One of the absolute highlights and pleasures of our time in the industry was in 2018 when we first got to know Iqbal Mohammed, a wonderful filmmaker, scriptwriter and all-around superb human being. We were initially put in touch with each other thanks to the incredible Alice Ramsay, current Development Producer at BBC Writersroom and previously Development Exec at BFI Network. And since our first meeting at Leeds International Film Festival, our relationship has gone from strength to strength.
So, as we gear up to produce our first BFI Network Funded short (of hopefully many) with him, Tasbeeh, we wanted to share his story and so asked him whether he would reveal to us his filmmaking journey. Being the brilliant man he is, he agreed and then some, providing us with a tale that once again reminded us just why we wanted to make films in the first place.
My name is Iqbal Mohammed and I am a filmmaker.
It’s not been very long that I’ve been able to speak these words with confidence.
My background is very unique. I am a Pharmacist, yes you read that correctly…a Pharmacist.
But let’s start from the beginning.
I remember watching films with my older siblings growing up far more advanced than my age and remembering word for word the films I used to watch on VHS on repeat.
My most-watched film as a kid was Over the Top with Sylvester Stallone. I remember watching the end sequence and still cheering on the lead as if I’d never seen it before.
Fast forward to my mid-late teens and I had (and still have) two very good friends. We were never the type of guys to go out to bars and clubs as it was never our scene. Instead, we visited the cinema on a weekly basis in which we used to check the showings on channel 4 Ceefax for Cineworld in Bradford. If we missed a page we had to wait a full 10 minutes for it to come back around. We have it so lucky now with smartphones.
We would go to the cinema and then buy a £1.99 chicken burger meal and complain about not getting our 1p change back after giving the cashier two £1 coins – The good old days.
I decided to go to Pharmacy school in Bradford in 2003 and managed to find a group of friends with the same love of film as I have.
I remember long conversations about how I would love to make a film after watching some awful ones that year and never found myself represented. On occasion that one time you do see an Asian face on screen they are either the weak asthmatic who doesn’t get the girl, the tech guy or a terrorist…never the cool protagonist.
At the age of 26, I had been working as a Pharmacist for a year and remember one horror locum shift in Tesco in which I received abuse from a man who was backed up by the store manager after I didn’t sell him some Piriton for his dog….Yes you read that right.
I remember sitting in my car after that shift for around 30 minutes trying to gather my thoughts and asked myself if this is all I want from my life. I remember feeling a little down at the time and felt I needed to express my thoughts. That shift you could say was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I don’t know why but I felt like I wanted to write how I felt, but in a film script.
I didn’t know what screenplays looked like, so I downloaded the script to one of my favourite films; Back to the Future.
I remember reading it in thirty minutes. I’ve never read something so quickly and been able to concentrate so well without my mind wandering.
I remember thinking; “wow, this is so easy, they aren’t even that many words on the page.”
So one night, I downloaded a free screenwriting software and decided to write. Here’s the thing, I never knew short films existed. I’d never seen one before. So I wrote a feature film. 125 pages in the space of 5 days.
After some time reading through it, I decided to show it to one of my friends. He’s a huge critic and very hard to please. He read it one night and told me it was excellent and I should send it into a screenplay competition.
“What? No, it can’t be that good surely?”
After contemplating for a week or so I decided to just go for it. I YouTubed ‘the best screenplay competitions in the world’ and remember one that I really liked called The PAGE screenwriting competition in Hollywood.
One night, I plucked the courage to hand them a hard-earned $49 (around £30 at that time when the economy wasn’t broken) and hit submit.
A few months had passed and to be honest, my life was so hectic that I forgot all about the competition.
All of a sudden I checked my phone during a Saturday shift at work and I received an email from PAGE International screenwriting competition.
I remember taking a deep breath and opened it.
“Congratulations, you have made the top 25%”
Wow, a script I spent 5 days on, a first draft and as a first time writer had made the final 25% of scripts in the largest screenwriting competition in the world.
A month later, another email… “Congratulations, you have made the top 10% of scripts and have advanced to the semi finals.”
This was something new to me. Was writing really this easy or did I fluke my latest script?
This is where my journey ended in this competition but in reality, this is where my film career started.
Through PAGE and fellow film lovers I was introduced to another semi-finalist who was going to make a short film called…wait for it…’The Pharmacist’ and they felt with my background I would be a perfect candidate to advise them on the film.
I accepted, became and Executive Producer and was invited onto the set. I flew to Washington DC and filmed over two weekends.
The cast and crew were excellent and it was that particular experience that made me want to make films. I just understood this was what I wanted to do. This is what made me happy.
