If the personal is political, then everything is personal for Riz Ahmed. In fact, to call his recent film work “political” is to out yourself as privileged. Under his productions company Left Handed Films, Ahmed has shepherded and starred in some of the most incisive, genre-busting, and deeply personal films of the last few years. 2020’s “Mogul Mowgli” saw Ahmed playing a British-Pakistani rapper struck down by disease, earning rave reviews not only for his performance but the gutsy filmmaking as well. And though he’s just getting started as a producer, Ahmed has two films vying for Oscars this year: the deeply moving and inventive animated documentary “Flee,” and the rhythmic and powerful short film “The Long Goodbye.”
Directed by Aneil Karia, who caught critics’ attention last year with the visceral Ben Whishaw–starrer “Surge,” “The Long Goodbye” is a tense 12-minute spin through a British-Pakistani man’s worst nightmare. What begins as a simple domestic scene pivots on a dime as armed guards swarm the family home, arresting everyone and worse. The film shifts once again as Ahmed delivers an emotional rap as a poignant soliloquy to the camera. For Ahmed and Karia, it’s deeply personal.
“It’s about what’s happening in India, what’s happening in the U.S., what’s happening all around the world. We’re seeing this rising tide that we all feel like we’re drowning in. And so it’s very much a personal response to that,” Ahmed said. “To be able to put these things into a box and call it political is actually a privilege in itself. If you can say, ‘That’s a political thing,’ well, I’m glad you can keep your arm’s length and put it in that bit of the shelf space, because it’s turning up on our doorsteps.”
“The Long Goodbye” shares its title with Ahmed’s concept album, which came out in 2020. Though the film uses music from the album, particularly potent during the incendiary finale, Ahmed is adamant that the film stand on its own.
“They both kind of sprung out of a place I was in emotionally and things I was thinking about,” he said. “I guess the bridge between the album and the short film is me rather than being a very direct one.”
When Karia heard the album, he immediately felt its raw emotion and saw himself in the complex anxieties Ahmed was voicing. They began shooting in December 2019, the same month Parliament finally ratified Brexit.
“The most potent common ground we had was our emotions and anxieties that were simmering away at the time in what was a particularly complicated moment,” the filmmaker said. “For anyone on the planet actually, but particularly immigrants or second-generation immigrants in the U.K.”
In just 12 minutes, “The Long Goodbye” presents a bustling picture of ordinary family life and a ghoulish portrait of a militant ethnic cleansing. The rhythmic music scores these transitions as the handheld camera work remains largely the same, the intimacy of the first half clashing unnervingly with the terror of the second.
“It was very important to us that this was kind of felt rather than taught,” said Karia. “You had to just believe this family existed, and that you were almost just a fly on the wall inside that home. To get into that mindset for you to be truly affected and moved by what came afterwards.”
Ahmed is quick to praise Karia, whose work he calls “relentlessly visceral,” singling out the filmmaker’s facility with blending these seemingly disparate genres in such a tight running time.
“The fact that you can bridge these almost different genres from like this British kitchen sink social realism and then from there into this like horror musical, and then you turn a corner into a third act into a direct address soliloquy,” said Ahmed. “So you’re turning these corners stylistically and technically, and in terms of genre. And I think that that makes it more emotional. ‘Cause it keeps you guessing.”
This explosion of genre is what makes “Flee” such an exciting film. Directed by Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen based on conversations with one of his oldest friends, “Flee” uses animation to tell the story of a gay Afghan man who came to Denmark as a teenage refugee. The animation not only masks Amin’s identity, but transports the audience to each unbelievable chapter in his story. The film is shortlisted for Best International Feature and Best Documentary, and could very well earn nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Picture.
“Trying to explode genres, I think that’s really our mandate at Left Handed Films. That’s what we want to do. We want to work with the boldest, freshest voices,” said Ahmed. “‘Flee’ is a documentary and it’s also an animation and it’s a love story. ‘The Long Goodbye” is social realism and horror musical and poetry piece. [What we’re] getting at is a kind of manifesto for mongrels like us, ’cause the boxes already set out, they’re too narrow for our experience.”