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Milad Alami on ‘The Charmer,’ Outsiders, Challenging Audiences

Alami’s first feature opened San Sebastian’s New Directors competition this weekend

SAN SEBASTIAN — “If I try to analyze my films, they are usually about characters who are outsiders to society in some sense,” says Irani-born, Sweden-bred and Denmark-based Milad Alami, whose “Charmer,” world premieres at San Sebastian as the opening night film of New Directors, its main sidebar.

“Charmer” fits the bill to a tee. Alami’s first feature, it turns on a Iranian, Esmail, who doggedly attempts to secure a stable girlfriend to increase his chances of gaining a residence permit in Denmark. His life becomes a waking nightmare as he falls in love with a beautiful Iranian student, is stalked by the husband of a woman who committed suicide when Esmail abandoned her – one thing he’s not looking for is marriage – and the clock ticks on his likely expulsion from Denmark. Oblique –  “the things you don’t say, you don’t see, sometimes are much more effective or interesting, like the inner life of  a character,” Milad maintains – and genre tinged, “Charmer” plumbs class and race as it paints a portrait of the supremely complicated and constrained life of an immigrant.

It also represents the debut of one of Denmark’s most multi-prized young filmmakers. Made on a shoestring with fellow graduates of Denmark’s National Film School, 2015’s “Mommy,” a touching portrait of a single mother attempting to be a good parent while still staying young, won a best short Danish Academy Award; co-directed by Aygul Bakanova, “Void,” starring Lars Mikkelson as an emotionally eviscerated 50-year-old, made the cut of the Cannes’ 2014 Directors’ Fortnight.

You’ve said that most of your films turn in some way on outsiders. Would you regard that as is anyway semi-autobiographical?

I think parts of me are in all the characters I have directed, also in Esmail who is the main character in “The Charmer.” In a sense, I think a lot of directors feel like ”outsiders,” because they observe the world around them.  So do I. I am interested in people that you can’t pin down, who at a first glimpse are a riddle or a mystery.

You’ve also said that the things you don’t say can be much more effective. Is it coincidence that one woman drops him after they’ve attended together a day at one of her wealthy friends sea-side mansion? Or that two women want sex with him, but from behind, so that they don’t see him when making love?

Interesting observation! Esmail experiences obvious exoticism, the women he encounters use him, as he tries to use them. There is a notion of the Middle Eastern man as aggressive, primitive and almost animal-like, he’s not thought of as sensitive or having a rich emotional life. You could expect some of the women that Esmail meets to be drawn to those specific characteristics. They want to fulfill their idea of what type of person he might be and what kind of sex that would entail.

Esmail’s falling in love with Sara, the daughter of a celebrated Iranian singer, feels like a meeting of similar-status émigrés. Both live in Denmark, mix with Danes, but cannot enjoy a fully-liberated life. Could you comment?

Absolutely, trapped in a sense. But what they most of all share, for me, is a sense of loneliness. Sara, at home taking care of her mother who is unwilling to let go of the glory days in the past. And Esmail in the nightmare he has created for himself, bouncing between different women in the hopes of some kind of stability. This is something that I discussed with screenwriter Ingeborg Topsøe, whom I co-wrote the script with. It was important for us that they had something in common on a deeper level.

“Charmer” uses within-frame vertical framing of Esmail in constrained spaces and its tones veer from blue when Esmail to occasional red. Could you comment?

Sabine Hviid, the production designer, Sophia Olsson, the cinematographer and me had long discussions about the visual language. Early on we had an idea of creating a maze with long corridors and reflections in mirrors in order to create a claustrophobic mood.  Also, we wanted the scenes where Esmail is with Sara to feel light, colorful and comfortable to be in. To emphasize Esmail’s growing feelings for her.

Apart from this, what were your guidelines when it came to the direction of “The Charmer”?

My ambition was to create an intense and unpredictable cinematic experience. I wanted to play with genres and mix a character-driven drama with elements of suspense, thriller and a love story. I wanted the movie to be both a punch in the stomach and a beat in the heart.

Your films are about outsiders.  Do you see other constants in them which could be the mark of an emerging authorial voice?

I think a common characteristic in my films is that I try to challenge the audience, what they expect from a story and a main character. I like it when stories and characters surprise you and you have feelings that you weren’t expecting. Right now Ingeborg and I are working on our next story that is also an intense character-driven piece, but we have journeyed into realms of fantasy. I have never done that before and it’s very exciting.

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