Not too many filmmakers can claim to have won two major awards, from two of the world's biggest film festivals, for two separate films, in barely as many as months. For Syrian director Soudade Kaadan, however, that's exactly what happened when she picked up the Grand Jury prize at Sundance Film Festival last week for her short film Aziza, hot on the heels of claiming the Lion of the Future award at Venice Film Festival with her feature The Day I Lost My Shadow just four months earlier.
No one seems more surprised at the double win than Kaadan herself. In fact, the director reveals that she almost didn't make Aziza – which she eventually shot in just three days – at all. "I was invited to take part in a workshop in Beirut by a couple of NGOs that wanted to gather female filmmakers from the region and make a movie with a strong female lead," she says. "So I started writing a script, and then they said they'd provide financing to make it. I was saying, 'Maybe I can, maybe I can't.' I had so much on because I was in the process of finishing off Shadow and submitting it to festivals. I was thinking, 'This is just a fun project. It's nothing serious, I'm just having fun making a movie.' But then I was like, 'Oh, go on then.'"
The end result was the 13-minute dark comedy about Ayman, a Syrian refugee in Beirut, teaching his wife to drive in his beloved Volkswagen Beetle, Aziza. The process takes them on a fantastical journey through their memories, and we are never quite sure what is real.
The Grand Jury Prize suggests Kaadan made the right decision to finish the film after all, although she was unable to attend the festival to collect it – after failing to acquire a visa to attend United States festivals last year for her previous film, it had seemed that her growing prestige and the Sundance connection may have worked in her favour.
Then fickle fate stepped in: “I thought I had a visa waiver this time, but then the [US] government shutdown happened and the consulate wasn’t issuing any. They [Sundance] asked me to send a video instead, which was really nice of them. Much better than just having no one there to collect it.”
With Aziza, not only has Kaadan added another top accolade to her growing collection, but she has even been inspired for her next film. "I'm already working on a new feature inspired by the main character," she says. "It's also about the craziness of being Syrian during the war, but a completely different tone to Shadow. There's more humour, and a guy that's refusing to leave his house, even if it's completely destroyed, because he doesn't want anyone to call him a refugee.
"[It's about] That kind of madness of just day-to-day surviving war and how you need a little bit of craziness just to do that. So it's the same character, but in different situations."
The film will introduce a new character to the mix, too, in the shape of Ayman's daughter: "It's also a coming-of-age story for this little girl, the daughter of Aziza's main character, who lives in this conservative house in the Middle East until the bombs start dropping, and it talks about the opportunities presented during the war, despite the bombs falling. This is the paradox of these situations."
The new film is still in the very early stages of development, though the filmmaker is in the enviable position of having secured funding. Perhaps surprisingly, the backing is not the result of her festival circuit fame. She secured it way back at last year's Berlinale, before The Day I Lost My Shadow had thrust her into the public eye.
It would be fair to say that with a Venice nod and funding attained for two films, 2018 was quite a year for Kaadan, and 2019 is set to continue in the same manner. "I can definitely say 2018 was a good year, things really started to change for the better. But to be fair I think I had seven really long years of bad luck before that," she laughs. "I'm really excited to get working on the new one."
Kaadan may have acquired this batch of funding before she became a certified festival circuit darling, but has she found that her new status has also led to producers and funders knocking on her door? “I guess I do definitely have more of a voice on the festival circuit now with the wins, but in a way that makes it harder,” she says. “Now I have to live up to the same standards of production, and prove that I can do it on an international level, and that’s not easy as a woman from the Arab world.”
It's interesting to note Kaadan's mention of continuing her work on an international level. Her successful films to-date have been very distinctly Syrian, but could we potentially expect to see the director taking on the next Tom Cruise blockbuster or Marvel romp? Is she looking to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Haifaa Al Mansour to Hollywood fame?
“I write about Syria because that’s what I know but I would love to make a film written by another writer and tell a different story,” she says. “For me, it’s not about making films about Syria or not, it’s about making films that tell a compelling story and emotionally engage the audience. So yes, I’m very much looking for an opportunity like this.”