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AN INTERVIEW WITH Ahmed Tahsin Shams, DIRECTOR
As a filmmaker, please introduce yourself.
“Congratulations, Tahsin!” said my maternal uncle from my city Dhaka in Bangladesh, on the 6th of July 2022 when my first full-length feature film, “A Tale of Night Flowers” (Bangla: “Deho Station,” 2014), was released on Amazon Prime Video platform.
As I have been working in the USA since August 2021, teaching Academic Writing to Graduate Students at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, most of the good wishes I received were on social media. However, my uncle clarified why he could not wish me there:
“I have just done my Hajj, so I hope you understand.” It was so sweet of him that even though his socio-religious ethics
does not permit him to publicly appreciate films centering on sex workers’ struggles in Bangladesh, love towards me made
him go out of the box of ‘haram,’ at least for a while, possibly. He seemed happy about my achievement. It reminded me of my journey
with films in which he contributed significantly, maybe unknowingly. When I was a kid, he was completely different back then.
I often shouted aloud from my balcony: “The next episode of MacGyver!” in the early ’90s. He used to run a store to rent film
cassettes for VCR/VCP just in front of our home. That is how it all started—my first journey toward my passion for literature and
cinematic arts! This journey of imagination was further inspired by my father, as he had immense love for poetry and music,
but somehow he was also chained by his religious dogmas against theatre and film. Yet, in my kindergarten days, because of him,
I was introduced to the world of oral storytelling; he used to buy me G. I. Joe action figures, and I used to narrate my ‘fairy scripts’ with
those toys! I wish he were alive to see me becoming a faculty member and experimental filmmaker today.
Why you became a filmmaker as a director and producer?
It wasn’t part of the plan initially; it happened. The universe wanted it, I guess I can claim that; even in toil times,
when I was about to choose another road, I chose the one “less traveled by,” and that has made all the difference!
I was always inclined towards aesthetics and arts since childhood. I tried almost all branches of arts and cinema, and finally,
gave me that satisfaction as it is a blend of all arts. To me, it’s one of the strongest forms of storytelling in terms of comprehensibility
and reachability, experimentally and stylistically. During high school, I used to like drawing, doing pencil sketch art, playing chess,
writing, and reading fiction. Later on, I started courses on graphics design, musical training, film courses, and drama theater.
So it didn’t come to me in a day, instead gradually, one art form led me to the next stage, and finally, cinema combined it all!
Give some more information about yourself and the films you have made so far, about your experience?
In total, so far, I have worked in 75 audio-visual productions, including fiction, non-fiction, documentary films, animation projects,
commercial audio-visuals, and music videos, mainly as a producer, writer, and director. In a few productions, I worked as
an executive producer, creative director, and creative supervisor. My first film was “The Sound of Silence” (Bangla title:
Shunner Abritti) which was aired on Channel-i in 2012. The second project that I made in 2014 was “A Tale of Night Flowers”
(Bangla: Deho Station). After this one, I took a long break from making my own fiction productions, and I started working in
the corporate audiovisual industry. Recently, I completed the project “Reflection,” which is a transcultural adaptation of
Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” incorporated with Lalon Shah’s “sufi” philosophy on spirituality and existentialism.
Talking about the experience, I must say—this struggle I enjoy so much that I feel like “I don’t need a break from it.”
My highest record on keeping the camera roll at a stretch was 72 hours continually with food and restroom breaks only,
but no sleep at night! The crew worked in shifts, but the majority of members of the team also worked 72 hours in a row in the
film set of “A Tale of Night Flower” and “Reflection.” I forget the concept of “time” while filming. It’s like I go in a transcendental
period or vertical timeline! Like Buddha’s meditation in the wilderness and when you return to this monotonous world—“...Years! Gone!”
I remember the first day of shooting in my life; I packed up at 5:00 AM the next day, starting from 8:00 AM in the set of “The Sound of Silence.”
My artists and crew members have gotten used to it now, and as I always work with the same crew, they understand and are prepared to work
at my pace and passion, as if all in a trance! A film set may look like a battlefield, but actually, it’s a “Rumi dance” like a Big Bang
on the surface, but deep inside—it is a spiritual journey of creation!
