Aleem Khan (2020) | Interview
Aleem Khan (2020) | Photo: Mark Senior courtesy of Chris Lawrence Publicity

Director Aleem Khan Rejects Stereotypes of How Muslims Are Depicted in Film with ‘After Love’

In PopMatters’ interview with director Aleem Khan, he talks about rejecting the mass media narrative about Muslims in his feature debut, After Love.

After Love
Aleem Khan
4 June 2021 (UK, theatrical) | 15 October 2020 (BFI London Film Festival)

Aleem Khan’s gentle and quietly considerate film, After Love (2020), is based on the director’s own experiences of loss and grief. It tells the story of Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan), a woman in her 60s living in Dover, who converted to Islam when she married her husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). Having lost their only child, when Ahmed suddenly passes away, she’s shocked to discover that he had a secret life across the Channel in Calais — a wife, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), and son Solomon (Talid Ariss). 

The filmmaker’s debut feature, his previous credits include the short film Diana (2009), set in the days following the death of Princess Diana. It centres on a young Indian pre-op transexual, who working as a prostitute in London, has a surprising transformative and life-changing moment when he feels an emotional connection to the Princess. His second short film, The Wayfaring Stranger (2011), continues this theme, telling the story of two strangers who cross paths and find their lives changed. His third short film, Three Brothers (2014), is based on a true story of a boy struggling to care for his siblings in the absence of their father.

In conversation with PopMatters, Khan discusses wanting to move away from the transactional exchange of cinema, After Love as a vehicle for his trauma, and how, if we are able to pull down social façades, we will reveal truths that connect us all. 

Talking with filmmakers and actors, I’ve found many to be introverts. Can the creative and storytelling process create a comfort zone for the introvert to become extroverted? 

I fit in that mould because when I’m writing, I’m very protective and insular. I need to go deep into what it is I’m writing. I will share the writing, but I need to fully understand the whole picture, to see what the layers are that make up the whole of the message or the idea that I’m trying to communicate. 

On set you’re forced into a position where you have to be reactive. The irony of directing is you’re probably one of the people on set that has the least experience. You’re working with actors who have more experience than you, with crew that have more flying hours on a film set than you.

What I found difficult about making After Love was I’d spent six years writing the film. There’s a level of detail in the writing. Everything has a reason, and it’s all complete in my head and on the page. Then you get on set and the location has fallen through, or an actor wants to try something new.

It was a wake-up call because the reality you create in your mind when you put that into action in real life, it’s never going to look the same. You’re working with other people, and you have to allow space for other people to bring their own creativity. It’s a head fuck, to be honest.

Can this make the interview and publicity process challenging, because you’re no longer in that safe space?

It’s interesting you mention interviews, which is what I hate doing the most. The point of doing an interview is to discuss the work, but I find that challenging because I don’t want the audience to hear me. I want them to find themselves in the work and to make it their own.

I find it a challenge when people ask, “What does this mean?” I don’t want to tell you what it means because then you can only see it the way that I’ve told you to see it. I want the audience to watch the film, to make it their own. I’ve said what I wanted to say in the work, so watch the film. You might not get everything I’m saying, and that’s the point because you’re bringing your own narrative to it.

The director can have their intentions, but that doesn’t mean it’s the correct and only reading. We should not seek approval for how we think and feel about a film, but embrace our own experience.

Cinema has become a very transactional exchange. It’s normally about how you’re going to make me feel, not how you’re going to make me think. I want to make films where the audience has to take their time to feel it out for themselves. I would much rather someone have a very strong dislike for the film than someone who is passive about it. 

In After Love, there’s a level of ambiguity and restraint. I don’t want to underline things too clearly because this isn’t how life is. From an experience point of view, you want to show the audience respect. I respect them to be intelligent enough to follow the film, to create their own attachment to it. 

We all bring our own baggage to that auditorium, and how we react to that film depends where we’ve come from. I want to try to get away from this transactional exchange of, “I’m going to buy a ticket and you’re going to make me feel this way.” 

After Love is a personal film that echoes your own experiences of loss and grief. Even for cinema that’s not as personal, a filmmaker will still invest a significant amount of time and energy that gives a film a sense of meaning and purpose. Can the acceptance or rejection reach beyond the film, to the filmmaker themselves?

I’m working through my trauma and giving it a vehicle when I’m writing the screenplay. It’s a different trauma when you make the film because things change. There were a lot of little things that evolved in a different way on After Love

Making this film, I learned that it will lead you where it wants to go. This was my first film, and I spent a huge amount of time on the screenplay. It needed to be calibrated because I was working through my own experiences of loss and grief. I put the experience of working through those feelings, what I wanted to say about the world and about me, into the film.

