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Interview – Vika Evdokimenko – ‘Aamir’ – A Feature Film

 

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Posted February 11, 2018 by

 
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Interview – Vika Evdokimenko

Female director Vika Evdokimenko’s Aamir is based on a true story of an unaccompanied child living in the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, where part of the film was shot. This topical film stars second generation immigrant Alan Asaad (Unforgotten) and has just been nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Short Film. This wonderful film will be screening in the coming weeks at the London Short Film Festival.

“13 year old Aamir has fled his home and been separated from his family only to be stranded alone in the largest unofficial refugee camp in Europe. When he is befriended by Katlyn, a well meaning but thinly stretched British volunteer, she becomes Aamir’s last hope for salvation”

This winter we are still seeing thousands of unaccompanied children stranded in untenable conditions across Europe often falling victim to trafficking and abuse, sometimes vanishing without trace. Originally the production team wanted to cast a child refugee from the Calais ‘Jungle, but disturbingly, every time they returned to the camp the children they had talked to had disappeared.

Russian-British award winning Director Vika Evdokimenko spent her early years as an immigrant in Northern Ireland. After graduating from Cambridge University her short documentary Relative Madness premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and her narrative short Katya & The Scarlet Sails won the Special Jury Prize at the International Canada Film Festival and Best Short at Fargo Fantastic Film Festival. Her feature screenplay The Place Behind Her Ears was the winner of Best Graduate Feature Screenplay at the 2015 Fusion Film Festival and a featured on the NYU Purple List 2015.

Evdokimenko co-wrote the film alongside Oliver Shuster and the cinematography was created veteran DOP, Robbie Ryan (American Honey, Fish Tank).  Emma Stone co-produced the film, also alongside Vika. The film has just started its festival run and has already been selected for the BFI Film Festival and the London Short Film Festival.

Interview - Vika Evdokimenko

Interview:

To begin with, tell us about your latest film “Aamir”…

Aamir is the story of a 13 year old Kurdish boy who flees his home, and becomes separated from his family only to find himself stranded, alone in the largest unofficial refugee camp in Europe. When he is befriended by Katlyn, a well meaning but thinly stretched British volunteer, she becomes Aamir’s last hope for salvation. The film was my thesis on the NYU Graduate Film Program and was partly shot in the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp with the help and collaboration of local refugee communities.

“Aamir” is of course based on true events, events which very sadly continue to this day – is this something that is particularly important to you? How did you get involved with the film?

Throughout the process it’s been important for me that the film is factually accurate, but we also wanted to present an intimate ‘slice of life’, largely unseen in news reports. It was important for us to represent the faces and languages of those seen and heard in the Calais refugee camp. We wanted to evoke something real in a documentary style, but for us the most important thing was for the story to have emotional resonance with a diverse audience.

In the winter of 2016 my co-writer Oliver and I were volunteering in the Calais ‘Jungle’. At the time it was Europe’s largest unofficial refugee camp. It has since become synonymous with the worst of Europe’s refugee crisis. I was volunteering at the L’Auberge warehouse while Oliver worked with a build crew that repaired shelters in the camp. One day he returned with a story of a 13 year old Afghan boy who he met that day. The boy had been driven to despair in his search for a door to his shelter so he could feel safe. Government assistance was absent from the camp and it was a purely volunteer-run, and donation-based effort, so the volunteer build crews had been unable to solve his problem for days. The deeply disturbed look in the boy’s blood-streaked eyes belied his 13 years and made his age impossible to guess: he had seen unimaginable horrors. In his sleep-deprived desperation, he pulled a small knife on the build crew. No one was hurt and the standoff was defused by a cool-headed, experienced volunteer.But the boy’s story stuck with me. I wanted to explore how a young person could get to such a point of despair. And how it was that in the Europe of today, governments could stand by while an unaccompanied child went without something as basic as a plywood door with a twenty pence padlock. A shelter without a door seemed to encapsulate a whole lot about the refugee crisis in a simple visual metaphor.

Tell us about the cast, who is starring in “Aamir”?

When we started pre-production we wanted to cast a child refugee from the ‘Jungle’ to play Aamir. We wanted to get as close as possible to an honest depiction of the trauma these children had been through. But in live action filmmaking, there are limitations to what is possible. The children we met in the camp were too deeply traumatized by what they had been through, and it became obvious that we could not ask them to relive those experiences that must have been so raw in their minds. Even more disturbing: every time we’d return to the camp we weren’t able to track down the same children we’d spoken to on our last visit. They kept disappearing. These kids were so desperate to leave the camp, every night they would try to escape, some turning to smugglers, others risking life and limb to jump onto lorries headed for the UK unassisted. If anything, this first, failed attempt at casting reiterated quite how much this story needs to be told.