What are the films or people that had impacts on you and deeply inspired you to become a filmmaker?
After completing grade 12, I started watching the kind of cinema that shaped me into what I believe today about filmmaking.
My school friend Akib Khan used to do a film course in a film center, and he suggested many films that changed my perspective on life.
I started with the following suggestions in 2007: “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) by Stanley Kubrick, “Children and Heaven” (1999) by Majid Majidi,
and “Taste of Cherry” by Abbas Kiarostami. Then another school mate Ami Sayed was an avid film enthusiast who suggested films like
“Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind'' (2004) by Michel Gondry, “Her” (2013) by Spike Jonze, “The Truman Show'' (1998) by Peter Weir,
and many more. Then in 2009, I was mentioned by the renowned filmmaker in Bangladesh, Tanvir Mokammel, as I got enrolled
in a film course at his institute. I was deeply inspired by films like “Cinema Paradiso'' (1990) by Giuseppe Tornatore, “Citizen Kane'' (1941)
by Orson Welles, and “Bicycle Thieves'' (1949) by Vittorio De Sica. Since 2010, Aasif Antue, another friend of mine,
has led my creative team for a long time, and we studied plenty of films together daily! He introduced the other parts of the world
and other styles like Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring” (2004), “The Lobster” (2016) by Yorgos Lanthimos,
“Doodlebug” (1997) by Christopher Nolan, and many such films.
I am also grateful to people who guided my screenwriting and film production designing skills, like Alauddin Ahmed Rana,
Hossain Mohammad Belal, and Mrittika Kamal. In stage theater performances at “Nabonat,” a theater group in Dhaka, Bangladesh,
I was fortunate to learn from Ratan Kumar Shaha about acting and blocking. The professors in the Department of English at the University of Dhaka supported my journey with encouragement. Recently, Professor Jim Collins’ film course in the summer
at the University of Notre Dame, USA, extremely encouraged my cinematic experience with discussions on many films like "Faces Places" (2017)
by Agnès Varda and JR, "Ida" (2014) by Paweł Pawlikowski, "The Power of the Dog" (2021) by Jane Campion,
"The Forty-Year-Old Version" (2020) by Radha Blank and many more!
You have made your wonderful film "Reflection," which got an official selection and awarded at the
“American Golden Picture International Film Festival.”
As filmmaker, why did you decide to make it?
I was introduced to Samuel Beckett in 2011 with the play “Waiting for Godot.” My film “Reflection” is a transcultural recreation of that text.
Then, I was fascinated with his style and philosophical adaptation of Albert Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus.” Then,
I studied his other plays like “Endgame,” “Act without Words,” and many more. That is when I first wrote the script of
“Reflection” (Bangla title: Arshinagar). I was infused with the Sufi philosophy of Fakir Lalon Shah. The title in Bangla literally means
“Mirror-Land,” by which Fakir Lalon Shah possibly indicated the self or soul and universe – all cosmic energies dwell inside our mind
and can meet and greet each other to evolve into a higher being: a symbiotic relationship with the universe or cosmos In addition,
Fakir Lalon Shah argues that humans generally miss seeing this “vertical timeline” and often pass the whole life in “horizontal timeline”
blinded by material false consciousness and pseudo prospects considering it as a “progress.” However, “true” progress is in the
“vertical zone” as a “horizontal graph’ only moves to the next day, like a calendar, but it doesn't necessarily mean “evolution.”
I have been influenced by Fakir Lalon Shah’s spiritual philosophy since 2009. I attempted to connect the dots–Eastern spirituality
with Western existential absurdity! That’s how “Reflection” is born!
Nevertheless, I filmed this script later in 2018 and edited it in 2021. The reason for this delay in every step,
after writing the script around 2011-2012. I realized I am not mature enough to pull it off, so I should wait for more skill and knowledge!
What challenges did you face in making this specific film?
The first challenge was making the crew believe and understand the exact measurement of framing and cuts I want in this philosophical recreation. Secondly, I wanted raw natural sounds as a background score instead of instrumental music.
