“When People Watch Your Films, You Can Change Their Perspective”: An Interview with Milad Alami, Director of THE CHARMER

Where did your interest in film-making begin?

I have always been interested in writing and when I was in my late teens I made some short films. I never had a plan to make films as a career, but one of the short films I made in Iran won some awards so I decided to apply to film school and see what I could do with it. I hadn’t done many films when I applied, whereas many of the students had made several films. From there, it’s the classical story of liking films and telling stories, and then making films.

How did you start developing the idea for The Charmer?

After I graduated from film school in 2011, I made some short films that were really character driven and very subjective. In these shorts, I used the themes of class and identity. I then met with Ingeborg, who I co-wrote the script with, and we sat and discussed what interests us and who our character should be, and the film grew from that. We wrote the screenplay and it developed as we wrote, but our initial idea was to have a story where the main character is a complete mystery and the audience are forced to change their idea of him throughout the film.

You were funded by the New Danish Screen, which supports up-and-coming directors. What was your experience like with them?

Once we had the script it was a very fast process. The New Danish Screen had funded two of my previous short films, so they were aware of who I was and they believed I could make a feature film. Because of this, once the script was done they were quick to provide the funding because they were really happy with the story.

Your main character Esmail certainly has multiple sides to him, some of which could be portrayed in a way that makes him unlikable. Where did you find your balance?

It’s two things. First, we tried to balance it in a way that you always feel like he wasn’t really hurting anyone. Really, the film is about him almost prostituting himself to save himself from being deported. When writing the script we knew that our audience would be intelligent and understand that this guy is not a predator. This had to do with the second point, which is the casting. Ardalan Esmaili is so great and he works through the character, creating a sensibility and a darkness. He pulsates between being dark and being very open, and he drags you in.

Last year at the Nordic Film Days, Ardalan gave a Q&A and said the two of you grew up together, and he had to wait a while to be cast as Esmail…

Yes, that’s true! Ardalan is my friend and we have known each other since we were six years old. When I was casting in Denmark, he was working in the theatre in Stockholm. Whenever we’d see each other, I’d talk about the film and the character and he was always listening to me and became really into it. Later on, we changed an element in the script that actually made it possible for him to be considered, and the producer said we should audition Ardalan. By this point he had been listening to me talk about the character for two years and he had almost grown into the character, so when he auditioned he worked really well. I could immediately see that he would work as the character and he was invested in the story. He had intelligent ideas and he knew what we were trying to do, and he brought a very human approach to the character.

This film is based on the difficult process immigrants have to go through in order to be allowed to remain in Denmark. Did you base your script on any real experiences?

Ardalan and I knew men and women who had gone through this process, so we talked to a lot of them and were interested in how it affected them psychologically and how it affected the people around them. When we were rehearsing the film, Ardalan and I also did a lot of research in order to understand what people do in situations like this where they are very desperate, as well as the cirucmstances that create this.

In the film, Esmaili is able to speak Danish, he has a job, and yet the immigration authorities do not allow him to stay in Denmark. Were you trying to make a political statement?

For us it was important to not make a political film, but rather make a film about the character. When Ingeborg and I were talking about the character, we wanted to make him intelligent and able to pick up the language. I worked with refugees for two years and most of the refugees I met are intelligent. They come here and immediately start learning the language because they want to be accepted. It’s different from the images you see in the media where refugees are depicted as not wanting to learn the language and wanting to live far out in their own suburbs. That’s only a small percentage; most people come here and want to be accepted. For Esmaili, he’s an intelligent guy and he is able to speak Danish. The only thing he lacks is a passport. All the other Iranian characters in the film he meets have a passport that allows them to live in this society, and Esmaili is the only one without one.

It’s not until the end of the film that we learn who Esmaili is. Why did you want to wait until the end for the big reveal?

This film is like a puzzle. There are some reveals during the film, but we wanted the audience to see the character as a mystery and as the film goes on parts of his background begin to be revealed and at the end you get the last puzzle piece. We wanted to save all the heavy emotions until the end.

The Charmer has been screening at festivals around the world. What has the reaction been like?

It’s surprising, because when we wrote the script we didn’t know what our audience was going to be like. At the Göteborg Film Festival people of all ages and different backgrounds liked the film. It’s also interesting that even if you have never lived through what Esmaili goes through, you start to identity with some parts of what he’s doing. The response to the film has been overwhelming and very positive.

In many Danish films, Iranians are often depicted as gangsters or criminals, so it’s refreshing to see your film…

When I watch films and see a character I can understand and relate to through our cultural background, they often end up being a gangster or a drug dealer and it becomes comical. It’s important when I write screenplays that everyone has a voice. In this film, we wanted to make sure every character, no matter how big or small, has a background and a voice. For example, with the women Esmaili meets, I wanted them to be intelligent, have a strong sense of individuality and not just be sexual tools. If you don’t discuss your characters, they just become stereotypes. When people watch your films, you have the the chance to change their perspective on people, so we wanted to be sure Esmaili was a real person and not a cliché.

What’s next for you?

I am making one Swedish film and one Danish film. The Danish film will be made with the same crew I made The Charmer with. We are beginning to write now and understand what our story is about, but it’s still two years away from being released. And then there is a Swedish film I’m working on, but it’s in the very early stages.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.