Haider Rashid's film ‘Europa’ centres around the dangerous journey of a young migrant who dodges ruthless vigilantes on the Turkish-Bulgarian border in the hope of entering Europe. The film won global critical acclaim and was recently screened at Dubai’s independent cinema arthouse Cinema Akil. In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, the Iraqi-Italian filmmaker speaks about the making of 'Europa' and how he hopes to underscore the migrant issue through his films.
Tell us about your filmmaking journey and how you began making films.
Europa is my fifth feature film and my third fiction feature. I have done two documentaries, but overall it’s the fifth. I always try to make movies about social issues, migrants and identity concerns, because they feel very personal to me. I began by making shorts, then I started working as a camera operator for some TV channels and I tried to learn as much as possible. When I was 23, I made my first feature. Since then, I’ve been on this journey.
Is making films your full-time career? Where does your funding come from?
Yes, I produce and direct. This film had the privilege of getting public funding in Europe, which was great because it allowed us to make the film the way we wanted to make it. So, it was a little easier than the other projects, but you always have to juggle between different things in filmmaking. I do some commercial works that help pay the bills, and all the while I’m trying to scale up the filmmaking. My company also has a post-production arm and we’re based in Florence. So in a way, we try to have a broader approach to filmmaking so we can cover all that.
You said migration is a recurring theme in your films. Is that because you are an immigrant?
Well, my father left Iraq in the ’70s and moved to Europe. So I guess identity has always been something that’s been deeply fascinating, and I feel a certain responsibility to talk about migration and try to have a different angle on it.
Most of the shots in this film seem to be close-ups, and they seem deliberate.
Yeah – in general, I love close-ups. I love actors’ faces and telling stories through their faces and focusing on small details. For this film especially, the idea came at a time when there was a lot of news coverage about what was happening on migration routes, especially on the Balkan route in Europe, and I wanted to show it from a personal perspective.
At the time I was also doing a lot of VR work, and I was frustrated with VR because you lose control over the frame. So my idea was to share what I learned from VR in terms of approach, and see how we could bring that back to the theatre and try to tell the story from a very personal point of view of the character. It’s from there that the idea originated to focus on the character’s face.
We didn’t want to give the audience a broad look; rather, we wanted them to feel close to the character. The audience can somehow feel parts of the journey and be on the journey with him. It was a conscious decision to take a very emotional approach to the storytelling, and the way we filmed our actor was a reflection of that.
How did you go about choosing your characters for this film?
I wanted somebody who could understand the character, especially from an emotional perspective. So I was specifically looking for actors who had experienced some sort of migration in their lives, and we came across Adam’s work. I was really taken by him and his ability to emote without saying much, and his physicality as well, because the film is very physical.
It’s important, because you can establish in this way a different type of relationship that goes beyond the story you’re telling. The film starts in the middle of the protagonist’s journey and ends in the middle of it. So we don’t really know what happens before or after, but that was deliberate.
We just wanted to question how this situation was humane and how it was okay for somebody to go through it. So it doesn’t really matter what happened before and why the guy is running away or where to, or what’s going to happen to him.
“It was a conscious decision to take a very emotional approach to the storytelling and the way we filmed our actor was a reflection of that” – Haider Rashid, Director, ‘Europa’
Adam understood that on a gut level and on an intellectual level, because he himself left his home in Libya when he was a child and moved to the UK, and has known that feeling of being different and having discovered a way to survive.
Do you feel that identity crisis too?
I was born in Florence and my mom is Italian, although my father is from Iraq. I swam in the middle of both worlds. There are times when I don’t feel 100% Italian and times when I don’t feel 100% Arab; and when you’re growing up, it gets to you and you’re always asking yourself questions. For me it was relatively easier because of where I was brought up, but the questions were always there. When I reached my twenties, I sort of felt the urge to learn more about my Arab side. So that drove me towards making films about the identity issue.
But I think you get to a stage where you accept the fact that you have multiple identities; and once you accept that and turn it around, you understand that it’s something that’s very precious and gives you access. And that empowers you to look at the world differently. This is what happened to me in the past 10 to 15 years … that shift and understanding is actually a privilege. So that’s how I feel about it now, and I’m very proud of it.
How long did it take for you to shoot this film?
