NYFA Filmmaking alum, Abdulrahman Al Madani shares his personal experience tackling challenges in the filmmaking industry with anecdotes from his own recent work, as well as advice for emerging filmmakers. Al Madani wrote and produced the successful short film, Laymoon, and closing his newest project, The Monster.
New York Film Academy (NYFA): What projects have you worked on over the past several years? Have you won any awards or been showcased in any festivals or competitions?
Abdulrahman Al Madani (AM): My work has comprised of short films, documentaries, music videos, and public awareness campaigns.
Since graduating from NYFA Abu Dhabi in 2014, I have written, directed, and produced two short films including Laymoon (2019), which was a recipient of Sharjah Art Foundation’s Production Grant, and The Monster (2021).
Laymoon was screened all over the Arabian Gulf, including other Arab countries like Lebanon, North Africa, and Europe such as France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. The film is currently playing on Etihad Airways flights.
My latest short film, The Monster, has completed post-production recently and is currently being submitted to film festivals worldwide.
NYFA: Tell us more about your latest project & how you got involved in the project?
AM: I started writing The Monster over a year ago. Once the pandemic hit, I pushed myself to develop the script further. By the end of the year, I was ready to go into production and wrapped filming in February 2021. The film is a drama revolving around a young mother named Hessa who escapes her abusive husband, only to find herself pressured by her estranged mother to succumb to his abuse.
NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you applied directly to this project and others?
AM: Being in NYFA was an eye-opening experience in terms of giving me insight into various aspects of production, which allows me to be knowledgeable of everybody’s work on set. Time management, speaking to actors, and writing three-dimensional characters are some of the most important lessons I learned in NYFA which I continue to find useful to this day. In addition, NYFA helped build a filmmaking community that makes it easier to find a group of people you can trust and help one another.
NYFA: Are there any other upcoming projects we should know about?
AM: I am currently focused on distributing The Monster to festivals worldwide as well as developing my first feature script.
NYFA: Do you have any advice for incoming NYFA students?
AM: Allow yourself to make mistakes and do not be afraid to experiment. Learn to take feedback with a pinch of salt; everyone will have an opinion about your work. Making films is the best film school, and you will keep learning as you go. Challenge yourself with each project because being stuck in your comfort zone is the death of creativity.
The Criterion Channel has recently made available a collection of films based on the acclaimed series “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Voices,” originally screened at The Metrograph in 2018.
The films, all documentaries, all directed by women, share women’s stories through the startling intimacy that’s created between the subject and the camera. As the films vary from cinéma vérité to essay to agitprop The Metrograph, as one of the few independent theaters left in New York City, presented as an ideal venue for the original series. Known for its atmosphere, it aims to create the ultimate film enthusiast’s space where one can immerse themselves in film alongside movie professionals who screen and discuss their work.
The series adopted an Adrienne Rich quote from Motherhood: The Contemporary Emergency and the Quantum Leap (1979) as it’s raison d’être:
“One of the most powerful social and political catalysts of the past decade has been the speaking of women with other women, the telling of our secrets, the comparing of wounds and sharing of words… In order to change what is, we need to give speech to what has been, to imagine together what might be.”
Curated by Nellie Killian, Tell Me helped to highlight how the film industry has in many ways, failed women. They’re underrepresented as directors and as subjects in film – an issue the New York Film Academy’s 2018 Gender Inequality Infographic explored. These documentaries are so unique in that they are about women by women which give them a different tone and distinctive voice. These stories and the manner in which they’re told are so very different from anything mainstream filmmaking and even, many independent films have released.
While spanning five decades, the films of “Tell Me” have a common thread. They celebrate women filmmakers as well as the women in their films. By simply giving women a safe space to speak of their lives and experience without restraint, the films capture life-long frustrations and injustice painting intimate and complex portraits of its subjects. These groundbreaking films, all from the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, are mostly documentaries that run under 60 minutes.
