AFMI’s Director of Film Programming, Yasmina Tawil, recently sat down with Murad Abu Eisheh, the filmmaker behind the Oscar shortlisted film short film Tala’vision.
Born in Jordan in 1992, Murad Abu Eisheh earned his bachelor degree in Design and Visual Communications with a focus on filmmaking from the German Jordanian University in 2014 in Jordan. Following his graduation, he immersed himself deeper in his filmmaking journey and directed several short films focusing on human driven stories out of the Arab world.
In 2016, Murad Abu Eisheh started studying directing at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Between 2018 and 2021, Murad wrote and directed three short films, of which most recently Tala’vison. Which received the support of the Jordan film fund and produced in co-production with SWR, Jordan Pioneers and Tabi 360. Then went on to win various awards and honours, most recently its gold medal win at the Student Academy Awards – Oscars, which marks the first Arab win in the fiction category.
In his movies, Murad is drawn to fictionalize and portray stories out of the war torn Arab countries. In order to highlight the injustices and pose critical questions to the standing socio political structures of the “Middle East”.
You can check out the conversation on YouTube or read the transcription below.
Yasmina Tawil: Hello and thank you for joining us. I’m Yasmina Tawil, the director of film programing at the Arab Film and Media Institute. And I’m so excited to be joined today by Murad Abu Eisheh. He is a Jordanian filmmaker and the director of Tala’vision, an Oscar shortlisted short film. He also was a part of the Arab Film Festival back in 2016, where we screened his film Where is Al Rabee? Thank you so much for joining us today.
Murad Abu Eisheh: Hey, and thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited.
YT: We’re very excited to have you back, in a sense, and we’re so proud to see how far you’ve come since we showed your first film!
MA: Yeah, it’s been a while!
YT: So, since the film is not yet available everywhere, it’s safe to assume that some of our audience has not had a chance to see it yet. Could you tell us a little bit about what the film is about?
MA: Tala’vision is a story of a little girl called Tala, and she wants to watch TV, and she lives in an area controlled by ISIS, where they banned TVs and satellites. So it’s really a film about seeing war and these circumstances through the vision of this little girl and her very simple dreams.
YT: It’s a heart wrenching film, one of a number about children and in these terrible situations in war. But an interesting, different perspective on it. Where did you come up with the inspiration for this story?
MA: The first time I started thinking about it was I read a small newspaper article back in 2014 about how ISIS banned televisions, which was completely insane, I thought. And I remember there was a small picture in the article where they piled a lot of TVs and they were smashing into with a stick or something. I thought, this is really insane and I just was thinking how my childhood would have look like if someone had taken away TV from me.
As a person, I was shaped by television and it was my window to the world and especially in these conflict areas there’s a lack of access to the internet and it’s not really open so, I presume, televisions are windows for these children and for people to the outside world. When they’re banning TV they’re really controlling the minds of an entire generation of how the outside world might look. This thought really bothered me for a while.
At some point I was working at the Syrian Jordanian borders and I saw this little girl and she was crossing into Jordan and following some other refugees. She was alone without parents. She was just carrying her bag on her head walking and her face just stuck with me, and I just kept wondering what her story could be. And then these two ideas like kind of clicked together and sort of formed the script of Tala’vision.
Yasmina Tawil: That’s so interesting. I had personally read that you drew inspiration from the the news that you read but I hadn’t heard about this little girl that you had seen.
Murad Abu Eisheh: Yeah, you find ticks and certain events you go through and these two situations for me just stand out every time.
YT: I also read that the lead actress who plays Tala sort of shaped the story in a way that changed what you had originally planned once you started working with her. Can you tell us more about that?
MA: Yes. Our lead actress, Aesha Balaesm, she’s a non-actor. And I knew from the beginning that we were going to cast a non-actor because, I mean, a seven year old, you can’t find a professional seven year old in Jordan or anywhere. We looked for months for her, and once we found her, she was like mesmerizing really. Her personality, everything about her presence in front of the camera was amazing. And like over the months working with her, not actually working with her, it was more like earning her trust.
MA: We didn’t really work on the script until the shooting day one. And the more I got to know her, the more I realized that this little girl is traumatized. You wouldn’t get it when you meet her the first time. You would think like she’s a happy child, that everything’s fine. Once you dive deep into her thoughts and the way she thinks, you realize she’s quite traumatized.
With that thought in mind, I had to speak to child therapists and really be careful about how we deal with her on set and prepare her for the role. And like, there were certain like several situations and even on sets like we kind of built the entire set and we did like an amazing like with the head of cinematography, and we did that the entire set, the apartment, is lit from outside.
So inside don’t work when there are no stands and it feels like a normal apartment. There’s a lot of things were kind of improvised as well. So that changed a lot for me because in the script, I had written descriptions of what she might be doing and how she’s passing the time. What she actually did on set was somehow drawn from her being a bit bored and waiting for us to shoot some small scenes whilst we were actually shooting her, but she just didn’t know and she was just consumed with he writing or drawing something. It quite interesting to see how kids react to the camera and how they react to the thought of “acting”.
YT: I love that. I love especially, that you captured her when she wasn’t acting…it was her being herself and she does an amazing job. You’re right, she has incredible presence in front of the camera. Was this the first time you’ve directed a young child like that?
MA: Yeah. This was the first time ever working with a child, and I have to say it was like one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I didn’t realize what an undertaking this entire thing would be. I remember on the third day of shooting there was an assistant to production and he came to me the day before the shooting when we did the table read with everyone and said “I didn’t want to tell you this on the first day so that you wouldn’t freak out but I saw the script and you have her in every single line, every single shot. And I felt like the actor has to be really good or the entire thing will be like catastrophe.” He was just telling me that because he was seeing her on set and he was saying that what he saw coming out and that it was good. She was doing a good job so far. I was like, OK.
