Something New: An Interview with Director Sanaa Hamri and Actress Sanaa Lathan
By Amani Roberts, DC Film Society Member
This roundtable interview with Sanaa Hamri, director of Something New and actress Sanaa Lathan took place January 18 at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown.
Question: What motivated you to choose this story for the first movie you would make?
Sanaa Hamri: I wanted to make a movie after making several music videos. When I read the story, I really liked the idea of having a piece that had to do with love and how love transcends everything. And then I was such a fan of movies coming out of Focus Features, I decided to do the film. I was really excited about being in collaboration with them because they are very “film maker friendly,” they are really about the art and at the same time they are a successful studio.
Q: Initially your role in the beginning of the movie was very annoying and difficult to like. Was it a stretch because that personality in the movie seems so far from your natural personality?
Sanaa Lathan: Yes, that’s the fun of acting. It is funny … in the beginning with the scripts, we were doing some re-writes and one of the questions that came up was “Is she likeable?” and I never care about that. I think that not everybody in life is likeable. I think it made her journey more interesting that she was this woman who was uptight in her “box” and what her life brought her out of that into a more relaxed , organic state of who she really is.
Q: Why did the film's writer really stress your character as being “straight and narrow” and so stubborn?
SL: Well, Kriss Turner (the writer) read this article claiming that 42.4% of African American woman aren’t married. It was discovered that it was mainly because African American woman are climbing up the corporate ladder much faster than black men … or black men are not as educated, in jail or dating white woman. So the question is posed, do you not get married? What do you do? You might have to step outside of your race.
Q: Many times African American woman would like to create a mate that is similar to themselves and it is very difficult to do that. How did this factor into the character of Kenya?
SH: What is important is what qualities you ask for. This is where the Blair Underworld character comes in. We create a list in our heads as women, and I know men do the same thing (laughter) … and we ask for certain attributes and certain qualities but then when we get them, they may not be the qualities that fulfill us … and that’s ok … its ok to realize that those qualities are not what I am really looking for.
Q: The marketing for the film has been interesting. It has focused less on the movie’s African American cast. It only subtly mentions the interracial dating segment of the movie. Why is this the case?
SH: There are different ways of presenting this film. One thing I don’t want to do is to scare people off from viewing the movie. I am not sure about what you think, but people have told me the movie is very entertaining. You can have a good time and tackle important subject matters for us to discuss. People need to come out and see this.
SL: One of the things that is amazing in this day and age is that this is probably the first movie to tackle an interracial love story from the black woman’s point of view. Also, it is usually the couple against the world or the couple against the family. In this case it is her dealing with her own prejudices and we all have them and sometimes you don’t realize you have them. I think this is so exciting to have this story on screen.
Q: The movie pretty much explains all the important issues itself. There was no need to read between the lines the message of the movie, especially when it has to do with Kenya’s character. Why did you make that decision?
SH: It is good that you could recognize her character. One thing we didn’t want to do is depict a caricature. I feel like that African American’s imagery in Hollywood is full of caricatures and everyone plays the court jester which I just don’t appreciate because I don’t think it represents everyone in the right light. With that particularly in mind, you see Kenya and you know that person. For example, in the Starbucks scene when she first meets him (Brian), she is polite. But we know what she is thinking. You don’t have to be obvious. People aren’t going to be like “I don’t like you because you are white.” That wouldn’t happen. What would really happen is that she would be like … “OK … Umm … I gotta go…” and then she would leave immediately … (laughter) …
Q: The ensemble for this film has several experienced comedic actors. Were any of the actors difficult to fit into their perspective roles?
SH: Kriss Turner wrote the script and then I came on to direct and develop it and that is what I brought to the table. The subtleties … I like to describe the film as a Woody Allen type of comedy versus the broad comedy which I am not a fan of quite frankly and we have too much of that going on. With the actors … (not including Sanaa who is very selective about the roles she chooses to accept and that reflects who she is as an actress), but for the other actors, they were in roles where they could just be true. They didn’t have to be a certain way that the Hollywood white studio mentality director would view them as. Anytime I felt the scene was corny, dumb or just off, I would cut the scene … there was one scene in Starbucks that I cut out because of this. It was not working for the message we were developing in the movie. I made a conscious choice on the scenes and the dialogue that made the final cut of the movie.
