A conversation with filmmaker Sima Gonsai

head and shoulders portrait
Sima Gonsai. Photo: Kate Green

Akademi speaks to filmmaker Sima Gonsai about her short film And Breathe, which was recently screened at the COP27 conference.

AK: Congratulations Sima on the tremendous success of your short film, And Breathe, which is based on climate change and was created as part of an initial short film commission by Akademi and Watermans. It has been screened and nominated for awards at several film festivals across the globe since. The recent feather in cap being its screening at COP27 conference. When the commission was announced, what made you apply for it and create And Breathe?

SG: It was a lot of different things, really. Firstly, obviously, I am a director in screen dance and working with dance and film to tell stories, and the opportunity said South Asian dance. Those two things don’t come together very often in a commission and I thought it made sense. I thought if I don’t go for it or if I don’t get it, it  will be a shame that I would lose a good opportunity to do something like this. My passions are always about telling stories in an artistic way. I’m always trying to push the boundaries of what the combination of screen and movement can tell you and I’m always interested in subjects and people that have possibly not been told before.

I like to shine a light on areas of life and on different people and places. That’s really what I’m always trying to do.

Then I started to think about the things that I could talk about. I collaborated with another director, Karen Wood, and we put our minds together. Birmingham had just had its clean air zone introduced within the city. And I remember Karen saying, let’s make this really current, what’s happening in Birmingham right now.

AK: You said that this is something you and Karen thought about after applying and you’ve made two films on climate change since. There is Cultivate which followed soon after And Breathe. Is that something you foresaw doing – making a sequel, and or is that something that happened as you were making the first one?

SG: I think the main reason was that once you start to uncover all the research on climate change, it is such a massive subject with so many factions to it and it’s difficult to tell it all in one short film. These films are very artistic and subjective that it felt natural to have to continue the story. It doesn’t end at that one story. It’s going to be a never ending story for all of us over the next however long that the planet still exists and we need to keep highlighting that.

And so when we made And Breathe, it soon came to my attention that there are lots of various aspects of climate change which I’d like to talk about. Therefore, And Breathe was almost like an introduction to the things that are affecting us as human beings due to climate change. The second one, Cultivate, focuses on one element of And Breathe which is the earth beneath our feet, and how we are effectively destroying the soil by over cultivating it.

So one of the reasons why in And Breathe, we have a dancer who’s on the floor of a forest is to actually flip our ideas of what a green environment means to us. It means lovely flowers and lovely trees and lovely greenery. That’s one way of talking about climate change, I guess, with beautiful imagery but I wanted to be quite the opposite and for us to see the damage taking place and how we are causing it.

These lovely trees are unhappy with us. Rather than we looking up to them as these objects of beauty, they’re looking down at us as not objects of beauty. It’s their perspective of us. 

I am sure that there will be many more films after this now, and that would be a trajectory each year, as we go along.

AK: That’s great news and we look forward to more films from you! My next question to you, Sima, is – what are your thoughts on the cultural relationship that we have with Mother Earth, and how do you think you’ve captured that in your film?

SG: One of the biggest things is obviously, South Asian dance and that I’m from South Asian descent. So, I wanted to bring, I guess, a very slight narrative to the film, in the sense that you see a family set up. The idea of And Breathe was, and this was very startling to me, that out of all the generations over the past 100 years, our elders were the ones that learned how to live with less. 

They had very little and then the war came along and they had even less. So they adapted to living with very little. We have not. We are all about consumption. We are destroying the planet, the more we consume the more fuel we need to provide for that consumption. 

And then we look at our future generations who are real absolute pioneers in voicing the story of climate change. It’s coming to light now because of the young activists out there who are talking about it. There have always been activists but we listen to the youth because they talk about their future, and that makes us stop in our tracks.

So that’s why, in the film, you see the different generations. You see a grandmother figure, you see a granddaughter figure, but amongst all of that, you see a lady (the main dancer) who actually symbolises climate change itself. She turns from a climate change robot, so to speak, into a human being who finally takes a breath, and it’s the young person that inspires her to become a human and take a breath.

