Q > You have a very fresh and modern approach and there is a strong blend of femininity and strength that comes through your work - what influences have helped shape the way in which you direct?
Amirah Tajdin > I’ve always been a very visual communicator. I was drawing and colouring from a young age but in terms of deciding to direct, I owe it a lot to reading. I have always been super fascinated by the worlds that I read on paper. Then when I was around 15 years old I started getting into photography as part of my GCSEs and I thought, wait a minute if I put pictures and words together I get a movie! I was super fascinated by the thought of bringing these worlds together.
A key moment for me was when I was studying To Kill A Mockingbird - the book was a huge part of my coming of age and when I watched the film I think I had my first experience of heartbreak because that’s not how I envisioned it when I was reading it. So in that moment I thought I would love to be able to take words and turn them into something visual.
I also studied art history and am especially drawn to paintings, such as how water and light are portrayed in Renaissance paintings.
Q > You also run SEVEN THIRTY Films with your sister who produces. What’s it like working with her?
Amirah > It’s great that I get to work with my sister - she asked me to work with her when I was studying at university and she got a project back in Kenya - we had left Kenya when I was 14 so I hadn’t lived there as an adult. Having my sister there as my producer was a blessing as it was my safe space.
The director-producer relationship is so intimate and relies on a lot of trust. Getting to have someone who is family working with me is amazing. Obviously we have our ups and downs as sisters but we have to put this aside for business decisions and communicate on a different level. It’s about having that balance and it’s an ongoing evolution.
Q > Did you both have quite a creative upbringing?
Amirah > We were very close in our younger years, the two of us are the older ones out of our siblings and from that I think we got this very focused attention from our parents. We were always put into activities such as ballet and we always had some collection of books to read in the house like Roald Dahl or Nancy Drew. I was the more artistic one and my dad always dropped me off early at kindergarten so I could get tracing time in - I used to love tracing cartoon characters. Our upbringing was very encouraging and my parents understood that I communicate in a visual way.
My sister was very different to me, she was always the more structured one, wanted to be a journalist from a young age but in a twist of fate ended up a producer. She also loves to read and we both had storytelling as a big part of our childhood. Our grandmother was a great storyteller and we’d sit and watch Bollywood and Hollywood movies with her on a Saturday and on Sundays she’d be telling us stories. So I think that’s where that seed was planted in us for how to be storytellers.
Q > Where did you learn your craft?
Amirah > I studied Fine Art at Rhodes university, a liberal arts school in South Africa where I wanted to develop my understanding of the African gaze, as an African myself. I also spent some time in Baltimore, Maryland as part of my exchange year so I did photography and art history there as well. My university lecturers across schools were very big influences and great mentors.
Q > How do you think that your experiences of life in South Africa, Nairobi, Maryland and Dubai have influenced your approach?
Amirah > As a family, we lived in many cities and when you’re this cross-cultural, ethnically and culturally, I think you’re definitely going to have a story to tell. There’s nowhere I can move in the world without one of these places having influenced the way I see it. After university, myself and my sister moved back to Kenya, and then when I came back to Dubai it was shiny and crazy (quite different to when I lived there as a teenager) but then I learned there’s also an unseen grittier side to Dubai that people don’t get to see. It can be a really quiet place and not a very friendly place - you don’t walk down the street and say hi to people because you don’t walk. It forces you to go inside yourself a lot. But then because it’s so centrally located, it’s so easy to travel from. Travel has been one of the most important things in how I see the world, paired with where I come from it’s been about navigating all these different identities.
South Africa made me understand my identity, my Blackness, and how to articulate it through art. It’s a really interesting place with lots of history and an appreciation for aesthetics. I think their love for the visual journey of storytelling mixed with their dark history makes for a very interesting outcome.
America also has a very similar history to South Africa, in terms of Blackness and identity and how you tell the story of a difficult past. As artists it’s our job to carry it on for future generations and it’s about how you celebrate and mourn it. Those two are the biggest influences in how I craft my language.
Q > What is the film scene in Africa and the Middle East like and how are they developing?
Amirah > The film scene I’ve experienced in Africa has been between South Africa and Kenya. I really love Kenya. I have a difficult relationship with it but it’s where I see when I close my eyes and it calms me. It’s where I want to go back to. It’s raw, it’s rough, it’s cut-throat, but it’s also super beautiful, super gentle and super grand in how it presents itself.
South Africa is great for advertising and the government there supports cinema. The stories coming out of there are fascinating. In Kenya we don’t have such a developed film industry, it’s pretty young and it’s our generation that’s sowing the seeds. It’s very exciting.