We finally found our Aamir in one of the open casting calls in London organized by our casting director Kharmel Cochrane. Alan blew us away in his very first audition. There was a darkness and maturity to his performance that I couldn’t have hoped for from such a young actor. The only deal-breaker was that he was wearing braces on his teeth. Thankfully my prayers were answered and Alan’s parents agreed to have them removed so we could cast him. Alan is the son of first-generation Kurdish immigrants from Iraq, and his parents Layla and Razi were instrumental in helping us navigate cultural nuances to develop Aamir’s character. Alan’s fluent command of Kurmanji also helped him bring another layer of authenticity to the role.

The film also stars Jasmine Blackborow as the British volunteer Katlyn. Her character is based on a number of male and female volunteers we met in the camp but Jasmine is an absolute pro and did her own character research on top of that, talking extensively with one of her friends who’d spent a lot of time volunteering in Calais.

What are your influences as a filmmaker?

I grew up watching on repeat a collection of Russian pirated VHS’s that my parents brought back from their trips to Moscow. It was a pretty eclectic collection that included a handful of Disney classics, some Soviet comedies, many screen adaptations of Broadway musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar was my favourite) and a few thrillers like Silence of the Lambs which I first watched aged 9! These Russian VHS’s were dubbed by a disinterested Russian male voice who would read all the characters’ parts in monotone. I loved watching them over and over, not really taking in the story, but more listening to them like pieces of music.

I re-discovered film in my late teens when I accidentally ended up at a London Film Festival screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Éloge de L’Amour’. I took a film studies class in European cinema at university and fell in love with Agnes Varda, Julio Medem and Tarkovsky. I joined a filmmaking club tied to one of the science departments at Cambridge and made my first documentary. I guess that’s when I really got hooked.

I’ve been inspired by too many filmmakers to list here, but specifically for ‘Aamir’ I think the biggest influences were Jacques Audiard and Elem Klimov. I love how films like ‘Dheepan’ and ‘Come and See’ mix the real and surreal to communicate the deeper, subjective truth of their characters.

What advice would you give any up-and-coming filmmakers, trying to break the industry?

Be cautious of institutions that promise to make you a filmmaker. Film school can be great, but only if you know what you want from that experience. Even at film school most of the really important lessons I learned were peer-to-peer, student to student. These days, most of the technical aspects can be learned from the fantastic online resources freely available online.

Learn about different aspects of filmmaking. As a writer, or director, it’s vital to understand the Craft of the different filmmaking department roles from the inside. So crew on other people’s films. And who knows, you may also find your passion in one of these other roles: it takes a whole crew of skilled folk, firing on all cylinders to make a movie!

If you don’t have money to make fiction films, use what you have around you: start with documentary.

Find mentors and cultivate relationships with people you admire. And don’t be afraid to reach out to your dream collaborators. Robbie Ryan responded to me cold emailing him!

If you are trying to be a writer or a director, make sure you have another source of income or financial support while you’re building your portfolio. It takes a lot of time to develop and learn this polymathic Craft, and so, this is not a profession that will be able to support you in the short term.

Whatever stage you’re at the most important thing is to keep practicing your art. Even if you think no one’s paying attention, and you’re alone in the dark, keep making work! If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a director, find opportunities to direct.

When and where can we expect to see “Aamir”?

The film is just beginning its festival run. We had our UK premiere at the London Film Festival last October and are waiting to see where on the festival circuit it will play internationally. We’re also lucky to have received distribution for the film through BAFTA so it will be available on VOD and in Curzon cinemas across the country from the 7th of February 2018. If people are interested in seeing it, they can follow the film on Facebook @AamirFilm to receive news of upcoming screenings.

What is the next step for you? Do you have any other films or projects in production?

Since graduating from NYU I’ve spent most of my time travelling, writing feature screenplays and making films with my husband and partner in crime Oliver Shuster. Our next project is a feature length road movie about a father and daughter who disagree on everything from politics to ice cream flavours but find themselves trapped in a taxi bound for the airport. It’s a comedy drama about our (in)ability to listen to one another and a kind of absurdist allegory of our polarized world of media bubbles and short attention spans. It’s a kind of ‘Locke’ meets ‘Toni Erdmann’ and we hope to go into production in autumn 2018.

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