Among the films in the collection is Growing Up Female (1971),which focuses on the story of six women, ages 4 to 35, and how stereotypes in the media and advertising, and their personal relationships influence their socialization. It offers an interesting insight into how much has changed over time and how much has remained the same.
The Camille Billops and James Hatch short documentary, Suzanne, Suzanne is a multigenerational story. It chronicles the devastation a life of physical and psychological abuse has wrought on a daughter Suzanne, who is a recovering drug addict, and her mother, Billie.
In Dis-Moi -Tell Me (1980), whose title inspired the name of the series, the director Chantal Akerman sits with and gives a voice to elderly Jewish women who are all survivors of the Holocaust as they recount their lives and family stories before and during World War II. Akerman’s mother is also featured in the film as she recounts tales of her own family. The film offers an intimate and delicate portrait of the lives of its subjects.
The complete collection of “Tell Me” features the following films: Growing Up Female (Julia Reichert and Jim Klein, 1971) Janie’s Janie (Geri Ashur, Peter Barton, Marilyn Mulford, and Stephanie Pawleski, 1971) Betty Tells Her Story (Liane Brandon, 1972) It Happens to Us (Amalie R. Rothschild, 1972) Joyce at 34 (Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill, 1972) Yudie (Mirra Bank, 1974) Chris and Bernie (Bonnie Friedman and Deborah Shaffer, 1976) Guerillère Talks (Vivienne Dick, 1978) Inside Women Inside (Christine Choy and Cynthia Maurizio, 1978) Soft Fiction (Chick Strand, 1979) Dis-moi (Chantal Akerman, 1980) I Am Wanda (Katja Raganelli, 1980) Clotheslines (Roberta Cantow, 1981) Land Makar (Margaret Tait, 1981) Audience (Barbara Hammer, 1982) Suzanne, Suzanne (Camille Billops and James Hatch, 1982) The Ties That Bind (Su Friedrich, 1985) Conversations with Intellectuals About Selena (Lourdes Portillo, 1999) Privilege (Yvonne Rainer, 1990) The Salt Mines (Susana Aiken and Carlos Aparicio, 1990) The Transformation (Susana Aiken and Carlos Aparicio, 1995) Mimi (Claire Simon, 2003) No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015) Shakedown (Leilah Weinraub, 2018)
New York Film Academy (NYFA) Australia Alum Stephen Osborne has been quite productive since graduating from the Filmmaking school program offered on the Australia’s Gold Coast.
His short film Jane, completed during his studies at New York Film Academy, has received several international accolades, including Best 1st Time Director at the Oniros Film Awards. Additionally, Jane was a Semifinalist at both the Los Angeles CineFest and the European Cinematography Awards.
Speaking of his experience at NYFA Australia, Osborne says he valued “the intensity of the course, making seven short films in less than a year, and the experienced lecturers.”
Receiving their education in the heart of Queensland’s innovative film industry, NYFA Australia students find themselves completely immersed in their studies from day one, surrounded by award-winning faculty and working with state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.
Additionally, NYFA Australia students have access to production sets on the world-famous Village Roadshow Studios. NYFA students have the opportunity to shoot their projects on the same soundstages and backlots as blockbuster films like Kong: Skull Island, Aquaman, and Thor: Ragnarok, which have been shot at the location.
Osborne continues, “NYFA has taught me the structure of making a film and provided us with networks within the film industry.”
Since graduating, Osborne has worked on short films, feature length productions, and music videos in a professional capacity. As the founder of Mica Media, Osborne also creates his own content and has “just finished shooting a pilot episode for a miniseries titled Roommate Wanted for the End of the World. Furthermore, Osborne has a feature film in development set to start shooting later this year.
Should there ever be a film shot about his own life, Osborne says “it would be a drama film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, titled Life Behind the Camera.”
The New York Film Academy congratulates Stephen Osborne on his accolades and looks forward to keeping track of his successful career!
