22 Jan Fresh Meat: Sacha Sultan
Sacha Sultan worked as an art director at a Paris advertising agency before she moved to South Africa to study filmmaking at AFDA (Cape Town). Her directorial debut and fourth year project, Hands Folding Heads, was screened at the AFDA Film Festival – winning the awards for Best 4th Year Film and Best Female Performance. The main character in the coming of age tale is Alice who, 24 years old and uncertain about her future, has been waxing and smoking her life away. The film follows her journey to overcoming her inner conflicts, as she realises her passions and strives for harmony and happiness. We spoke to Sacha about what went into making Hands Folding Heads, her experience as a first-time director and what’s in store for her next.
How did you become interested in filmmaking?
Obviously, by watching movies. It is my favorite thing to do and to be honest, the main thing I do! Also, I struggle with expressing my opinions, so filmmaking gives me an opportunity to channel and share my thoughts and perceptions of reality.
What do you enjoy, or alternatively dislike, about it?
Cinema provides the opportunity to combine different art mediums. Watching a film can be in itself a lot of different experiences (visual, audio, intellectual…) and I love that.
How would you describe your style of directing, and what influences it?
I would say I have an experimental style when it comes to directing. I really enjoy the work with the actors, giving them freedom, and sometimes finding something unexpected which adds a new layer to the story or the characters.
What’s the best piece of advice you received while studying?
“Write about what stimulates you”. Sometimes, you want to write a story because it’s “cool”, but you must keep in mind that you’re going to be stuck with that same story and these same characters for a long time! It is gonna be all you think about and they’ll keep you up at night. So, it better be something meaningful to the person who has to write it.
How, and why, did you make the transition from art directing in advertising to directing films?
Well, in both cases it’s about creating. In advertising you have much more boundaries because obviously the end goal is to sell something. But boundaries can be guidelines. A narrative fiction gives a filmmaker way more creative freedom, which actually makes it difficult to decide on a story and a style.
As for my transition, it was very smooth; I was working at JWT Paris (ad agency) and though I was trained to do art direction I insisted they put me on their TV Production team instead. I was surrounded with incredibly generous people who took such good care of me even although I didn’t know what I was doing. I was drawn to the audio visual side of the job, and I think it showed because they all insisted that I should explore filmmaking.
At the end of my contract before I moved to Cape Town, my boss gave me an old video camera and she said “Go make movies!”, so I’ve been trying to do that.
Tell us about the process of writing the script for your film, Hands Folding Heads and how the story developed.
Hands Folding Heads is a story inspired by real life events, people around me and situations I have faced…so, I had already a clear idea about the plot before I started writing. But during the editing (I was also the main editor and colorist on the film), I had to revisit the narrative structure and cut out several characters and b stories in order to make the film more powerful, more focused and honest.
When it comes to the writing process, well… I believe I have developed a quite strong love-hate relationship with my script. I had days of total blockage when I felt out of control and I found my characters incredibly boring, and other days when I enjoyed what I was writing about – I was connecting with the characters, it was amusing and stimulating. Writing about porn origami or getting high was like that… Once I had managed to immerse myself in that particular atmosphere, I could write up to 10 pages in a day.
What role did the production team and cast have in shaping the narrative, and steering the direction the film took?
It was essentially the cast that influenced the direction the film took. I worked a lot with the actresses before we went into production in order to really pin the characters. While writing the script, I had shaped my characters in a certain way and as they came alive with the actresses’ performances, I saw different dimensions worth exploring. I felt that these characters had to go further, to develop and become complete, almost like real people. We worked a lot on portraying emotions. Nicola Duddy in the lead role (Alice) worked incredibly on empathy, to really get into her character. Being a French director in South Africa came with an inconvenience: I could speak and write English, but I was lacking of a certain South Africanism, and the actresses helped me reach that.
What was it like watching the final version of the film for the first time, and what has the response been like from those who’ve viewed it?
Well, as I was editing, I struggled to stop and settle for a final version. I don’t know if a director ever feels that a project is finished, because you can always change something and improve. Once I decided on a final version, I felt proud because it was a long and complex journey and it was “done”. The first time we showed the film to the public was at the AFDA Film Festival and we won the Best 4th Year Film Award as well as the Best Female Performance, so we can say the reception was rather good.
In what ways does Hands Folding Heads carry what you identify (or what you have started to identify) as your signature?
I don’t know if I have a signature yet, but I’d like it to be honesty, and that’s what I tried to express through Hands Folding Heads. When I watch a film, I like to feel that the director is being honest with me, and simply delivering their perception of people and life, without too much glamour around it. Like the way Lena Dunham stages the contradictions and imperfections of human nature, I like it when people ugly cry or fart in movies. It makes them more real.
How does your experience as a first time director compare to what you may have anticipated?
My experience as a director was much more solitary than I expected it would be. Writing and editing was a lonely journey, and being on set is a weird experience. It gives you the illusion that you’re doing a group project, but it’s actually your vision as a director that the whole crew is trying to accomplish (that is when it’s going well). And in the chaos that is student filmmaking, you have to make quick decisions and constantly think on your feet. And that is with a lot of eyes on you, so it’s not easy! Screening the film and receiving the award was the best thing ever, so much more rewarding than anything I have experienced before. Of course, it had to be followed by the classic “what am I gonna do with myself now…” until the next project.
What are your plans for 2015 and beyond?
Doing my masters at AFDA! Also, trying to launch a production company on the side with my boyfriend Johno Mellish, called Spaghetti Pictures. We want to create online content, music videos, documentaries… Johno has a very unique way to create images and we hope to combine our skills for the best and maybe break the internet, like Kim Kardashian’s ass.
Watch a trailer for Hands Folding Heads below, or watch the full production here.