Anchored by one of the finest lead performances of any British film in recent memory, Aleem Khan’s feature debut, After Love, sees Joanna Scanlan as a woman whose very identity is crumbling around her, after a bombshell revelation causes her to reassess her whole life and very reason for being.
Below, Khan discusses the film’s semi-autobiographical elements, the effects of Brexit and the migrant crisis as well as notions of identity, understanding and the importance of family with CineVue’s Matthew Anderson.
Matthew Anderson: Having first pitched the idea for After Love (to producer Matthieu de Braconier) in 2013, how does it feel for your film to soon be appearing in 30 cinemas across the UK?
Aleem Khan: I think until it’s in the cinemas and I’m there secretly, watching everyone else, I don’t think it will feel quite real. There have been so many stop-starts over the last year; right until I’m actually in the cinema, I’m just holding my breath. But I am thrilled that we’re having a theatrical release; it feels like a real privilege.
MA: Who were your cinematic influences when you were growing up, and what was it that prompted you to become a filmmaker?
AK: I studied film at university. It was being introduced to the Italian Neorealist movement that really captivated me. I remember coming out of a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers almost seeing myself, having this reaction to what that film did to me. It really politicised me. Even before then it was directors like Peter Greenaway, and films like The Crying Game which made that first crack in me and I realised, “Okay this is what film and cinema can do.”
MA: You’ve spoken about the writing process of After Love bringing a kind of catharsis for you; was that something you envisaged or wanted to happen?
AK: I didn’t go on the journey [for that reason]. But a bi-product of doing that kind of excavation of my life, looking at my mum’s life, was digging stuff up. It was fascinating and healthy as a process, because I was writing for a long time, working on it solidly for five years.
The film is semi-autobiographic; the ideas, the characters, the emotional grit that it is exploring is so close to my experience growing up mixed race, feeling like you were kind of in two worlds. The character of Mary was inspired by my mum, and she was the vessel to explore all that my family have experienced.
One thing it really threw up was the trauma and difficulty of growing up gay and Muslim, and the friction within me that I carried, because growing up they were seemingly very at odds in my mind. Identities are so multi-faceted and layered, you can be all of those things.
MA: How did you balance writing fictional characters when drawing on very personal material for the script?
AK: Mary’s daily routines, processes and practises, and just sitting in her grief, was very familiar to me. All of these characters are inspired by people, but they’re also all versions of me. Part of my process as a writer is to write huge background stories for all of the characters: sociological, physiological, physical. Blood type, scars, diseases, the first time they fell in love – a whole life experience before I’ve got to the page. Because I find that when I’m then writing the work that I’ve done enables me to see these characters as three-dimensional, fully-fleshed beings.
MA: And is that something you share with your cast in pre-production?
AK: Yes, it’s particularly helpful for the cast. As I believe that it is character, and character behaviour, that creates the story. The story or plot is an answer to the choices they make. And putting Mary into this weird scenario was really exciting for me, because when she goes to Calais, meets Geneviève and infiltrates this woman’s home, that’s where it becomes completely fictional. But because the character [of Mary] is so close to home, it’s almost like putting myself or someone I love in that space and seeing how that unravels. And there’s such a huge dramatic irony in that, and that’s what then propels the story.
MA: Was the film always going to be set between Dover and Calais?
AK: Always. My grandparents lived in Folkestone. Summers were spent in that landscape; we were on those cliffs. The story is looking at the two sides, the multiple sides from which we can see something – like a relationship. Our experience or our understanding of something depends on where we’re standing, depends on what our point of view is.
It just seemed to make sense from an emotional point of view to place it in Dover and in Calais because they are two land masses, two places that you can see one from the other. They are both very similar but completely separate worlds at the same time. They’re both transient, they’re both having a kind of identity crisis. They’re both historic sea ports that have their own national sense of identity within them.
They also have their own cultures. They’re one and the same, but also very different. They were physical incarnations of these two women.
MA: As two places, they are too often relegated to being spoken about with regards Brexit or the migrant crisis. As well as being representations of these two women, were you in some way seeking to reclaim these places from the headlines?
AK: I started writing before the refugee camp existed in Calais. But as that whole crisis developed and as Brexit happened, it really influenced the way that I thought about the ideas I was exploring in my film. Ahmed (Mary’s husband) would at some point have been an immigrant; this mixed race relationship existing in what was perceived to be a very white space, in Dover, I thought was interesting. The film is examining the first impressions that we take; an initial, snap judgement of someone, based on the colour of the skin or what they’re wearing. I wanted to subvert that.
When I was writing there was a version where we had a refugee character, but when we were editing the film there was something about including that huge topic in this very particular, small story which felt like I would not be serving that authentically. The Dover cliffs, as a kind of image, represent something very powerful: the World War, ‘British values’.
On the other side of The Channel, that same structure of land represents a new life, freedom, but it’s also a kind of impenetrable wall. One of the things I wanted to explore and challenge were the perceived, fixed identities that we have of things that actually aren’t that fixed.
MA: Just as the film in some way alters our perception of these places, it also shows the beauty, love and warmth of the Muslim community on screen rather than the violent images of terrorism which, unfortunately, is so often the case.
AK: Growing up, I had never really seen a Muslim character at the centre of the story. I hadn’t really even seen them among the peripheral characters. When we see Muslims on screen, they are often very two-dimensional.