All of the characters are inspired by people in my life. Mary is my mum, but the character is a vehicle to express a part of something about my mum. It was also a way of expressing something buried in me. I’m in all of the characters, but I don’t know how I couldn’t be when I wrote it.

We all have different layers and facets of ourselves, and I’m curious about what side of us gets the light on any given day. We’re a prism that’s turning, and the side or piece of us that reflects out is always changing. I saw the characters as these momentary revolving reflections of me.

My ego wants people to like the film and to say nice things, but more deeply than that I’ve said what I needed to say for myself. You can reject that because it’s your right. Making a film is like having a conversation with someone, or with a group of people. Not everyone will agree on your talking points, and that’s okay. 

Although my ego wants everyone to love the film, you don’t make films for that reason. The process is so long that it doesn’t make sense to find validation in that. You find validation if someone likes your film, and you attach value to certain people liking your film. It’s human nature, but the process of making the film is the discussion.

We’re prone to discussing cinema with dramatic rhetoric that can misrepresent a film. Cinema does have the strength of presence to resonate in different ways, emotionally and intellectually, but we should be mindful of how we communicate this.

We live in a world that encourages us not to listen, and what I mean by that is to really listen. We’re living in a world that’s constantly trying to distract us with huge spectacle. It’s all a distraction that takes us away from contemplating the truth about ourselves. 

When I make a film, I have to say something about myself, otherwise, it’s pointless. It has to be more than spectacle, it has to be something that reveals and ultimately connects us. I hope After Love does that because it’s a film about how, when we remove the façade, or how when it breaks down, it’s very flimsy. We quickly realise that a façade seems fixed and impenetrable from a distance, but when it falls you reveal something far more complicated, beautiful, and truthful, that’s closer to something that we all share. 

Some people have asked me what the Muslim community have said about Ahmed having a mistress, and the fact that Mary’s a muslim. I find it interesting that they focus on these superficial elements, because the film is a rejection of such things. I wanted to make a film that dispelled a lot of the cliched expectations that we are led to expect.

I grew up in this community, I grew up mixed race, my mum is Muslim, and I’ve never seen a Muslim character of that age, of that size at the centre of a story before. Muslim characters are always on the periphery. They’re two-dimensional, or they have a particular purpose, which is either to be an agitator, a terrorist, or they’re without purpose. There’s never a deeper truth, it’s always an echo or a shadow of something, a spectacle. 

Those ways of seeing people are often given to us by people who have no idea what that person’s actually like. Politicians and the mass media have spent no time with people like me or my mum, the community or places I’m from. They speak for us, they create a narrative for us, and this film is a rejection of that. 

In After Love, we get to see the full inner full spectrum of the character. We never get to see that in a woman of this age, of this religion. The story becomes very complicated, but at it’s heart, it’s a simple story. It’s a way of honouring my family and myself through the work, by showing the mundanity in life. 

In the first scene Mary is making tea for Ahmed. We never get to see that love and quietness, and that’s what I mean by listening. We never get to see these characters from these backgrounds making a cup of tea. This was important to me because it was transgressive, counter to the narrative that we’re fed. 

Does storytelling need to become more transgressive and challenge our everyday social structures, instead of simply being a vehicle of art mirroring life?

I don’t think it’s about being transgressive for the sake of. I don’t know what that means. If we only see the same representation again and again, we’re guided into this false idea that this is the only way things can exist.

There’s something deeper in all of us, and there’s a truth in specificity. Regardless of your history, there’s something undeniable about truth that’s not verbal. It’s in a look, it’s in an expression, it’s in a sound or a taste. It’s something that can’t be denied, and it’s about getting closer to it by telling stories that are truthful. This becomes counter to the general narrative because what we’re lacking in film and in life right now is an authentic truth. 

I didn’t start off by saying I was going to be transgressive, that’s not how it works. The process of me being authentic and honest about my story, as specific as it is, is what makes it transgressive to mass culture’s expectational narrative that has been fed to us. 

Transgressive or subversive are words that we often overuse. You’re right that being honest and openminded, offering a nuanced point of view is not a revolutionary, transgressive or subversive act. It feels that After Love is a gentle and quietly considerate piece of filmmaking, although from a place of personal pain.

Isn’t it a sorry state of affairs if to be honest is to be subversive, or transgressive? It blows my mind, but that’s where we’re at. 

I set After Love in Calais and in Dover, partly because I know those landscapes very well. My grandparents lived in Folkestone, so I spent my childhood on those cliffs. 

