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A Total Artwork: “Asylum Seekers” Director Rania Ajami

A Total Artwork: “Asylum Seekers” Director Rania Ajami

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.

“Asylum Seekers” (USA, 2008)
Director: Rania Ajami
Cast: Pepper Binkley, Bill Dawes, Judith Hawking, Daniel Irizarry, Stella Maeve, Camille O’Sullivan, Lee Wilkof
Six people on the verge of a breakdown decide to check themselves into an insane asylum, only to discover there is just room for one.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?

I started out in the theater, but I quickly found that my projects were gradually becoming more focused in mixing projections and videos with live action. Sometimes the pieces had to be totally choreographed, and yet at the same time they could often feel messy and imprecise. I wanted the overall look to be more precise and magnificent without having to be perceived as staged. After that, I started experimenting on my own, using the systems for recording I’d already been depending on, and then I went to do a film MFA at NYU. My interest has always been in creating my own fabular worlds and telling stories within these worlds visually while concentrating on music, painting etc—a total artwork kind of filmmaking. I completed several short films, a feature documentary on Qaddafi’s Female Bodyguards and now “Asylum Seekers” which is my first narrative feature.

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?

The idea came from a recurring dream my baby brother had about a giant beard that was trying to devour him whole. This led to a four act play called “The Giant Swearing Beard,” which was about six people trying to break into a mental asylum—six years later I decided to take the premise of the play and transform it into a film. I always tell my audience that if they think the film is surreal, then they should see what the play was like! With the heightened discussion of asylum seekers in the last few years, and with the recurrent question of where it is that we find a home when what our life as we know it comes into some kind of jeopardy, it seemed to me that the whole idea of working again on the metaphor of an asylum seeker became appealing.

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

The film had to look great—and on a very small budget. So it was very much a collaboration between myself, my art team, the cinematography department, the composer and the ensemble of actors. My biggest challenge was to find good people to work with and this process took over a year. However, once the creative group was assembled, the rest was very easy and I have to say that the filming process went very smoothly indeed. As for pivotal learning moments: some months before the shoot I caught mono(!) and had to spend a month plus in bed. From then on I made sure to prepare as radically as I could: both in being certain of what the designers were doing and of how I was preparing the shots. By the time I stepped on set there was no way I was unprepared which then allowed me to play around and think of what was happening rather than worry whether I was doing things the right way. The film came out looking as I’d wanted it to, and moments of improvisation added to it, rather than frustrating us.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

The visual scope of the film was massive in comparison to the budget available. In order for the fantasy world to work, every production detail had to be tailored and created to fit the highly stylized and fantastical universe that was the asylum. But this was less a challenge than an at once intellectual and a logistical imperative, and I think things worked out well in the end. A second challenge was making a film that would be both funny and very serious—shooting a script that tried to do both.

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

There was one occasion where we had to film a scene outside the U.N building in New York. A chatty lady and her friend who were passing by asked us what the film was called and as soon as we told her “Asylum Seekers” she enthusiastically recounted how she too had once sought asylum in the US and how wonderful it was that people were making films about the plight and struggles of people trying to gain asylum into the country. This support and admiration turned to horror when one of the crew corrected her and told her that we were playing on the metaphor. She wanted nothing to do with us imagining asylum seeking as a basic element of modern existence…

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

I’ve been hybridizing and blending genres—classical fantasy film is by definition a hybrid!—but besides that, I am interested in taking a genre on: a zombie or other horror film would be top of my list.

While I would love to one day have access to a bigger budget, the possibility of making extravagant-looking films on independent budgets—and thus recapturing for independent film certain genres or styles that budgets have rendered less accessible (but which could sell and be interesting at the same time!)—is something I’m very excited about.

What other projects are you looking to do?

I currently have several projects in the works. One is a surveillance thriller/western/road movie to be shot in North Africa. And I am writing a couple more scripts—a children’s nightmarish fantasy is what I’m most excited about right now, but also one more script, a straightforward thriller inspired by the works of Chabrol and Haneke about a family being replaced. Each of these is very different to the fragmented world of Asylum Seekers, and the idea of making films of different hues is appealing.

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