For The Culture | Amirah Tajdin makes films between her two homes: Africa and The Middle East
Amirah Tajdin makes films where the edges blur, offering new perspectives on the places she calls home. Born and raised in Nairobi, she went on to spend her teenage years in Dubai and her college years in South Africa and the USA. Currently, she works as a freelance commercial director in the Middle East, splitting her time between work that pays the bills and working on her first feature film, Hawa Hawaii, set in Mombasa, Kenya.
Amirah’s particular visual language asserts itself in all of her work acting as a thread between her films. Her own poetic writing appears as voice overs woven throughout the music which also plays a major part in all of her films. Her work has a femininity to it, even when documenting break dance culture in Dubai in Grit Grace Gold. Sisterhood, and the relationship between mother and daughters is a theme in her 2016 short film Minerva’s Lilies. It’s a personal meditation, produced by her own sister Wafa Tajdin. The two founded their own production company in Nairobi in 2011 and it’s through this company that Amirah makes the films that feed her soul.
We speak to her about making films across cultures, and across the well-traversed line between commercial work and independent film.
What are you interested in making films about?
I guess I’ve always been fascinated by people who exist on the fringes of what’s considered normal. I started to explore this photographically first, inspired by Diane Arbus and Josef Koudelka in art school, and then cinematically when I found myself wanting to tell the stories of these characters beyond just photos. Maybe if I had to sum it up it would be that I like to make films about the surreal-er side of the human condition?
Do the countries you’ve lived in affect the stories you tell?
Hugely. It goes back to the above question in a way, I like to dissect the notion of ‘everywhere and nowhere’ in every place I’ve called home and the people who exist within those spaces. The overlap of similarities, but how they are done differently once we attach a specific culture to it.
What was the first film you made and how do you look back on it now?
There were a few dinky (kind of cringe) projects in art school, haha, but officially, it was Fluorescent Sin, a short film set in Nairobi. As for how I look back on it now… a constant combo of dismay, w-t-f cringe, pure joy, embarrassment all lined with a bit of love.
Your films have an emphasis on the visual. What inspires your aesthetic? Is this vision something that’s evolving?
I find inspiration through music, memory, my dreams, social issues, translation of the highs and lows of living. I’ve always been an artist I guess, drawing and tracing since I can remember, so the visual is basically a part of me, it’s essentially my first language. And it’s definitely constantly evolving, but stays rooted in a distinct familiarity which I try to always be aware of and remind myself of.
Your work offers a glimpse into worlds/lives not often portrayed in films. Is this a circumstance of where you live or something you do intentionally?
It’s definitely a combination of all the above, as well as a layer of my subconscious reacting to the world(s) I find myself in and the emotional landscape I’m reacting to within those worlds.
How do you balance commercial work with self-motivated work?
As filmmakers it’s very few of us who have the luxury and privilege of being pure to only our art, so striking that balance is a discipline and a necessity that I have to constantly remind myself to do. I take time away from the commercial world to focus on my independent work and get back to the source of my creativity, sometimes for months on end, and sometimes for weeks and sometimes it can only be days. The commercial world drains me after a season long of churning out what are often half baked ideas and high stress projects, so that alone is huge motivation to remind myself of who I am and why I chose to be a filmmaker.
How much of yourself can you bring to commercial projects?
It depends on the creative/art directors behind the project and how talented they are. I’ve found the more talented they are, the more space they give me to bring myself into the project because it becomes a true collaboration and not an exercise in ego validation.
Can you tell us more about Hawa Hawaii, your first feature film in production?
It’s been four years in the making, and only now am I ready to say we’re ready for financing because I’m SO ready to make this film. It’s being produced by my sister, Wafa Tajdin, and is an ode to our Swahili community in Mombasa, Kenya.
It’s a story about a middle aged Muslim wedding singer who performs in drag as his alter ego Hawa Hawaii and his very complicated relationship with his mother. He goes home to be with her as she’s dying to seek the final validation he’s always wanted from her. He finds a mother who on top of her own flaws is now also Islamically-radicalised and decides the only way to break through to her is through the language he knows best, love songs. So he communicates his deepest pains through the slowly fading art of Taarab music thought the film.
We’re looking for financing, so if anyone out there wants to share some money-shaped shells with us, please hollaaaaa.