in a car wash and then - when the carwash hurriedly closes down in the face of official checks for illegal immigrants - in a fast food takeaway. The film captures both the constant anxiety of the immigrant workers and their camaraderie. When Nichole and Nasrine dress up and put on makeup for a night on the town, and go to visit Ali at the takeaway, Ali is angry at what he sees as his sister's shamefulness. But his co-workers behind the counter defuse the situation, defending Nasrine and teasing Ali for his almost regimental restraint.
Nasrine and Leigh at the seaside
The cast give authentic, natural performances. Asked during the Q and A session whether shooting had started with a complete script, or whether there was development and improvisation while the film was being made, Haq said it had started out with a 30-page script rather than the 90 or so pages that might have been expected. Much of the dialogue and characterisation emerged during the making of the film. Haq said that on occasion Ghiravi had asked him to stay silent during certain shots, and once he saw the film he had understood why. His expressions say a lot without words.
Haq described how he and the others involved in the shooting of the Tehran scenes had travelled to Iran and worked covertly, with the risk of discovery constantly present. Gharavi had used her resourcefulness to get the footage out of Iran.
Seeing the actors in "real life" one realised how fully they had developed and inhaibted their on-screen characters. They described the processes through which they arrived at their characterisations. Both had needed to master accents: Haq, who was born and brought up in England had to learn to speak in English with Ali's Iranian accent, and Hooper needed to speak in Leigh's Geordie accent.
Haq told how once he had started to learn the Iranian accent he would go to parts of London such as Kilburn where many Iranians live and work. Once he wasmore confident of the accent, he put on old clothes and went to other parts of London, masquerading as a recent immigrant and asking directions in heavily accented English "because I needed to feel like a refugee". The experience really did make him feel small, and low, he said.
Hooper joined the cast at a fairly late stage, and had little time to prepare a Geordie accent in advance. For the first day's filming, " I had to learn it in a couple of minutes; I spoke to some Geordies and they gave me advice. After that, it was a case of trying to talk with the accent constantly day after day on set, and off set, asking the people I was working with 'is this right?', and 'how would you say it?''" They advised him that one of the most important things was not to force the Geordie accent in a stereotyped way but to be natural. "They said Byker Grove [a TV youth series set in Newcastle] was not a good example" because its characters have exaggerated "wahey man"-type exaggerated Geordie accents.
For his role as Leigh, Hooper had needed to feel comfortable within the Traveller community, and he spent time with the Traveller family who took part in the film. In addition, "the producer took me to a local farm where I learned to ride horses, and a horse and cart.. I would spend time with the horses just touching them, because I'd not worked with animals before or been near them and horses pick up very easily on how you're feeling. If you're nervous, you make the horse nervous and it becomes a potentially dangerous situation."
The two actors spoke warmly of the genuine immigrants they had met who, as non-professional actors, had roles in the film.
Nichole (Nichole Hall) and Nasrine (Micsha Sadeghi)
It is to be hoped that I Am Nasrine will reach the wide audience it deserves. It has been on a UK tour, of which the Gate Notting Hill was a venue. The tour's the final screening will take place tomorrow in the Centuria Building of Teesside University, Middlesbrough, at 18.30 (doors open at 17.30).
In the USA the film will be screened at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson in Baltimore on 24 October. The film returns to the north of England on 8 December when it will be shown at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick.
I Am Nasrine has yet to be screened on a UK TV channel. Film programmers at channels such as Channel 4, Film Four, BBC2 or BBC4 should definitely consider showing it. Not only is the film compelling, with excellent performances, but it addresses vital issues of today including migration, identity, various kinds of bigotry, Traveller life, and the North-South divide in England.