Raisah Ahmed

In the second of our profile pieces related to our Equality Matters survey for Scotland's Film and Television professionals we speak to Raisah Ahmed.

Raisah on set of Meet Me By the Water. Photo: Chih Peng Lucas Kao

Raisah Ahmed is a screenwriter and director based in Glasgow. She is currently developing her short film Meet Me By the Water through the SFTN New Talent Shorts Scheme and is the co-founder (along with Maryam Hamidi) of BAME Boost - a Scotland based initiative aimed at boosting Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic representation in Film, Television and Theatre. We caught up with Raisah to find out how she got started in a career in film and to find out what’s planned for BAME Boost.

What drew you towards filmmaking and what was your first experience of working in the industry?

I have been a storyteller for as long as I can remember, but to be a filmmaker never crossed my mind. I grew up devouring books, making my grandpa or one of my parents take me to the library whenever I could. Films costs money and if they weren’t on TV then chances were I wouldn’t watch them. Books were easy, accessible, cost no money and that was key to me, coming from a working class immigrant family and being one of five girls. 

At 13 I began writing, only sharing among friends or keeping to myself but over time it became clear I wanted to be a novelist and write Young Adult Fiction. I chose to study English at Strathclyde University, but on my way to graduating realised I wanted to be part of the ‘media’ – although I wasn’t sure exactly what that was. For a year I tried everything to get a foot in but had no luck, and ended up returning to Strathclyde to study a Masters. During the course I wrote an early version of Meet Me By The Water, which also happened to be my dissertation exploring immigrant identity.

On graduating, I came across ‘Second Light’ an apprenticeship run by GMAC Film that aimed to help those from BAME backgrounds get into the film industry and managed to secure one of the ten spaces. It was my first step into the world of film and it's been kind of a whirlwind since then! 

The first film I worked on was a Digicult Scottish Short that Second Light arranged for me to be a runner on. During the placement I was fasting as the shoot was during Ramadhan and it was a bit of a shock to the system. However, it gave me the best kind of learning and, more importantly, it was a supported placement and I got a phonecall from the team at GMAC Film to check in with me on a daily basis. That simple bit of support was so crucial to me at a time when I knew that not many people from the Asian or Muslim world worked within the Scottish Film Industry, that I stood out at every single film related event I went to due to my headscarf. That support was ongoing from GMAC Film and continues to be even to this day.

After graduating from the Second Light Scheme I had ongoing aftercare from GMAC Film, be it a conversation or an opportunity sent my way. This support and mentorship has been key in me sustaining a career in Film as a very obviously Muslim woman telling BAME stories. 

Filming Meet Me By the Water . Photo: Jen Martin

What challenges did you face in bringing Meet Me By The Water to life?

Meet Me By The Water began life as a feature film, the first draft completed during a screenwriting residency with The Playwrights Studio Scotland & Binger Labs in 2011. It was in many ways me working through the loss of my grandfather and reflecting on the generations that had came before me and how their choices led me to be writing a feature film. The feature was shortlisted for the Sundance Writers Lab 2015 and during this process I realised I wanted to direct the feature, so the short was born out of the first step towards doing that.

Creating the short was challenging as I was working backwards, taking something much bigger and condensing it into a 15 minute film and much of that meant getting rid of characters that are key in the feature but just overly complicated the short.

After being developed and commissioned by SFTN in September we went straight into pre-production with the aim to shoot the film in the first week of December.

The biggest challenge was casting as there’s already such a lack of Asian actors that my very specific casting of a Scottish Asian (ideally of Pakistani descent) woman in her mid-20's who could speak Punjabi was kind of like asking for a miracle. That was the easier role to cast!

Looking for someone to play Karim, her grandfather, was twice as difficult. We held open casting calls to meet anyone interested, which was a really great process as I got to meet so many women who felt that the story coming to screen was their story. The reassurance from hearing that gave me a confidence boost as a first time commissioned director. Casting the leads wasn't the only challenge, we then had to find the rest of the family. Just because we have a lack of Asian actors in Scotland didn't mean I could cast anyone who came forward and hope they looked similar, it was always present in my mind that the family had to look like a family. In order to achieve this we had to have a couple of our actors go through some Punjabi lessons in order to get the language right. 