From then on, I made a number of short films and started to adapt my style to how I saw myself as a filmmaker.
I write and make films about societal issues that I can relate to; Racism, mental health, family politics, etc.
If I could change just one life with my films then that would be the best feeling ever.
In 2015, I wrote, directed and edited a short film I’m most proud of called Three Minute Warning.
The film is set in Gaza, Palestine and is about roof-knocking. A tactic deployed by the Israeli Defence Force. It involves an empty shell being dropped onto a building which warns the inhabitants inside that a real bomb is about to be dropped. The time between the fake and real bomb averages at around three minutes. The vast majority of people do not make it out alive.
The film centres around a young girl called Mariam whom is a full time carer for her disabled mother. Mariam must make a choice on whether to leave her mother or stay.
The film did extremely well on the film festival circuit in 2016. It screened at 26 film festivals including Oscar and BAFTA qualifiers.
This is where I thought my career would kick on. I was in discussion with may producers to make my first feature film.
I had one offer to make a film in Pakistan. A foreign language film. A script the producers and I could develop together. The producer wanted me attached after coming to watch Three Minute Warning at the London screening as he was impressed with what I could do on such a small budget.
I remember thinking about the offer for a while and then one day after work my mum asked to speak to me.
I still remember it clear as day. She sat me down and told me she’d just got back from the doctors as she’d found a lump in her breast and she’s been referred for a fast track appointment at the hospital next week.
As a healthcare professional, I understood what this meant. All my family were optimistic that it may be nothing. I wish I felt like that. Carrying the burden of knowing what the diagnosis was paid a pretty heavy price on my mental health.
It was the Christmas holidays and all my family were together. One by one I was trying to prepare them gently.
I went to the hospital with my mum and sister on that Friday afternoon. We were last to be called into the consultation room.
My mum was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and this required urgent treatment.
I knew what this meant for my mum and ultimately I knew what it meant for me.
I knew I had to take time out of work and most importantly put my film career on hold.
I took on the role of being my mum’s carer for two years whilst working part-time. I remember feeling low at times, watching the people I screened with in 2016 signing with talent agencies, being nominated for BAFTA’s and winning Oscars. However, it was the best decision I made. I got to know my mum so well in the two years that she was on chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery that I can never regret it.
Don’t be too upset…this story has a happy ending.
In 2018, my mum beat Cancer and is still in remission.
In late 2018, I decided that I wanted to make a film and this time nothing was going to stop me. I had that motivation back again.
I booked a one-to-one discussion with then Film Hub North BFI talent executive, Alice Ramsey at Leeds International Film Festival. I told her my plans and she said she would try to find me, someone, to work with and if we hit it off and found an idea we liked then we should submit to the short film fund.
A few months had gone and I received an email from Alice passing me some details of a producer in Sheffield called Hugh Mann Adamson from ENON films.
We exchanged a few emails and decided to meet with each other and hit it off straight away. We understood each other and our journeys very well. We had the same vision.
Eventually, I met Gabriel, Hugh’s producing partner and immediately felt like we were a very close-knit family.
The main reason I decided to work with ENON films was that they have the same goals and ambitions as I do. Like I, they want to strive to be the best they can be and make films that they and others fall in love with.
That for me is everything.
So, what are we working on?
We have just locked the script of our short film; Tasbeeh.
The film revolves around two British Asian friends who reunite after many years in their Northern working-class town, post-Brexit. The film tackles many societal issues but the main focus being belonging and friendship.
This film hits home to me as I have written both characters based on my experiences in life. There are some days you feel ambitious and driven and then others where you may question your existence in a country filled with so much hate.
We managed to get the support of the BFI and a significant contribution to the budget, along with amazing support and help from Amy O’Hara the Talent Executive.
I can’t wait to make this film that we are so passionate about.
Our plan is to normalise Asian voices as we are more than just the tech guy or the terrorist.
The aim is to screen this across the globe at some of the biggest film festivals in the world.
We have an excellent cast and crew assembled.
I can’t wait to get started. We have a provisional shoot date of February 2021.
So, what’s next after this?
Did somebody mention a feature?
We sure hope so. And if you want to know more about BFI Network and how to get funded check out www.network.bfi.org.uk. Also follow @AliceMLRamsay, @AmyRosannaOHara and @BBCWritersroom and most importantly, don’t forget to give Iqbal a follow at Dynamiqfilms | dynamiqfilms to keep up with him as he becomes (rightly so) the next big thing. And whilst you’re at it, (if you don’t already) give us a follow @enonfilms or check out our website at www.enonfilms.com
Until next time!