Q: In the movie, no one took the race issue to the extreme within the dialogue. In real life, black families, even if they don’t approve of a member of the family dating outside the race, are rarely ever cruel in the communication of their disapproval. The movie continues to toe that line, especially in the role that Kenya’s mother plays.
SH: That is one thing that is very important to me because that is the truth. She (Kenya) could be dating a white guy and her brother could say, “That’s great, Guess what? I just met someone who is perfect for you and he happens to be a brother.” Nelson (Kenya’s brother) was more embarrassed himself in the movie, specifically with his ego among his friends that his sister was dating a white guy. This is not just a black thing, it is a human thing is how people can be prejudiced and how they try to play it off like if they are not being prejudiced.
SL: Yes, like in the movie when he says to her, “Have you ever dated a white guy?” and she says, “I prefer black men.” and he says, “So you are prejudiced?” and she says, “No, it is not a prejudice it is a preference.” But, it really is a prejudice and he calls her on it by saying, “It is your preference to be prejudiced” … such a really great scene. (laughter)
SH: In other Hollywood movies, they would play the race issue really broad and make fun of it and I feel like it really diminishes the point that is being made. When people are subtle … like when Kenya says, “Brian is my friend, mother …” and her mother pauses in a little subtle disbelief--that communicates the effect of how the prejudice lies underneath the surface.
Q: Why did you choose to bring up the black tax concept several times in the movie? The examples you showed in the movie were on target and very accurate in the real world. Have you experience it in your career? (Note: The black tax refers to being African American and having to work twice as hard to keep pace with white counterparts.)
SH: I brought it up because it is something we all wanted to talk about in the movie especially with the writer and the producer. When you come into a room and you are the only black person and everyone is looking at you--they are wondering where you came from, what your racial background is, what are you doing here. I wanted to address it because it is real; because as professional women we are all working hard in powerful positions and that is the black tax … especially in corporate America.
Q: In the scene when Kenya is meeting with one of the firm's top clients and the client continues to glance towards the door waiting for someone else to assist her … this is a very accurate depiction of what occurs in corporate America. Could you comment on this scene?
SH: When I first started directing I would arrive on my own set … and the Assistant Director who did not know me would say, “makeup trailer is there!!!” mistaking me for an extra on the movie. Can you imagine? (laughter) … It used to happen in the beginning, not as much now. There is no way that I could be the director. For me that was on so many levels--being an African American and a woman. I felt that it was an important factor to properly depict in the movie to parallel Kenya’s personal dating story.
Director Ali Mosaffa on A Portrait of a Lady Far Away
By James McCaskill
Portrait of a Lady Far Away, part of the Freer's 10th Annual Iranian Film Festival, has two shows this month. We were fortunate to get these comments by first-time director Ali Mosaffa on the film.
I talked with Ali Mosaffa, actor turned director, at the London International Film Festival about his new film. "It is an experience, as a first film everyone said, 'You are digging your own grave with your own hands.' Then I said I didn't know if I would live another day so why not make this film. It was like trying to break through some norm I had learned. I had to break through the films of my own country. For 7 or 8 years I was an actor. Then what the director was doing became more and more important to me than what I was doing."
In his film, Portrait of a Lady Far Away, he has broken through and has made a very different Iranian film, following as it does in the footsteps of Andrei Tarkovsky's dream like works Mirror and Nostalgia. An unknown woman leaves a message on the answering machine of an aging architect. She says she dialed his number a random and wants someone to know that she is planning her own death. Thus a search for her begins. The address given turns out to be an empty apartment where he meets the caller's friend who takes him on a night long search for the potential suicide. It is a journey not only to find the unknown caller but deep into the protagonist's own interior world.
