Elham Ehsas was just 14 years old when he first became interested in directing.
Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Ehsas fled the country at the age of 10 after the Taliban takeover. He found refuge in London where, as a teenager, he was cast in the critically acclaimed 2007 drama The Kite Runner, directed by Bafta and Golden Globe nominee Marc Forster.
“We were shooting a party scene,” Ehsas tells The National. “I was looking at the monitors. I saw that there was an empty space in half of the frame. I told the script supervisor about it and they told me it was a good idea to fill it. I just really responded to that.”
Over the past decade Ehsas has built an impressive career as an actor, appearing opposite Brad Pitt in War Machine, Alexander Skarsgard in The Kill Team, the final season of Homeland, the Apple TV+ series Little America, and on stage in London and New York. But, at the same time, he has struggled to find roles and characters that he really connected with, which is what drew him to creating his own.
“There’s a gap in the stories about the part of the world I’m from. Oftentimes, the people in these areas and their stories aren’t overly dramatic. I thought maybe I could change the way they’re shown. Being a director came out of a necessity to control my life as an actor.”
Yellow, Ehsas’s fourth short film as a director, tells the story of Laili (Afsaneh Dehrouyeh), who walks into a Chadari store in Kabul to buy her first full body veil and face a new future. Ehsas was inspired to write the film after he saw a news conference by the Taliban where they decreed that women must wear an all-covering veil in public, and then limited their ability to work, their access to education, and their freedom of movement.
“I had such a strong reaction to that news. It’s a human rights issue and it is unacceptable. In that moment I also realised it meant that a lot of women had to go out and buy the veil for the first time. I’m always drawn to the small moments that are quite heavy underneath.”
Over the course of a weekend, Ehsas became obsessed with the idea and wrote the script. “I was completely immersed in the idea,” he says. Throughout the writing process Ehsas was careful not make the film “preachy” and rather than being overt with his message and condemnation he wanted to just focus on this heartfelt moment between the two characters.
“I didn’t want to make a short film that read like a textbook. I knew that it needed to be emotional. We all know that what’s happening is wrong. I wanted to put what’s going on with Afghan women against a simple and small story. I think that’s what makes the idea and story more powerful and palatable. I wanted to make something that took a nuanced look at it.”
When it came to casting Laili, Ehsas originally looked to find an actress from Afghanistan for the part. But as this process proved increasingly futile, he turned to British-Iranian actress Dehrouyeh. He had previously worked with her on his first short film, Our Kind of Love, which told the story of a woman from an Afghan village going on her first date in London. “She’s such an amazing performer and actress. We have so much chemistry on screen. She is just so supportive and brings so many emotional elements to the character.”
While the interior scenes for Yellow were filmed in Hackney, London, they were able to travel to Afghanistan for the brief exterior shots at the beginning, which immediately brings a detail and authenticity to the film that makes it feel more realistic.
When it comes to his hopes for Yellow, which has already qualified for consideration at the 2024 Baftas and Academy Awards, Ehsas just wants audiences to feel the pain that Afghan women feel because they’re unable to have equal footing in life. “I want audiences to see the world that these women are living in. I want them to try to help, because there are so many different ways and organisations. There’s UN Women, emergency appeals, and even petitions to governments.”
Looking to his own future, Ehsas will make his fifth short before the end of the year. The theme will focus on climate change, specifically how it has started to change biological behaviour. After completing that, though, he then wants to turn his attention to making feature-length films.
“The key to directing is identifying emotions and life experiences that incite emotions, whether good or bad. I have a lot to learn, but the more I direct the more I realise how powerful it is to tell stories about internal emotions.”
When it comes to telling personal stories about Afghanistan and its diaspora, he has no interest in telling the usual tales of violence and trauma. “This is a country that has gone through so much change. I know that the diaspora in the West is hungry for material and stories from the region. I want to pay tribute to the rich culture that we have and I want to hold up a mirror to ourselves and build expectations for the future.”