It’s super hard because I was trying to balance between trying to find her within her element and these sort of boredom scenes. Sometimes she had to act like herself and then another scene that she had to really come up with this character. So fighting between the two was really quite difficult to find.
YT: I can I can only imagine and and all the extra stuff you had to do to make sure that she had a safe experience working with you. But but clearly you were able to get from her something really, really powerful. And and the the world sees it as well, clearly. How does it feel to be shortlisted for an Oscar?? I know it’s not a nomination yet, but to get this sort of recognition from the Academy.
MA: I can still wrap my head around all of this. I think to be honest. I mean, we already won the Student Oscars. It just still feels surreal because with, COVID and everything, nothing really happened like on the ground. Someone sent me an email and said, “Oh, you won” and then put on TV. I’m just sitting in this small village in Germany doing my next film and you just don’t get the sense of what’s happening outside, like out there in the world.
It’s humbling, honestly. It’s such an incredible feeling to be recognized like this, the entire cast and crew and everyone was quite shocked and surprised, mixed with happiness, love, tears of joy. It’s definitely exceeded all our expectations. My greatest joy is that there is a light being shed on the film right now and it made it to so many audiences around the world. That makes me feel already satisfied.
YT: It always brings me so much joy when Arab films and Arab filmmakers get the recognition they deserve, especially here in the States and in the Western world, where it’s a little bit more difficult for us to to get any recognition and share our stories and stories told by us, which I think is very important because there’s a lot of misrepresentations of us and our situations. Sort of in that same vein of thought, thinking specifically of American audiences, is there anything in particular you really hope that they take away from this film or that they learn from it?
MA: I think the most important thing for me is what you just mentioned about misrepresentation because a lot of people ask me when I started working on the film and they realize like, oh, it’s a story war, Syria. They were like, “You know, a lot of films were made about this. Why would you do something more? It’s like over used.” And my thought is, there’s not a lot of films made about this. Well, a lot of films are made about this, not from our point of view.
It’s mainly about this topic from an external point of view, and I feel like there’s a lot of content and misrepresentation about the Arab world and about us as people, and that I feel it’s quite important for especially audiences in the US to realize that not every film or every idea spoken about the Middle East is true the way it is because most of it is done from a western point of view or from an American point of view or from European point of view.
That was my biggest motivation to make this film. I really didn’t see many films told about, let’s say, childhood in Syria during the war. From our point of view. I hope people take away from it that maybe a new perspective on the region.
YT: I think about that a lot when I program for AFMI as well. I think it’s incredibly important and I really hope there are audiences non-Arab, especially Western audiences, who are taking the time to watch some of these things and think critically about the media that they are consuming. We can hope. Moving away slightly from the film and just talking about you and your career in general, I just wanted to know what made you want to make films?
MA: Well, I mean, it’s such I didn’t realize it for a long time. I mean, as I mentioned, I grew up really attached to TV and to movies. While everyone else was playing outside as a child, I was really stuck to watching films all the time. But we didn’t have like a satellite of the time when I was really young, we had this antenna thing and we would watch one or two local channels. One of them was Amman second channel and it had a lot of American films and French films at the time. I was watching it all the time and then the satellite came.
I didn’t realize that I’m really attached to films until later on during my first studies in Amman. I took a random film class during my studies in visual design and it just clicked in my head like, ah, ok! I had graduated high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew it has something to do with like arts or being creative. But I didn’t know exactly. And when I took that first class just clicked in my mind like, OK, yeah! I am really influenced by films, a lot of me comes from films and I realize how much films changed me as a person.
Then I was watching recent Arab films coming out and I was realizing like the power of cinema, to change people or plant certain thoughts or critical thinking into people’s minds. That’s the thing that I want to do. I think if one of my films have the power to change one person’s life, that is a gift for me as a person, to feel like I left some sort of influence or some sort of change in the world.
YT: Well, I would say you’re off to a good start with reaching that goal! And do you have any advice that you would give to other young filmmakers who are considering a career in film as well?
MA: I think my main advice would be it’s hard. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but don’t be demotivated. Just follow your dreams. Don’t compromise. I, personally, had so many opportunities to diverge of my course and make more money but I just felt that I wanted to follow what I truly believed in. I really worked tirelessly towards that. It was not the easiest route that I took, but it paid off. It’s not an easy industry to start in as a young person. Just follow your gut, follow your dreams and most importantly, follow the stories that you truly believe in and not stories that you think will make it. Because I think that’s that’s the soul of cinema.
YT: I love that a lot. I think it’s great advice, especially with the hopes that there might be some young Arab or Arab-American potential future filmmakers watching this. I feel like there’s there’s a lot of pressure to sometimes compromise your thoughts, your feelings, your opinions and the stories you want to tell for a more commercial audience in order to make money. So, I think that’s fantastic advice. Thank you for sharing that. So I’m going to start wrapping it up this this short little interview. hank you again. So much for joining us. If people want to maybe see more of your work and your career or support the film, where would you recommend they go first?
MA: Actually, I think tomorrow I don’t know when this is airing, but on the 12th, so Wednesday January 12th, the film will be available online in the US on Omeleto. It’s a YouTube channel. It will be available there for a month, so you can go watch the film there, directly. You can also follow the story of the film as well on social media or on its website.
MA: Thank you so much for having me, and I really appreciate it and I love your organization and everything you guys are doing so sending you good vibes towards you. Thank you so much.
YT: We’re so proud to have you as part of our history, and we really look forward to hopefully working with you in the future! And this is a message for any there, any Academy voters watching out there. Please consider, please consider Tala’vision. We’re wishing you a nomination!
MA: Thank you so much.