As movie lengths grow ever longer and more arduous, the short film continues to prove good things often come in small packages.
One such good thing is Safiyah Flies Across The Ocean, a touching story set in 2011 about a young British-Egyptian girl waiting to hear news from her father who is caught up far away in the Arab Spring. Deciding that her mum is standing in the way of her reuniting with her dad, Safiyah decides to embark upon a journey to find him.
A children’s adventure story and quietly powerful political drama, in 13 brief minutes it packs in more character, emotion, magic and wonder than most blockbusters do in ten times that duration.
Earlier this year we caught up with the film’s writer Mei Leng Yew to discuss what drew her to the subject and how this gem came to be.
Electric Shadows: Can you tell us a little of what the film is about?
Mei Leng Yew: Safiyah Flies Across the Ocean is about a little girl who just wants to know where her dad is. He’s been gone all summer and her mum won’t tell her where he’s gone or when he’s coming back, so she takes it upon herself to find out.
ES: What gave you the idea?
MLY: I was watching a lot of news at the time and the film is really about the Arab Spring. I kept seeing images of men in Tahrir Square, and I wondered what the women would be doing. Would they just be sat at home waiting for their husband or brother to return? Those thoughts kept coming back to me until the story came.
ES: It’s a weighty topic. Why did you position it as a kids’ film or is that something that came about through the writing?
MLY: It came about through the writing. I wanted to show the effects of war without actually showing war or anything that dark. We wanted to have this innocent, beautiful world that only really gets impacted on at the end.
ES: The film is quite ambitious. It’s a thirteen minute short, location shooting, child actors and a lot of financial backers. How did it originally come about?
MLY: A charity called Ideastap who offered a £4000 fund were looking for script ideas. I only had to enter a two sentence pitch, which was great because I’d never written a script before and don’t think I’d have been able to sit down and just write a thirteen page idea.
So I just wrote a sentence. I think they had 400 ideas, whittled down to 40. We were then taken to a weekend boot camp where we had to develop that one sentence into a beginning, middle and end and write the first scene.
The whole process was really interesting and everyone’s ideas were so different. From that 40 you then had to submit a script for a second boot camp and they then whittled us down to 12.
By, this point we had to have a fully-fledged script, which worked well for me because it was like school. I don’t do something unless it feels like homework and I had deadlines I had to meet; it was the only reason I sat down and actually wrote anything.
So all 12 of us had scripts, we did read throughs, which I’d never done before, and everyone’s script was amazing. But, you can’t help it when listening to everyone’s script and you might be winning £4000 thinking, okay, they might get it, and them, they won’t, they will… so I have about an 8% chance of winning?
I was really thrilled that script won though, it was a great experience for my first foray into writing fiction.
ES: What was the original sentence?
MLY: God, I can’t remember now! It was something to do with the Arab Spring, and feminism and politics. I’m a feminist, I’m political so anything I write is going to include something like that and I think it must have stood out.
ES: I like the way the film is positioned at the child’s eye level, thematically and visually. It’s Safiyah’s adventure with Tommy, the boy who lives on the floor below her. But, in the background you get snatches of her mum’s phone conversations or news stories hinting at something darker happening.
MLY: It was never intentionally meant to be a children’s film. You would only get it being about the Arab Spring if you were old enough to know that situation. So, we always wanted to have this intrusive, darker element of the outside world coming in, and that had to come through newspapers, the mother’s tears in the background and things like that.
ES: How much research did you do?
MLY: We didn’t need to do much research into it, because ultimately we weren’t saying that much about politics. What we wanted to say was that war impacts families and children and the loss is emotional.
So, there wasn’t much hardcore fact checking we had to do. Although originally the family was supposed to be Syrian, not Egyptian. But, at the time the British government weren’t letting Syrian refugees into this country, so the feedback we were getting on the script was, why is the British government letting Syrians into this country?
It was such a frustrating little thing that had no effect on the story in terms of character emotion that we decided to change the nationality!
ES: An Egyptian language consultant is credited at the end of the film. What was your approach to language in the script?
MLY: There was more Arabic dialogue included at first because I really wanted to get across the fact Safiyah was of mixed heritage. So for her Egypt was a place very far away, but also very close.
Unfortunately we had to cut a lot of the Arabic because we didn’t have native Arabic actresses. A lot of it wasn’t understandable even to native Arabic speakers. But, the intention was there! (laughs)
MLY: Glad you picked up on that, I love magic realism. I love (Jorge Luis) Borges and Pan’s Labyrinth and so did the director, Samuel de Ceccatty.
There was a short list of three directors for this project and Sam was the only one who picked up on the magic realism. His favourite film was Beasts of the Southern Wild, which I hadn’t seen at the time. So I watched and thought, wow, I think this is now my favourite film, can you come and make my film please!
ES: One of the touches I liked was how toys were used to blend the children’s world with the real world. The opening shot is of a toy truck with the sound of a real engine. Is that something that was worked in later after script stage?
MLY: It was tied in from the very beginning. No, actually that’s a lie, it came through the development of the script. It sounds absurd for such a short film but it went through nine months of script development because of the funding process.
The key moment at the close of the film has that magic realism of the toy helicopter flying off. We felt if we didn’t pinpoint similar moments earlier on it would be jarring for the audience so we looked for other moments that would say something.
When Safiyah first sees the mosque glinting, and it’s there and then not there, it lets you know that some things will be in her imagination.
