Not for the seasick: the filmmaker who rocks the boat

By Mike Dalglish

It starts off as just an ordinary job interview. An Asian man in a suit, Mr Ahmed, waits nervously. A white woman with a clipboard beckons for him to follow. As they walk down a bland corridor the woman explains that a new vacancy has opened, and HR thinks Mr Ahmed would be a suitable candidate, depending on how he performs in an impromptu ‘practical’. The man accepts. Thinking on his feet is one of his best qualities. She opens the door.

Inside is a chair with another Asian man strapped to it. The woman gestures with her free hand to a tray boasting an assortment of torture devices. The man on the chair, bound and gagged, sweats profusely. Mr Ahmed looks shocked. The woman tells him the test will be based on results, and starts her stopwatch. Mr Ahmed picks up a hammer, feels it, and then puts it back down. He decides on the taser and approaches his victim.

 “This way,” he says, “I won’t leave any marks.” We hear the man’s screams as the screen fades to black.

Faisal Azam Qureshi smiles cheekily as he presses the stop button. His track record in filmmaking is peppered with awards, yet his 2006 film The Applicant won him nothing but controversy. But then this is a man who is not afraid to rock the boat.

It is Monday 21 December, black ice has turned Manchester into an ice rink, and I am part of a group of people attending a talk by the filmmaker over a cup of coffee at Shakespeare House on Kingsbrook Road, home of Manchester Muslim Writers. Qureshi is showing a few of his short films while taking questions and giving aspiring writers some handy tips.

The 33-year-old director-cum-writer, who has just won the Best Film Story award at the Brussels Film Festival for ‘The Footsoldier’ and the Best Short Script award at the Talent Circle/Super Shorts Film Festival for ‘The Screaming Phone’, also lectures in editing at Leeds Metropolitan University is a visiting lecturer at the International School of Cinema and TV in Cuba.

His career in writing stretches back 15 years and had an auspicious beginning when, in 1994, he came runner up in a travel writing competition for youngsters.

The next year he had a bigger break, winning the Channel 4 Film Challenge when he submitted an idea for a documentary about young Muslims street racing in Rusholme called ‘Movin as a Massive’. He then went on to study a diploma in editing and sound design followed by a masters degree in film production at the National Film School in Leeds.

When film festival organisers got their hands on a copy of The Applicant, their response was not warm. But Qureshi was not expecting it to be.

 “I was blamed for having a really hostile view of white people, especially white women.

“I then got a request from a New York magazine. They put it online and it caused quite a stir. People wrote angry comments saying that obviously I’m condoning terrorism.

“When I show it to an audience of colour they don’t have a problem with it. They see what I’m trying to do.”

When I asked if he was happy with the reception of the film, he said: “I think if you’re going to do something mischievious you should just sit back and enjoy it.”

However, the film was not without success. The Tehran Film Festival snapped up five copies.

Qureshi is modest about his success, which is evident when you ask him to talk about his work.

When I ask what he is most proud of he smiles broadly and says: “None of it!”

His success in the film industry is a far cry from the life intended for him by his parents.

“They had already mapped out my career for me,” Qureshi said, “I will study medicine. I will become a doctor. I will earn this much money this year. I will get married this year. And so on.”

Qureshi juggled his interest in writing and film with his parents’ advice, graduating from The University of Leeds in 1997 with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

His advice to aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters is to send ideas to the BBC Writer’s Room and to enter competitions held abroad, such as

“You have to be persistent in this industry, so get on to their mailing list and pester them at functions.

“Try to avoid cliches like suicide, drug abuse, terrorism, homelessness. Do a short film idea that’s interesting to you.

“It’s best to apply to these competitions now before the Conservatives smash it up…and that is a legitimate threat!”

I try asking him about the future, but Qureshi remains tight-lipped about what the future holds. All he discloses is that he is looking forward to the upcoming film festivals in 2010. I do not know what he has planned, but I suspect the boat to be rocked once more.

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