Interview with Conor Ibrahiem director of Freesia

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Alhambra Women’s Network is passionate about seeing dramas and screenplays that represent the depth, complexity and humanity of our diverse communities who have been living in the UK for decades.

Leaving a creative footprint and a positive legacy for our future generations is not optional but essential for the survival of ethnic minority communities who have been part of the fabric of the UK for over half a century.  If the arts don’t provide positive narratives from authentic voices, “others” with a destructive agenda could do the job for us.

Set in modern-day Bradford, Freesia is a gem we rarely see on our big screens,  the film tackles issues such as Islamaphobia, hate and division.  We interviewed Conor Ibrahiem writer and director of Freesia to learn more about his creative journey.

Tell us about the film Freesia?

Three worlds collide during a racist attack, leaving a Muslim scholar fighting for his life. Now they must face the storm before the calm – and they call it ‘Islamophobia’

Freesia is a response. A response to a problem faced by today’s Muslim communities that has become known as Islamophobia. Why do it? Why subject mayhem on a majority due to the ill actions of a minority? It makes no sense to me as we are meant to be educated people and can surely tell the difference between good and bad. Unfortunately, some of us choose to remain ignorant and vent our frustrations in the worst possible way. Thankfully there are plenty of forces that work towards positive change and one example is the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. In 2012 they launched a fund to tackle two issues: Racial Injustice and Islamophobia and as the Artistic Director of an Islamic theatre company, Arakan Creative, I felt well placed to apply as I really wanted to make to difference via the arts. On successfully gaining funding for a 3-year delivery, it was the second year that Freesia was born, first as three short films and then evolving into a 91-minute movie. Yes, I wanted to achieve the primary goal of looking at anti-Muslim hate crime but I knew this was an opportunity I could explore further. With the blessing of my grants officer, I went about expanding the 3-shorts idea and managed to pull off a minor miracle with the feature on a budget of only £27,600. The stories are fictional but based on real issues; one looks at women’s rights and how they bear the brunt of attacks, the second looks at the role of mosques and the last address far-right aggression. So the short films still existed but were now linked via the inciting incident and then interweaving throughout a feature narrative. The title comes from the flower, ‘Freesia’, which my research tells me are what florists recommend for those who cope well under pressure. It’s not an obvious title for the subject matter but perfectly reflects the struggles of those in characters in the film.

Why is it important to you as a filmmaker to explore the issue of Islamaphobia?

It’s a responsibility. When you are in a position to tell a story, you are in a position to entertain yes but educate also. The pen is mightier for a reason and as much as I like writing scripts, it’s even more rewarding if you can address an injustice in the same breath. Being a Muslim, of course, means I am affected by this cancer, if not personally, then certainly I feel the pain of my fellow brothers and sisters. Not a single UK movie is out there except Freesia that looks at Islamophobia as a central narrative and that’s not by accident, it’s by design. Well, Hollywood can drag her heels but I for one won’t sit back and let the status quo be.

Why was it set in Bradford?

I’m from Bradford, born and naan’d, and this is the place I know best. Plus it is home to many Muslims and it is already on the TV/film map for all things grim and all things BME. So people kind of expect a certain type of film from our city. Other reasons included practicality and cost – I know these streets, I could be home at a reasonable hour, I want to add to the growing film scene and I want to champion northern talent. Oh and I only have £27k so that rules out location shoots in Hawaii.

How did you become a filmmaker?

A series of rejections. You know I read something on Twitter recently about Einstein, in that he received a rejection letter from the University of Bern when he applied for a Doctorate in 1907. They found his ideas ‘somewhat radical’. So on he went, kind of came up with this theory you might have heard of and the rest is history. So my rejections spanned 10 years as an actor, 5 of those as a writer (which continues to this day) and so I decided to start my own theatre company. Arakan Creative was born in 2009 and focuses on stories within the Islamic world. I gave up my acting by and large and became an Artistic Director. Then through the Rowntree funding, I thought of 3 different creative outlets to explore Islamophobia – a theatre play, a film and a comic book. I guess if I could make it as Artistic Director, why not as a filmmaker or comic book writer? I’ve learnt that if you have a passion for something and your work resonates, it doesn’t matter what path you chose. So filmmaking was an evolution for me and you know, I love it much more than just acting.

What barriers did you face? (actor, filmmaker)

The kind of ones we still face. Lack of roles that don’t require us to say ‘AllahuAkbar’ and press a hidden switch under our shalwar kameese. Cultural norms of ‘you should get a real job’ and lack of roles that don’t require us to say ‘AllahuAkbar’…oh have I already said that? Yes, I got loads of these types of auditions. Or the taxi roles with ‘Where to mate?’. So that’s the kind of thing I faced as an actor. Plus being working class and from the North means that I’m thrice as likely to get nowhere fast as I’m sure you have heard of the plight of working-class actors. (Hence another reason I filmed in the North and using 95% working class actors).