Elizabeth Grimaldo was already a household name in her native Panama when she came to study Acting for Film at the New York Film Academy, but since then her career has truly crossed international borders. Now based in Miami, the singer/songwriter and actress recently made her U.S. television debut on Telemundo NBC ’s Al Otro Lado Del Muro, tackling an intense storyline involving immigration, human trafficking, and unbreakable family love.
Here, Elizabeth shares a bit of her amazing story with the NYFA Blog.
NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about your journey and what brought you to NYFA?
EG: I’ve been on TV since I was 12 years old as a singer, which is also my profession. It started in a national singing contest for kids (Canta Conmigo), which opened so many doors for my career in Panama. At the age of 15, I started acting in my first soap opera as the main character, and it was an amazing experience. My next big project, at the age of 18, was Romeo and Juliet the Musical as Juliet, at the national theater of Panama City. That was a dream come true, to perform there.
That play turned on my hunger for the performing arts, and I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to this field. One month after the play finished, I went straight to the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles.
NYFA: Do you have a favorite NYFA moment from your time studying with us? Or did anything about your program particularly surprise and challenge you?
EG: Many things were challenging. Acting is hard work, and not many people understand what it really takes to build a character who is nothing like you and convince an audience that it’s “real.”
I remember one of my coaches, Michael, used to challenge me a lot — which I am grateful for, because I admire him as a person and professional. He was so passionate in every class, every detail, and most important, he wanted us to do what it takes to be great. He cared and wanted us to succeed. He told us once, “Imagine all the secrets that someone would need to know about you to play you perfectly.”
That was the most challenging part for me, because I realized in that moment how far I was from knowing my character. I realized what it takes to do the job. It’s not acting; its life, and a lot of research.
NYFA: Before coming to NYFA, you acted in Panama’s Summer Dreams. How has your process changed regarding performing, since your studies and other experiences in Miami?
EG: It’s totally different. I started to act without having studied acting. Now that I have studied acting (which you never stop doing), I wish I could go back and do it again with what I know now. It’s been a satisfying and fun process.
NYFA: For our international student community, can you offer any advice on studying in the U.S.? Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of coming from Panama to NYFA Los angeles?
EG: It was the best decision of my life. It’s hard yes, but it’s so worth it.
I know it’s scary to leave home and pursue a dream by yourself out there, but let me tell you something: it’s going to change your life in so many positive ways! I accept that I felt overwhelmed many times missing home and feeling lonely, but all those situations that I went through back then in Los Angeles made me the strong, independent, and passionate woman that I am today.
NYFA made me grow as a professional and a human being. I learned so many things and I am grateful and happy for it.
NYFA: How did your experience on Canta Conmigo come about? What was it like achieving second place?
EG: It was amazing. It changed my life, basically. So many doors opened for me after. Since then my career in Panama has been accepted and successful, thanks Gob and to the people that has been supporting me since the beginning. I feel blessed that I have been able to represent my country in the U.S. and make them proud.
NYFA: As a singer and musician, what most inspires your work?
EG: I could say experiences, in every sense of word, which led me to start writing songs. It’s funny because that process started when I was at NYFA living by myself for the first time. I wrote my first songs back then.
I use to think I couldn’t write lyrics, but I was wrong. Experiences are necessary to tell stories from the heart.
But what inspires me the most is my mom. She is my drive, the one who encouraged me to do this and helped me in everything. She believed in me since I was three years old and sang for the first time, Cucurrucucu Paloma. Everything I do is dedicated to her.
NYFA: Can you tell us how your work with Telemundo came about, and a bit about your character?
EG: This February I had my debut on American television in the Telemundo NBC series Al Otro Lado Del Muro, which means “the other side of the wall.” I still don’t have words to express how happy I am for this opportunity. It was an honor to work with renowned actors such as Gabriel Porras, Litzy Martinez, Marjorie De Sousa and Adriana Barraza, the Oscar nominee for the movie Babel, who was my coach here in Miami at her school Adriana Barraza Black Box. Being able to work with Adriana on my first job was a dream come true.