AK: You talk about the granddaughter who is played by your own daughter, Lilly, in the film. What did she think about being involved in a project directed by her mom and did she have any idea what this film was about?

SG: [Laughs] She still to this day doesn’t know what it means. During the filming, she actually had a very bad asthma attack and was hospitalised. That was ongoing during Covid for her and so that resonated in the film as well. It was called And Breathe because breath, CO2 levels, and pollution – all of those things were part of that story, but didn’t really come to light until during production when she was very, very ill. In fact, we had to cancel shooting days because of that. 

She doesn’t really understand what the film is. She’s a bit young and finds it a little bit unnerving, a bit scary. I think, when she’s older, she might understand. Although she was very inspired by the dancer in the film.

AK: I understand that you have some background in dance. Is that why you like to use dance as a medium on screen and is that an advantage when you’re creating something like And Breathe. Do you go in and give some choreographic inputs, or do you leave it entirely on the choreographer.

SG: It’s a 3-way thing really. Karen Wood is a choreographer and a dancer herself, that’s the reason Karen and I collaborated on this. I do know some of it, being Indian, I was brought up on dance and music with all the various festivals that you go to. Rhythm and pace is always inside of you and so are colour, vibrancy and movement. You are brought up seeing all of those things, year in year out so obviously it’s in me, and it has always come out in my work.  

Working with dance – Kesha [Raithatha] is a Kathak dancer and I had learnt Bharatanatyam growing up, although Contemporary resonates with me more than traditional style. My dance background or the hobby that I had for many years just gives me a chance to understand what a movement is trying to say and the emotion that it is trying to convey, so that really helps. 

Actually the dance element of the whole film is brought together in the editing stages so you can say that it’s re-choreographed within the edit. That’s where I really have a chance to look at the movements and see how I could make new movements out of those already existing.  The choreography within the edit then becomes the film.

AK: So a new choreography in a way?

SG: Since the medium is screen, once you get the sound on the edit and the camera movement, all of those things have to marry together, and there are no real set rules. I could do And Breathe ten times over in different ways, and the same with Cultivate. We are now looking at the final edit of Cultivate, and having had more time, I could do it in many different ways.

AK: You talked about shining the light on people and on topics earlier. Your work, correct me if I’m wrong, has put marginalised voices or dance form or people, right in the centre of important topics that are widely talked about. Is that something you intended to do right from the beginning or has that just happened over the journey?

SG: I never really had that intention to be honest. I guess my art work began with making a lot of work about my own experiences of growing up in north England etc., but then I embarked on a project that was called “Cycle Dialogue”. It took me to 7 Countries across the world on a bicycle.

One of my first journeys was very startling straight away. I had taken the project up with the idea that I’m doing something that my brother would do. He loves cycling and would totally go for it so I’m going do the same. I didn’t think, for one moment, that being a female person of colour, unmarried, on a bicycle on her own in a country in Southeast Asia that doesn’t speak English would have any kind of resonance with anybody until I got there and started. That’s when it was became apparent to me that I am somebody completely different. It’s unlikely that people here have come across somebody like me before. 

Also, it was the same for me. I had not come across somebody like them before, and there was a mutual exchange, a connection between myself and the country that I was in, on levels that perhaps my other friends or colleagues on the same cycling tour were not connecting on. 

So I guess that stayed with me then and I got the bug of doing that. I went to seven countries and realised that I’m interested in people’s view of me and I’m interested in my view of them. These roads were taking me off the beaten track into very small villages across places that I would never have visited otherwise. I was there on my bicycle with cameras making films about them, and making portraits of these countries. 

When I returned to the UK and started art work here, I was asked to work with a group of ballet dancers who have a learning disability. For me, there was no difference there, I didn’t see ‘other’. So, when I saw the group dancing, I looked at the unique language of dance rather than the barriers of dance. I made a trilogy of films with that very group. Following this, I was asked by Sense to make dance films with dancers who experience deafblindness and have a complex disability.