I wrote the film during the explosion of the refugee crisis in Europe, and when it presented itself in Calais, there was something immediate about it. We were fed this idea that there was this stranger, this danger on our shores, right under our nose – this “other.” Brexit was also happening, and it influenced the way I thought about class, race, and identity in Britain, but also within Europe, with the populist movement that has taken hold over the last eight years or so. 

On the surface, the characters appear to be different. You would think this Muslim woman would have nothing in common with this white French woman. When you remove that façade, when you peel back a layer, you see that these two women are a mirror of each other. 

The idea I thought about a lot was that Mary ironed Ahmed’s shirt in the morning, and Genevieve washed his shirt in the evening. It was the transference of the same person, and because they’ve shared this man for so long, they’ve shared each other. 

It occurs to me that the spatial geography was important in expressing the themes and ideas of the film, not only the emotional, but potentially a political dialogue. 

… How we observe things depends on the perspective we have. I had a reportage photograph on my desk of the cliff at Dover that had collapsed and fallen into the sea. It encapsulated everything that I wanted to communicate in the film — the layers of a marriage, a sense of fixed identity, everything was bound up in this image. 

In the UK we have a very rigid idea of what a British sense of national identity is. The white cliffs of Dover are bound up in ideas of the Second World WarWinston Churchill, and “Englishness”, but what is that? Mary is a white Muslim convert who lives in Dover, it’s her home. I wanted to reject the idea that our identity and lives are fixed, but also that our idea of something can be completely different. 

If you go 20 miles across the channel and you look at those cliffs, they have a completely different meaning. They have a meaning of home, freedom, and a new life. Growing up I always wondered what was on the other side. Was someone looking back at me whom I couldn’t see? This idea that you’re so close to someone and yet so far transferred itself into the story. 

You can see Calais on a clear day, but Mary doesn’t know the separate life Ahmed has inhabited over there. It raises the question of how well we know the people closest to us. How well can we ever fully know someone? The cliffs and the image of the sea between these two landmasses are a physical manifestation of the ideas of the people in our lives — how close we are, and how well we think we know people. 

Talking about Calais and specifically the refugee situation, that’s not explored explicitly in the film, but it did make me think about who we consider to be strangers. Genevieve makes a very quick judgement of Mary. When she sees her she assumes she’s the cleaner because she’s wearing the headscarf. There’s something telling about that, and when she invites her into her home, she quickly realises there’s a familiarity. 

I wanted to humanise the stranger and I wanted people to see themselves in the stranger. We share such humanity with one another that we don’t allow ourselves to connect with. The film explores a lot of things, but you have to be quiet enough to hear them. 

Here in the UK, we largely treat immigrants and asylum seekers as a foreign enemy we should be scared of. It’s similar to how we view the EU as a foreign adversarial power. Brexit and the rhetoric of reclaiming our glory days are built on fear and insecurity. If we were to pull down this façade we’ve erected, we’d expose this truth. Much of this is not obvious in the film, but it’s there if you’re willing to look and to listen.  

It’s true what you’re saying that we have a government that’s desperate to create this illusion that we’re reliving our glory days. What were those glory days? If you go back to that point in time, then people were probably saying the same thing.

We live in a society that creates narratives that people are able to cling to. These narratives are created to separate and divide people. This is going beyond what I want to say in the film, but we live in a society where we’re encouraged not to trust but fear someone who looks and feels different. 

If you remove a layer of that façade then you see how flimsy that structure is, and you’re right that it comes from fear and insecurity. It’s a very intense debate we can get sucked into, but a lot of people that watch the film might not see that because, as you say, these things are subtle and fleeting. I was thinking about it when I was writing After Love, and it’s in every aspect of the film.

A less subtle idea is that when we give someone the opportunity to love us, we also give them the opportunity to hurt us.

I’m pleased you said that because it’s a nice way of articulating my intention, and the two are connected. To fully love someone means you have to be open to receiving pain. It’s not for me to say what love is, but love can’t exist without the other side of it, because then it’s not love. 

This is at the heart of the film because I didn’t want to vilify Ahmed. Every character in the story lies to one another. Mary becomes complicit in Ahmed’s deceit by lying to Genevieve and her son. It’s fucked up and twisted, but we, of course, understand why she’s there. She’s grieving and she’s trying to find a connection with these people, that reminds her of the husband and the child that she’s lost. 

There’s an irony that Ahmed’s death gives all of these characters what they wanted, which is family. We end the film in a place where there’s a seed of something new. It’s not that they’re going to become best friends, but they understand how they fit into each others world, and how they fulfil each other in different ways. All of the characters were designed to have a need, and to find that need in one another.