Riz Ahmed’s Left Handed Films is celebrating four Academy Award nominations this year, one for the live action short film “The Long Goodbye,” in which Ahmed stars, and three as executive producer of the animated documentary sensation “Flee.”
It’s a pretty impressive haul for a company that’s only three years old, but Ahmed and Left Handed executive Allie Moore are just getting started.
“I texted Allie earlier today, and I said, ‘We’ve gotta do better,’” Ahmed teased during an interview with Variety over Zoom.
Reflecting more seriously, he added: “Obviously, we’re pinching ourselves. We’re just really excited for those filmmakers first and foremost. It’s tremendous good luck, but also really encouraging, in that it’s, in some ways, validating the ethos we try and work with.”
The ethos Ahmed mentions is a filmmaker-first approach, with an emphasis on “creating bold, character-driven stories that stretch culture.” Ahmed founded Left Handed Films in 2019, naming the company for the fact that he is a lefty himself, but also for “all the connotations of what left-handedness is” and the way it matches the company’s core mantra to “Go Left.”
“It’s being an outlier and perhaps doing things differently. It occurred to me that when you write left-handed, you’re literally often flipping the script,” he explains, flipping a piece of paper to its side to mimic the way he and other lefties write.
Flipping the script is exactly what movies like “Flee” and “The Long Goodbye” have done. “The Long Goodbye” is an 11-minute short that takes an intimate, visceral and unflinching look at the devastating and increasingly violent realities for minorities in many countries around the world. The poignant film was directed by Aneil Karia, who co-wrote the project with Ahmed. The short shares its title with Ahmed’s 2020 concept album, and in its execution, has the feel of a long-form music video.
“Flee,” directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, made Oscar history by earning nods for best animated feature, documentary feature and international feature (representing Denmark). The film follows the story of its pseudonymous subject “Amin” who, in preparing to marry his husband, reflects on his extraordinary escape from Afghanistan as a child refugee. Beyond the groundbreaking subject matter, though, what makes the project particularly unique is the way that the story is told, mixing multiple styles of animation with archival footage.
“It’s a real testament to how technical innovation and execution actually pays emotional dividends,” Ahmed says of Rasmussen’s creative choices with “Flee.” “It’s not just about doing fancy card tricks. Animating it allows for an intimacy with Amin that we would not have had if it was just a film documentary; it allows a seamlessness between the documentary elements and the imagined and recreated elements.”
The technical craftsmanship of “The Long Goodbye” and “Flee” are particularly indicative of the type of vision and visionary filmmakers the company aims to support. Released in December by Neon and Participant, Left Handed Films executive produced “Flee” and Ahmed voiced Amin in the English-language version.
Both films, Moore points out, follow Left Handed’s strategy of telling a fresh story in a fresh way.
“Each one combines different genres and tones together, but we do it from a place that’s character first, so that those genres are never added on for the sake of it,” she explains. “They’re always coming from a place of the character’s emotional experience and [exploring] how we can bring out that emotion to make it feel authentic and true to whatever that experience is.”
The goal, Ahmed adds, is to “create a tone that’s as complex as our characters.”
As a filmmaker and producer, he leans into his own “hybrid origins” and “hyphenated identity” — meaning both his entertainment background an actor and rapper/musician, and his racial and cultural identities — to inform Left Handed’s style of storytelling.
“Restricting ourselves to the pre-preconceived genres ends up flattening these characters sometimes, and not doing justice to the complexity of the kinds of characters we’re excited by,” Ahmed explains.
As an example, he offers “Exit West,” one of Left Handed’s upcoming projects for Netflix. The film is an adaptation of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s best-selling novel about a young couple living amid a civil war who flee using a system of magical doors that lead to different locations around the globe.
“This is many things: it’s a love story, a refugee story, a magical realist story, an apocalyptic story, a story about family and grieving and loss. It’s all these things,” he says. “To fit them neatly into the structure or the formula of a ‘classic epic love story’ wouldn’t do it justice. We’re constantly having to invent and reinvent a language to make space for these experiences. To me, that comes down to our relationships with the filmmakers.”
Left Handed’s first project was “Mogul Mowgli,” a feature co-written, starring and produced by Ahmed. Directed by Bassam Tariq, the project has garnered massive critical acclaim, including the Berlin Film Festival’s Fipresci International Critics’ Prize; a best British film nomination at the 2021 BAFTA Awards; and best debut screenwriter and best music award wins among its six British Independent Film Awards nominations. Last year, Ahmed earned his first Oscar nominations, including a nod for best actor, for Amazon’s “Sound of Metal.”
Since, Left Handed inked a first-look deal covering television with Amazon Studios, which continues Ahmed’s partnership with the streamer, as he also starred in the Amazon film “Encounter” last December. The company currently has 18 projects in various stages of release and development, including the Amazon series “Exit West,” a team-up with Lulu Wang’s Local Time productions; “The Son of Good Fortune,” directed by Yann Demange, starring Ahmed and produced with Anthony and Joe Russo’s AGBO and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground; and a contemporary adaptation of “Hamlet,” in which Ahmed takes on the title role, written by his former Oxford classmate Mike Lesslie.
