Leeds-born actor and filmmaker Ashley Tabatabai was inspired to produce a short-film on the travel ban seeing the effect it had on his own extended family.
Titled Hamdardi, the Farsi word loosely translating to compassion and empathy, the film is centred around a bereaved immigration officer who struggles with his role in the system after meeting a young Iranian brother and sister detained during the travel ban.
The 2022 production – which Ashley calls his “most ambitious project yet” – is now due to be shown at the 35th Girona Film Festival.
Ashley, 40, said: “It sounds arrogant, but I guess I kind of just expected it [to be shown at a film festival]. I just haven't done film festivals before with past short films. I guess I kind of knew that this had something to it so it wasn't a case of if it would, it was when it would.”
“We're very mindful that we're not expecting to get like 30 or 40 festivals, but we'll probably get five or six good ones. I think we're all really happy and I think it's more a bit of a relief.”
A few years ago, Ashley’s uncle, who lived in America, had fallen sick and was admitted to hospital and later, the intensive care unit where he died. His daughter lived in Iran at the time and was unable to attend his funeral and be with her grieving family due to the travel ban.
Half-Iranian Ashley said that many people have stories like this.
And it pushed him to write the short-film in 2018 with the help of his father who spoke fluent Farsi.
Ashley said: “The pandemic hit, but that was probably a blessing because it helped us get more prepared as a team to really tackle this and make it last year.”
He added: “I think the big thing that I wanted to make sure came across was, we weren't taking sides. I am not saying they're bad in terms of the officers or immigration or America.
“I think we tried to hopefully portray a balance where obviously, there's people that have been detained and there's these officers that, in many cases, just do their jobs, and they don't even question what they're being told half the time and I think that was super important – to try and find that balance.”
Hamdardi has now been selected for the Vienna International Film Awards taking place this December. The director of photography Adam Lyons has been nominated in the best cinematography category.
But the self-funded short-film was not easy to make; the production team shot the film in Leeds but had to convince the audience that it the United States of America. Most of the film takes place at the airport and these scenes were shot at the First Direct Arena.
Ashley said: “I wouldn't say there were challenges. We were aware of them. It's just that's where the work came in.”
It was also the first time the filmmaker had worked with such a big team of people. With a crew of about 60 people and extras totalling another 40, many of whom are from Leeds or Northern Film School graduates, Ashley said he felt there was also a lot of responsibility.
Ashley plays the immigration officer in Hamdardi. He began his acting journey at secondary school in Madrid, where he lived for a few years.
He said: “I wrote the script for a mock news show and that was the first time I thought, ‘oh, this is a class that I actually enjoy going to like, I'll forgo my break to actually keep doing this’.”
But Ashley said he didn’t think of it as a career then. Ashley added: “My dad is from Iran and if you know people from that part of the world academics is like everything. So the idea of doing anything creative, it's not completely disregarded, but it's just not on the radar as a career.”
He only picked up acting classes in his early twenties after he graduated with a degree in management and returned to Leeds.
Ashley didn’t explore filmmaking until around 2014. He said: “I think probably part of the filmmaking coming into play is what helped me stay ‘sane’ because I was active and creative and not waiting for stuff to happen.
"And I've done everything that any actor has probably done, the classes, the headshots, the mail back in the day like physically posting stuff to people, even now emailing people.
“Because you're the – and I hate the term – product, but it's you on the frontline, and you're putting yourself out there, you get rejected all the time. And I think it was very much a case of not taking it too personally. The whole thing of ‘what else would you do if you don't do this?’ always comes to mind.”
Ashley said he will now be “chaperoning” the film over the next year through film festivals and other promotions and has aspirations for Hamdardi to find a home on a streaming site and be distributed.