Interview by Anna Harrison
When did you first read Alí Ehsani’s book, Stanotte Guardiamo le Stelle (Let’s Look At the Stars Tonight)? Did you know right away you wanted to adapt it, or did someone else have the idea?
It was my longtime friend Francesco Casolo, author of the book with Alí, that told me about Alí’s story that he was putting into a book and got me hooked on it after a few seconds of him talking. Soon after I was meeting Alí and hearing about his exceptional journey that brought him here in Italy, after five years of trying, made me think right from the start that it was something worth being transposed into images as well.
How involved was Alí Ehsani himself in the film?
Alí’s contribution to the film was paramount: not only getting the chance to discuss with him directly the many aspects of the events that lead him to Italy, to get an intimate look at what his emotions were all the while, but also having him near me on set to help overcome the linguistic and cultural differences with the two brothers that we cast for the film, who were coming from his same area in Afghanistan and had shared with him a similar story and journey.
Could you explain the timeline of this movie to me? When did you first start filming, and how long did it take to get from the idea to filming to distribution?
I started working around the idea of getting the film made around 2017 and then it was in the spring of 2018 that I got the two production companies on board, Tapelessfilm and Art of Panic. We knew right away that we didn’t just want to make the film, but we wanted people to be able to see it. Which meant production and distribution. So, in order to achieve that, together with the two co-producers of the film, Tapelessfilm and Art of Panic, we got to work on the whole process of getting the financials in place to cover the production costs (through public funding, like the MIBACT tax credit and the Puglia film commission regional incentive; private funding like Blue Sands Foundation, very active on humanitarian issues and refugees relocation; and producers equity) and drafting the first production timelines.
Once we knew that the film could would have been feasible, from an economic point of view, we started working on getting the crew together (starting from some professionals that I knew from the start I wanted to be with me, like Francesco di Pierro, our amazing DoP, or Daniele Carmosino, responsible for the very emotional original soundtrack) and in the meantime we did the first location recce and scouting in Puglia. All the while, I was still looking for the cast, remember that I had been looking for them for a year already. When we realised that we had all we needed, we went into pre-production in June and filming started at the end of September 2018. Shooting lasted for a week in Puglia. I got very quickly into the editing room because our idea was that of starting the festival circuit straight away: and for that we sought the involvement of Prem1ere Films, an Italian distribution company specialised in distributing short films and with a strong expertise (and success history) in International festivals. Thanks to their widespread activity, Baradar was acquired in Italy by Rai (our broadcaster), ended up being selected at over 50 festivals around the world, winning 21 awards and pocketing a nomination at the David di Donatello 2020 (the Italian Oscars).
Were there any major script changes from conception to end? How much of a say did you have in any changes?
We worked hard to stay as faithful as possible to the story and Alí’s experience, and this was possible thanks also to the constant presence of Alí on the set. However, I was interested in isolating a specific moment of the children’s story that could represent the human meaning of the whole, a cross-section of everyday life between the two brothers that could enter the audience’s chords and convey something powerful. This idea of the script was maintained from beginning to end and Francesco and I were very much on the same wavelength throughout. If truth be told, I have to say that we worked on the script very organically and it evolved pretty much to stay in tune with the two brothers that we cast for the main roles, because, in order to get the maximum authenticity, intimacy and expressiveness that I wanted to return to the audience, we had to adapt to them.
How did you find Nawid and Danosh Sharifi? I thought they both gave great performances—how did you approach directing with non-actors/first time actors?
From the very start, I had an almost impossible desire: finding two protagonists with a background close to that of Alí and his brother Mohammed. For this reason, I turned to associations that deal with refugees. After a long search, I received from an NGO (Binario 15) the photos of two brothers, Nawid and Danosh Sharifi, who, from a scenic point of view, could have been the same age of the protagonists. They had just arrived in Italy to be reunited with their older brother. Basically, something that was well beyond my hope! In terms of my approach to directing them, I was looking for truthfulness and expressiveness. I didn’t want anything to be trivialized or clichéd. And the two actors were so authentic that … they didn’t even utter a word in Italian!
I noticed that several translators are listed in the credits. Were there any language barriers, and if so, how did you adapt to those?
The main difficulty was of course due to the fact that Nawid and Danosh had just arrived in Italy and didn’t speak any Italian. So we didn’t just need translators but cultural mediators that would help me convey the meaning of a scene or simply what was happening and how they should behave on set. Alí’s presence on set was, of course, a plus.
What takeaways do you want the audience to walk away with after watching your film? What lessons can we learn?
I would like the audience to go back home and be more open about the refugee crisis and emigration issue, because, beyond the political positions, it is a profoundly current, urgent issue that affects us all. Because being born on another side of the world shouldn’t be a discriminating factor in taking away or giving the right to have a passport and freedom of movement.
You have several projects in the works for Amazon Prime which seem to be much larger scale than Baradar. How does directing on a bigger budget change things, or do you take the same principles with you from short films to features and television shows?
New streaming platforms lead to the research and development of new contents, some of which are of great quality. The opportunity to work with Amazon Prime allowed me to carry out more ambitious projects aimed at an international audience. They are universal projects, worldwide and for a director this means being able to experiment and grow. If I had a choice I would always like to bring my directorial vision to these projects that have bigger budgets, maintaining a more intimate and delicate approach to following the stories. Having a clear vision and the freedom to follow it makes a project more solid. On the other hand, when there are too many compromises, the final result is also affected, despite the fact that we are talking about projects with more important budgets.
What’s a memoir that everyone should read?
Speaking of this short film, I would like to name both books published by Alì Ehsani (Let’s Look At the Stars Tonight and Boys Have Big Dreams). Because this is not just a story of immigration, but the story of two brothers, a small one who seems too fragile to face such a long journey but who over time will demonstrate incredible strength, and one of seventeen, who becomes a man ready to do anything to be able to give himself and his brother a new life. Because Ali, who arrived alone in Italy at the age of 13 and was able to graduate in law, is the proof that making dreams come true is always possible, no matter what the starting point is.