Who ideally is the film aimed at?

Racists and Muslims alike. And the general cinema-going audiences but the first two particularly. Why racists? Because they think they’re so smart with taking a snippet of information or listening to the misguided drivel from the likes of Tommy Robinson, and hey presto they are experts of Islam and the Quran. They need to watch Freesia with an open mind and take a long, hard look at who/what exactly it is they’re hating. A true Muslim (that’s most of us by the way) deplores terrorism, grooming or anyone spouting death to the West. If some group does an evil, trust me, the Quran isn’t in their corner backing them, condoning them or promising heaven. If they say they are acting for Islam then guess what, it’s not true. Now, this might be a radical statement…but it is a lie. Yes, a lie. As you can see I’m really getting rattled up about this question so I’ll move on. It’s also aimed at Muslims. Why? Because I want them to know there is a film out there that doesn’t vilify them and make them look bad. However, I do take aim at those who practice bad culture in the place of Islam and thinks it’s ok. IT’S NOT OK! Bad culture meaning ignoring the mistakes our community, burying heads in the sand, blaming the ‘West’ for influencing us etc. This mentality is fuel for the far-right. But there are plenty of Muslims who do the right thing and they need a pat on the back to, which Freesia is proud to do.

Does the film have a social message?

Yes. “This place isn’t perfect. Don’t make it any worse.” This is the final line of the film. Sorry for the spoiler but you asked. It has many messages, many I have alluded to above and it’s about not losing hope, don’t give in to hate, take folks as you find them and all you need is love. Aww, Lenon, you were so right.

What are your artistic inspirations?

You can thank Christopher Reeve, aka Superman. I would watch his movies at Christmas and was mesmerised by what could be achieved in the movies. I wanted in. Later in life, I started to write scripts in my spare time as I wanted to see if I could make any progress and do what Stallone did with ‘Rocky’. Being self-taught in both disciplines meant I had to put in the hours and motivate myself but the love of storytelling compelled me to achieve. For me, there is no greater buzz than thinking of a story concept and surprising myself as to what will happen next!

What are your favourite films?

Leon, Superman (I and II), Cinderella Man, Payback, Shawshank Redemption and Amores Perros.

What is your opinion about diversity on British TV and cinema?

How long have you got? It’s pathetic if I’m honest. What was it that I read a while back – 5% representation across TV, Film and Radio of BME artists? I say again this is not by accident. Having said that, how many Muslim’s are encouraged by their parents to enter the arts? Not many. So things need to change from top-down and visa-versa. This is about power and the bottom line is it lies in the corridors of ITV, BBC, Ch4, Sky, Netflix and so on, not on the streets of the BME resident or working classes. And if the opportunities aren’t there in the first place then nothing changes. We are told be satisfied with the scraps of parts that are given to us, that we should be glad they are doing a BME scheme so we have a shot at the title when really it’s about box ticking through the lens of ‘engaging and offering opportunity’. Sure some schemes are the real deal but they are few and far between. So what choices are we left with? Chose a different career, continue surviving on the scraps whilst our counterparts in London see their profiles skyrocket or apply to the schemes and dip your toe into a world you would love to be part of. Mentioning no names, I had a placement with a well-known production company a few years ago but despite not succeeding to win the prize after my placement, I picked myself up and applied 2 times after that as a storyliner, which is the job I was doing. I didn’t even get a single interview despite impressing a room full of seasoned writers and the producer with my first ever pitch whilst on placement. Or you do it yourself. Yes…


Which leads me on to your final question quite neatly…

What advice would you give to young aspiring writers, directors, producers?

Pick up a pen, write something amazing (or start by writing crap before you get to amazing) and film it. You have a phone, editing software is easy to download and thanks to YouTube tutorials you can learn to edit. Audiences can be accessed there also, or the likes of Vimeo, and hey presto, you’ve become a mini-movie maker. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying you’ll be nominated for an award. What it will do is allow your passion to breathe and look at what you have created. If it suits you, and you suit this world, then move onto the next project. Keep building…keep refining.

Don’t do it until there is a passion inside you though. If you do, it is likely to be half-hearted and great things don’t happen without passion. If you pick up a pen to write your idea down and it won’t let you go, you know you have to see it through. So that’s the internal bit – now the external/commercial bit. Zoom out and look at the film landscape and see what works/what doesn’t. What are people looking for? If your passionate story is a popular theme then your chances of being noticed an increase. You have to ride both in tandem – ideas that have a realistic shot at being greenlit, that distributors are likely to want. If it’s the DIY-VOD route, make sure you have an audience for your film. If the idea is only your cup of tea then I would suggest holding off on that, find something that ticks the above boxes, and come back to your pet project further down the road when you can be afforded the choice of making your own film by Warner Brothers because you earned them £1billion when you directed Iron Man 12.

You have one life. Film it.

Interviewed by Alhambra Women’s Network 

*Images copyright © of Conor Ibrahiem


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