Beyond her talented work, Amirah Tajdin is a powerful figure and role model for women in the region and beyond. The Kenyan artist and filmmaker who splits her time between Africa and the Middle East balancing freelance commercial directing work both locally and internationally opens-up to Book f27 about the struggles of being a woman in the creative world and all the hurdles she surpassed to carve her name as an industry leader.
Book f27: Hello Amirah, how are you?
Amirah Tajdin: Great, thank you.
f27:Amirah, do you think the world is getting better or worse for women? Especially in your industry that saw the rise of the #MeToo movement in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
AT: I think it’s getting better, but we’re not ‘there’ yet. It’s going to take an altering of mindsets amongst both men and women about what a woman’s worth. I believe in gender balance and energies, and when anything is tipped way too far in one direction, it never equates to fair. I truly believe young girls around the world regardless of what industry they eventually end up in on a professional capacity, need to have it ingrained in them that it doesn’t take a man’s approval to prove your worth or give weight to what you say or how you say it. So it’s great that movements like METOO are happening within the film industry because this means as women we finally get to helm how we are represented, and this will hopefully be the start of a new way seeing just who a woman is. Not what cinema has so successfully, in the past and to a big extent currently, decided who a woman is perceived to be.
f27: A lot of times when people talk about empowering women, they often use male-associated attributes, whereas crying is typically seen as a sign of weakness. Do you believe that our strength is in our sensibility and compassion or in mimicking manly behaviours?
AT: Strength is hard to define. Crying can be a strength, being quiet can be a strength, yelling can be a strength. It’s how one channel’s this strength without respect to another person or process that can define it as a weakness. As women, we literally bring life into this world, so our strength can’t be singled out as just empathy or just ‘being like the boys’. It’s a complex, layered and incredibly deep connection to this world that we haven’t even begun to understand.
f27: Do you think the industry internationally and regionally is doing enough to break that stereotype?
AT: Not really, I’m still paid less than a male director whether it’s for my commercial or cinematic work. I still have to be seen in person by whoever is commissioning my commercial work; I’m still not trusted enough to be given funds as a first-time feature film director. And this is a sentiment that all my fellow female director peers face too, the world over. There’s a lack of unconditional trust in female directors that both men and women in positions of decision making are guilty of. And I can safely say this after seven years in this industry.
f27: You come from a mix of cultures, was it hard to find a balance between the different traditions and then have a good balance to apply those customs in today’s world?
AT: Yes, and it will always be an ongoing journey when you’re as mixed as I am. However, I found the combination to find my balance and know what to tap into whenever I’m feeling a little off center. Being an artist and filmmaker has allowed me the privileged avenue of discovering how to find this balance and constantly be aware and question it.
f27: What pushed you to become a director and what held you back? Did you ever encounter setbacks due to your skin color or racial judgment?
AT: I was always drawing sketching and tracing from a young age. And in that process, I was documenting and capturing something, even as a 5-year-old drawing Donald Duck. Visual expression was pretty much my first language, and so I guess it was a natural progression into writing and then photography and then eventually filmmaking which is essentially the combination of both. I would say more than race, self-doubt is the artist’s curse, and to a certain extent that may have held me back when I was younger, but now I’ve learned to communicate with my fears better. In a way, that self-doubt was rooted in a colonial past that my generation in Kenya and then South Africa and coming from a mixed African, Arab and Indian background grew up with. In Europe for example, I’m still exoticized as someone from ‘Africa’ and the ‘Orient’, in certain art and film circles but that’s mostly by an older set of individuals, I’ve learnt to rise above it or correct it when I can because as people of color were so much more empowered now and the world order is shifting so much faster than my grandmother’s hardcore racist generation could have dreamed of.
f27: In many of your productions there is a reference to the mystique and to drag queens, tell our readers more about your favorite themes.
AT: I guess I’ve always been fascinated by people who exist on the fringes of what’s considered normal. I started to explore this photographically first, inspired by Diane Arbus and Josef Koudelka in art school, and then cinematically when I found myself wanting to tell the stories of these characters beyond just photos. These characters eventually narrowed down to just drag queens for a while and still hold a dear place in my heart as my first feature film, Hawa Hawaii, which is currently in a stage ready for financing, is about a Muslim drag queen uses the dying art of Swahili orchestral music & lyrics – Taarab – to mend a deeply fractured relationship with his Islamically radicalized mother. Maybe if I had to sum it up, it would be that I like to make films about the surreal-er side of the human condition.
f27: Do you think that creativity is undercut in this region due to commercial goals and ideas?
AT: I think it’s undercut the world over if you’re trying to make money or get fairly paid for it. In the commercial world, it’s a different ball game, regional cultural restrictions need to be respected, and this often means you have to get more creative on how to tackle certain aspects of representation while still getting the message across. Sometimes it’s just plain frustrating as clients still want a Western-like take on things without considering the restrictions of re-creating such.
However, with my cinematic work, again there are cultural codes one has to respect, but in this scenario, it’s totally understandable as you get to have the creative freedom to make it work without compromising your artistic integrity.
f27: When thinking of a new project are you influenced by subjects discussed on the news that is on trend or do you choose your new projects based on lifelong passions.
AT: It’s a combination of everything. Nina Simone said it best, ‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times’. So whether it’s the news, the internet, an Instagram meme, an art show, my travels, everything always comes together for me to comment and document and just narrate sometimes.
f27: You have done a lot of work for local companies, how was your collaboration with Sole DXB? A movement set to give a voice to a subculture in the region.
AT: I do indeed work with various brands, from independent small businesses to the bigger commercial products and brands, but Sole DXB is sort of in between these two points. I was a part of the first edition and went to high school with one of the founders which are when we first started creative collaboration in art class. Then when a whole bunch of us moved back to Dubai after studying abroad for university, I guess there was a sense of how do we as ‘Dubai Kids’ give back to the city we’ve called home. And I guess that’s what SOLE is, a homage to the various elements that fed our early creativity in this city and how we came back and brought elements of ourselves to give back to the city.
They’ve grown beyond what they could ever have hoped when the first ‘Sole DXB party’ was held seven years ago, into a world-class festival and with that comes corporate responsibility and a sad reality of playing into it being a business and no longer a bunch of friends simply doing what they love. While the guys try to maintain a sense of fun and creative freedom when they brief me to come up with cinematic pieces, it’s getting harder for them and me, to truly stay honest and wild with ourselves, when you have bigger brands involved and friendships to honor without getting things messy. So I guess it ties into the earlier question of the constant battle of creative expression and the fine line of it being forced to morph into safe, commercial formula’s. Which is truly sad, because, in the seven years that I have worked with them, all the work I wrote and directed (that they commissioned) was some of my most iconic Dubai work that went on to open many doors for my career on both the artistic and commercial front.
Interview by GD
Photography by Ziga Mihelcic / The Factory
Makeup and hair by Aurimas Juodiskis AJ
Styling by Vasil Bozhilov
Amirah is wearing Comme des Garcons, Maison Michele and Acne Studios at BySymphony, jewellery Boom & Mellow, Celine