On a personal level this film was a big challenge for me, while I directed a short in 2014, this was much bigger scale in the number of people I was working with and the depth of the film itself. It was a challenge I loved though and I worked with an amazing crew. Emotionally I went through a lot of processing from the moment we began working on it with SFTN as the relationship in the film is based on my relationship with my grandfather and his death is the single biggest loss of my life. As artists we take the things that shape us, good and bad, and we create something out of those things, out of those moments. I had moments where I had to separate myself from the characters, and others where I had to be in the heart of it all and draw on my emotions and memories in order to help the story in some way. Working with the team of Execs at SFTN really helped, they were able to push me as a writer during the script’s development, and now we're in the final edit they're supporting me to pull out all those emotions in the finished film. 

I guess whatever challenges came my way, good and bad, have all been necessary in either the development of the film or in my development as a writer and director. That's why we make films and decide to be storytellers and artists though, to battle with the challenges and come out the other end changed in some way.  

On set of Meet Me By the Water. Photo: Yusuf Javed

BAME Boost launched in December 2015, what do you hope it can achieve in the next 6 months?

BAME Boost is a Scotland based initiative aimed at boosting BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) representation in Film, Television and Theatre. We don't consider ourselves an organisation, but as two artists using an artist led approach to promoting a diversity sea change across Scotland. Maryam Hamidi and I got a little tired of waiting for change and decided to take our first hand experiences of the barriers we have had and continue to have in our careers and use it as a base from which to build something that can inform positive change. 

Over the next six months we're hoping to continue working with existing organisations and training institutions to continue to inform and help lead the diversity conversation as well as be a big part of the change. While Diversity has been a bit of a buzzword all over the UK and in the States, it seems that much of the action around it, and those that champion it don't focus in on Scotland. We hope that BAME Boost will fill that gap by continuing the conversation in a Scottish context, as well as helping organisations connect the dots and work together in tackling this growing issue. 

Our approach is multi-pronged where we have explored the full career path of a BAME artist, from being a child trying to convince his/her parents of the worthiness of a career in arts to being established and trying to sustain that career. 

Currently we have the support of GMAC Film in hosting some networking nights to bring together BAME practitioners, and those who work with them or want to engage more with them. We've also had support from the Glasgow Youth Arts Hub and have run a very successful workshop with them focusing on barriers faced by young people from BAME backgrounds looking to engage in the arts and we hope that this is something we can do more of. Upskilling through masterclasses is an avenue we've been exploring. The RCS have championed and partly funded (with some of the funding coming from the Scottish Drama Training Network) four acting masterclasses for BAME actors. These are free and have built in support to encourage more BAME actors to continue to pursue an acting career, or if they've given up then to re-engage them within this. 

Filming Meet Me By the Water. Photo: Jen Martin

What about further in the future, what impact would you like to see BAME Boost have in Scotland?

We would love for BAME Boost to become one of the catalysts for change in the Scottish Stage and Screen industries. Already we have people contacting us for insight into how to tackle diversity or to send out opportunities to those on our mailing list and facebook page in order to increase the number of BAME applications they receive. The dream is that BAME Boost is no longer needed, where diversity is inherent in film and theatre in Scotland. However, until that is the case we will continue to work within Scotland with both the stage and screen industries to increase diversity and create a greater understanding of BAME stories and aid the talent pool that already exists from BAME communities. 

We have a bigger plan which looks at the numbers of BAME artists that are coming through into the arts and tackling the first barrier that can exist form a very young age - the perception of the arts in certain communities and families. We hope to tackle this by creating a better understanding of the value and sustainability of a career in the arts with parents. 

Raisah with her neice on set of Meet Me By the Water. Photo: Chih Peng Lucas Kao

What’s next for you, what projects will you be working on in the coming months?

As a writer I'm in the process of completing my second feature film script, Safar, a female road trip film which tells the story of two cousins who have to drive their Gran from Scotland to Pakistan. I'm also working on the treatment for a Television drama exploring the world of Asian weddings and marriages. As a writer/director I'm working on the script for my next short film, a currently untitled dystopian film with a strong female lead. 

Once Meet Me By The Water is complete we hope to submit it to a number of festivals and I hope that off the back of that there's interest in further developing the feature. However, before I direct a feature I would like to direct a few more short films to challenge myself further as a director and on that bucket list is directing something that I haven't written. 

Find out more about Raisah Ahmed and BAME Boost.

Photo Credits: Chih Peng Lucas Kao, Jen Martin and Yusuf Javed. 

Equality Matters

Creative Scotland is calling on Scotland’s Film and TV professionals to take part in a wide-ranging screen equalities survey, to inform our understanding of issues of under-representation. The findings will help us to address these issues through positive action, going forward. The survey opened on Wednesday 10 February and will close on 7 March.  Take part in the survey.

This article was published on 15 Feb 2016