Updated: Mar 24, 2019
Interview by Lorna Codrai
Yad Deen, the director, writer and producer of Carga, talks to us about the inspiration behind his latest short film and his experience transitioning from documentaries to fiction. Carga follows couple, Marta and Juan, two young journalists to an abandoned cigarette factory to uncover its secrets. Deen explains, “we hit a bit of a niche here, making a Spanish thriller in Iraq — it's intriguing.” It certainly is but more so due to the film’s location.
The former cigarette and tobacco factory in Sulayminyah, Iraq was left abandoned for over a decade with rumours of a reopening, then further talks of demolishing it. However, a local NGO saved the 1950s complex in late 2018 and the Kurdistan Regional Government has dedicated millions of dollars to transform the area into a culture city. Talk about a new lease of life!
The film is currently unreleased but it recently announced its Scandinavian premiere at the Annual Copenhagen Film Festival in March, where it has been nominated for Best Short Thriller. It was also screened twice this month during the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. Yad Deen was kind enough to speak to us about Carga and his experience of shooting the film.
How did the idea of Carga come about?
It came about when I was first taken to the factory in October 2016. My wife took me there with her friend, they have an NGO and there's been a fight between their NGO and a local conglomerate company. It's a 45,000 sq. metre piece of land and you go inside and it's like a spaghetti western. They've been fighting against the conglomerate, and my wife and her friend wanted to keep it and turn it into a culture city; the others wanted to demolish it and turn it into these stupid malls. I went there and, as I was standing in this big hall, the story just came to me. The first person I thought of was a friend of mine who's the Director of Photography (Gema Briones) on this film and I knew she'd love this location. I thought what if two Spanish journalists came here and shit went down basically! That's essentially how it came about, I wrote up a very short synopsis and Gema introduced me to a well-known writer friend in Barcelona.
That's so interesting. I was going to ask whether your discovery of the factory was your inspiration for the film or did you have a similar location in mind already?
Being in the factory, smelling the factory and hearing things like old feathers on the floor — there were pigeons all over the place. When you're walking around, it's very eerie. We went down into the basement and one of the characters says something about the basement and it's exactly what I had said when I first went in. It was definitely the location that inspired the feeling for the story.
That's such an amazing filming location! Most of the cast and crew are Spanish, was there a reason in particular you chose Spanish filmmakers?
I like the Spanish film industry and I've lived in Spain for a number of years. My Director of Photography — who is Spanish — we've been friends for a long time, she's actually been to Iraq two times before, once with me, the second time at a film festival for her own film. When she was in Iraq for the film festival, we said we would make a film together in Iraq. So when I found the factory, I said it's time to call Gema and do this.
So how long was the project originally in development?
I went to Barcelona and Gema introduced me to Chesco (Simon) who I hired to write the short film as it originally was — it's not the way it is now. I asked him to write a supernatural thriller — ghosts and all kinds of things were going on. It was a brilliant script that he wrote but, with budget constraints it wasn't feasible, so I rewrote essentially the entire thing and kept the general storyline that Chesco and I had come up with in Barcelona. That took about five months and then I got married and I was very busy around that time as well and so nothing happened with the film for a few months. My parents then visited me and my mum saw her uncle, the Executive Producer of Carga, Faruk Mustafa Rasool, who is one of the wealthiest guys in the country and I took a shot in the dark and asked him to fund my film. I was going to fund it myself but my mum was there with him so I thought I'd ask. He said yes right away and the cash was ready the next day. As soon as that came through, I called everyone and said let's do this! I'd known Tania (Watson) for many years and I knew instantly that she was Marta. She is Marta. Nobody else could play that I think. I asked her to help me find the character of Juan and she basically did the casting and sent videos etc. We also had two other local actors with whom my wife was the casting director.
How long did the actual filming process take? Did you have any time restrictions?
We filmed it in exactly 11 days. We had a fantastic Assistant Director (Pablo Arias) who organised everything. He and Gema flew in a week before the rest of the crew came in and we went to all of the locations to organise the timings and things like that. We didn't really have any time limits but it was coincidentally at a time where it was approaching the political referendum. When we finished filming and had all flown out, two weeks after that it was the referendum and the airports were going to close for eight or nine months, which would have meant that nobody could leave the country. I guess if we had any time limits that would have been it, to get it filmed before the referendum.
You shot the film in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. What challenges, if any, did you come across while you were shooting over there?
To be honest, we didn't have many challenges. One challenge was the heat! We were filming at the peak of summer; the hottest day of the year was the hottest day of the shoot. It was one of the only two days that we were filming outdoors in the sun. I think it reached 56°C. We'd never drunk so much water and not sweated or needed to go pee or anything. Everyone was just hydrating constantly. I think the other challenge was not having another co-producer on board because it was my debut fiction film as I come from a documentary background. I kind of threw myself in the deep end with this because we had people coming from Spain and you're responsible for everyone and their safety. That in itself was already a challenge. I was averaging about 3 maybe 4 hours of sleep every day for about two weeks.
I was expecting you to say the heat!
It wasn't so bad because, if I'm not mistaken, the factory was built by Russians back when there was a king in Iraq so it is very well built. When we were filming in the factory, it was actually quite cool, especially in the basement. You would never have guessed that it was scorching hot outside.
That's good you had some relief! You come from a documentary background, how did you find the transition from that to live action shorts?
Documentaries and photography have been more of my bread and butter; fiction is where I've always wanted to be. I moved to Iraq in 2013 and I started working there as a freelancer up until we filmed Carga. I guess in some ways I wasn't ready to make fiction but, at the same time, I also didn't really have the opportunity to either.
What are your biggest influences or inspirations as a filmmaker?
Definitely other people's films and also music. You have to be really careful with music, it can take you to stories or places but it can make or break the film.
Very true. When someone gets it right with music in a film, it's just magical.
I know! I was scared to use it in Carga because I was going for a really raw feel to the film so I tried to minimalize the music as much as possible. I wanted to almost get it to feel like a documentary. I did think about not having any but I felt like there were some places that could use it.
Do you have any upcoming projects planned?
I'm developing a sci-fi drama, which will be a European production. We're also developing Carga as a feature but obviously that doesn't mean that it is going to happen. I have a number of projects that I'm interested in developing but, at the moment, it's mainly the sci-fi drama that I'm working on.
Brilliant, thank you so much for speaking to me.
Lorna Codrai is the co-founder and editor of Vamp Cat Magazine and currently works as a freelance writer and film critic in the UK and the UAE. Her work has previously been published in The Observer, Uncomfortable Revolution and Cultured Vultures, and she runs her own film blog: I am Jack's Film Addiction. Find her on Twitter @lornacodrai