BAFTA nominee Tina Gharavi, whose provocative first feature I am Nasrine has garnered interest from TWC and Fox Searchlight, talks to Screen about the film’s hazardous journey, signing with Independent Talent and her next feature projects.

As every member of the film industry knows, getting a film to the big screen is often a turbulent and risky process. But for Iran-born writer-director and recent BAFTA British Debut nominee Tina Gharavi, that process was daunting on a level entirely unknown to most.

Lecturer and filmmaker Gharavi, 40, spent five years working on debut feature I am Nasrine, shooting it illegally in Iran, her country of birth, and then smuggling it out of the country, to which she is now unable to return.

The film tells the story of a 16-year-old middle-class girl from Tehran who is sexually assaulted by police after they detain her for riding on the back of her boyfriend’s motorbike. After fleeing Iran for the UK, Nasrine and her brother end up living on a council estate in Newcastle.

For full production information

I am Nasrine

Gharavi left Iran with her family in 1979. She is officially Iranian-American-British but also spent time in New Zealand. She describes herself as “from nowhere but of everywhere.”

The vivacious director has a background in documentaries, shorts and installations, but after returning to Iran briefly in 2000 and then working for many years with asylum seekers in the UK, she was inspired to make her first feature.

“I wanted to make a film about second generation Iranians - or those known as ‘third culture kids’”, she says.

“I am Nasrine is in some ways a collaborative film. It’s not a documentary, but it is. It was inspired by many stories that I had heard along the way, but it’s also about how someone can quickly go from being relatively rich in Iran to living on £30 a week in the north of England if they’re on the wrong side of the Iranian government.”

Gharavi produced the drama with James Richard Baillie, under their banner Bridge + Tunnel, the production company and adjoining community outreach organisation Gharavi founded in Newcastle.

Financing challenge

Piecing the financing together was inevitably tricky. The UKFC had been on the verge of backing the project but had to back out when it dissolved. The total budget was between £200,000-£250,000, spread over five years.

“When the Green Movement started in 2009 we were full of hope,” says Gharavi about the time when the production was finally ready to shoot.

“We wanted to be there at the same time, making the film in Tehran. But then the government started shooting people. I told my actors we could make the film elsewhere [leads Micsha Sadeghi and Shiraz Haq have acting experience but most of the cast are non-professionals]. But they said they wanted to make it in Tehran.”

Smuggling film

With no shooting permit due to the film’s subject [Gharavi says the story is based on real events], the production had to masquerade as the second unit of a larger film concurrently shooting in the Iranian capital.

When the real local police paid a visit on the day of the pivotal police-assault scene, Gharavi’s first AD had to pretend to be the film’s director as her stuttering Persian might have given the game away.

It wasn’t the first time the director’s heart would be set racing. On wrap she had to smuggle the early parts of the film out of the country in her handbag. She was searched by customs officials but the carefully wrapped film managed to slip their attention.

After the slightly less hair-raising UK shoot, Northstar Ventures provided key closing finance.

Surprise hit

The drama was a surprise hit at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, a venue that Gharavi describes as “a jewel in the crown of British independent cinema”.

“They kept bringing it back”, enthuses the director.  “The public really wanted to see it. On our last screening we had more than 50 people in the cinema and off the back of that run we were able to convince other cinemas to take the film.”

Despite its success in the regions, however, few would have predicted a BAFTA nomination for British Debut alongside more widely known films, The Imposter, The Muppets, Wild Bill and McCullin, not least Gharavi herself, who only entered the film for consideration at the request of her composers.

“It was such a surprise,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. I only found out about the nomination through a friend’s message on Facebook.”

Since the limited run, TWC and Fox Searchlight have requested copies of the film and Gharavi last week signed with agency Independent Talent:

“I’m so excited to be on this ride,” beams the director. “Living in Newcastle we don’t often go through this. Just yesterday I was sitting with a producer in the Groucho Club when Tim Burton walked in. It’s quite an intimidating experience. I’m used to working men’s clubs in Newcastle,” she jokes.

The film is still looking for a UK distributor and as interest grows the team is re-considering its original plan to self-distribute. The production currently has an application for distribution support in with the BFI.

Future features

Gharavi is now working on two new features: The Good Iranian is a £6m budgeted, 1970s gangster film set in the disco culture of Iran [Turkey is a likely stand-in], Paris and London, which the filmmaker has recently pitched to some UK industry, while Kurdistan-set thriller The Woman Who Found Saddam is a micro-budget feature she might try to shoot beforehand.

Gharavi’s story is one of courage and tenacity. But she is well aware that her finished work might have been very different without the collaboration of some brave Iranian film professionals, many of whome are still suffering in their country.

“I know that some of the filmmakers who helped us get our film made in Iran have been subsequently arrested,” she says. “The climate for filmmakers has got worse in the last few years. It would be impossible for me to go back now.”

Gharavi is the latest example of an important film talent to emanate from Iran and then be driven abroad. Thankfully, she is also one of the many who refuses to capitulate to the government’s depressing crack-down on pluralism.