Interview with Balbeer Bahi, director of ‘Unintentionhell’

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DR JAMES ROWLINS, LONDON ROCKS CO-DIRECTOR: ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ begins as a gritty tale of a grieving father seeking revenge on the perpetrator of his daughter’s murder, which spins into an exploration of guilt and mental health. It is a gripping and violent film that challenges our expectations at every turn, and casts an unflinching eye on intercommunal tensions in inner London. Please tell us about your background as a writer and working in theatre. Did you always plan to turn to filmmaking? For you, what is the difference between theatre and cinema?

BALBEER BAHI, WRITER/DIRECTOR, ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’: I just love stories, as I think we all do. I believe our primal need for storytelling is as deep-rooted a survival mechanism as Chomsky’s theories that language and grammar are innate. Children, as soon as they can sit, will get absorbed in a good story. So typically, I was writing and drawing comics in primary school.

Balbeer Bahi alongside (left to right) Rez Kabir: Actor, Marina Fusella: Sound Engineer, Esteban Gitton: DoP & Qili Wang: Producer.

There is a huge overlap between Theatre and Film. Old theatre treatises – for Kabuki theatre, or Greek or Indian theatre etc. – aren’t much different from modern screenwriting manuals. The commonality is storytelling.

J.R.: When did you first start developing ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’? We note that it is “conspired by true events” – could you elaborate? How do you feel, incidentally, about the incessant media discourse about knife crime in London?

B.B.: Along with thousands of fellow, heartbroken Londoners, I was on the demo for Stephen Lawrence, as well many demos for lesser-known cases over the years. We also know within the popular folklore of London about Damilola Taylor, more recently Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard… In 2012, a 5-year-old (I don’t want to name her without permission), was caught in the crossfire between rival gangs around the corner in Stockwell. We were all sickened. Discussing the impact of this and other street crimes with my daughter, I wrote ‘UNINTENTIONHELL.’ It really is an impossible subject, these permanent tragedies haunt everyone’s lives forevermore. Maybe that’s why the film is so intense, almost unbearable at times. It might be too packed, trying to create credible, 3D backgrounds for the characters, to fully flesh out their lives and families. As for the media’s presentation of knife, gun, racist, or misogynistic or homophobic street violence, they can analyse and record events, help us grieve, highlight issues – but long-term, complex societal transformation at grass-root level has to come from all of us, I guess.

J.R.: ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ is a micro-budget feature, no mean feat in the current climate. How did you go about finding cast and crew? Did the small budget hamper, or fuel, your artistic ambitions?

B.B.: Finding cast and crew in London isn’t difficult. There are so many talented, experienced filmmakers in London who want to get involved with a meaningful project. Also, the script was written specifically for that micro-budget approach. Many of the actors, Rez, Shola, Jacob, Siddiqua, the Assistant Directors Adeel and Catherine, and the co-Producer Qili, contributed their time voluntarily as they felt the subject matter was important. And everyone else generously did it on absolutely minimum fees. We shot 23 days over a 30-day period. There were plenty of problems due to having a minimal budget, a lack of hands mostly. I found myself quickly learning how to schedule a shoot, organise locations, transport, props, permissions, lunches – thank God for the fabulous Chris and Jen at the Ichiban restaurant in Brixton who provided us with the best food, which always boosted morale. There were incredibly frustrating days where I couldn’t focus as much as I wanted on the actual directing and content of what we were shooting. So, any faults within the film are down to me as the producer with limited funds, causing me as director to get over-stretched.

Cast of ‘INTENTIONHELL’ (left to right): Rez Kabir, Samuel Shola Stewart, Jacob Wayne O’Neil, Alphonso Austin & Nansi Love

J.R.: You clearly have a close relationship with your leading man, Rez Kabir (the aptly-named “Manik”). Have you worked together before and if so, how was this time different?

B.B.: Soon after I joined the London theatre company, I met Rez Kabir at the Croydon Warehouse Theatre, when he was contemplating becoming a full-time actor. He’s an exceptionally talented, dedicated performer. We have toured and performed on stage together. This time was different as I was effectively watching him work through a lens, which seems to love him as much as the crew, who adored his professionality. There were several potential actors keen on the role, but in discussions with Rez he pinpointed the story’s thematic development, and I knew I could trust him with the internal mechanics of the character’s journey. All things considered, I think Rez and the cast did phenomenally well.

Rez Kabir as “Manik”

J.R.: ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ has a packed cast of young, up-and-coming actors, including first-timers. As director, how did you inspire such raw and realistic performances?

B.B.: Yes! We have Ava Ghir, Shola Stewart, Jacob O’Neil, Alphonso Austin, Nansi Love, and incredibly, Luke Morgan, who had never performed before and I think is amazing… Truthfully, they are all just so talented and passionate about acting, and they connected with the source material – they all knew the stories the script was hinting at – they inspired me rather than me having to draw performances out of them. And don’t forget, we had a few old pros too, such as Sarah Hannah, Siddique Akhtar, Janine Johnson, Samantha Love, Andre Leconite, and the late, great Eamon Maguire, a terrific theatre actor who had retired but thankfully ventured out for this one last role.

J.R.: Was the violence at the film’s end emotionally difficult to film?

