The world premiere of Tala Hadid’s lovely ‘The Narrow Frame of Midnight’ took place at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, and we sat down with the director and actor Khalid Abdalla for a meandering conversation over coffee to find out some more about how the film was created.
Doha Film Institute – Tala, you’re Moroccan-Iraqi and you were born and raised in the UK; the main protagonist in your film is Moroccan-Iraqi, born and raised in the UK… So there’s a very clear parallel there. Some of the issues of displacement, abandonment, anxiety – are these issues of your own that you are exploring in the film?
Tala Hadid – Certainly there are various things that happen to Zacaria, the main character, that make him anxious, but I think belonging to different places is not a place of anxiety – rather I think it’s a non-space, in that you belong to many different places. I think it’s a very good thing; it means that you have a very different way of looking at things. Maybe – maybe – you have a more open way of looking at things, so you might understand things in a different way. You can embrace places and people because you want to, not because you have to.
DFI – There’s an element of abandonment for each of the characters. With that sense of coming from a place that in a way you are not actually from, might you feel as though you have abandoned that place somehow?
Khalid Abdalla – I think it’s fair to say that there is a sense of mourning. I don’t know if abandonment is the right word for me – it suggests being left by someone you’d prefer hadn’t left. To some extent that does happen [in the film] – you’ve got Aicha, the little girl, who’s been orphaned; Zacaria, who’s been left by his brother and who has left his wife … so you’re onto something. But it doesn’t feel as though that is what motivates the characters. There’s a very strong sense of embracing those multiplicities that the characters have, but not in a way that denies it’s difficult. And it’s not about pity – it’s the beginning of how they begin to see the world.
TH – I think the adult characters are sort of solitary, which is of course something we all are. Once you realise that, perhaps you can begin to build collective bonds and connectivities.
KA – Speaking from a different level in relation to the same question, one thing that was a joy in the idea of this film for me, talking about these multiple identities that I have and Tala has, and that you have, is it’s very rare on film that you actually get to [work with that]. You’re always hiding one identity, you know? You always have to be fully from the Arab world, or pretending to be from Europe or the West. It’s very rare that you get to explore as an actor this identity that is somewhere in between. You see it in the film – at the beginning, where they talk about where they’re from; and ideas like ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where I’m going, I can’t take you’. So for me, it was an absolutely beautiful thing to find an identity that I could reflect myself through.
DFI – The structure of the film is very complex: there’s this complexity of identity, that we’ve just looked at, and places are very important in the film: the beautiful bookshop in Baghdad, or Istanbul, where the shots have almost a travelogue feel. There’s a complexity too of construction – it’s a bit road trip, a bit suspense, a bit family drama. I guess this is really a long way of asking what was your process to put the film together?
TH – With this script, there were certain scenes, like the end, that were there in my head and they were quite clear. I wrote the script with rigorous planning, but there was also a mysterious element in that I went with the flow. I submitted to a way of writing where certain characters will take you one way; certain events, while you’re writing them, gather speed and energy. So the script was written in a very open sort of way, and of course you write and rewrite and go back and adjust things, but the structure of it, coming back to what you were saying, was always particularly complex. There’s the road movie element, but this isn’t a linear road movie; and then you have different characters coming through…
DFI – So did it just sort of come?
TH – Yes, it just sort of came. Then you go back and start to perfect, and it starts to be very specifically balanced. [This script] isn’t driven by A plus B equals C in a flowing narrative, so it was a question of trying to balance the different parts, because it doesn’t unfold along conventional lines.
DFI – Something that doesn’t happen all that often happened to me with this film: I wasn’t expecting it to end where it did. There are things about the structure that are quite unfamiliar in some ways.
TH – I think it’s a good thing – in general, not just for this film, I think it’s a good thing to have structures or ways of seeing that are not familiar, because maybe they kind of rejig the art. Recently I’ve been looking into theories of maps and cartography and I think that in a certain way, in the same way that you read a map and know that there are lines that can be redrawn, and lines that are invisible, and that you have to work with it, that you can’t necessarily consume it easily.
KA – It’s not a film where you are gripped by the twists in the plot. There’s a kind of structure that you know you’re inside, so what you experience is the thickness of that world. The joy of seeing it in the cinema is that it takes you into an extraordinarily meditative space. I think that is one of the keys to its drama. I’m projecting onto what I imagine to be the writing process, but I saw multiple drafts of the script and of course I also saw the world of this film realised – that beautiful moment between reading the script, when you imaging these things in your mind, and then you walk into a place … and it’s not that the place reflects what you imagined, it’s that you can’t imagine that it could ever have been anything else. And that’s what’s so beautiful – the script was like a map.
DFI – It sounds like you had a very good time making this film.
KA – Yes – in the sense that you went further in this film than you ever thought you would, and it was terrifying, and you almost collapsed, but somehow the miracle of walking on air became walking on land. And that’s very special.
DFI – What are you working on next?
TH – I’m working on a few projects. One is a film that I’ll hopefully be preparing to shoot in the mountains of Morocco, so that’s at the script stage, and I’m finishing off a film that is sort of a documentary, so there are a few things brewing quietly.