Short films allow artists to stretch their creative imaginations and showcase their talent. For actor Elham Ehsas, creating shorts has allowed him to shine a unique light on his culture and heritage. One his first breakthroughs came from Our Kind of Love which he hopes to adapt into a feature one day. His latest short, Yellow, tells a unique and quiet story after the fall of the government in Kabul. As it explores what Afghanistan will look like without the United States, Ehsas embraces his characters in their tiny acts of defiance. Yellow will soon play the 2023 ShortFest film festival as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. He sat down with Sunshine State Cineplex to discuss Yellow and what is on the horizon for the director/actor.

The Interview

Alan French (AF): You’ve obviously done a lot of work, both in television and movies. How did you begin your career in movies and television?

Elham Ehsas (EE): Well, it was always a bit of an accident for me. I got into the industry through an open casting call. I went with my younger brother to see how he could audition, and I kind of got roped in as well. We read for a role, and I ended up being in The Kite Runner. We went to China and shot this amazing film. That was my first exposure to the industry.

Elham Ehsas Yellow
AF: What made you decide to jump behind the camera and become a director?

EE: It’s interesting because it’s twofold. One is, as an actor, there’s very little control you have over your career path, trajectory and destiny. I felt that when the phone wasn’t ringing, I had to make my own content. When I started making my own things, I realized that I actually do want to tell stories that are unique to me and that aren’t being told.

Oftentimes, as an actor, I’ve been typecast as a terrorist. I find that a lot of the time when there’s a Muslim protagonist or a protagonist of ethnic background, it’s either a terrorist or a villain. I felt there’s more to my identity, to my story, than playing the bad guy. Maybe I can tell some stories where I can shine a different light on my community.

AF: Everything that has gone on in Afghanistan has been a big influence on you for Yellow. So why was this the exact story you want to tell?

EE: Being an Afghan myself and being born in Kabul, I’ve always been drawn to telling stories from my country. I was watching a press conference by the Taliban when they announced that there will be a decree where all women had to wear the blue Chadari – the full-body veils. That’s when I realized there are girls in their early to mid 20s and they’ve never had to wear this veil.

I wondered what if there’s a girl who walks in to buy this veil for the first time. I’ve always been really interested in telling stories with big themes but in small moments. Although we have such little time and money on a short, we try to get our message across as artists and as filmmakers. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try and use my art to help my country in my own way.

Yellow Shortfest Short
AF: It’s funny that you say you want to focus on smaller moments. One of the things that I really liked about Yellow is how we start outside, in the open air at the marketplace, and then slowly get closer and closer and closer until it’s claustrophobic. Where did you shoot this?

EE: It’s interesting, you use the word claustrophobic because that’s exactly what I was going for. When we were scouting locations, we had a range of different options. I thought that the smaller, tighter, more restricted location would help the story. The exterior is actually Kabul. The interiors are shot in a small shop in London. Through our production design and camera setup, I was always keen to make sure that there’s a sense of foreboding from the Chadari. They are characters in themselves. When she walks in, you see the Chadari towering over her. I was always keen to try and get that feeling of always being watched over in a menacing way.

AF: I’ve always assumed that they were like a darker color. They weren’t necessarily blue. But to hear somebody outwardly say blue, it’s not normally a color you think of as menacing. How did you find the costumes?

EE: The Chadari are from Afghanistan. They’re the actual blue veils. They’re an iconic image from when the Taliban were in Afghanistan in the 90s. I wanted it to be a genuine piece. I was keen for everything to be authentic. It’s funny because it was only a one-day shoot. But on that day, I forgot the Chadari. That was an adventure. In terms of production, again, we were always keen to try and get a sense that the Chadari are almost an evil presence. They literally just float over you, looking down and waiting to consume you.

AF: I noticed that there’s a point when your lead actress looks up at the news footage, that the man from the Taliban says, “Make sure they’re not too tight.” When it cuts back to her, it seems like every single one of the Chadari are too tight. What made you want to focus the story so intricately within her small emotional moments?

EE: When we were blocking the scenes we had a minimal crew, a small budget, and one day to shoot. I had to figure out the most effective way to capture her thoughts and spend as little time as possible to get the shots. I found there were little accidents during the day that we kind of discovered. There was a moment when Afsaneh (Dehrouyeh) walked past the camera, and it looked interesting. I decided to block it out and find a moment in that frame. The dance sequence was the bit that really helped elevate her inner thoughts. It was almost like her roaring, screaming out from under the Chadari. It was her last breath before she’s literally engulfed by this thing.