Filming in the Middle East is also fun as it’s new and has not been seen much before. Telling the stories of people who have never been on camera before is rewarding. Culturally it’s very difficult to get women on camera there but being of Swahili-Arab origin I get a pass into these spaces and am trusted. It’s interesting to see what I’m allowed to tell.
Q > Your work A String of Pearls for the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council follows the story of female weavers from the Emirati community, one that rarely gets to be seen. How did you come across them and learn about their craft of talli weaving?
Amirah > The managing curator of the Crafts Council watched a fashion film I made for a friend’s brand and reached out to me for a meeting. It was a super edgy institution and they wanted something really creative done and I had full freedom.
The Emirati women go there everyday and their craft is shown around the world - a lot of high couture houses buy their work for their collections. I formed a relationship with the women and ended up doing three films on them, with String of Pearls being the latest.
Q > Watching the footage, the women come across very strong and confident so I was surprised to learn that they’ve never been in front of a camera before. How did you work with them to make them feel at ease and did they naturally take to the camera?
Amirah > I think that because the lead woman is such a vivacious character, she sets the tone for everyone else and helps them trust in the process. They wear the burqa as well which can give them a sense of safety to be themselves without their identities being completely exposed. Also in my directing style I like to be a fly on the wall so I’m not very aggressive or regimented. I’m just there to capture them as naturally as I can.
Q > And what elements of their lives did you draw upon and play with in order to create a captivating narrative?
Amirah > To be honest, the way they are in the film is just how they are in reality. If you see them at the Institute, they’re doing all those things - sitting drinking tea, talking, singing. These ladies are from a very small village, they’re not “fancy Dubai girls”, so for them it was nice to be noticed and for us to celebrate their culture on screen. I tried to give them that regality and they liked seeing themselves elevated, it gave them a sense of pride. I think it’s an Emirati thing as well, they have a sense of national pride and Emirati audiences appreciate seeing themselves portrayed this way.
Q > Where do you tend to source your inspiration from?
Amirah > I love reading, whether it’s fiction, journalism, magazines… there are so many stories in the world. I also love looking at photographs and am constantly creating collections on Pinterest. I love watching cartoons, they have a creative license that always goes unnoticed and there’s always something wild going on.
Travel also inspires me and I make a point to visit art museums and exhibitions when I’m abroad, or visit dinky little restaurants. Food and other sensory experiences are really inspiring to me. During lockdown when I wasn’t able to create anything I just focused on consuming inspiration. I have so many notebooks that I log all my ideas in.
Q > For your film Sisterhood, one thing that stands out straight away is the use of music and colour. What effect were you looking to achieve with their use and how do they help bring out the story and emotion?
Amirah > Music and colour is a huge part of my work. With Sisterhood, I had just been in the Masai Mara and there were these amazing colours everywhere so I feel like I was subconsciously influenced by this. And then the brief for Sisterhood was centered around a 16th birthday so I naturally thought of all the colours in cakes and balloons which fed into how I wanted the film to look.
I wrote the script with Mahalia’s lyrics in mind and the music was used to set the tone. I work this way for most of my films - I’m very driven by a mood and that usually comes from music.
Q > The film was chosen as a Tribeca X finalist in 2019 and you received a Best Director nomination. What were your favourite moments from this project?
Amirah > I loved working with the cast and one of the girls has gone on to acting school from this project. They all have nice personalities and a presence so when we put them together there was a great vibe. One of my favourite moments was when the girls put on the Nefertiti heads, it was a really fun scene. And in the closing scene I played this speech - they didn’t know I was going to do that - and they all reacted to the speech and were in tears!
Q > How are you hoping to develop your work over the coming years and what are you most passionate about achieving with your work?
Amirah > I would love to spend more time with narrative filmmaking but I do want to continue with commercials too as you get to practise your craft as a director. There are so many stories that need to be told and a voice like mine has not been given enough of a platform to tell them. I would love to continue growing into the spaces where I’m allowed to tell the stories.
Q > Who are some of your dream clients you hope to collaborate with in future?
Amirah > Definitely something menstrual - I’ve done a few treatments that didn’t get picked for sanitary products so I’d love to finally lock one. I really love gorillas so something to do with their conservation or similar would be really close to my heart. And lastly Mercedes - my friends and I noticed that I always seem to have a Mercedes somewhere in my fiction work and I’d love the opportunity to collaborate with them.