I didn’t see a difference, rather a uniqueness, a fantastic way of communication, a language that I didn’t know but wanted to explore and understand. It just comes naturally to be honest, I don’t think about it. The screen is a place, for me,  where these stories can be told globally.

AK: That’s great! So, tell me what was the process of working between the three of you on And Breathe? Was it that you had a vision for the film which you shared with Karen and Kesha. Did Kesha come up with choreography and then the three of you refined it? Or did you approach it any differently?

SG: Karen is an associate with Coventry University and through that she knew scientists who could tell us a little bit more about CO2, particularly coming from car petrol fumes and the impact that it has on the environment. And then it was a collaboration really, because you can’t have dance without music, a dance film without choreography, a choreography without the story and then you can’t have the story without the research. So there are all kinds of elements working in tandem with each other.

We got the research, then found the composer, and finally found Kesha. We said well, these are the elements and this is the concept, what can we make out of this? We had a session where we the researcher, the composer, and Kesha got together with us talking about what the project could look like. Based on the ideas out of this session, I wrote a script. Kesha is an exceptional dancer and choreographer, she was able to embody the concept, research and emotion through her movements.

AK: How important do you think such commissions and ideas are for independent filmmakers like yourself?

SG: Absolutely important. If this opportunity hadn’t arisen from Akademi and Watermans and I hadn’t seen it, I would not have made And Breathe and all the films after it. I also got to collaborate with a wonderful team and we’re sticking together now, that’s a new thing for me. Therefore, it’s important that these sort of opportunities come along. 

I think it’s fantastic that the dance world recognises screen dance as a medium, and that Akademi also recognises that South Asian bodies and movements are not represented on screen as much. I’m a programmer myself in screen dance and I don’t see much film work within South Asian dance, particularly that are directed by a South Asian female director. There are very few and far in between, I guess. In fact I don’t know how many South Asian female directors there are that work in this medium.

AK: Thank you, that’s helpful feedback. I mean, these are humble beginnings for us as well. We started with the Akademi Dance Film Festival in 2021, where I think one of your films was screened and then this has been something we have felt very passionate about, and which is why we are continually trying to bring forth such opportunities.  We are a small charity but we hope to expand on it, maybe, have another film festival in the near future, and put out more such opportunities.

It’s wonderful to see both these art forms come together and result in something so brilliant and impactful. So, tell us how did you get into filmmaking, and what are your favourite themes to work with? We know climate change is one of them right now. What else?

SG: I got into film when I was at secondary school, and media production had just been introduced as a module. Actually I’d like to go back to my secondary school, and say that if you had not done that module, I would not have been a filmmaker, and it’s absolutely true! In terms of favourite subjects, I like exploring the untold and unseen.

AK: And what’s your favourite film from another director?

SG: I’m pretty old school and I watch quite a lot of different things. One person who really got me into films is Steven Spielberg and the way he tells stories. If there is anybody who’s work I really, really enjoyed watching, especially his earlier work, it is Spielberg. His style of storytelling is very compelling, very nurturing. One gets a chance to be with a character and look at the world, through their eyes. That has had a very deep impact on me in terms of the emotional quality that can come out of films that are all very family orientated. I really liked his focus and it just resonated with me when I was growing up. 

Ron Howard’s work has inspired me as well.

AK: Spielberg is definitely the favourite of many of us who have grown up watching his films. So, we’ve arrived at the last question for today and that is – what’s brewing up next?

SG: So sticking to the climate change theme, we would like to again involve Kesha as a lead character and this time we’re looking at climate refugees. I believe it is going to be not just one film because that subject in itself is vast. Each country is going to have a different story and I think that’s a trilogy in itself, to be honest.

AK: That is definitely the topic of the hour. We are also working on our new show that explores the human movement triggered by climate change in South Asia. We need to tell these real-life stories and bring awareness through as many media as possible.

Sima, thank you for talking to us and taking our audience through your journey of creating And Breathe. It has been a pleasure to speak with you and we look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

SG: It was my pleasure, thank you!

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