B.B.: There is a lot of tension between the primary characters, who are undoubtedly ready to erupt. Personally, I tried to keep the violence to a minimum. A lot of it was difficult to film due to the complicated subject matter. I was desperate to avoid ‘gang’ culture clichés and stereotypes about council estate life. Several White/English actors’ first response (even before looking at the script!) was ‘I don’t want to play a racist’, and the non-white actors didn’t want to regurgitate negative tropes either. As the writer I didn’t want to preach or lecture, just let the viewer reach their own conclusions. It became very dense – the first cut was two and a half hours long. After a huge effort, we got it down to 96 mins. And yet I still worried that it was still too long and chopped it to 78 mins, meaning that yes, it is dense, intense and hard work to watch. As it’s a tragedy, there are no winners in this scenario, everybody loses – those that commit the street violence as well as those that have to suffer it… The film is as tough to deal with as the subject matter.

J.R.: How did you approach the edit? Did you always plan to embrace a non-linear narrative, conveying Manik’s troubled relationship with reality?

B.B.: I was lucky to discover the energetic Lewis Wardell, an editor fresh out of university, who did the first rough cut, and then the multi-talented and experienced Roberto Minelli, who oversaw the post-production. The primary goal of the non-linear narrative was to maintain enough pace to tap the viewer’s curiosity, while unravelling four distinct stories around a central mystery, until the last quarter where the most powerful drama occurs.

J.R.: We particularly like the jazz cacophony, which seems appropriate and symbolic. Was the scoring decided in pre- or post-production?

B.B.: Did you like the original music? That’s terrific, I’ll pass that on. The main character plays the trumpet, which is symbolic of his grasp on reality. Jim Dvorak, one of the jazz world’s most revered trumpet players, and the brilliant guitarist Mark Hewin, graciously explored the themes musically pre-production and suggested different tones. Then Jim, with the sensational Sammy Hurden on piano, composed the original music. Alongside these three world-class musicians, we have the contrasting, contemporary music by the young composer Adam Hare. Plus, one of the actors, Janine Johnson, sings so beautifully, I had to include her voice. AND by chance the actors Nansi and Samantha Love are family with the legendary Alabama 3, so we’ve sneaked in a couple of their tracks too.

J.R.: Does ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ depict a hell with no exit? Is any form of redress or justice achieved in Manik’s revenge?

B.B.: The title suggests these particular kids don’t choose to get trapped in their nightmares as willingly as people presuppose. Maybe if we had more supportive family backgrounds, a more accommodating society, then we’d get all our kids – especially young men – to maturity and to have an adult perspective on these actions. I can partly relate as I had an awful home environment and was out stealing cars when I was 14. So much trouble. And some say I turned out okay… eventually! Equally, many in society may clamour for vengeful redress, but the death sentence in this country was repealed for good reason. Revenge is a very understandable, yet infantile emotion. Quick story: we used to have this beautiful neighbour who was in her 80s. She was mugged, they broke her shoulder, and she never fully recovered. Months later she passed away. My son, who wasn’t yet 5, said, ‘Dad, if I ever find who done it, I’ll kill them’. Revenge may be a highly natural response, but… I’m hoping people notice the lead character’s disturbed search for vengeance makes him as terrible, and perhaps identical to, the ‘evil’ boys he’s chasing down. A lot of people understand that the script is about mental health, schizophrenia in particular, induced by extreme external trauma inducing irreconcilable inner rage and turmoil. Rez and I talked a lot about The Boston Strangler with Tony Curtis, one of the first films that explored schizophrenia.

J.R.: What are your plans and aspirations for “UNINTENTIONHELL”?

B.B.: It would be great to get it in front of London audiences, maybe a streaming platform. We’re so lucky to have found London Rocks and the passionate filmmakers here, who are willing to give a crazy, under-budgeted, raw and flawed first effort a look-in. It’s also been welcomed by First-Director friendly festivals in Canada, Bali, Boston, Cannes… I think we might get a screening at this year’s British Urban Film Festival. I believe it would benefit from a final edit, sound and grading improvements… As a writer the editing process never finishes. Again, the knock-on effect of a limited budget is there is no marketing manager, so I’m open to all advice and suggestions!

J.R.: Is there another feature film in the works? Please tell us about your next projects.

B.B.: I have my hugely ambitious ‘ABHI: BABY DRAGON FLYING TIGER’, in pre-production with an Indian animation studio; there’s ‘BIRTH OF HER COOL’, a tribute to the British Jazz scene, ideally involving several of the cast and musicians from ‘UNINTENTIONHELL’, ready to go; ‘STAR CHILDREN’, about a group of special needs kids on holiday who bump into an alien, which is receiving positive attention. When we talk about diversity people with special needs are gravely under-represented; and I’m off to India soon to film a trailer for a martial arts project, ‘KALARI KAUR’, which is a story that would bring the South Indian martial art form of Kalari to the mainstream. I have dozens of scripts, from low budget socio-political dramas to even super-hero stories, reminiscent of those comics I was drawing in primary school. Having one script manifest as a film is terrific, but I’d love to get one or two more made. I keep repeating that I’m primarily a writer/storyteller, so am keen to work with Directors and Producers looking for scripts they and audiences will connect with.

Writing may at times be a solo effort, but the construction of a film is categorically a team effort, just as watching a film in a cinema is very much like theatre, a social, group event that can subversively bring perceptually different communities together.

‘UNINTENTIONHELL’ will be available for watching at the Rocks Screening Room as part of LRIFF 21 from 1 – 7 November.

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