The series talks about immigrants and their different stories. My character is Raquel Aranda, a Salvadoran immigrant who arrives in the U.S., running from the human trafficking. Later, she is separated from her family and unjustly deported to Mexico. She tries to cross the border, again facing dangers in order to be with her family and her one-month old child.
In February, the New York Film Academy (NYFA) Los Angeles welcomed writer, director, and actor Christina Beck as a Guest Speaker to the Q&A stage, following a screening of her award-winning film Perfection.
The film, which tells the story of a young woman who struggles with self-harm, and her relationship with her mother, was screened in honor of Self-Injury Awareness Day, a global event dedicated to removing the stigma surrounding self-harm, and spreading awareness so that those who suffer do not have to suffer in silence.
Beck began by discussing the script’s origins, which, unsurprisingly, initially sprang from her own experiences. “I wasn’t a cutter, but in my 20s I used to pick at my skin a lot, and I had a lot of self hatred,” she shared. “I grew up in LA, I had a very beautiful mother, and there was a lot of emphasis on exterior beauty and trying to be perfect. And trying to fit in and finding my way as a young woman, I felt like I wasn’t enough … so I started writing that character, and then later it morphed into a bigger story.”
NYFA Los Angeles Producing Department Co-Chair Roberta Colangelo, who moderated the event, followed up with a question about what the medium of film can do, or what kind of opportunities it can bring to the subject of self harm.
“I think even if you’re not someone who cuts yourself you can relate, hopefully, to the feelings,” said Beck. “For me, I always think that filmmaking is such a powerful medium, that we can observe behavior, follow a story, hopefully, and connect with a protagonist, and go on that journey.”
Beck went on to talk about the process of making the film, which took two and a half years — and in true micro-budget fashion, the journey was full of ups and downs. They started out with no financing, cast the film out of Beck’s living room, and on one occasion, had only a half-hour at a location to film an entire scene.
“So that’s a little stressful, for sure,” Beck admitted. “And there were quite a few moments like that, honestly … but you just kind of have to make it work, because the bigger picture is more important than the stress of the moment.”
The bigger picture, in the case of Perfection, is an opportunity to positively impact the people sitting in the audience.
“It leaves you with a strange sense of empowerment,” Colangelo noted. “Not by showing a very powerful female figure that has heroically overcome everything, but someone that is working her way [through it]. It’s a very powerful message.”
Perfection is by no means a comprehensive guide to healing, but it was never intended to be. As Beck stated, the intention behind the film was, if nothing else, to be truthful.
“In 85 minutes, it’s really hard to wrap up someone’s whole recovery,” said Beck. “It just wouldn’t be truthful. And so we kind of modified that journey to leave with a sense of hope.”
After graduating from New York Film Academy Filmmaking conservatory in New York City at the age of 19, Ravjot Mehek Singh hit the ground running. First, she started with large-scale roles directing Bollywood music videos. Soon after, she was assistant director on The Voice India, an opportunity that opened the door for her to write and direct three of her own TV shows for Dish Network by age 21.
Singh’s first documentary is I Stand With Jessy, a powerful and intimate portrait of an South Asian immigrant woman in the U.S. fighting breast cancer, in poverty. The film premiered on Dish Network last year in March before going on to win at Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival in New Delhi, India, as well as winning the Impact Doc Awards Film Festival in 2017.
Here, Singh shares her best advice about telling a story that matters, through filmmaking.
NYFA: First can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to New York Film Academy?
RMS: I am an Indian American film and TV director, with strong roots in both Bollywood and Hollywood. I have directed a handful of films and TV talk shows for channels on Dish Network, such as Jus Punjabi and Jus 24×7, and have directed many Bollywood music videos.
I came to study at NYFA directly after high school, after learning how hands-on the approach was and how students would be learning practical skills from day one.
