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Film & TV  13 Sep 2019

Supported through the SBS/Film Victoria Scripted Short Initiative, which was developed to provide greater opportunities for creatives from underrepresented and diverse communities, Amar tells the story of a 28-year-old Muslim woman with Down syndrome who is secretly planning the wedding of her dreams.

We spoke to writer/director Fatima Mawas about the kinds of stories she wants to tell, what she learnt during the making of Amar and what audiences can expect to take away from the short film.

Amar explores the themes of disability, marriage, family, community and shame. Why did you decide to tell this story?

As a writer/director I am interested in telling stories that allow my community (Muslim and/or Arab) to be seen, while also challenging them to become stronger. Often in films, both Australian and international, we see stereotypical representations of Muslims and specifically Muslim women. These representations often lack character depth because they fail to examine the intersectionality of the lives of migrant communities. Marriage, family, community and shame are themes that have been explored in a number of films but they fail to include disability and therefore fail to tell a true story.

Through Amar I hoped to portray a realistic uplifting story of a family of women struggling to survive due to class, ableism and exclusion. I hope that Amar can be used as a starting point for my community to engage in deep conversations. We, as community struggling to survive, need to examine the ways in which we exclude members of our community due to our ableism. I hope people will see that they can hold onto old traditions and create new ones while also celebrating and holding each other.

Why do you think films are good vehicles for encouraging conversations on broader universal themes?

[American professor, author and activist] Bell Hooks has great insight with her observations and sums up what I believe: “Whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people. It may not be the intent of a filmmaker to teach audiences anything, but that does not mean that lessons are not learned. It has only been in the last ten years or so that I began to realise that my students learned more about race, sex and class from movies than from all the theoretical literature...Movies not only provide a narrative for specific discourses of race, sex and class, they provide a shared experience, a common starting point from which diverse audiences can dialogue about these charged issues. Trying to teach complicated feminist theory to students who were hostile to the reading often led me to begin such discussion by talking about a particular film. Suddenly students would be engaged in an animated discussion deploying the very theoretical concepts that they had previously claimed they just did not understand.”

You cast non-actors in the lead role of Amar and in supporting roles. How did this alter your filmmaking approach?

I have often worked with non-actors as the film industry and specifically casting agents have worked hard to exclude diversity from their portfolios. My approach to working with non-actors is to work in a collaborative manner that allows for scenes to be developed and/or altered in rehearsals after running improvisation activities. This allows me as a writer to create characters based on the non-actors personalities, allowing them to truly own the character and their performance.

You collaborated with producers Leanne Tonkes and Ade Djajamihardja on Amar. What did they each bring to the film?

Leanne brought industry experience and connections which were crucial to the production process. She brought an energy of calmness and held space for both myself and Ade which allowed us to be able to work at 150%.

Ade brought with him his many years of industry experiences and connections to both the film and disability sector. He also brought his knowledge of how to best ensure actors with a disability felt heard, respected and valued.

Like yourself, a large proportion of the crew were early career screen practitioners. What were the challenges and opportunities this brought to the film?

Having a diverse cast and crew was a deal breaker for me as a writer/director. Too often I have seen the crew photo at the end of shoots as a sea of white faces, and mainly white cis male faces. I am a big believer that in order for a truly authentic story to be told, it must be created by a diverse team, who bring their lived experiences and transferable skillsets to set. This meant as a director I did not need to worry about how the hijab of a character looked or how the home was dressed. It also means that the community owns the story/film because they were part of the process, which then helps generate a greater audience reach. One of the challenges is that some DOPs refused to work with crew members like the focus puller or camera assistants that didn’t have previous experience and so I decided to not work with them.

Amar was filmed in Melbourne. What were you looking for in terms of locations and how was the experience?

Our locations were an Arab Family home, a wedding dress shop, a park and a wedding reception venue. I really wanted a house that was already owned by an Arab family and could very easily be tweaked with the required props. This was to ensure a level of authenticity and connection for audiences that would transport them into world of the story. I know as an audience member, I am often taken out of the world of the story because the set and or/costume design is not believable. This is why I chose to hire Muslim women in the role of production designer and assistant production designer. Because their lived experience coupled with their experience in both the fashion and Muslim wedding industry allowed them to create such beautiful detail that furthered the profiles of the characters. It was extremely difficult to find the house because I believe location agents are just as whitewashed as casting agents. I had to make call outs on my social media platforms to my community and ask if there was anyone in Melbourne who would be willing to have me shoot the film in their house.

Film Victoria supported Amar through the SBS/Film Victoria Scripted Short Initiative. How did this funding assist the production?

This film would not have been made without the funding and generous support from SBS and Film Victoria, specifically Sue Masters, Nicole Coventry and Jana Blair. These women were instrumental in the financial support but also in their willingness to challenge the story arch, character developments and listen to me when I pushed back on certain plot points. Their feedback and ultimate mentorship through this process has given me hope for my future as a filmmaker but also the future of the film and TV industry in Australia.

What was the most important thing you learnt from making this film?

So many things! It’s important to listen to all feedback and not necessarily take on the solutions put forward to problems but hear what the concerns are and come up with a solution that will suit yourself and the funders/broadcasters. It’s also very important to engage a production manager and location manager as soon as you get ‘green lit’. And that it’s always best to have face-to-face meetings instead of communicating via text message and email.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Amar?

I hope that audiences realise that ableism is a problem in all communities and that it is important to listen to and centre the voices of people most marginalised within us. The film speaks to so many things: to being celebrated, seen, respected and accepted, to creating new traditions and keeping old ones and to love and belonging and being held.

You’ve said you want to tell challenging, entertaining and thought-provoking stories reflective of true Australian culture featuring Muslim protagonists. So what’s next for you? 

I am currently in development of a feature film called Guardian that follows a 55 year old Muslim women who time travels in her prayer to become a vigilante and stop the racism and discrimination she witness and experiences.

Amar is screening during the SBS Short Film Festival from 13-15 September on SBS On Demand, alongside Out of Range, which was also supported through the SBS/Film Victoria Scripted Short Initiative.

This interview has been edited and condensed. The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the individual involved and do not necessarily represent those of Film Victoria.