Filming a low budget documentary is nothing if not a labour of love. We spoke with the refreshingly honest director Nino Tropiano about the ups-and-downs he faced shooting Ndoto Ya Samira / Samira’s Dream as well as the trial and tribulations of releasing a feature during a pandemic. This documentary tells the story of a Zanzibari woman, Samira, who aspires to have a family like all of her friends, but is also determined to pursue higher education and a career. Throughout seven years of her life, social pressure and the respect of traditions, constantly confront her to choosing one over the other.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Nino. First up, we’d love to know, what are the documentaries / films you loved the most and how do they inspire you?
I’m usually more inspired by the ethos of a filmmaker, of his/her body of work rather than just a single film in particular. So, for me, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s catalogue has been – and still is – a very important source of inspiration. When I studied filmmaking in IADT, I analysed the role of “chance” as one of the main themes throughout all his films. From watching his work, I have grown to appreciate that the life of every one of us, no matter how ordinary, deserves to be told. The key element in all of his films is compassion.
To be genuinely interested in an ordinary character, to have empathy that is, means that you need imagination. I firmly believe that individuals change the course of history. If you follow the life of any person, for a certain amount of time, you will be able to detect those “plot points” that are the key elements of any decently well-written script. In other words, life is cinema.
This simple consideration became my ally in facing up to the multitude of funding rejections over the years. That’s where the strength of my film resides. Samira’s Dream is the realisation of this. Also, I think that any “reality” not being properly represented or described is hugely problematic. Again, this consideration was pivotal in driving me to set my film in a place like Zanzibar, a tourist destination for many of us and nothing more. The story is set in the only Arab ex-colony of the African continent and, tells the story of a Muslim African woman.
Other filmmakers I continue to feel a connection with are Truffaut, early Fellini, Antonioni, and Kubrick. But I have been influenced by literature, Joyce and in this particular case, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
What is your background in filmmaking?
I was an Economics Erasmus student in Dublin when I decided to sign up to be an extra. Within a few weeks I ended up in Braveheart, side by side with the wild Mel Gibson. I had long hair and I was even asked to be a stand-in for him, which I refused for some odd reason. I met some Irish actresses. I wanted to improve my English and do some theatre and they helped me prepare for an audition at Bull Alley Theatre Training Company – which I got.
Although I knew that I would never make it as an actor, I learned quite a few things. Also, I became a regular attendee of the IFI. Film became my obsession to the point that I enrolled at the National Film School. There I managed to make a 50-minute film, My Daughter Makes the Madonna, which premiered at the Krakow Film Festival. So, in a nutshell, within a few years, Dublin changed my life. When I arrived I had no English and seven years later, I was introducing my first film to an Irish audience at the IFI. I like to think that this biographical element is consistent with Samira’s Dream, which follows the protagonist for seven years. You really see her growing, which proves the righteousness of one of Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms – a well-written biography is always a form of autobiography.
What brought you to Zanzibar?
It all started in 2008 when I received an invitation from the Simon Cumbers Media Award to apply for a grant. I was asked to send them an idea for a documentary dealing with themes usually related to the “troubled areas” of the world. Just to clarify, Simon Cumbers was a reporter/cameraman from Belfast, working for Channel 4. He was killed during the Iraqi war in 2004 in Ryad, during a terrorist attack. His family and friends decided to start a foundation to offer financial help to photographers and film-makers to report on stories of contemporary life in developing countries.
I immediately jumped to this challenge. I had just finished Chippers and was looking for the right excuse to get out of the “European Comfort Zone”, so to speak. One day I accidentally stumbled across a screening of I Vitelloni at the IFI – one of my favourite Fellini films. Students were laughing all the way through, when a very funny scene really struck me. The protagonists are idling in a bar, playing games of snooker. Amongst them, a frustrated aspiring playwright sighs theatrically: “I would love to go for a safari in Africa, just like Hemingway”. This is Fellini at this best, unmasking the misery of Italian provincial youth in the ’50s. It was enough for me. I thought, “I’m going to go to Africa!” The first decision was made.
Then I remember that in 2005, I was in Algiers helping a friend of mine, Safinez Bousbia, researching. I was filming scenes for a documentary, El Gusto, about the reunion of Algerian musicians after 40 years, when suddenly, as if by magic, a tall woman all covered in black suddenly appears in the distance. She’s walking in my direction. We looked at each other and, as she walked past, she winked at me. At that moment, I still remember vividly, I knew I would make a film about a woman wearing a veil.
