The Venice Film Festival’s Biennale College Cinema programme is a unique creation in the world of talent development, distinct even from Cannes’ La Cinef initiative. An early-career filmmaker is given €150,000 to produce, direct and complete a movie in an unusually short period of time, and then it has a guaranteed world premiere in Venice’s official selection.
Tahmina Rafaella is one of the latest graduates from this scheme. Billed as the first independent Azerbaijani feature from a female director, her debut film, Banu [+], follows the eponymous lead character, a mother struggling to gain custody of her son in the face of the country’s patriarchal and sexist nature. Our chat delved into her inspirations and ideas, whilst also leaving room for a talk about filmmaking idols.
Cineuropa: How did you approach the process of selecting a story and a theme for your debut film? Were you always inspired to put this tale of a collapsing family in relief against the latest eruption of the Karabakh war?
Tahmina Rafaella: I’ve always been passionate about writing about the female experience in Azerbaijan because we don’t have enough of that going on there, even just generally speaking, and with the male filmmakers, we don’t have a lot of them talking about the female experience. And so I was always fascinated whilst growing up, seeing a lot of women getting divorced who couldn’t get custody of their child, and thinking how odd it was.
But because [their husbands] had power and the right connections, they were able to be granted custody, even though legally, the court is on the side of the mother in the country. I spoke to a few women like these and started writing the story before the war erupted again in 2020. I remember having very conflicting feelings about the war: I was saddened, but also happy for the people able to return home. I tried to channel these conflicting emotions, and I realised that I could put them into the movie, as a contrast, because the patriarchy is what’s causing war. It’s just led by men, and the women suffer – they’re losing their sons. People are out celebrating, and yet thousands of women are left without husbands or sons, brothers or fathers. And it’s just something I could not put into words, so I tried to channel it into the film, in the backdrop.
It’s an intriguing choice to make Banu’s character a schoolteacher. Was it important, as you were writing, to give her this profession?
I think the way you educate children is the way you educate a nation. She is an educator: as a woman, she’s raising a generation, not just a son. A big oil billionaire in Azerbaijan said that if you want to educate one person, you do it through a school, and for a nation, you do it through the mothers. I think education is tied to the mother, so I wanted her to be a nurturer, wanting to raise a new generation of free thinkers and creative people.
Could you unpack this concept of martyrdom, which is really striking in all of the media discourse and the coverage you see placed in the film, as well as in the characters’ own references to it?
It’s a big topic. In Azerbaijan, we’ve been at war since the beginning of our independence, since after the fall of the Soviet Union. That’s why war is such a defining thing for everyone’s identity – they know somebody who’s lost someone, or they’ve lost someone themselves. And there’s this word “shaheed”, which people just associate with an Islamic, religious war. In our country, it’s not a religious war; it never was. But it has become so. The word “shaheed” is used this way: this is a shaheed’s mother, a shaheed’s wife. It’s interesting that they use that word instead of calling them by their actual name or their position. I wanted to show how they’re respected in our country, and I very much respect them, those who gave up their lives. But this idea of sacrifice… I try to juxtapose that with the lead character. She was trying to speak up for her son, in a way.
The thrust and tempo of the film bring to mind both the Dardenne brothers and Asghar Farhadi’s work. If not them, were there any other filmmakers who influenced you?
It’s so funny: you’ve named exactly the two filmmakers I was thinking of.
So many films are pitched as “something plus something”, such a simple equation: Alien as Jaws in space, if you like!
I love that you mention that, because they’re exactly the references I was following. Also, our social-realist auteurs: Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold. Those people definitely influenced me – but one of the things I admire about all of those filmmakers is that they tell a complete story, even if it is a slice of life. And I think people sometimes forget that and underestimate how important that is to a film. I understand that there are movies that have a different kind of structure, or maybe less dialogue. But what I don’t agree with is people trying to put cinema in a box, that cinema is only visual. A complete storyline is something that we underestimate. And it is important for me particularly, and for the movies I like.