Director, who is a talent to watch, talks about production with star and his first feature with another much admired actor Ben Whishaw…
HARD-HITTING, difficult to watch but brilliantly shot and with a moving, painful climax – ‘The Long Goodbye’ a short film starring Riz Ahmed and directed by Aneil Karia – is very much back in the news again.
It is eligible for an Oscar having recently won short film prizes at two prestigious festivals in the US, which are affiliated to the Academy. This now puts ‘The Long Goodbye’ in the frame for the big prize on March 27 next year – and it has to make the shortlists for this category of Live Action Short.
A fortnight ago, there was a special screening of ‘The Long Goodbye’ in London to which www.asianculturevulture.com was invited.
BBC Film critic Mark Kermode conducted a short post-screening Q&A with both Ahmed and Karia and we caught up with the director later to talk in more depth not just about ‘The Long Goodbye’ but his debut feature ‘Surge’, which stars Ben Whishaw and won the actor the Grand Jury Prize for Acting at the Sundance Film Festival last year, where the film enjoyed its world premiere. Karia had also made a short with Wishaw in 2013, called ‘Beat’, an early forerunner to the star returning to Karia’s debut feature, ‘Surge’ (see below for viewing links).
Karia has directed Kano music videos and has also done a lot of TV too – he has directed episodes of the much acclaimed Sky crime drama, ‘Top Boy’ and also got noticed for his work on another TV series, ‘Pure’ for Channel 4.
Ahmed and Karia’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ was released in Spring 2020 and enjoyed a lot of attention at the time. It was even talked about in parliament.
It starts innocuously – with a family gathered for a wedding – Ahmed joked at the Q&A that some people were more shocked by just seeing a brown family hanging out and bickering than what happens to some of them by the end.
Ahmed’s character is trying to get the house prepped, while entertaining his young cousin – or should it be the other way around? And navigating the personal tensions – lazy cousins, tense mother, broody father. It is a very relatable family setting and perhaps more so for Asian households, where many family members will typically gather for – or even just before – a big occasion.
It is funny, charming and Karia’s direction gives it a lovely pace and atmosphere. Suddenly, the mood changes when some masked men appear in the street and come knocking. Ahmed’s character is the first to notice from the window of the property and warns: “It’s happening.”
It feels prophetic and chilling.
What happens then, is at the heart of the drama and is brutal and shocking and its climax has Ahmed delivering a soliloquy to camera that starts with the lines, “Where are you from?”.
Kermode said the film had more to say in its 11-minutes than many features. He also concurred with Ahmed when the star said that Karia was one of the “most amazing filmmakers” there is, today.
“Riz and I met through Yann Demange (he, like Karia has directed episodes of ‘Top Boy’).
“We weren’t really talking about any specific projects, it was just nice meeting him,” explained Karia to acv, about how he and Ahmed first got introduced.
Ahmed speaking about the origins of ‘The Long Goodbye’ confirmed to Kermode that it was made in a spirit of a break-up; his album released at the same time is more explicitly inspired by this, but the film came from a similar emotional place of rejection and unease – about Britain and home.
“It really came out of a question,” Ahmed explained at the post-screening Q&A at the W Hotel. “The question – ‘where are you from? There is a question underneath that question and it’s a question we often ask ourselves and it’s spinning in our heads.
“There was a rising xenophobia.”
And please remember this film was made before the recently passed Borders and Nationality Bill, which gives the Government the right to strip anyone of their British citizenship without having to tell them directly.
Ahmed said that on meeting Karia and having seen his work, there was a desire to collaborate.
“I’d seen Aneil’s work, his short film (‘Beat’) and Kano videos and ‘Top Boy’. We wanted to make something ourselves and something that unpicked the knots in our stomachs.
“It was almost cathartic and unapologetic and we kind of egged each other on – we kept pushing each other to be honest.”
The pair accept the film depicts a certain nightmare scenario and is extreme – but it also articulates a feeling many minority communities feel at times when Britain is not at all at ease with itself.
“It’s a dystopian nightmare – it’s a powerful feeling but you can’t quite word it,” explained Karia at the W Hotel. “There is rage and it’s about the world right now but still in a considered and controlled way.”
Karia told acv that he worked on a narrative treatment; Ahmed got backing from the file-sharing site, We Transfer – which has a creative web platform called, WePresent, where it curates work with artists whose work is not mainstream or highlights issues often marginalised or ignored.
Karia, as they got closer to shooting, told us, he had a grid and had worked out what the characters were doing and their storylines.
“It was written down but there was a description of what was happening and the atmosphere and loose parameters – during each take we would talk about the scene, craft and then hone it.”
The naturalistic, almost documentary or hybrid style is something Karia likes to adopt.
‘Surge’ has a similar philosophical treatment in its shooting and direction. Whishaw plays an airport security worker who perhaps in common parlance ‘loses it’ but then also discovers parts of himself and has some intense experiences, some good, some bad.
“It’s a 360-degree world that the character lives and breathes and we (as in the crew) respond to them rather than the other way around,” explained Karia.
The director said he came to the style having worked with Whishaw on their short film some years earlier. ‘Beat’ covers similar territory and is very visual and has an arresting music track which helps you ‘feel’ the character.
Karia contacted Whishaw through a mutual acquaintance – both were still finding their way then as artists, one might surmise.
“Ben and I kept talking after that (the making of ‘Beat’) and became friends and we wanted to explore those themes – which were quite abstract but interesting to us – on a bigger canvas.”
The actors on ‘The Long Goodbye’ were briefed but then played their characters with a certain freedom.
Karia said and he and Ahmed didn’t share everything with the cast but did discuss the most shocking scenes.
“It was such an emotional and volatile and sensitive subject that we needed to be quite upfront and clear with people and have emotionally intelligent conversations with them – whether they were going to be the victims of violence or the perpetrators and find out how they felt about that.”
Karia came into filmmaking via journalism, having studied it as a subject as an undergraduate and then worked as a TV journalist for a year or so. It was a course at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) which was to see him change direction.
“I was actually on a brand new course, which was about directing from a TV gallery – directing factual studio based shows but I quickly became aware of what the film students were doing – I was much more interested in these guys making narrative films.”
He said on leaving the NFTS he did all types of production work and started out his directing career with music videos.
He is set to work on a TV heist drama in the New Year and Ahmed and he continue to talk about a possible feature.
“I am working on a couple of feature films and I hope to start making them at the beginning of 2023,” he told acv before he had to rush off to a meeting.
Teaser – TheLongGoodbyeShortfilm –
The Long Goodbye
Surge trailer (UK)
Aneil Karia website – http://aneilkaria.com/