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Interview: Award-winning filmmaker Tina Gharavi

GETTING to filmmakers Bridge + Tunnel, you wind through a maze of white rooms, right to the back of a former warehouse in Newcastle city centre.

Award-winning filmmaker Tina Gharavi
Award-winning filmmaker Tina Gharavi

GETTING to filmmakers Bridge + Tunnel, you wind through a maze of white rooms, right to the back of a former warehouse in Newcastle city centre.

Multi-award-winning director Tina Gharavi, an Iranian filmmaker now living in South Shields, is talking about her first feature film, I am Nasrine, which is screening at the Tyneside Cinema on October 23, and her reasons for making films.

Sipping a cup of herbal tea, she says: “Someone once told me that because there was so much chaos in my life, I was producing art as a way of bringing order to that chaos.

“Filmmaking also comes from a desire to have influence, a voice, and to be able to think about that, and communicate that to other people.”

Tina, 39, who is also a Newcastle University lecturer and lives with journalist James Richard Baillie, specialises in making films dealing with issues of identity, migration and equality.

These are themes important to Tina herself, who was born in Iran during the last years of the Shah’s rule.

Her mother Samira and father Hamid split up when she was young. Her father moved to Loughborough University in the Midlands to study engineering, where he remarried. Tina stayed with her mother who also remarried.

From her pre-school days, civil unrest was spreading in the country.

She says: “In the 1950s there was democracy in Iran, a democratically elected leader called Mosaddegh who was overthrown by the British and American secret services, because he tried to nationalise the oil.

“They brought in the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was actually just a regular army man, he wasn’t a king or anything.

“He modernised Iran, he had some good things but he was also a bit of a tyrant and quite mean to his people.

“So this religious cleric called Khomeini who was in exile in France started a campaign to come back and get rid of the westernised influence of the Shah.

“The promise was that they were going to make a country that was a lot more egalitarian, fair and just. That never happen, of course.”

Tina’s family had close ties to the Shah – “My uncles were ambassadors, generals in the army and that kind of stuff; it wasn’t a good place for them”.

With civil unrest spreading and her father already out of the country, it was decided Tina should join him.

She recalls: “I was sent to live with my dad and my new Scottish stepmother who were based near Loughborough in the Midlands, in a place called Shepshed.

“You can’t imagine the culture shock from sunny Tehran to grey Britain. I can still remember seeing this lack of colour, this monochrome, and, ‘Thinking what has happened?’”

But what people find most shocking, Tina explains, is the fact she left her mother behind. And did not see her again for 23 years.

She says: “My mum was married to a new husband, pregnant with my half-brother, so she stayed.

“It was very difficult. And in those days all you had was the telephone and letters.

“Age six it is very hard to communicate in that way.“

Tina now speaks of having two mothers, her biological mother Samira and her stepmother Kirsty.

After three years in England, in 1980 Tina, her dad and step-mum moved to New Zealand where her dad had his first teaching job. After a year, again the family moved.

This time to New Jersey, just outside New York, where Hamid was a scientist.

Tina settled here, and developed a love of film and a need to explore the medium.

She recalls: “When your own life is so full of upheaval, when there’s so many things to absorb and understand, there’s this need to tell stories to process everything.

“Ever since I was a child I’ve been driven by the idea I need to make an impact.

“Certainly the narratives I needed when I was growing up weren’t there. When the Cosby Show came on it was the first time I’d ever seen a successful not jokey representation of a black family.

“Living in America at 12 years old and finally seeing a representation that I could aspire to or feel positive about, I was interested.

“I make films because I want to tell the stories that I wanted as a child. Aspirational stories.

“As a young ‘brown’ girl I didn’t always want to see it through the filter of a white character.”

Tina did a degree in cinema production and theory at Rutgers University and after graduation moved to New York, where she had a job designing book covers for St Martin’s Press.

She recalls: “It was an amazing job, I worked in the Flat Iron Building, which was the first skyscraper in New York.”

So it is perhaps surprising that she decided to jack it all in and move to Ashington in Northumberland.

Tina laughs: “I call it a riches to rags story.

“I just thought, ‘Do I really want to live in New York, for the rest of my life?’

“I’d done some teaching. I was a filmmaker wanting to make a film and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do that in New York.’

“And it’s true none of my contemporaries are now making films or are artists, they’ve all been co-opted into other things.”

“So I decided that I would take a break and go to Italy to teach English, stopping off at my dad’s, who had a job back in Loughborough.”

While she was staying with Hamid, Tina applied for a couple of jobs and, to her surprise, was offered a media lecturer’s job at Northumberland College in Ashington.

She says: “When I went to Ashington in 1996 I was totally embraced by that community.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘You’re the American lady, what are you doing here?’

“They would tell me their stories and were very welcoming.”