AF: It reminded me a lot of what Barry Jenkins with the extreme closers on the face, as well as Demme back in the 90s. To make sure that we are fully inside their mind, you can see every emotion across their face. I thought it was an extremely powerful moment. Talk to me about your collaboration with your cinematographer.

EE: Our cinematographer was the wonderful Yianis Manolopoulos. We sat down over three weeks pre the actual shoot, and blocked it out. Once we found the location, we did three or four visits to find the exact angles and frames. There’s a lot of planning involved in pre-production. Making films and learning to edit them, has taught me so much about the relationship of the camera to the actor.

Subconsciously, there are so many different tricks that the camera can play. If the camera is further away, we feel, as the audience, farther from the characters that we see. The closer we get the closer we feel. So that is another tool that I tried to use.  I really thought it’d be important for us to be as close as we can and capture her loneliness under the Chadari. She’s looking ahead at this future, this bleak future, that she’s facing.

AF: I found that last shot, in particular, so powerful. The one where she wears the Chadari and then the camera also has the Chadari go over the lens. That was a really incredible shot.

EE: I always wanted to have a shot of what it looks like from inside the Chadari. I’ve actually worn it myself, just to see what it’s like. It’s amazing how little you can see. Your peripheral vision is completely disabled. Walking is a challenge. Initially, I was thinking that I could introduce that shot during the dance sequence. But then I realized for that shot to be the most effective, it has to come at the end.

We did a few takes where Yiannis gets a reflection shot of Afsaneh in the mirror. But we could not afford VFX. We decided to find a creative way of doing a POV. In the POV mirror shot, we took out the glass from the mirror. We had the frame on the wooden frames of the mirror at the edges of our cinematic frame. So it looks like we’re looking at her through a mirror. We added another Chadari over the camera. So, as she brings her veil down, Yan timed it so that it falls over her head, his falls in front of the camera lens. And that’s how we got the POV shot.

AF: So obviously, you also play a role in the film. What was it like to also be the actor while you’re directing?

EE: I have friends who want to get into making their own films. But they’re scared of being in them. I can see why. I can see that it’s something that you can easily get wrong. It’s kind of a trap. But I feel like if the story is so close to you, and if you can see it so visually, if you feel as an actor that you are right for the role, then go for it. I hope I pulled it off.

It was a juggling act, trying to direct and act in Yellow. But that’s when your selection of your co-stars is so important. I’ve worked with my lead actress before, and she’s so talented. I could trust that if we are in a scene together, she can take care of her character while I take care of mine. So it’s a mix of believing that you’re right for the role and also having faith that when you blink as a director, your actor can take care of themselves.

AF:  It seems like the character you’re playing is probably not the biggest fan of the Taliban either. When we first meet him, he is playing music and the shop owner says, “hey, you can’t be playing that.” It feels like he can identify with her.

EE: That was something that I always like to play with. Lali, the woman, has had her future taken away from her. But there’s also the Talib shopkeeper who has his own walls. There’s an invisible wall between them. In a different world, a different society, they could have been lovers. But here, they can’t. They’re separated. There’s a tragedy in that.

AF: The film is called Yellow, but we only see the color yellow twice. You can see the bird at the beginning of the short, and then your character mentions her fingernails are painted yellow in the closing moments. Tell me a little bit about that decision to withhold that from us.

EE: I would like to play with metaphors and imagery. Seeing and telling a story is difficult enough as it is. I was hoping that having Yellow as the title will motivate the audience to look for the significance of it in the film. Like I said earlier, I believe that telling big stories through small moments is what will elevate them. I thought of having a story around the color of the nails, around the color yellow, and also playing with the themes of loss.

AF: I’m sure you want to eventually take the leap to feature films. Do you have any strong ideas of adapting Yellow into a feature? Or do you have another idea you’re looking to pursue?

EE: For Yellow, I haven’t really thought about the feature version yet. But my first short film with Afsaneh is called “Our Kind of Love.” I’m looking to pursue as a feature because it’s quite rich, fertile ground for a longer narrative. Fingers crossed that will be the next project.

Check out Yellow at the 2023 ShortFest 2023. Follow Elham Ehsas on Twitter, Instagram, IMDB, and on The Artist Partnership.

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