Interview: Dhivya Kate Chetty and Alysia Maciejowska
A conversation with the writer-director and producer behind The Barber

Writer-Director Dhivya Kate Chetty and Producer Alysia Maciejowska talk to us about making their short film The Barber

Back in 2019, the idea for The Barber first crossed our desks through a call out for our annual short film development programme Script Lab. Exploring the realities of immigration, power of translation, new beginnings and the fractured nature of humanity, it later became one of the shorts Film Hub North has supported through the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund.

Ahead of its World Premiere at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, we caught up with The Barber’s writer-director Dhivya Kate Chetty and producer Alysia Maciejowska to chat about how the story came to be and what they learnt during the film’s production. Read on to learn more about The Barber and how to take part in Script Lab 2022.

Set in and around a Glasgow housing estate in the aftermath of the suicide of an asylum seeker, The Barber centres around Leyla, mum to Firat, a Kurdish activist and asylum seeker whose immigration status is hanging in the balance. Reluctant, or too traumatised, to revisit her past, she exasperates her immigration officer with her reticence – save for a vague description of nocturnal visits to her prison cell from a man with a moustache they called “Sewal” – the brute. But then a chance encounter with charismatic Turkish barber, Hasad, knocks Leyla’s life askew.

What was the inspiration for the story? Where did the idea come from? And was there anything you were particularly looking to explore or highlight?

Dhivya Kate Chetty (DKC): In the mid-noughties, while studying for a Masters in Translation Studies, we looked at the role of translation and interpreting in immigration hearings and appeals. I was particularly interested in case studies where interpreters were sometimes called to an appeal and ended up traumatising or silencing the person seeking asylum because they were from an opposing side in the civil war in the home country. The knowledge that people from different sides of brutal conflicts; perpetrators and victims; state supporters and ‘terrorists’ can, and do, end up in the same small area of host countries stayed with me. I was interested in the harsh realities of the immigration process where there is often a lack of compassion for the role trauma plays in memory. I wanted to suggest that trauma and its effects on memory are underpinning much of protagonist, Leyla’s, behaviour.

When the genocidal Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic - who had been on the run for years, wanted for international war crimes - was found in 2008; he had been living as an alternative therapy healer in the mountains, complete with ponytail and beard. In the character of Hasad, I wanted to explore this capacity for reinvention and to ponder whether we really know who someone is?

Ultimately in the execution I was hoping for some ambiguity – is Leyla suffering from PTSD? Is her memory sound? Is Hasad a genial, kindly Barber, what’s with Leyla’s obsession? I wanted to explore these themes of memory, trauma, migration, voyeurism in a kind of European, arthouse, psychological-drama kind of way.

Were there any particular challenges you faced during the shoot?

Alysia Maciejowska (AM): Yes! It’s fair to say that pretty much every challenge came down to COVID and was then exacerbated by COP26 taking place in Glasgow, near to where we were filming. We had to reschedule the shoot when Jamie our DoP came down with covid on the day of the tech recce a week before the original shoot date. In fact the tech recce was interesting to say the least, with both our DoP and Production Designer unable to attend due to COVID. Thankfully we had a really experienced 1st AD in David Gilchrist, who was able to help Dhivya work through the scenes, and we were able to borrow a 360° camera to share images with the rest of our HoDs once they were well enough. We were already experiencing issues with crew and facilities availabilities, as I think all productions are, but with the reschedule we couldn’t avoid our shoot dates coinciding with the COP26 world climate conference, which made things far far worse. Available sound recordists were rarer than hen’s teeth, and even just finding enough hire cars and taxis in order to maintain the safe cohorts required for our COVID protocols felt a near impossible task. COP26 also meant there was a lot of travel disruption affecting our daily schedule and limited the already small amount of time we had to film with the children. But we managed it! We also lost a couple of key locations due to the reschedule, but in no small part thanks to our Location Manager Roland Kennedy, and our brilliant art department led by Alice Cousins, who all put in a load of extra effort at the last minute, we managed that too.

You have a fantastic child actor in the film – what was the process of casting him?

AM: We were really fortunate to have Des Hamilton and Sophie Pearson from Des Hamilton Casting on board. They spent a lot of time putting the call out and whittling down a shortlist of options for us to meet via Zoom (being COVID times). Some of these were experienced child performers and others were kids with no experience. We immediately agreed on a couple of strong options to play Moussa (Firat’s school friend), but it was harder for us to identify someone who could evoke the complex and subtle mix of total innocence and vulnerability with a mature anxiety and concern for their mother. Dhivya always had her nephew, Tavish, in her mind’s eye when thinking about Firat, but he had no previous experience and we were initially reluctant about bringing a young family member on set. We ‘auditioned’ him in exactly the same way as with the other kids, and we also thought long and hard about the fact that he was one of the younger kids, which would of course affect our filming hours. But he really stood out from the rest so we felt it was a risk worth taking. In the end all our concerns were unrealised. Tavish was fantastic to work with. His performance was consistent and nuanced (sadly, in the edit we had to cut out some really beautiful moments) and between him and Rejoice (who plays Moussa) they were the life and soul of the unit!

How did the film change in the edit? Were there any difficult choices?

DKC: We ended up having to cut a few of the scenes which editor, Mark Fraser handled deftly. We just had too much and had to pare it back. This included cutting the original end scene which felt a little too trite, too sweet, in order to try and enhance the sense of unease and uncertainty. The execs were concerned that this would be a difficult thing for myself and producer, Alysia, to do - “like killing our babies” but it wasn’t – it was liberating, and the film felt better for it, sleeker, less clunky.

What was the biggest thing you learnt on the production?

DKC: I always knew we would be under a lot of time pressure on set, but I am not sure I was quite prepared for how quickly time would slip away. Added to that was the challenge of working with children – whose time on set is (rightly) limited and controlled by chaperones. On account of time pressures, decisions had to be made about cutting certain scenes, and on one occasion changing a couple of scenes that were originally written as exterior evening scenes to daytime to make the schedule work in five days. Thankfully with a 1st AD as experienced as David Gilchrist, this wasn’t as terrifying a decision as it might have been.

It was my first time working with actors - coming from a documentary background - I found it nerve-wracking and exhilarating witnessing the script coming to life. Thankfully our adult actors, the wonderful Dilek Rose and Umit Ulgen, were very experienced and came with great ideas, approaches and insights into the script. Next time I direct fiction I will have more confidence, I hope, in communicating with our actors, in eliciting slightly different nuances from each take. In the edit, I sometimes wished I had asked our actors to try it this way or that, but time was always of the essence and of course hindsight is a beautiful thing.

FHN x ASFF Script Lab 2022: BFI NETWORK and Film Hub North have joined forces with Aesthetica Short Film Festival to present the 2022 edition of Script Lab. Now in its fourth year Script Lab aims to help writers and writer/directors develop an early-stage idea for a short film and convert it into a polished script with the support of industry mentors. Deadline to apply is Monday 5 September, 5pm.

Image Credit: BFI NETWORK funded short The Barber