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Over at Young Shubbak we were lucky enough to meet BAFTA nominated film producer and curator Elhum Shakerifar (virtually!). Despite Covid-19 and the lockdown disrupting a lot of our plans we have continued to persevere with our once face-to-face professional development sessions on Zoom. This online conversation brought us some much needed inspiration, motivation and encouragement. Elhum spoke to us about her background, her career, the films she has produced and gave us insightful observations on the film industry and MENA (Middle Eastern & North African) cinema.

Elhum Shakerifar is an award-winning film producer and curator whose credits include The Reluctant Revolutionary, The Runner and A Syrian Love Story to name a few. As a collective that consists almost entirely of MENA women who are multi-disciplinary artists and whose ambitions consist of working within the arts, the experience for Young Shubbak of meeting someone like Elhum, who is an Iranian woman taking the film industry by the reins, is incredibly inspirational. Elhum was the winner of 2017 Women in Film & TV’S BBC Factual Award and one of Screen International’s 2018 #Brit50 Producers on the Rise. In an industry so dominated by white middle-class men, that endlessly focuses on European cinema, Elhum has carved out a space for stories from within the Middle East and North Africa as well as for MENA women.

Elhum was working in a centre for refugees when she fell into film unexpectedly after meeting filmmaker Sean McAllister, who was working on The Reluctant Revolutionary in Yemen at the time. This film would represent Elhum’s first credit and experience as a producer. The large majority of the films Elhum has produced have been documentaries and have centred on the MENA region. The films Elhum has worked on are delicate and niche and very much linked to her background, which began with the study of Persian literature and visual anthropology. The Reluctant Revolutionary follows a Yemeni tour guide who is hesitant to join the revolution against his country’s leadership. Elhum then went on to produce films such as A Syrian Love Story, which was filmed over the course of five years. The film follows a couple’s relationship that becomes a journey of hope and despair for their homeland. Other films such as Island portray a man taking his final breaths before he dies. This has been exhibited as a multi-screen installation in art galleries and has been used as an educational tool in palliative care.

Elhum gave us an insight into the challenges she has faced distributing stories such as these, and specifically stories from the MENA region. She was told by a large TV platform that there was no place for her film because they already had an Arab film to broadcast and that the ‘Syrian wave’ had ended. She talked to us about the moment the image of such films changed when the photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the shores of Turkey arrived on our screens. It was the first time refugees fleeing war had been given a face and so A Syrian Love Story became representative of the moment and time and was broadcast on BBC1. Elhum also achieved something entirely unprecedented when she asked the BBC and BFI to collaborate in programming her film, displaying how distribution in the hands of a capable producer can work.

Elhum is also currently MENA and Iran programmer for the BFI London Film Festival as well as being Shubbak Festival’s film curator. Elhum talked to us about how film curation can become defined and led by the notion of ‘audience’ more than the films themselves. She notes that curating film should not be defined by numbers of the audience but about programming films of relevance and value. She compared programming and curating film to the ‘The Kuleshov Effect’, the experiment that saw viewers derive different meanings from multiple images placed together, one after another, more so than they would from a single image displayed by itself. Programming films together is much like ‘The Kuleshov Effect’ in the sense that screening particular films one after another can leave viewers with new and more meaning. Elhum programmed a focus on Arab Women Directors in 2013, at what was formerly Bird’s Eye View Film Festival, which was hugely successful. She described curating this programme through gut feeling and what she felt really needed to be seen as the MENA region. A region that is often misrepresented, underrepresented and misunderstood.

A lasting piece of advice she gave us all was an old Japanese saying, ‘We are the stories we tell’. Many of us at Young Shubbak are young artists hoping to turn what we love into our professions one day, hoping to tell the stories that mean the most to us, about who we are, and where we have come from. Being part of Young Shubbak and meeting people like Elhum has shown us that there is a space for our stories and that our dreams are entirely possible.

Elise Hassan | Young Shubbak