I wanted to see a character like my mum on screen. I wanted to put a Muslim character in the centre of a story where the audience could really see the multi-faceted interior world of an older Muslim woman, because until we actually see that representation, the cycle of our preconceptions of people will continue.
MA: For all the conflict and opposition there is in the film, there ends up being a real unity. Do you think it’s necessary to always go through a very difficult process, of suffering and pain, to arrive at such a level of understanding?
AK: I think there is an inherent degree of struggle in anything in order to have a clear view on something. Our initial perceptions or judgements of people break away. And once they erode, they actually fall quite quickly, revealing something much purer, much more defined, much clearer.
Mary and Geneviève’s relationships are mirrors of one another. They are very different women in many ways, but they both plug an emotional gap that the other one doesn’t have. Until you have actually listened to someone or really experienced someone, you don’t really have the full picture of someone.
The film is always told from Mary’s narrative point of view. She’s often the centre of a frame, but when she goes to Calais her space – her frame – is invaded, even though she is invading someone else’s home. As Mary gets closer to the truth, and revealing the truth, it [the colour palette] gets warmer and the framing changes to allow the characters to be in a line, rather than opposed.
Ahmed is not present in the film, but the whole action takes place within his shadow. There are a lot of scenes where Mary steps from shadow into light. It was important for me that the colour palette referenced that.
MA: The physical manifestations she witnesses represent a psychological struggle that becomes a kind of reckoning; how did you choose upon these visions?
AK: Both of these women’s worlds are crumbling. But because the film is told from Mary’s point of view – the erosion of the cliffs, the cracking in the ceiling, it’s referencing her own interior. It can be read as the breaking down of this woman’s heart, her sense of identity, but there’s also a question of: is this happening or not?
Grief cannot be articulated with words; it’s something you experience and that you feel. Mary is in her own world. She’s not sure if what she is seeing is real, because we see this crack and when she looks up, it’s not there. This is a physical manifestation of her emotional, physical world breaking down.
Geneviève’s house is falling apart, physically, whereas Mary’s home is on a cliff that’s about to give way. They tie in together. It’s looking at the people we build our lives on and around; the foundations of those relationships are very fragile. When that pack of cards goes, what is left of ourselves?
MA: Genevieve has lived this unstable existence for a very long time, whereas Mary receives an unexpected bombshell. You choose not to attribute guilt to either one, or even to Ahmed. Why?
AK: I wanted to humanise these characters. The film is exploring morality and who has the strongest moral compass. You could see Mary as a victim, because she has been betrayed by her husband, but she also becomes complicit in his deceit because she invades this family without them knowing, holding this secret in front of them.
And though we totally accept that she needs to be in this house, she’s also really transgressing. I didn’t want to judge any characters because every character is deceiving the others. Our perception of Geneviève and Ahmed’s relationship, of what Mary is doing, of what Solomon is saying to his mum, completely depends on where we’re standing.
MA: Language (the script features English, French and Urdu) and comprehension is vital within this larger idea of understanding. How did you incorporate this in both the writing and direction of the film?
AK: So much of how we perceive or understand something can be so quickly misconstrued, misinterpreted or not understood at all. I wanted to use language, and the multiple languages that these characters spoke, as a way of both giving access to Mary and also shutting her out. Because she speaks Urdu and English, she was able to have a secret communication with Solomon. But Geneviève and Solomon speaking French was also used to shut her out.
MA: The film’s score pierces the excellent use of silence at key moments where we can almost hear the cogs turning in Mary’s mind; how did you make these choices?
AK: When you lose someone, there’s nothing more deafeningly quiet than that moment when you come back home. Silence says so much more than anything can. I loved working with composer Chris Roe; our approach was to have the sound design (by Joakim Sundström) and score working in tandem. The visual I had in my head was of a rusty propeller, trying to start.
At the beginning we don’t really know what it is but by the end we have a full picture. We took the same approach for the music, allowing these fragments to find a form and a shape as Mary and the film works towards a truth.
MA: Joanna Scanlan is mesmerizing in this film. How did you come to cast her?
AK: Joanna was a suggestion from the casting director, Shaheen Baig. I was intrigued by her being known as a comedy actress, because I think they have the deepest wells to excavate, and to draw from. In addition to that, there was a real physical resemblance to my mum. They both have piercing blue eyes, they both have very open, kind faces. That was quite a draw for me. And, having seen her in other films, I was always very impressed by what she could communicate with a glance or a look.
MA: Between casting and production, what was your rehearsal and preparation process for Joanna’s performance?
AK: I think she was very aware of the responsibility she carried, and I was very particular about representing myself, my background, my family correctly. Because we so seldom see people like us on screen – and when we do, they’re so out of orbit of the reality of our lives. There’s almost a burden to make sure when you actually get the opportunity to put yourself on screen on film, that you do it as truthfully, honestly and accurately as you can.
MA: Have your family seen the film?
AK: They have, and they loved it. It was a very emotional screening. They could see themselves but also felt safe because it isn’t me telling their specific story. They were proud that I was able to express a lot about me and them and our life and understanding of our identities. That’s where it becomes healing and a way to honour my family.
AFTER LOVE – released in cinemas 4th June.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63