Fellows Friday: Q&A with Filmmaker Heidi Saman

Fellows Friday: Q&A with Filmmaker Heidi Saman

Heidi Saman, 2016 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

This week, we speak to Heidi Saman (2016), a filmmaker influenced by Italian neo-realism’s emphasis on working-class protagonists, whose own work examines cultural identity, family, class, and daily life among Arab Americans. Her feature-length Namour, which premiered at the 2016 L.A. Film Festival, tracks a young Egyptian American valet driver in L.A. who struggles to balance his lifestyle with the demands of his immigrant family. The Hollywood Reporter called the film’s telling of “middle-class anxiety and cultural assimilation” a “perceptive and involving portrait of unraveling.”

What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?

The first work of art that really mattered to me was Vittorio De Sica’s film The Bicycle Thieves (1948). I saw it in a film course in college, and I just felt the film in a way that I had never quite felt a film. I empathized with this Italian family that was just trying to make it through everyday struggles. The film had humor, and it was a window into post-World War II Italy. It sounds weird to say this, but the characters’ struggles felt like my family’s struggles—wanting to be able to provide for your family, the pressures of being a parent, how a job defines you, and how kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for. I realized films could be so much more than an escape from our lives.

The Bicycle Thieves approaches how I do my work more in terms of its ethos than how it was technically made. The film was part of the Italian neo-realist tradition, and those films examined the post-World War II plight of everyday Italians, eschewed the aesthetics and story lines associated with commercial cinema, and told ordinary stories that were made extraordinary by their cinematic style. The films of the neo-realist tradition shaped the types of characters that I write: everyday people whose conflicts are made unique because they are so universally shared.

Your films address the lives of Arab Americans and the immigrant experience. What do you hope to convey to audiences through your work?

The immigrant experience in cinema is often illustrated in terms of binaries: insider/outsider, homeland/foreign land, native/alien. As the daughter of Arab immigrants, I never experienced the push or pull these binaries presented. My experience just was. In my work, I show a first generation immigrant experience that resembles a fluid confluence of cultural backgrounds and isn’t categorized in either/or terms. In my work, characters navigate comfortably between communities of varying class, nationality, and language because that is true to my own life and that of many hyphenated Americans.

That said, I want people to feel like I’m tapping into parts of their existence that don’t often get visualized or told. [Italian novelist] Elena Ferrante says, “Honest writing forces itself to find words for those parts of our experience that are crouched and silent.” I aim to do that with my films. My hope is to create a relationship with audiences that makes them say, “I want to see that new Heidi Saman film!”

What images or things keep you company in the space where you work?

I love this question because I think the space that I work in is so important to how I create. The most important thing is that it has to be clean and organized. My starting point for the look and feel of my films is usually a painting, so I keep a print or postcard of that painting right near my keyboard. Currently, I have a print of Henri Matisse’s La Gerbe (1953) near me—a work I got to see at MoMA last year—along with a photo of my brother and me that was taken during a 1986 trip to Cairo, Egypt. The script I’m currently writing is about a teenage girl, and that photo of my brother and me reminds me of heading into those strange, adolescent years.

What single ethical consideration most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?

The ethical consideration that most impacts my decisions is if I feel the project will benefit from my vision. I am very much drawn to personal filmmaking and films that could have only been made by that specific person. So whether it’s a script that someone else has written or a script that I’m writing and will direct, I need to feel like I’m the person who has to tell this story, or that my vision will influence the story in a way that will make the project more layered and unique.

Whose opinion about your work do you respect most?

This is a difficult question because as a filmmaker, I find that you do need the validation of programmers, media, and critics for the film to be ‘seen.’ I would love to say that I don’t need their approval, but that wouldn’t entirely be true. That said, I have an internal compass that I maintain throughout the process of making a film, and that compass contains questions that I’m asking myself about the project itself and the artistic questions that I’m trying to answer. I check in with that compass a lot and if I haven’t answered those essential questions, I know that the film isn’t complete or needs more work. Besides that, I have a few colleagues from graduate school, my cinematographer who is a dear friend of mine, my husband, and some family members that I trust.

What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?

My biggest motivator as an artist is an image that I can’t get out of my head. Every project begins with an image that I cannot get out of my head and I feel the need to visualize with actors, cameras, and a crew. I have no idea why I feel the need to visualize it, but that’s how it’s always been for me.

My biggest fear is not moving forward and not creating. The failure of a project—whether it’s not received well or gets rejected from festivals—can be so crushing, but I don’t want those events to define me. My biggest fear is not getting up after every fall.