"I had certain filmmaking idols but did not want to copy them; it is not popular to copy masters. I was trying to find an experience--it may turn out to be nothing new but I did my best. As it is I am tempted to make my second film totally different, something that will appeal to a larger public, an Iranian public. Screening Portrait in Iran was not much of a success although students liked it. Families did not. I was asking too much of an audience. Some directors have managed to be popular with the public and make cinematic art. What they have achieved is very difficult. In Leila (shown previously at the Freer), where I was the lead actor, every part of society found something interesting."
"I like directing, acting for me is really difficult. I feel more at ease directing. Filmmaking should be fun and enjoyable. I am trying to convince producers about a second film. Film in Iran is at a critical point; we don't know what it will be like. Producers don't like investing their money in a uncertain field. People like to watch films on DVD at home and copies of films recently screened in Europe and the states are readily available. We don't have many theaters in Tehran which can be called standard theaters. Films don't sell unless it is an accident. Bootleg DVDs are all around you."
"For the lead male actor," Mosaffa said in response to my question about casting, "I wanted the star of A Taste of Cherries. His face was close to what I had in mind. The rest of the actors were friends. I abused everyone in my family--my wife, my father, my mother-in-law. I am not from a theatrical family but I put everyone to work." When questioned about the editing process, he said, "As this was my first film, I sat beside the editor. It was really painstaking and I should have given her total authority. It was really difficult.
What's next? "I am considering a project with a HD camera to see what I can do with that. The script has to be special for digital. I take it for granted that it will not be technically perfect. We do not have complex equipment." Should North American audiences bring anything to a modern Iranian film? "You should watch Iranian films the same way you do any other film," he replied. :For films like Portrait of a Lady Far Away there will be some interest in the film as an experiment. I convinced the Iranian government that this film will help the cinema of the country. They regard it as a rival of Hollywood films and want to show Iranian films in Iran. The industry has not really grown very much with many elemental problems to be taken care of first. We have directors who pay attention to their own ethnic culture and make films for them."
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
Director Norman Jewison will appear in person to introduce his film In the Heat of the Night (1967) and take part in a post-screening discussion with NPR correspondent Juan Williams. The David Cronenberg retrospective which started last month concludes in February. This important retrospective includes all of Cronenberg's films and shouldn't be missed by any fans. A series of four films directed by Federico Fellini and starring his wife Giulietta Masina concludes in February as does the series of films directed by Otto Preminger. "Cinema Tropical," a monthly series of Latin American cinema offers Ana y los Otros (2002) from Argentina. And a newly subtitled 35mm print of The Big Risk (Claude Sautet, 1960) will open February 24 for one week only. Please check the website for dates and times.
Freer Gallery of Art
The Tenth Annual Iranian Film Festival concludes this month with three films: Deserted Station (Alireza Raisian, 2002) is on February 3 at 7:00pm and February 5 at 2:00pm; Wake Up Arezoo! (Kianoush Ayari, 2005) is on February 10 at 7:00m and February 12 at 2:00pm; and Portrait of a Lady Far Away (Ali Mosaffa, 2005) is on February 24 at 7:00pm and February 26 at 2:00pm. Please see the comments above by the director on his film.
To celebrate the Freer's centennial, a special silent film screening of Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919) will be held on February 17 at 7:00pm with Burnett Thompson providing live musical accompaniment.
National Gallery of Art
To accompany the new Cezanne exhibit of paintings, the Gallery presents a series of films showcasing the landscapes of Provence and the seascapes of Marseilles. On February 4 at 2:30pm is Angele (Marcel Pagnol, 1934); on February 5 at 4:30pm is Harvest (Marcel Pagnol, 1937); on February 11 at 2:30pm is Toni (Claude Renoir, 1934) preceded by a short film Pour le Mistral (Joris Ivens, 1965); on February 12 at 4:30pm is Justin de Marseilles (Maurice Tourneur, 1935) preceded by a short film Un Coin de France (Patrice Dally, 1970); on February 18 at 2:30pm is Coeur fidele (Jean Epstein, 1923) shown with Fievre (Louis Delluc, 1921); and on February 19 at 4:30pm is L'Arlesienne (Andre Antoine, 1922). A documentary about Paul Cezanne Cezanne in Provence (2006) is on February 25 at 2:30pm. The Washington premiere of Stolen (Rebecca Dreyfus and Albert Maysles, 2005) about the well-publicized theft of paintings from a Boston museum will show on February 26 at 4:30pm with Rebecca Dreyfus present for discussion after the film.