ES: Interesting that the script went through so much development. How similar is the film to the script you first presented to the funders?
MLY: The beginning, middle and end are the same. But, secondary characters were stripped out. Tommy was more developed. At first he was just a hanger-on sidekick figure, then he became a hero figure which we all hated, because we wanted this to be a girl’s story and she didn’t need a boy to rescue or help her. So, we tried to place him between those two in the end, because he’s her friend. But, I think he changed the most, at times he was up and down and all over the place.
ES: I thought the film was well-directed, Samuel de Ceccatty gives it a real cinematic sheen. There’s a close up of Safiyah during the climax I thought was really impactful. As a writer, how did you interact with your director?
MLY: It’s funny you mentioned the close-up of Safiyah, because Sam and the DoP Ewan Mulligan totally disagreed about that. It was a hot day, the middle of July during the heatwave, it was awful. And Sam insisted on having the close-up and Ewan, who had given us all these amazing shots beforehand, told Sam he wouldn’t use the shot, everything up to that point has been on a dolly, why would we suddenly go handheld?
But, Sam told him he had to have the shot and I loved that. It’s a really beautiful moment, you feel like you’re falling inside of Safyiah’s head.
ES: You were there for shooting. The end takes place on top of the tower block and looks very high up. What were the practicalities of shooting that with the two child actors?
MLY: It was in the original script, but I didn’t think the tension was high enough so I had fire engines and sirens and all kinds of things. Thankfully our budget wasn’t big enough and I think it’s a much better ending without that.
In terms of shooting it, our insurers pulled out because they didn’t realise it was going to be on a roof. Which is a bit odd because they would have had to read the script. So the funders came up with their own insurers, which was fine.
But, three days before the shoot was when the original insurers pulled out. So Manon was running around, freaking out, trying to find someone else, because we had a crew of 40, everything was booked and paid for. For a moment we thought, can we go on the roof without insurance? (laughs)
The location was actually very safe. Sam did a great job of making it look dangerous, but there was never any danger.
ES: Olivia Anson who plays Safiyah really has to deliver the emotional heft of the film. How was she?
MLY: She was wonderful, so keen to act. One moment that really impressed me was when Sam gave her a lot of notes and instructions on which marks to hit, which way to turn her head when saying her line, and she just nailed it.
ES: And this was your first attempt at scriptwriting?
ES: Disgustingly talented… One thing that impressed me was the economy of storytelling. Do you think it’s good to begin with shorts to get the discipline in telling a story before graduating to a something longer?
MLY: Yeah, because I’m trying to write a feature now. It’s like trying to fly when you haven’t learnt to swim, totally different families. Doing those writing boot camps taught me to strip everything out. When I first got there, Safiyah’s family were Syrian refugees who’d come to see her uncle, Tom’s family were all involved, there was a family feud, it was all getting EastEndery.
The boot camp mentor said you have to strip everything down to one sentence and one thought, especially in a short because you have no time. So you must work out what is the most important thing you want to say. At the time it was a tough experience cutting things out you were developing and caring about and you’re building this feature length universe in your head.
ES: How did you feel when you saw the finished film?
MLY: I couldn’t really see it. All I saw was the point where we had to do ADR (additional dialogue recording), where we had to remove the fishing line in post-production, or I was thinking that’s shot too green, isn’t it? Stupid things really.
But, what I could experience as new was the soundtrack. We’d gone through four composers and I’d never heard the full soundtrack until the very end. I love Roly Witherow’s music in the film, it’s so beautiful and poignant and adds emotion in subtle ways.
Music is something I don’t understand in that way. I find it hard to describe how you’re going to move someone emotionally through music, but he did that.
Composer is that right word, isn’t it? I can’t remember what the film credits him as. We had so many sound guys, there was a dude in Paris, and I’m not sure what he did. I’m really new to this film thing!
ES: It was a big project to realise. Were there ever any moments when the logistics of it seemed overwhelming?
MLY: No, I thought the whole process was incredible. Sometimes I felt out of my depth, having no idea what a dolly or a crane or a jib was beforehand. It was like being immersed in a totally different world. I work in sports TV and that’s simple in a way to me, with a fast turnaround. The weirdest thing to me was waiting a whole year from first sentence to finished product.
ES: I was lucky to see the film at a press preview earlier this year. Where can people see it?
MLY: We’ve entered it into loads of festivals, so hopefully it will be picked up for that circuit. We should hear from the next batch in October, so fingers crossed.
ES: I hope so, it deserves a wide audience as I think it plays to all ages and groups. What’s next for you?
MLY: I’m working on a feature length romcom. I love romcoms, this is about a Pakistani girl stuck between an arranged marriage her mother wants or a secret boyfriend she’s not sure she wants.
ES: Your first film is about a mixed race Egyptian girl. Second script about a Pakistani woman. You’re of Malaysian heritage. What attracts you to different cultures and are you ever wary of getting anything wrong?
MLY: Oh definitely. But, all films are trying to say something emotional through the lens of something else. So Safiyah is trying to say something about loss and death through the lens of a British Egyptian girl, but ultimately it’s a film about heartbreak.
My romcom is a story about choices and if unlimited choice makes us less happy. You know when you go into a supermarket and look at all the cereal and don’t know which one to pick so you end up analysing all the boxes… or maybe that’s just me! But, that’s what the romcom is about and using a different culture I think is an interesting way to explore the idea.
For more information on Safiyah Flies Across the Ocean, go to the official movie page here.