A Q&A with Abu Shahed Emon, director of Jalal’s Story

An interview by Nicole Newton-Plater
Sydney emonFilm School alumni never fail to amaze with their incredible achievements in the film industry. 2009 graduate, Abu Shahed Emon is riding the wave of success with his feature film ‘Jalal’s Story’ which has been critically acclaimed during it’s festival run and theatrical release in Emon’s native country of Bangladesh. The film, which follows the life of a boy found in the river Nile, has been selected as the official entrant of Bangladesh to be considered for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Feature. ‘Jalal’s Story’ is also being featured in this year’s Sydney Film School Festival in the International Perspectives Program, which will be held on Tuesday December 15.

We thank Emon for taking the time to speak to us at Sydney Film School in anticipation of the screening of his incredible film, ‘Jalal’s Story’ at the Sydney Film School Festival later this month.

Q: Firstly, congratulations on ‘Jalal’s Story’ being the official entrant of Bangladesh for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars! How did you find out the news and how do you feel?

A: I was in Seoul, Korea at the time the official press conference was being held in Dhaka. I was in the class break and saw this in my Facebook news feed. As I am doing a MFA degree in Filmmaking in Korea I still consider myself a film student and ‘Jalal’s Story’ is like a big thesis project. I didn’t expect this much from this film, but now I feel blessed and thankful to the Oscar Committee of Bangladesh to chose this as the Bangladeshi Entry for the 88th Academy Award in the Foreign Film Category.

Q: Where did your interest in filmmaking initially come from?

A: It’s an interesting story really since I did my Bachelors in Psychology from Dhaka University. During my DU days, I got involved with the Dhaka University Film Society (DUFS) where my interest in films started. I always found myself thinking about films and from those thoughts came a desire to learn about filmmaking and the many aspects of film. I wrote a proposal for a semester-long exchange programme to the USA to study the “application of psychology in film”. I was awarded that and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, where I took courses on film only. That exacerbated the will to learn and I began looking for another opportunity. As luck would have it, I got an opportunity to work with Mr. Tareque Masud on the “Runway” movie project. His intensity and thoroughness transformed my ideas about every aspect of filmmaking. This influenced me immensely and pushed me towards applying for the Endeavour Scholarship in Australia. Luckily, I received it and went for my studies at Sydney Film School and RMIT. After the professional vocational training, I received another opportunity to do my Masters in Film Directing at the Korean National University of Arts in South Korea. So filmmaking and film school all led my final interest to choose it as a profession.

Jalal's-StoryQ: How did the idea for ‘Jalal’s Story’ come about?

A: It’s interesting actually as ‘Jalal Er Golpo’ or ‘Jalal’s Story’ did not start out as it is. It was first called ‘Jalal Er Pitagon’ or J’alal’s Fathers’, but halfway through making it I found myself reflecting on whether the story was on the fathers or on Jalal himself, and there I decided that the story belonged to Jalal. The inspiration came from when I was studying at Sydney Film School and my thesis film project ‘A Homemade Love Story’. Since I was a foreign student there, I observed and experienced how most foreign students go through a form of identity crisis when faced with the struggles in a completely unfamiliar setting, and after that realisation, I decided to write out a basic plot line that ultimately took shape as ‘Jalal Er Golpo’.

Q: How long was it from the story’s conception to when you were able to start production?

A: Well it took around five years from securing the finances to make it to the big screen. Two years only took for production planning, shooting and post-production.

Q: You’ve said in the past that it has been important for you to make films about Bangladesh that show a different side to it than the Bollywood side which is commonly seen in film. Was this a driving force behind the way you made the film?

A: I think Bangladeshi film doesn’t have a very unique identity yet like Iranian, Philippino, Bollywood or Hollywood films. Mostly the local makers import stories directly from the Tamil or Indian cinema, which is a big shame! I therefore, had the plan to tell the story in a Bangladeshi way. Secondly I tried to tell it in my way. So this is very important for me to keep making films which people can slowly recognise as Bangladeshi films in the future.
 
Q: For your debut feature you received funding from the Asian Cinema Fund. What advice would you give to up and coming filmmakers wishing to apply for funding for their film?

A: I think you need a good story, a strong pitching sense and working hard. For example, I never made it to the pitching session in Sydney Film School.  I think I really worked hard to understand the craft of treatment writing, pitching presentation style and synopsis writing due to my failure in Sydney Film School’s group projects. I will therefore advise up and coming filmmakers to take failure, identify your weakness, work hard and apply wherever you are eligible. Somewhere there will be someone who is passionate about your stories.

Q: Why did you choose Australia and Sydney Film School to come to and further your film education?

A: I got a scholarship by the Australian Government and that was the only option to me to fulfil the dream of going to a film school. Choosing Sydney Film School was easy. I think it came up in Google that year in 2008/09 as a top destination for film school in the world. So it was a chance encounter.

Q: How did what you learnt at Sydney Film School help you make both your acclaimed short ‘The Container’ and ‘Jalal’s Story’?

A: Well, Sydney Film School was my first time to experience the basic tips and tricks. Starting from Steinbeck to 16mm production, Sydney life, and one of my favourite mentors Leslie Oliver, this all slowly shaped up my ideas. At that point it was like clay in my idea shaping. I didn’t know which direction I should go or what to talk about, but slowly over the course of the 1 year Diploma I gained my confidence.  Therefore, the Sydney Film School experience and the continuous mentoring that I received has been a great influence in shaping up both the short and my debut feature.

Q: Would you encourage other people to study filmmaking abroad?

A: Of course. Travelling to another country, even learning cinema in an unfamiliar language could be a great brainstorming element in story making. I think my extensive travel in different places with cinema has given me the confidence as a filmmaker. It is still evolving and I think it will keep continuing.

Q: What have been the highlights of your journey with ‘Jalal’s Story’ so far?

A: ‘Jalal’s Story’ has run in the Bangladeshi theatre for ten weeks already. More screenings will follow again. It is representing Bangladesh for the ’88th Academy Award 2016  in the Foreign Language Category and also has participated in festivals including the 19th Busan International Film Festival, 45th International Film Festival of India, 7th Jaipur International Film Festival, 33rd Fajr International Film Festival, 6th Fiji International Film Festival, 19th AVANCA 2015 – International Film Festival, Indian Film Festival Melbourne 2015, 39th Montreal World Film Festival 2015, 64th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg 2015, Asian World Film Festival, Los Angeles 2015, Phnom Penh International Film Festival 2015, 8th Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival 2015, 10th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival 2015 and the 20th Kerala International Film Festival 2015.

Q: What is coming up next for you?

A: I plan on taking on my next project after finishing my studies in South Korea. After releasing ‘Jalal Er Golpo’, I have been writing my next two projects already. I will start production for which ever gets funded first. I can only disclose the titles at the moment, which are, ‘A Beneficiary of Death’ and ‘A Tale of a Policeman’. I hope the fans will like my work and support my films by understanding the theme I hope to put up to them in the future

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