Director Emmanuel Adjei talks through his long-term artistic collaboration with Iranian-Dutch singer, songwriter and record producer Sevdaliza
Although it’s supported by a brand, WeTransfer, and created with a musician, Sevdaliza, ‘Shahmaran’ doesn’t feel like a commercial or a music video. In the seven-minute film, Ghanaian director Emmanuel Adjei tells a story of marginalization and the struggles of black men throughout history, layering symbolism that allows audiences to interpret it as they wish.
With three production companies (COMPULSORY, Handsome and HALAL) involved and a deep artistic relationship between the director and artist at its heart, the film is a powerful example of what can be achieved through collaboration.
LBB’s Alex Reeves asked Emmanuel where it all came from.
LBB> Where did the idea for 'Shahmaran' begin for you?
EA> The idea stems from the music and the end result is a symbiosis of music and visuals combined. Initially it was important to listen to the track, the lyrics and most importantly, Sevdaliza’s interpretation. Those were the foundation on which the idea behind Shahmaran was developed. The visual element came to fruition after we came to an understanding that Shahmaran was her music to my story.
Another concept behind the film and the visual sphere is the Greek notion of hieros gamos
, or ‘Holy Marriage’. It’s more an image that was important to our vision, rather than the actual story, but it basically describes our artistic relationship and our collaboration as two artists, and the way in which the music and the visuals melt together.
LBB> What is the thinking at the core of the idea?
EA> Shahmaran explores the constant fascinations and desires of the human mind. It’s the story of the black man, who continues life in a cycle of oppression. The modern chains on black men today are the aspirations of decadence, power and success that create a false sense of autonomy and freedom. This leaves them victim of addictions to power and materialism, unable to venture outside what is “expected” of their behaviour.
I think the film serves to show two very different marginalized individuals (Sevdaliza and myself) supporting one another, whilst respecting each other’s space and voice.
LBB> As a black man yourself, what did it mean to you personally?
EA> I grew up in the Bijlmer district in Amsterdam, which has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants in Europe. Bijlmer was neglected for decades by the local government, which resulted in high crime crates and social segregation. Growing up in this area influenced my artistic self on many levels. Filmmaking became a mechanism to find my own positive destination. It really was my starting point as an artist, and Shahmaran is perhaps the most delicate piece of that expression in terms of my background, growing up in a marginalized area of a Western city. It’s more about me giving a voice and representing the oppressed and the minority. In a very symbolic way, the piece brings up a lot of pain and suffering. It was important to me to allow myself the time to explore the symbolism and visual language used in the film to express these themes, and to have a clear goal. For Sevda and me both, the goal was to position ourselves as human beings in marginalized conditions and give a voice to that oppression and express our feeling of being in a sort of survival state as artists. We realised that our voices could be stronger together, reinforce and elevate each other.
LBB> How did the idea develop into the final film?
EA> Once you start production, things become more concrete, and you see what’s possible and what’s not. The core of the idea and the essence of the message was constant, but it was very powerful to venture into the actual execution of it and add those sensory elements according to first hand experiences. Being out in the desert, feeling that burning sun - it became important to me to translate those sensations into the final film. My personal experience of that moment became a concrete tool in bringing a specific narrative and an idea into a film that triggers an emotional connection with the viewer.
I think the cast was also an important factor. We spent a lot of time finding the right people who would tell our story in a raw and relatable manner.
LBB> What was your artistic relationship with Sevdaliza like on the project? How did you work together?
EA> I have known Sevdaliza around four years and have worked with her on multiple occasions. The first time we worked together was on my short film The Formula (2016). Our second project was Human (2016). All along Shahmaran was a work in progress. Every project taught us something on how far we could push each other, they are all essential pieces in the puzzle that allowed us to bring to life the vision of Shahmaran. As our relationship grew, and we gave each other space to explore our artistic bond, we could really see the potential of a bigger project. A project that would push us both artistically, focusing on quality over quantity.
For Shahmaran, we really took the time to let our visions blend. As artists, we knew the scale of the project alone would push us both to really take our ideas to the next level. Combined with the fact that we always challenge, support and complement each other, this project was yet another chance to elevate and reinforce each other’s’ voices.
LBB> What was the three-year process of making the film like? Were there any really big challenges?
EA> As already mentioned, we really allowed ourselves time on this project. For us, the process and all the people involved became as important to the development of the project as the idea of the end result. Everyone who was part of the process became imperative in driving the vision. For Sevdaliza and me it was also essential to give each other space to explore the process, to allow our artistic selves to bring out the best of our shared vision.
The biggest challenge for me was to make the visuals as raw and almost ruthless as the message. The scale, scenery and light all add up to quite a polished look, so it was important to not make it feel glamorized in any way. We wanted to communicate those sensory elements, and that became the solution to the challenge.
Another challenging aspect was the edit and to make sure we included all the visual elements needed to make sense of the symbolism - whilst still following the pace of the music. Just a week before the release, we made a drastic change in the edit. That change was a key moment, one which made all the pieces come together.
LBB> And you worked with tonnes of different collaborators. How did you select the right people to work with?
EA> It all happened very organically. I think a project of this scale calls for people who believe in and share your vision. We had already had the pleasure to collaborate with many of them before, like the DOP Paul Özgür and co-writer Marleen Özgür. They were part of the team from the very beginning. Our production partners helped connect us with the right people, and really utilised their whole network to make sure the best people to bring our vision to life got involved. As a co-production between the UK (COMPULSORY), France (Handsome) and the Netherlands (HALAL), it’s a beautiful testament to global collaborations utilising the best talent to elevate the work.