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Interview: Sarah Gavron on “Brick Lane”

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06182008_bricklane1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

British filmmaker Sarah Gavron began her career making documentaries and television projects. Her BBC drama “This Little Life” won two BAFTAs, she’s been nominated for one more, and her shorts have racked up jury awards and acclaim on the festival circuit. Gavron’s vibrant feature debut “Brick Lane” is an adaptation of Monica Ali’s controversial bestselling novel about a Bangladeshi woman named Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee, in a truly anchoring performance) who’s forced into an arranged marriage at 17 to the much older Chanu (Satish Kaushik). Moved into the titular block of flats in London’s East End, Nazneen tries to make sense of her new life while dutifully raising a family, but her unrealized passions are awakened when she meets and begins an affair with a politically confrontational young Muslim local named Karim (Christopher Simpson). Gavron and I chatted about adapting Ali’s book and her surprising experiences within the Bangladeshi community.

As a first-time feature filmmaker, was it a challenge getting all the period details correct?

Yeah, I suppose this project was daunting for a number of reasons, and that was one of them. By deciding to set the majority of the story in 2001, there are subtle but explicit changes from that time, then we had Bangladesh of [Nazneen’s] childhood, which was 1985. But you go to villages in that part of the world and they’re still untouched by the modern world. You can find villages very near urban centers that have no televisions, no telephones, no cars, no electricity. With this film, [the greater challenge] was the cultural element — I was an outsider to that community. I had to work really closely with people from the Bangladeshi community, who helped me fill out the particulars of that world.

I realize when adapting a 500-page novel that spans three decades you’d have to distill some of the material, but why did you decide to concentrate the story on 2001?

In our imaginations, you could have told the parallel story of two sisters. The sister’s letters are a large part of the novel, a literary device you would have to translate. You could have told the three-part journey of Nazneen as thesis, antithesis and synthesis of her life, but we decided to focus on looking through that prism of 2001, partly because that’s when her journey begins. That’s when she meets Karim, that’s when her eyes open up to the world, that’s when the background of the world changes with the cultural shifts in London and political shifts through 9/11. So it was the year of transformation, and everything else you could suggest.

How did you approach Karim’s post-9/11 radicalization to avoid oversimplification?

06182008_bricklane2.jpgWe’re saturated with images of radical Islam, suicide bombers and wife beaters %#151; all those stereotypes of the extreme version of the Muslim community — in drama and literature. And post-Monica’s book, there seems to be an abundance of it on British television, I have to tell you. So what seemed unique to me about the novel was that at its heart it was a human story that happened to be set in this community, against that backdrop. These are characters that people could relate to, connect to, across generations. So you’d see 9/11, but through this very particular perspective, and only in glimpses. You’d see the change in Karim, but only through [Nazneen’s] eyes. It wasn’t a film that even pretended to embrace and explore those issues. It was this one woman’s journey, and as these things touched her, you saw them.

The book itself had a few detractors within a Bangladeshi minority group, who apparently didn’t want the film to be shot in the real Brick Lane. How did that affect the production itself?

It’s worth unpacking because it’s distorting if you just read the regional stories. As an outsider, I couldn’t have made the film without working very closely with this cast and crew, many of whom were Bangladeshi. What you realize about filmmakers in [South Asia] is that they’re very subversive, particularly in Bangladesh, because if you make films, you’re already on the edges of society. Whereas in Britain, you don’t often count just making a film as a political act.

What I discovered through making this film was what was deeply political about it, that the Western perspective completely misses, that it’s told from the point of view of a marginalized voice. It’s about a woman’s journey towards independence, and that was what they react to because they’re not interested in political unrest on the streets or radical Islam. It’s not a representation, it’s one fictional story. When we were shooting the interior of the flat, we got this phone call at midnight saying that there was this threat as we were about to shoot on Brick Lane itself. Do you know that area?

Only what I’ve read while researching for this interview.

It’s a great, vibrant, interesting area. Anyway, this threat got a lot of media coverage because there was an implicitly violent agenda there, but what emerged was that it was this tiny group — five men really — a vocal minority who were saying they objected to things that weren’t in the book or the film. They cited things like a leech falling into a curry pot in a Brick Lane restaurant that might do damage to business. What was probably underpinning it was that they didn’t like this story of a woman, where her journey ends up.

The western media picked it up, and it became this story of controversy. All the Bangladeshis on our crew were upset and saying, “These people don’t represent us.” But you wouldn’t have known that from the press coverage. It felt like the entire community was out there. We carried on, didn’t change anything in the film or the script, but we did shoot other stuff. Film is a machine, you never stop. We slightly relocated a market scene, but we came back to Brick Lane with a slightly smaller crew and got the shots we needed when the media coverage died down.

06182008_bricklane3.jpgWith plenty of exceptions, there seems to be a certain dry, bleak, kitchen-sink sameness to British drama these days. Do you feel this way? Do others in Britain?

Yeah, I think they do. As you say, there are many exceptions, but somehow, that doesn’t come through. There hasn’t been [something like] Denmark, which had a revolution with Dogme, and you felt that their whole film industry had changed and re-identified itself. Even though these gems come out of Britain, somehow they haven’t made their mark, and you still associate it with this particular kind of drama. I made a conscious decision to go for an aesthetic that was outside that. We know [Nazneen’s] council estate’s grim and we do see there’s graffiti, racist attacks and poverty. What we don’t see so much is there was this blossom tree that all these women would stand under. You go into these Bangladeshi homes and they have these rich fabrics that remind them of the colors of home; you don’t expect that so much. When the council estate is forbidding because [Nazneen] sees it as that, we show it as that. When she has delusions [of being] in love, she sees a brighter and more welcoming world. I made a decision that the aesthetic of the film would be driven by that, which is less usual to British cinema.

What did you find most surprising about Bangladeshi culture?

Just going to Bangladesh was an experience… if you go into small villages in the U.K., they’re backward and culturally devoid. But if you go into small villages in Bangladesh, they have classical music concerts. There are people who’ve been studying the flutes for years. There’s a kind of inbuilt cultural sense that I find fascinating and inspiring. It’s also a country that’s beset by natural disasters and political instability; what was striking was how confident the new generation are and how they’re now contributing politically. There’s such a sharp difference from parents to children. The younger generation of Bangladeshi men and women used to shock their parents by going clubbing and wearing short skirts, and now they shock their parents by wearing the hijab. We wanted to touch on [this], not explain or offer easy answers on radicalism or arranged marriage, but suggest things. It’s all political. In Bangladesh, if you put a kiss in a film, it’s political.

[Photo: Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen; Satish Kaushik and Chatterjee; director Sarah Gavron on set – “Brick Lane,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]

“Brick Lane” opens in limited release on June 20.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

via GIPHY

IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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