I sat down with first-time filmmaker and long-time actor Aki Omoshaybi to discuss the upcoming release of his debut directorial feature film REAL (2020). REAL is a romantic drama film set amongst the working class backdrop of inner-city Portsmouth and follows the lives of protagonists Jamie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) and Kyle, portrayed by Aki himself. In the interview, we discuss both the filmmaking successes and struggles which Aki faced throughout the process in anticipation of the film’s release.
When you initially created the concept of REAL, what was the main message you wanted to get across to audiences through the narrative of the film?
I guess one of the main messages was that normal people can fall in love and working-class people can have a chance at love and happiness, whether you’re a single mum or someone who struggles to make ends meet. In British cinema you normally don’t see these types of films from this perspective, it’s always the inner-city people who for example live in Notting Hill, or the main character is a writer, or perhaps they’re chasing the love interest to the airport, that sort of thing. It’s never the real working-class people.
Why did you decide to explore the experience of modern-day dating through your film?
The film follows the two protagonists Jamie and Kyle who are both black but the story has nothing to do with their race, or injustice, or systemic things about growing up in estates like we usually see in films. I wanted to show what’s happening right now in the world in terms of dating. When Jamie and Kyle first meet they both lie about themselves, it focuses on the fact that dating online is just a ‘profile’, you see what people want you to see. It’s a one-sided tape of someone’s life where you don’t see what’s truly happening beneath the facade they create. On social media, people think everyone lives are ‘grand’ and ‘perfect’ but really deep down there’s a whole lot more that may be weighing them down or perhaps keeping them afloat.
Your depiction of black British individuals who don’t fit into the stereotypical ‘gang violence’ trope of most British films is refreshing and inspiring – what made you decide that the film would counteract the expectations and open up a new landscape?
With British cinema, gang violence, and period films that have themes of slavery or police are ever-so-popular. These films are all valid of course, and people have really lived through said narratives, however, there is another side to the coin which doesn’t get explored very often in the British landscape. I wanted to show people that there’s more to us.
When I watched the film just last night, I was amazed by the subtle but strong way you managed to interweave the struggles of the protagonists into the storyline within the short timeframe. How did you decide upon these struggles; for example, the fact that your character Kyle has lost his brother and Jamie is a recovering alcoholic?
It is a short movie, which some say ‘is too short’ but sometimes movies can be way too long where they feel like they’re about the director, not the story. This is simply about the characters, it finishes where it does to allow it to feel hopeful – even though they struggle they still keep battling. This is realistic to most citizens, if you’re not in the top 10% you do struggle day-to-day to pay bills etc., but you keep on pushing. You still want love so you just get on with it.
In today’s society, you don’t know what people are truly going through but sometimes you still judge people on face value even though you know so little about them. I wanted to show Jamie like that because she’s getting on with her life and you would never know that she has an addiction. It’s the same with Kyle, when people lose someone a lot of the time they close up about it and you won’t necessarily find out straight away. Sometimes that event or struggle manifests into that person and has an effect on their actions and interactions with others, I wanted this to be shown through the subtleties of something, people slightly off about Kyle but you didn’t know the real reason until you realise the true heartbreak.
Can you describe the process of beginning work on the feature as this is your debut feature? How did you get funding or was it mostly self-sufficient?
BFI didn’t fund the film, however, they came on board with the distribution company VERVE Pictures as they awarded VERVE some funds to invest in debut filmmakers. There was no BBC Films, Film4 – the film was funded purely through my production company which I set up that meant I raised the funds privately through investors and family/friends. We went into shooting with £47,000 which compared to so many films is nothing. We were unbelievably lucky with the location, as I actually grew up in Portsmouth and therefore could speak to the locals and charm them to let us use places. It’s not every day a film shoots in Portsmouth so everyone was very excited. My first acting gig was actually at the Nuffield Southampton theatre!
Before you go, as this is your debut directorial feature, what one piece of advice would you give to young filmmaking wanting to make a name for themself within the British film industry through their first short/feature film?
People always say it costs ‘this amount’ or whatnot, but really if you have a desire to create it you’ll make it work. I think the first short I shot was maybe £3,000, perhaps not even that. As long as you have the aspiration and you collaborate it will work. Students have to understand that you can’t just try and create a masterpiece – instead, you need to get out there and just learn on the job. Get on the ground, collaborate, don’t be too proud, and experience things. Write a film in minimal locations, be ready to adapt, and get out there and start filming! Don’t wait to be chosen.
After REAL is released, what are your plans for the future of your filmmaking?
I’ve been working on another film which is almost done now, alongside writing a tv series which is being considered by a production company and television channels so, fingers crossed!
REAL (15) is released on 11th September in cinemas and online, for further information about the film, click here. Check out the trailer below.