Here I am thinking where will I start? I called a friend of mine who had spent a few months in Zanzibar. Where is that!? A traditional Muslim society. That’s intriguing. One of her photos in particular, struck me. A group of young female students walking out of a madrassa in a very orderly manner. It was then I knew the subject matter for my film – female education. So, I needed to write down a synopsis of some sort. I imagined a young woman coming from a remote village, who dreams of moving to town to get a college education. By following her life, I would have a film.
The Simon Cumbers Foundation were happy to come on board and granted the initial check that sparked all things. It was enough for me to organize my first trip to Zanzibar. I gave myself one month and I invited my friend. We arrived in Stonetown and after just a few days of getting to know the city, I pointed my finger to the farthest place on the map, Nungwi. A fishermen’s village located at the northern tip of the island. And the rest is the beginning of the film.
What made you decide to follow Samira’s story?
It was a gradual process, which I convey in the film itself. In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. We bumped into Samira with her schoolmates when they were studying in the shade of a large tree. They waved at us and invited us over. A karmic encounter, and I mean it, considering all that happened in the ensuing ten years!
First things first, I had to win the trust of the locals. Vittoria and I looked harmless enough and were always respectful. We decided to stay away from tourist spots. The locals must have thought we were a couple and we let them think this – in other words, we were unthreatening. By the time we managed to organise some filmed interviews, an old documentary by Kieslowski, Talking Heads, came into mind. In this he asked several people of different ages the same basic questions: How old are you? Who are you? What do you want out of life?.
I used this technique when I filmed the first interviews with the young women. That was our version of casting. Samira had a few words of English and a mobile phone. She helped me to communicate with the entire group. As the film started to grow over the ensuing months and years, Samira and I kept in touch. She impressed me with her natural charisma, open-minded attitude, and cheerful approach. She seemed a free spirit or, at least, a lot freer than her schoolmates and friends. In hindsight, I was very lucky. Considering the outcome what Samira expresses during the very first time I interviewed her was quite profound, “My dream is to leave my father’s , to have my own family but also to continue my studies and have a career.” I have grown to think that every desire that we manage to express is a form of premonition. This I think Samira knew instinctively.
What are the logistics of filming Samira’s Dream?
I used street smarts and common sense. I did not ask for any official permission to film on the island, apart from the beginning of my research in Nungwi and I organised a meeting with the Shia Leader of the community. Also, the teachers in town at school were cooperative. They even allowed me to film the Leaving Cert examinations. Other than that, given the circumstances – i.e. a totally independent production with little money – were I to ask for an official permission from the top authorities, I’d have been swamped into a limbo and my film would not get made. Unless you have a production company behind you it is a good idea to keep a low profile all the way through and follow your instincts.
Seven years is a long time – how do you know when you’re finished with a subject?
If I only knew! Things would have gone differently. In this particular case I had already premiered my film in Zanzibar and Rome when I received some images filmed with a smartphone depicting Samira teaching at school. Up until that point the film had an open ending with a title card explaining Samira was looking for work. In reality, I had run out of funds and I could no longer invest in the film. And after seven years, I was tired. Without these precious images I had definitely a different film compared to the one in festivals now.
With so much footage, what was the edit process like on Samira’s Dream?
The story of editing of this film deserves a film on its own. I started in Dublin when I was trying to involve Screen Ireland so I touched base with some established Irish editors. But my film was rejected and an odyssey ensued. I edited the film wherever I went. Just like a snail moving from one place to another carrying its own little shell, I’ve brought the film with me. I edited in Rome, initially with Aline Hervè, a well known Parisian editor, then another Rome-based editor and director, Luca Gianfrancesco. Each time these collaborations ended because of lack of finance. Then I moved to Puglia where I was born and I edited myself – after spending time in Zanzibar to collect more material – while trying to involve a broadcaster and/or a producer. My film got turned down repeatedly. Failure after failure, the film had grown bigger each time.
It’s funny, every place I visited brought a different perspective. In Zanzibar, for example, after accidentally catching Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog on tv, I decided that my film needed VO and proceeded to write it. The film started to take shape. But, I still felt that more work was needed in the edit suite. A Paris-based German producer wanted to come on board upon viewing the rough cut, and liked the film the way it was. He was ready to start post-production, whereas I felt the film needed extra care. I turned down his proposal for a co-production and I’m glad.