National Museum of African Art
Two short documentaries on working with brass, Masters of the Brass (1983) and Brass Casting in Cameroon (1984) are on February 12 at 12:30pm. On February 26 at 12:30pm is another film on African art Kingelez: Kinshasa, A City Rethought (2003) about artist Bodys Isek Kingelez who makes huge scale models of cities out of paper and cardboard.
National Museum of the American Indian
On February 5 and 10 at noon is a documentary Strength of the River (1995) about fishing traditions in Canada and on February 5 and 10 at 3:00pm is another Canadian documentary The Spirit Wraps Around You (2002) about weaving.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
On February 9 at 7:00pm is a program "Love is a Battlefield," a program of short films and videos about the nature of romance in the world today. On February 11 at 4:00pm is a documentary screening and discussion of a film about The Ripple Effect, a project of Sister to Sister, an arts organization working with young women of color. On February 23 at 7:00pm is Sisters in Cinema, a ground-breaking documentary about African American women feature film makers by Yvonne Welbon.
Films on the Hill
On February 8 at 7:00pm is The Confession (Bertram Bracken, 1920), starring Henry B. Walthall as a priest who hears a murderer's confession but can't reveal what he knows to save an innocent man. On February 15 at 7:00pm is On Approval (Clive Brook, 1944), considered to be one of the greatest British comedies and starring Beatrice Lillie; preceded by Laurel and Hardy in The Fixer-Uppers (1935). On February 22 at 7:00pm is Bird of Paradise (King Vidor, 1932), a pre-Code film filmed in Hawaii with Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea, preceded by a Charley Chase two-reel comedy Nature in the Wrong (1933).
Washington Jewish Community Center
On February 1 at 6:30pm is A Closer Walk, about humankind's confrontation with the global AIDS epidemic. AIDS activist Ethan Zohn will talk about his experiences in fighting AIDS in Africa.
An encore to the recent 14th "New Films from Germany" film festival is Sleeper (Benjamin Heisenberg, 2005) on February 1 at 6:30pm. "A Closer Look," earlier films by some of the directors we saw in last month's film festival includes The State I Am In (Christian Petzold, 2000) on February 6 at 4:00pm and 6:30pm; Berlin Is In Germany (Hannes Stoehr, 2001) on February 13 at 4:00pm and 6:30pm; and The Green Desert (Anne Saul, 1999) on February 27 at 4:00pm and 6:30pm.
To celebrate Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday this year, the Archives presents the documentary Founding Brothers (2002) based on Joseph Ellis' Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Part I can be seen on February 9 and 15 at noon; Part II is on February 10 and 16 at noon; Part III is on February 17 at noon. On Rosa Parks' birthday, February 4 at noon is Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks (2002). This Oscar-nominated short will be introduced by Kahlil Chism who will also answer questions following the film. In the "American Conversations" series, Ken Burns will join Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States to discuss his past work and his current project, a series on World War II.
National Museum of Natural History
On February 18 at 2:00pm is Secrets of the Choco (1995), about a rainforest in Colombia and the Indians who live there.
On February 8 at 7:00pm is an advance screening of Ask the Dust (2006). Director Robert Towne will be present to introduce his new film which is based on the novel by John Fante. He will answer questions after the screening.
On February 16 at 7:00pm is an advance screening of The Syrian Bride (2004) with director Eran Riklis present to introduce the film and discuss it afterwards. (Note: this film was in last year's FilmfestDC).
The Screenwriting Boot Camp is a six-session course beginning February 8 and running through March 15. Screenwriter Kevin Downs uses the Oscar-winning film American Beauty as an example of a script that works. He will lead participants through the fundamentals, including how to create a three-act structure, how to write for character, how to construct a scene, and how to craft realistic dialogue.