Born in Tehran, Tina Gharavi is a BAFTA-nominated, award-winning TV and film showrunner and director, initially trained as a painter in the United States later studying cinema in France. Her debut feature, I Am Nasrine, a coming of age story of two teenage Iranian refugees, was nominated for a BAFTA in 2013. The film received 4 stars from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian calling it, “A valuable debut, shot with a fluent kind of poetry”, while Deborah Ross in the Spectator described it as, “Affectionate, humane, tender and ultimately, optimistic.”

Gharavi has made films from unique perspectives on subjects as diverse as Muhammad Ali, teenage sexuality, Yemeni-British sailors, The Lackawanna six, death row exonerees, refugees and lighthouses. Her first short, Closer, a 35mm film was an official selection at Sundance where programmer, Shari Frilot, noted that, “it takes documentary to the next level.” Gharavi’s next major production chronicled her return to her mother’s house in Iran, 23 years after the Islamic Revolution. The resulting film, Mother/Country, was broadcast at prime time on Channel 4 in the UK. Further works such as The King of South Shields and People Like Us deal with “the outsider” and her work often explores the issues of strategies of power and “who speaks for whom.”

Since leaving Iran in 1979 she has been a true nomad; carrying no less than four passports she currently resides in Northern England and Los Angeles where she is working on her follow-up feature, The Good Iranian, with the BFI and Film4; a gangster tale set in Europe and Iran, and a further feature documentary about tribalism and othering, Tribalism is Killing Us (voice-over from Idris Elba). She recently worked as second unit director on the high-end drama, The Tunnel, and is now engaged on several TV directing projects. Currently she is show running a returning episodic TV series, Refurinn, with Endor Productions and Red Arrow. Gharavi was elected into the BAFTA Academy in 2017 and is represented by Independent Talent in the UK and Gersh in Los Angeles.

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

As a child my parents restricted TV; I was allowed to watch one hour of TV a day. This backfired terrifically. It became a drug, an addiction. I would creep downstairs in the middle of the night watching films like Some Like It Hot with the sound turned right down and my face three inches away from the screen. But not only that, I spent a childhood watching: Doctor Who, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, All Creatures Great and Small, Chips, Laverne & Shirley, MASH, Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, The Waltons, Fawlty Towers, and especially MASH, which we watched as a family. 

I watched these family dramas, soaps, and comedies and learnt the language of storytelling. I watched and dissected and analysed. Why did it make me laugh? What made it powerful? Why was I crying? What didn’t I believe? How did they do that? From an even younger age than the programmes above, it was watching Hans Christian Anderson and the story of The Ugly Duckling that I distinctly remember moving me. I went into the courtyard of my grandmother’s house and cried against the garden wall. Why, I wanted to know, why and how had this moved me? I was not even five but the memory is crystal clear. Moving images, both film and TV, took a hold and have never let me go…

Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?

I actually went to school to be a painter. The idea of being a filmmaker wasn’t so direct for me. But once I was there, I picked up the camera. Before becoming a filmmaker and academic, I was trained at the Mason Gross School of Art at Rutgers University, New Jersey (where I was mentored by artist, Martha Rosler and film historian John Belton). I initially trained as a painter; however, I later initiated my own independent interdisciplinary degree in Cinema Production and Film Theory. My minor subject remained Art History and my thesis was a documentary about artists in creative and intimate relationships, focusing on the painters Nancy Spero and Leon Golub. I completed a two-year French MA equivalent in Contemporary Art (focused on cinema) at Le Fresnoy, near Lille where I was supervised by artists Robert Kramer and Gary Hill.

I initially worked first on art installations; sculptures using video screens and video art. Eventually, I made 8mm and 16mm films — short films, documentaries about the things around me. But I was always experimenting and also curiously still somehow a painter (just with a camera). Studying art history was a big part of how I achieved my entry into film. I fell in love with painters who were early cinema makers: Caravaggio, Vermeer and Turner. What else could I be other than a painter with a camera?

What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?

Working in TV and Film, I realise there are few people who look like me… So, patronage can be an issue. However, I do not really look at the obstacles.

Tenacity, focus and sheer strong-headedness without compromising morality and compassion for others. Passion; I have a strong desire to communicate through a creative medium and possess a distinctive artistic vision. I unify those whom I work with to feel valued and believe in what we are doing. An intuitive learner. Self-belief. Thick-skinned. An inability to be dissuaded. Being perceptive. Focusing on the essential and letting the rest slide. Finding alternative/circuitous routes. 