A year later I got in touch with Safinez Bousbia, the Irish-based Algerian film-maker of El Gusto and we met in Paris. Again… a new place, a new perspective. We reshaped the film. Safinez has a real touch with rhythm and she helped me rewrite my VO.
I was careful with the music. My film needed both a local Zanzibari flair and a European sensibility if I wanted it able to cross boundaries. I used music from several Zanzibari musicians and worked on an original score with an Italian composer. We invited a very famous editor, Françoise Bonnot, who won an Academy Award for Best Editing in 1969 and worked on Roman Polanski’s The Tenant to lunch. I knew she worked in Cinecittà in the 70s, so I cooked “Pasta Amatriciana”– a typical Roman dish which made her very happy while watching my film. What an honor! Eventually, when the film finished, Francois turned to me and said: “I loved it”. But she was referring to the pasta! I got the hint, she didn’t want to interfere too much, and simply said that I was on the right track. That was good enough for me.
Finally another old friend of mine, Veronique Vergari, who I met in Dublin years ago, eventually moved back to Geneva and set up a production company Framevox. She was able to find limited resources to carry out post-production, including the editing of that final trailer.
Was there any problems along the way, or anything you would have changed?
Samira’s Dream is the result of my best intentions and efforts. I literally gave it all I had, including my personal savings. I am both the director and producer and I’m experiencing a conundrum… I’m quite content with the end result as a director; quite frustrated as a producer. Having said that, if I were to narrate what happened along the way, there is material for a novel.
I agree with Truffaut when he said, that once you start a film, you have to finish it, even if you think it’s going to be a disaster. You have to screen it in the presence of an audience – if you’re lucky enough – only then you will be able to move on. I think I applied this very same principle. Leaving aside the initial inception provided by Simon Cumber Media Fund and the support from Media Europe, as a producer of this film it was a downhill experience.
Some difficulties I faced – including dangerous moments I faced in the midst of a coup of some sort, which no media talked about because of Zanzibar’s geopolitical irrelevance – forced me to question the entire operation. Why did I make this film? Why did I continue? I had no producers willing to come on board which was heartbreaking.
But I gave it time. In a place like Zanzibar, a faraway island in the Indian ocean, nothing happens on a daily basis. It’s time that makes things happen. And this film has a slow sensual rhythm that mirrors the Zanzibari way of life. I managed to creatively use to my advantage the lack of financial resources. Each time I got turned down when I applied for funds, I faced an existential crisis, followed by an upsurge that fed in me the ability to see things in perspective. In hindsight, things went the way they were meant to.
It was a huge gamble considering also I had voluntarily decided to provide substantial help to both Samira and Mohammed in restoring a home for her. That alone would be a hell of a film but it is not even mentioned. Making a documentary means you’re dealing with a person who becomes your friend along the way, a person you care about. That can be tricky. We are not talking philanthropy either. I don’t come from a wealthy family background. It was pure pragmatism on three levels. Firstly, it allowed me to make a film that would ideally comply with what I personally consider a valid feminist manifesto: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, that is. Secondly, because Samira is the star of this film, she offered to me her life to be scrutinised, so it was also recognition for her deep contribution. Thirdly I wanted to stress the important role that male support plays in achieving female emancipation in some parts of the world.
Samira’s Dream is a film-documentary expressively because there is a great deal of manipulation, but for a purpose. This is a confession I make for Film Ireland’s readers that I would never make it public!
A scoop? Thank you for the exclusive!
I faced many obstacles along the way and I suspect that in the hands of other filmmakers, Samira’s story would have come second with the focus shifted towards the struggling life of a filmmaker trying to tell a story in Africa. I resisted the temptation to put myself into the film, to narrate some thrilling backstories in fear they might divert from Samira’s quest into the unedifying and morally bankrupt African tale Western audiences generally look for and festivals tend to love and give awards to. I wanted to make a film which can be appreciated both locally and internationally by simply deciding to let Samira be the star and give it a Swahili title.
When I screened the film in Zanzibar at the Old Fort in the heart of Stonetown, it was fantastic. For a start, the film was initially scheduled at 19:30 but then a last-minute change pushed it back to 21:30. The entire crowd danced for two hours non-stop to live music. Then they called me on stage. I prepared a little speech in Swahili and the crowd jeered my blunders. Then magic happened. They were about 600 hundred people, and they sat, remaining glued to the screen till the end. That was my reward: I realised the film deserves to be promoted and be seen as it creates a true sense of awareness in Tanzania.