Thirdly, the script demand a one-day context: sunrise to sunset, Humpty and Dumpty, two characters,
explore various existential questions, whoever they meet around, but I visualized a “desert” kind of location as I wanted to have a surreal
universal impact, instead of limiting in a fixed geographical context. So, we could only film from sunrise to sunset every day,
and there were no hotels around where the team could stay overnight! So, the location was a massive hassle as we had to go to the spot
by boat to have that effect of “water, water everywhere,” yet no water to drink! And a few crew members did not understand what
I wanted—the outcome of the visual, so they left, breaking the contract. For instance, my primary cinematographer was a very talented one,
but our ideologies didn’t match, so he quit on the second day! Then, I had to reschedule the whole project after a few months as
I searched for another cinematographer. I am fortunate to have Saiful Islam Badal as a cinematographer who
understood the philosophy of this project.
Let us know more about your experience in this film?
At first, I started editing with Gao Productions in Bangladesh. Mr. Sameer is a highly skilled intellectual editor who initially helped me
with this project. However, in 2021, I came to the USA and started working at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. So,
I had to edit the whole thing again from scratch as there were technical difficulties opening the editing timeline on Mac from Windows!
In 2022, there was an event: Foreign Language Week at Notre Dame, organized by the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures,
where the film was screened for the first time before I submitted it to other film festivals. Many scholars, professors, and colleagues
watched and encouraged me in this endeavor! That event boosted my confidence and gave me more hope to work on such topics.
The cinematography, acting, and editing effectively support the story. What was it like to work with them?
The actors were so supportive and are very well-known artistes in Bangladesh. The two central characters are Humpty and Dumpty,
performed by Ahmed Rubel and Md. Shahadat Hossain, respectively, gave their 100 percent in the production.
The duo chemistry we see on screen is challenging to build for newcomers; that’s why I preferred experienced and skilled artistes
who understand the philosophy of Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, and Fakir Lalon Shah! Also, I tend to work with the same artistes
in most of my productions to have better synchronization. For instance, Shahadat Hossain, Hossain Mohammad Belal, Shoikot Siddique,
and Iqbal Hossain are all highly talented and worked with me in my earlier productions as well. So there was a better understanding of the film set. However, Ahmed Rubel is a celebrity senior artiste with whom I worked for the first time. As I am a young and new filmmaker,
whereas he has been in the industry working for more than 25-30 years, it is the script only that made him decide to work with me;
he said when we first met to brief this script. He liked the style and approach of this film when he read my screenplay and gave me
a schedule! It was thrilling as my family members and friends were too excited to see him with me!
What was the biggest lesson you had to learn after making this film?
I need to learn more about lighting to direct the cinematographer properly! Mostly sunlight was the prime source in this production,
yet we used cinematic lights either to complement the sunlight or manipulate it; however, I believe I should have done better in lighting.
I am working on it now, so we might see different evolved lighting aesthetics in future productions!
What keeps you inspired to continue filmmaking?
The art of storytelling as a tool for social justice was always my commitment to practicing liberal arts! Also,
this sector's rapid growth of various experimental styles inspires every artist to grow. This Fall, 2023,
I am enrolling in a Ph.D. program in Cinema Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, where I will learn more from celebrated filmmakers
in the USA. So, I hope my inspiration is about to soar high and jump to the next level in the coming days to make new films
to contribute something different and valuable to the world!
What is your next project?
My future aim is to establish an experimental film school with new pedagogical theories to develop the industry
in Bangladesh and to bridge American festivals with Bangladeshi filmmakers. Also, I am writing a self-reflexive postmodern script
to blur the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ where we will see conversations between actors and directors! Moreover,
I scribbled the sequel of “Reflection,” where I infused metaphysical elements from Dante’s Paradiso, particularly "Canto 28"!
In addition, as I have been working on eco-consciousness and environmental activism for many years through cinematic arts,
since last year, I am trying to develop a new theory on camera narratives, particularly on how to transmit camera language
from an ego-centric or human-centric voice to ecocentric non-human voice with framing representations.
GOOD LUCK Ahmed
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