Seeing the rise of independent spirited TV in the fashion of Transparent, I Love Dick and Master of None has given me a sense that TV can be a place where stories of nuanced voices can live. I have been very lucky to live through the golden age of cinema (of the late ‘70s and ‘80s/‘90s) in terms of independent cinema and now watch TV take its place. The new modes of distribution and storytelling give rise to the hope that new stories, untold stories and those who have previously been locked out of the storytelling chamber are now able to come out and play. The analogy is when football boots were only available to a few, there was a lower quality of football. Now that boots are available, there is a sea change in the rise of footballers. I believe the same is true about TV. The future is diverse, and audiences will benefit from the wealth of options. 

For me, seeing Transparent come to life was a moment in which I stood back and said “woe!”; I knew that change was apparent. These were stories told with an immediacy and depth that we had always reserved for independent cinema. Now this was happening on TV. Similarly, recently when I watched both True Detective and End of the F***ing World, I realised the experimental nature of TV was here to stay. I am keener now than ever to build a show in this world. While I have been working on TV shows such as The Tunnel and Ackley Bridge, I know that the future will look radically different. The hope is that I can helm a show… perhaps something that truly changes the way that we see ourselves as some of the best shows do. I remember the impact of shows like The Cosby Show on how diverse audiences felt about their own self-image. I feel we have a way to go – that the landscape and territory is open to being filled – and it is now down to the talent to build shows that will work for both marginal audiences (which is sometimes misnamed) but also wider ones. What I know is that the universe is not made up of atoms but stories… and we are our stories.

How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?

The notion of ‘documentary truth’ might be best understood as being at the heart of the problem in my films. In recent years, along with the growing difficulty of distinguishing between documentary and fiction films, has come an increase in the popularity of films that celebrate the collapse of the borders between the two. “It is now common to read that, theoretically speaking, documentary and narrative fiction film ‘proper’ are indistinguishable as constructed realities.” (Brian McElroy). With my last feature production, I Am Nasrine, I actively sought ways of engaging the two processes; using scripted material as well as ‘snatched’ material that we would find on the day, often candid, raw elements we found in the environments where we filmed. So, in this film we see our fictional characters deliver plot, but the reality of documentary elements tells the ‘real story’ and are impactful because they are the real, the authentic, that the story is referring to. The film contains both the representation and the represented. Reality bleeds into the fiction, fortifying it.

My job is to help open up my actors, to never let them fail but enable them to find the truth that the audience craves. We develop the characters in workshops. We rehearse and find the journeys of the characters. We shape, we ask questions and we build a composite. But importantly, I ask the actor to open themselves up, to take risks, and often to find the vulnerability in themselves. I help them embed this, soak it into them so that it never appears as a veneer. This is how we developed such rounded characters in my last film, even with such relatively inexperienced actors and non-professional actors. Dialogue is often written on set, a script is a suggestion, but the real writing happens between the actor, the camera and in that moment. My job is to enable that to flow, to be mindful of the larger arc, to pay attention to tone, pacing and ensure that the dialogue has rhythm for the film.  I want to take my practice further and to a new level. 

I am most proud of the fact that I can work with actors (and non-actors) to find the truth in themselves and in that moment. To knock the edges off of the artificial. To fight the banal or pretence that can creep into a scene or a moment or a look. To find truth in the biographies of the actors who share with their characters an umbilical cord of truth.

“Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by” said novelist Ralph Ellison. Finding appropriate forms has been a challenge and a quest as a filmmaker; as if appropriating the dominant language can only repeat ingrained prejudices and uphold hierarchies and past-ideologies. 

Experimentation therefore becomes a necessity. However, it has to be a form that communicates and does not alienate the viewer. This is the paradox of filmmaking on the margins. I am consumed by how to communicate in original tongues, to avoid the language of the dominant ideology but without alienating an audience. How to tell a story which is truthful, but which uses the ‘lies of omissions’, or construction? In a 1966 Paris Review interview, playwright Harold Pinter states clearly the author’s task. “One tries to get the thing…true.” That is my goal with I Am Nasrine and the body of my work.

How did you get your first break?

My first break came when I was born to parents with a lot of privilege and education and an opportunity to grow and learn through the opportunities that life has afforded me. I have been lucky. But I have also had a very challenging and complex life… Time to finish the memoir! 

Frankly, this question is too big to answer!

TV Credits: Mother / Country (2003), A Town Like Lackawanna (2007), Ackley Bridge (2018).

Film Credits: Closer (documentary short – 2001), Fatherhead (2006), The King of South Shields (2008), I Am Nasrine (2012), People Like Us (2016), Tribalism Is Killing Us (2019).

Photograph: Copyright Bridge + Tunnel Productions