Aesthetically I managed to make the film I had in mind. Very simple camera movements, the only recurring element throughout the film is this constant tilt-up to communicate a story of “elevation”. If I had more resources, I would use them now for distribution, which represents the final battle of the surviving salmon streaming upriver!
As a filmmaker, what did you learn from this shoot?
The more direct answer would be nothing that I didn’t know or felt intuitively already. Werner Herzog said that filmmaking is not about aesthetics, it is about athletics. In other words, you have to work hard. When I received the contract from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund I knew I was about to embark on a long journey. I’m the sort of person that once I set my goal, I just don’t give up. I’m extremely tenacious to the point of stubbornness. That’s what I learned, really. I got to know a bit more about myself. Apart from that, I learned a bit of Swahili, improved my French, a language I always loved. And above all, to be perfectly honest with you, I regained that necessary confidence in myself, we all need and which had been severely put to the test during this often solitary journey.
What advice would you give someone thinking of shooting their first documentary?
Always keep in mind what it is you want to say. Turn obstacles you encounter into creative possibilities. Be open to chance events and encounters. Make sure that the entire venture becomes a personal quest, a unique possibility for subconscious growth. Forget about festivals and awards. Should they come, they are only the icing on the cake.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I started a musical documentary in Puglia. The intriguing story of Jazz Musician Vincenzo De Luci titled Wild Man Jazz. This has been put on hold at the moment because of Covid. At present, I’m developing the concept for a TV series set between Dublin and Italy. I think the time has come to write scripts for feature films. Covid represents a break from old ways of thinking, personally speaking.
Can you tell me about the upcoming screenings of Samira’s Dream?
Here are the upcoming screenings for next couple of months lined up so far. I’m really excited about NYC. of course, but also for the open-air screening scheduled in Youndé, Cameroon. I really worked hard. I learned French while in Paris and did an entire French version that must have worked. Samira’s Dream is hitting West Africa, which is fantastic!
Has the pandemic affected your screenings?
Let me tell you a Covid Story! After the screening in Zanzibar, I was trying to promote the film in Tanzania. So I went back to Dar Es Salaam and touched base with various institutions – French Alliance, Italian Embassy, United Nations – and thanks to the initiative of the local Rotarians Club, we managed to organise a screening, which was great.
Samira meanwhile was battling to save her second daughter’s life. Her name is Salma and she appears right at the very end of the film. She suffers from severe kidney failure and needed surgery. I did not know what to do – I was devastated. But this new unexpected situation prompted me to look for a sponsor to urgently offer support to the child. So at the beginning of January 2020, I was set to travel back to introduce my film at four screenings organised in various cities in mainland Tanzania.
In the meantime, Covid was looming. At the beginning of February it had reached North of Italy. I was in Rome, ready to travel. But miraculously, Samira had found support from an Italian agency. They booked a place in a specialised hospital in Rome, not far from the Vatican. Within a few days Samira traveled there, with Salma wearing a catheter and Samira five months pregnant! Samira and I met in Rome in hospital – needless to say, screenings were all canceled in Tanzania. A few days later the first lockdown started. And while Salma underwent surgery, Samira delivered her third baby, Saada, in Rome. They are all now back now, safe in Zanzibar.
And what a relief! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, and we wish you the best of luck with the rest of your screenings.
Movie lovers worldwide can catch Samira’s Dream online at the Socially Relevant Film Festival.
About Nino Tropiano
Born in Monopoli (Bari), Nino Tropiano moved to Dublin in the mid-’90s. He first trained as an actor and worked as a freelance photographer. He graduated in Direction and Production at IADT, National Film School with a 50-minute film, My Daughter Makes the Madonna (World Premiere Krakow Film Festival). Tropiano subsequently directed and produced Mary’s Last Show, a documentary that observes a group of elderly people engaged in recreational activities; Class Reunion, a parallel portrait of two Apulian women forced to emigrate because of vicissitudes; and a short film The Fall which won the Urlo Prize at the Unimovie Festival in Pescara. Award winner Chippers, a documentary about a community of Italians who have owned a Fish & Chips chain for a hundred years. He recently directed and produced award-winning Samira’s Dream, which has so far traveled to festivals around the world. He’s presently preparing Wild Man Jazz a feature-length music documentary; adapting, with Elena Leoni, her novel Take Me Home into a screenplay and adapting an Irish/Italian story into a concept for a Netflix series.