However, a trip to Paris with her Northumberland College students inspired Tina to refocus on film. She enrolled on a film course at Le Fresnoy in France and, shortly after setting up Bridge + Tunnel in 1998, she moved out there.

She says: “But Bridge + Tunnel has never stopped.”

Despite living in France, Tina based her second film, Closer, on a teenager she’d seen on a dance floor in a Newcastle nightclub.

She recalls: “She was so alive and she embodied this time of life, when you’re just becoming an adult and everything seems possible.

“I jumped in the car and drove all the way back to Newcastle to find her, and I did.“

The girl was 17-year-old Annelise Rodger, from Jesmond, Newcastle, and the film was a huge success.

It made the official selection at the Sundance Film festival and cemented Bridge + Tunnel’s reputation and that of Tina as a filmmaker.

Despite international success Tina returned to the North East.

She comments: “I had good connections, some support and I felt this was something to come back to. It felt right.”

With the region as a permanent base Tina has sought out original stories, picking up a wealth of awards.

She made Mother/Country, in 2001, an intensely personal film about her reunion with her mother, 23 years after they were separated.

Tina says: “It was slightly terrifying. Actually meeting my mum didn’t seem that scary because she’s bubbly and really bright.

“I get the sense of her being an easy-going person, but that sense of going back to Iran, having to have my hair covered and I was like, ‘What is this going to be about? Am I going to be arrested? Am I safe? Am I going to get trapped here?’

“Of course I got there and it was amazing.

“There are all these media images of Iran but the reality of being there is how normal it all is.

“Tehran is a crazy place but it’s really alive.

“Fifty percent of the population is under 25 so there’s a huge energy. People from Iran are incredibly kind and hospitable, not unlike people from Ashington.”

Despite her reconnection with her motherland, Tina says she could never live in Iran because of the degree of oppression faced by the people living there.

This was reiterated, she says, when she returned in 2009 to shoot I am Nasrine, a story of a teenage girl fleeing oppression and trying to work out her place in the world.

She says: “There is a way in which you exist under oppression which is your happiness is a rebellion. They enjoy life.

“I couldn’t live there because I would be arrested. I couldn’t shut up, there’s no way I could live under it.”

I am Nasrine was filmed during a period of demonstrations in Iran, which left a marked impact.

Tina says: “Me and Micsha Sadeghi (the lead actress in I am Nasrine) both have families in Iran.

“We really thought, with these protesters in their thousands, it was going to change.

“But the government did a severe crack-down.

“We almost abandoned filming our Iran segment but because the government was so distracted by the demonstrations we went back and filmed under the wire.”

Tina is immensely proud of I am Nasrine, and of producing a feature film in the North East. She says: “Growing up I was in love with movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club.

“I love stories about transition and about finding out who you are.

“So I wanted to tell a story about that so people could understand that emotional journey.

“When we showed the film in Berwick the audience were mainly older, white and conservative and their reaction blew my mind.

“I had 60-year-old men coming and telling me they were in tears.

“The power of that being able to take a story so far from their experience and make it something they can connect to and feel strongly about makes everything that has been hard about making the film worthwhile.”

However, after filming I am Nasrine, Tina now feels unable to return to Iran.

She explains: “Unfortunately I and Micsha probably won’t be able to go back.

“They’re arresting people left right and centre now in Iran and people we worked with there have been arrested.

“Now I really can’t go back it’s really painful because I’m starting to miss it again.

“I can meet my mum and grandma in other countries, but I’ve gone back to that wilderness from before, the feeling of loss about the place.”

Still the film is set to be a critical success. Sir Ben Kingsley called it “a life-enhancing film, an important and much-needed film.”

Currently Tina is researching a documentary on Death Row and has just come back from a trip to New Orleans and Angola prison in Louisiana, one of the most notorious lifer prisons in the US.

She says: “I visited Death Row and looked at stories there. Mainly I was looking at the men who’d been exonerated, had their convictions overturned.

“The stories are outrageous. Going to a prison, it stays with you.

“I’m working out how to tell the story at the moment.”

Tina’s expertise in telling stories has unearthed some great tales; for example, the impact of boxer Muhammed Ali’s visit on the young Yemeni Muslim men in South Shields.

As a former refugee herself Tina is passionate about the stories of immigrants to the area.

“You know, “ she explains, “there’s this myth in places like the Daily Mail, that constantly tells us Britain’s one thing when it’s something else entirely.

“We had Arab Romans in South Shields in 170AD, 70 men who stayed, 70 families who integrated into the community.

“There’s a historic Japanese community in Middlesbrough, there’s an Egyptian community in Sunderland and the Yemenis in South Shields.

“People have welcomed them and these stories have existed for centuries, it is important they are told.”

I am Nasrine is playing at the Tyneside Cinema on October 23.

 

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