Still image from I am Nasrine
More often than not contemporary fictions about forced migration to the UK end in the departure, deportation or death of the refugee character. Asylum seekers, Okwe and Senay both leave London at the end of Stephen Frears’ 2002 film Dirty, Pretty Things, the young protagonist of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand (2009) is deported back to Nigeria and in Caryl Phillips’s novel A Distant Shore (2004) a refugee is badly beaten and left to drown in a canal. Tina Gharavi’s new film I Am Nasrine rebalances this bleak picture through the story of Iranian siblings who seek asylum in the UK after a series of run ins with the Tehran police. Though her brother, Ali, is killed in a fight, Nasrine flourishes in her radically changed circumstances and ultimately decides to make a life in the UK.
Although this is her first feature, Gharavi’s film work is diverse and innovative; including collaborations with community groups through the charitable arm of her arts organisation, Bridge + Tunnel Productions (which she established in 1998), video installations and cross-platform storytelling (I Am Nasrine has an accompanying Interactive Web Narrative ). I ask Gharavi what it is about film that makes it such an ideal storytelling medium: ‘Film is a really important part of democracy’, she says, ‘cinema is not an elite art form and is a crucial part of the conversation about who we are and the stories we tell ourselves.’ Independent films such as I Am Nasrine are an important part of that conversation and provide an alternative to the limited narratives of mainstream popular cinema.
Gharavi is keen to highlight positive stories of migration and integration. The film exhibition, The Last of the Dictionary Men (first exhibited in 2008), presents the recorded stories of a group of first-generation Yemeni seamen who settled in South Shields over sixty years ago and comprise one of the oldest Middle Eastern communities in Britain. Characteristically hybrid, the exhibition draws important historical links between recent and past migration to the UK, connections which are often forgotten in the contemporary panic over EU accession states and asylum. After all, as Gharavi notes, Britain is an island and has always been a place of encounter for people on the move.
Nasrine’s decision to stay in the UK even after her brother has been killed testifies to a vision of Britain as hospitable to migration. Is this an image Gharavi shares? ‘It’s important not be essentialist about it; it’s neither all good nor all bad.’ On the one hand, she says, ‘there are still serious issues with racism and abuse’, but on the other the country has embraced British Asian identities which are now ‘a legitimate part of the landscape partly as a result of the country’s complex colonial legacy.’ In fact, I Am Nasrine is less interested in the hard-won legitimacy of established migrant communities, and their fraught historical relationship to Britain, than in the fragmented and transient lives of low-paid migrant workers, asylum seekers and travellers, whose presence in the UK is often either shunned, ignored or deliberately hidden from view.
One of the film’s strengths is its interest in representing these marginalised groups on screen in ways that counteract negative images in the press. To this end, the film avoids what Gharavi describes as a stereotypically ‘grey and miserablist’ view of Britain by shooting in warm colours and tones. Taking in her new home, Nasrine’s lingering gaze documents the daily lives of a diverse population: a row of residents basking in the sun outside their red-brick terrace; a boy turning somersaults in the playground; brightly-lit fairgrounds and sun-soaked beaches. Justifiably, then, Gharavi rejects the comparisons people often draw between her and Ken Loach. Her films avoid the ‘brit-grit’ stereotype and resonate more strongly with recent work by female documentary makers like Carol Morely and Clio Barnard, both of whom are interested in marginalised lives and the geographical settings in which they unfold.
It was important to Gharavi to offer an alternative image of the North East, an area she has lived in for over 16 years: ‘I was very interested in the North East as a character because I think it has been very misrepresented by people who want to show it as very grey, dark and miserablist’. This is not a version of the region that Gharavi recognises from her own experience, explaining that ‘Geordie people are amazingly open and welcoming.’ When she first came to the UK in 2006, Gharavi taught in Ashington, a small town which was once at the heart of the mining industry. Despite being a small, localised community with a distinctive local dialect, Gharavi was welcomed, ‘there was no sense of malice’, she says, ‘nobody questioned my right to be there.’
Gharavi’s interest in the diversity of British identities is evident in I Am Nasrine. Rather than channel its story of migration through the protagonists’ battles with faceless institutions, the film focuses on the panoply of everyday interactions between Britain’s varied inhabitants. In doing so it provides a space for these more marginalised stories to be seen and demonstrates her conviction that cinema plays a valuable role in a democratic society.
For me, the most interesting connections the film makes are those between the newly-arrived Nasrine and the settled, but precariously-placed, traveller family with whom she becomes friends. As Gharavi points out, both Nasrine and her classmate Nichole are ‘people whose status is questioned’. Perhaps drawn together by this shared marginality, Nasrine and Nichole quickly become close and Nasrine finds comfort in the warm and welcoming environment of the site where the family live. Nasrine goes with the family to Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria where her presence offers an inclusive view of the UK by focusing on what connects, rather than divides, its diverse inhabitants. In this way, the film is part of a groundswell of alternative representations of travelling communities (see, for example, the Romany Theatre Company), which provide a much-needed antidote to the pervasive ‘gypsy wedding’ phenomenon. In its depictions of the day-to-day encounters between diverse groups – Ali works at a takeaway and a carwash, both rich settings for convivial interactions – I Am Nasrine is as much about the potential for connections across cultural and social boundaries as it is about the antagonisms they can engender.
By focusing on the value of these everyday encounters – Ali’s short-lived affair with a British man and Nasrine’s friendship with Nichole – I Am Nasrine provides a redemptive portrait of contemporary Britain without shying away from the hardships and conflicts that characterise seeking asylum. It’s a shame that the stories of successful integration and meaningful encounters depicted in Last of the Dictionary Men and I Am Nasrine do not reach wider audiences. While it’s important to confront the very real antagonisms migration can produce, we should also celebrate those quieter, everyday connections forged in the margins.
I Am Nasrine is screening at the Curzon Renoir on 9th February. Last of the Dictionary Men is now showing at the Mosaic Rooms, Qattan Foundation.