There are so many elements to this film. We wanted to create that environment by shooting in a forest and shooting in the water. Something like this is a bit more tricky than shooting in a room or on land. The shooting only took three weeks because we had limited funding. It may seem like a lot of time, but when you’re shooting in a forest with 40 people and you didn’t want to just shoot 20 metres from the road but deep in the woods, it can be challenging.
Additionally, we shot this film chronologically with the script, which was very important because it really helped us get into the character and build it up. Shooting in sequence also means you can tell how the gaze of the camera changes through the film and develops.
There are also major challenges production-wise that you run into when you shoot chronologically – for instance, you can’t control the lighting – but it was really worth it. When you are shooting something like this deep in the woods, your whole team is also detached from the world, and we purposely tried to do that to keep the experience as authentic as possible.
Do your films usually end up at film festivals, or directly for theatrical distribution? What is the path that Europa is taking, and what is your end goal for your movies?
We always try to find a balance between art and commerce. And I guess that’s one of the things we try to do in terms of making a film that is deeply political and social, but then also has a human-interest element to it. I think it’s a film that everyone can watch; even if they are not interested in the subject matter, they will somehow be engaged with the film.
The film took almost four years from script to screen. We could have shot it much cheaper with a smaller crew and turned it out in less than a year, but I felt we needed to take our time to really build the story in the correct manner, and finance it correctly so that we could make some sort of impact.
This film really lends itself to the big screen and it offers a very intimate approach to a harrowing experience. But today you just don’t know how people are going to watch it because there are so many devices out there. I think it’s important just for people to see it.
Europa has now been released in the UK, Australia, Italy and the Middle East. So it’s travelling, and for a small film it’s still defending itself well.
What were your previous features about?
My first film was shot in London, and there also the characters have an identity crisis. The second film was related to migration and centres around a character who is expelled from Italy because his residency permit expires, although he was born in Italy and doesn’t know the country he’s being sent to. Then I made other short documentaries about the topic. I always feel like a lot of the stuff on this topic is told from an outsider’s perspective, and because I grew up among migrants, I felt I had another perspective to share.
What about the technology? Is that important to you?
Yes, of course. I have a broad technical background, especially in terms of post-production. For this film, sound required a lot of effort because we wanted to create an immersive experience, and we edited in Dolby Atmos and then downmixed to 5.1.
We experimented a lot, since we have a post-production facility and that offers you the opportunity to explore different aspects of the film.
What cameras do you generally favour for shooting such films?
We shot this film with the ARRI Alexa Mini, which was great because we were in the middle of the woods. The DoP detached the batteries and everything else so that he could keep the camera as light as possible. There are lighter cameras, but we wanted to make sure we could shoot with an Alexa. In general, we try to have lighter cameras to ensure greater freedom of movement.
And I like to shoot with smaller crews, which was well suited for this situation. On this film, it was very hard to control the lighting because we wanted to use as much natural light as possible. I think the Alexa is great on that front, and although it was designed a while ago, its sensor is still probably the best that you can use for natural light.
Was there anything specific that you tried to achieve in editing?
Yes. The last scene on the boat with lights in the background was done by the VFX team. We also asked Foundry if they could help us to show the protagonist as he moves to another place, because that last shot is literally seven minutes long. So the tracking of that took a while, and we would have had to rotoscope every frame.
Our VFX supervisor used a new technique that employs artificial intelligence and cut the time that was needed for that shot by almost a quarter. So instead of having a team of five or 10 roto artists, he was just able to do it with one compositor and have the rest of the work taken care of by the AI. I like to use VFX to complement the narration and don’t like it to be in your face.
There are three or four shots in this film that we couldn’t have made without VFX. There’s a scene where the helicopter sort of hovers over the character, and I wanted it to be a little overblown, because then it looks more real.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing my next film and then working with some relatively new filmmakers that I admire and would like to help launch their career. I am also writing some series, and this has been a very prolific time for me because I am writing a lot. I’m also trying to scale and do bigger projects. I’m hoping to shoot my new film next year.
What has been your greatest honour in recent times?
We were very proud that after the Cannes premiere last year, Iraq chose this film as its entry for the Best International Feature for the Oscars. On a personal level, that was just wonderful because it feels like I’m more accepted by the country. And then it took us on a journey where we learned a lot and got to meet some amazing people.