The last three years have been transformative for Left Handed and, over the course of this producing journey, Ahmed has learned the importance of hiring people who are “a lot smarter than you and handing over the reins” to make sure everyone can focus on their own lane during production, especially given that he appears on camera in a good chunk of Left Handed’s projects.
Enter Moore, who boarded the company as senior vice president, head of television in January 2021, tasked with overseeing production and development for the company. She most recently served as vice president of scripted programming at AMC Studios. From their earliest conversations, Moore could see she and Ahmed were aligned in their desire to center untold stories that “felt like they were coming from a bold place” and doing things in a way that was different from the industry’s status quo.
“I get frustrated with the boxes that have been set up in Hollywood,” she explains. “This is such an opportunity to not worry about those boxes and just create in a space that felt like was empowering the filmmaker to tell stories that don’t fit into those boxes.”
Ahmed also operated on a gut feeling that they’d make a great professional match, sensing that Moore “leads from the heart” and could create a company culture that follows that.
“Yes, we do operate in a business and we are running a business, but when it’s all said and done, this is about forging an emotional connection with audiences,” he says, signaling that things go off course “if that emotional connection isn’t there between the filmmaker and the material, between us and the material, and between us and those filmmakers, if that spark of life isn’t there to begin with that will end up hopefully electrifying audiences.”
“I can sometimes get caught up in overanalyzing things,” he admits, but it’s Moore who gets things back on track with her emotional gut check. Now, a little alarm bell goes off in his head every time he thinks the company “should” do a project solely based on it being a good business decision.
“That’s a point to press pause,” he says, explaining that he’ll remind himself to focus on the “why” behind what Left Handed creates. “If it starts feeling like work, and you’re not really sure why you’re doing this, that’s when you’re going to stop and ask questions.”
In discussing the company’s overall strategy, Ahmed and Moore use phrases like “break the old” and “challenging the status quo” as they work to create content that speaks truth to power. Ahmed and Moore refer to their primary guidepost as one of “radical vulnerability,” explaining that its integral in their relationships with filmmakers.
“We talk a lot about this idea of what does it look like, really opening your heart to allowing the story to come forward first,” he explains. “It means allowing your ego to take a backseat.”
But that approach, Ahmed notes, is only possible, “when you feel safe, when you feel like you don’t have to prove yourself, when you feel like going into meetings isn’t about like going in with the guard up.”
For Moore, it was an idea that took some getting used to, after coming from a more corporate background. They both also had to adjust to the concept of making less projects.
“It’s really important that we’re not just taking on stuff to take it on, but really making sure that we can give everything to a project and we have the space to be 100% there for our filmmakers and creators.”
As mentioned, the company’s next projects include “Exit West,” “The Son of Good Fortune” and “Hamlet.” Ahmed and Lesslie have been developing their Shakespeare adaptation for a decade, but things kicked into high gear when Moore joined the company.
“We were at a bit of an impasse with the project creatively, and we turned a corner. We’ve got a script; it feels very exciting,” he shares. “It’s an attempt to smash the mold and stretch the culture. If you can reimagine something as classic and revered as Shakespeare and really do something quite subversive in that space, I feel like that speaks to our mission.”
Series “The Son of Good Fortune,” written by Andrew Lopez, is based on Lysley Tenorio’s novel of the same name. The story follows an undocumented Filipino teenager in the Bay Area as he navigates a tumultuous relationship with his former B-movie action star mother, falls in love for the first time, and works out how to pay back a massive debt before his whole life crumbles. The series is in development at Amazon, with Left Handed producing alongside Wang’s Local Time.
“A project is only as good as your collaborators, and, as producers, you’re only as good as your partners,” Ahmed notes.
As such, the pair has prioritized efforts to foster a spirit of openness — and “bring in people who we think are awesome.”
“We really enjoy collaborating with a bunch of different filmmakers and partners,” he continues. “Whether it was with the amazing Vice crew on ‘Flee,’ or a brand on ‘The Long Goodbye,’ Pulse Films on ‘Mogul Mowgli,’ we’re working with a bunch of different folks out there that each bring their own perspective and bring their own set of values. That keeps things interesting and keeps us on our toes.”
To circle back to the Oscars, Ahmed also acknowledges that the widespread recognition of “Flee” and “The Long Goodbye,” plus films like Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” indicate a changing industry landscape and confirm audiences want to see these stories. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the Academy announced plans to pre-record the live action short Oscar presentation and edit into the broadcast. Ahmed and Moore could not be reached for comment.]
“We are seeing a truly global film culture take hold with streaming, and the prevalence of subtitles, and social media making people feel more able to digest those in their moviegoing. It’s a real invitation for people to look further and further afield to find fresh stories,” he explains. “Yes, these are untold stories, stories that make you sit up because they come from a perspective that’s under-voiced, but the execution is very left field.”
Looking ahead to their next goals, Moore is focused on “telling stories that we feel connect with us from that place in the heart and doing something that feels that we haven’t seen it before and in a way that we haven’t seen it before.”
Ahmed agrees, adding, “It’s easy to get pulled into the ‘should’ and pulled into the noise; it’s easy to get pulled into the business analysis of things. We’re aware of those elements, as any company should be, but we want to double down on this path that we’ve chosen, which seems to be working out really well for us and our collaborators, to continue to stretch culture and go left.”