NYFA: Why filmmaking? What inspires you about this medium?
RMS: In high school, I was always interested in pursuing work that would impact society on a large scale. As a teenager, I would spend many days out of the week vlogging on Youtube, self-teaching editing tricks, and creating improv characters for my comedy sketches. My love for video came together with my goals of positively influencing people on a mass scale, and led me to NYFA.
What inspires me most about filmmaking is how you can truly allow the audience to see, hear, and feel the struggle of others. The best way to create love and understanding in our world is by walking in each other’s shoes. Many people choose not to step into each other’s [points of view] on a day-to-day basis, which is where film and television come in to assist people in seeing someone else’s perspective.
NYFA: Do you have any favorite NYFA moments from your time studying with us?
RMS: I have so many wonderful memories with my teachers, such as Professor William Tyler Smith, Professor Nicola Raggi, and Professor Tasos Panagiotopoulos. Each of them taught me incredibly valuable lessons that come into use every day in the industry.
Some of my favorite moments are from the summertime, when all the students were new and figuring out how to use traditional film cameras. It was a unique bonding experience between students from all over the world, and an important lesson on rehearsing until you get the shot right on the first few tries.
NYFA: Can you tell us about your journey in working with Jus TV? What drew you to the mission of Punjabi programming?
RMS: After graduating from NYFA, I immediately began working overseas in the Indian film industry. I worked on TV shows such as The Voice India, which helped transition me to the more stable, routine lifestyle of television. Jus TV is a major Asian TV channel that is based in New York City, so coming back to the U.S. to work in a channel that crossed Hollywood and Bollywood concepts was the perfect fit! I wanted to use my skills and dual cultural upbringing to create progressive television programming for Asian children and young adults who grew up in America. We are constantly getting two separate streams of content, one side being totally American and the other side being totally Asian. My goal was to create a blend of both types of media to better appeal to our cross-cultural upbringing.
NYFA: How did your project I Stand With Jessy come about?
RMS: Jessy is actually my aunt. I did not expect to create a feature documentary on the topic, I had originally planned the project to be 10 minutes long and only focusing on Jessy herself. However, as the project continued to build up, Jus TV gave me the opportunity to merge my personal project with their company and create a full-length feature (the first feature film to come from their channel).
The more investigation I did to fully understand laws for breast cancer detection and treatment for low-income women, the more flaws I found in our healthcare system in the U.S. I discovered that a huge number of women are left without proper care or any consideration of how time-sensitive treatment options are for breast cancer.
I started developing the film to focus more on how we can take a stand to change these deadly rules and regulations in the healthcare industry.
NYFA: What were some of the challenges you faced in creating this feature documentary, and how did you overcome them?
RMS: One of the biggest challenges for this documentary was allowing Jessy to feel comfortable enough to speak out about a topic that most Asians choose not to openly discuss. There is a huge stigma in nearly all Asian countries about women’s bodies and how illness is perceived. Jessy, like most Asian women, was anxious about how the community would react to her being so open about her breast cancer and the issues that come with chemotherapy.
Ultimately Jessy and I worked together to create a list of questions that would ease her into speaking about certain harsh topics. In the end, Jessy had become so comfortable while filming that she even allowed me to follow her around throughout her day and film all of it!
Another unique challenge was reaching members of the government to comment on the issues of our healthcare system. Though many attempts were made to contact government officials, none of them responded to give their input on issues regarding women’s health.
There is still fear and negativity attached to openly assigning opinions on women’s health and the poor setup of the healthcare system in the United States.
NYFA: What is your advice to NYFA students interested in producing a feature documentary?
RMS: My best advice would be to think of a topic that has the depth to be turned into a film of one hour or longer. The topic should be something unique or quirky enough that the audience would be willing to sit and watch a nonfiction piece over the many fictional TV shows and films out there.
Ultimately, you don’t need much to create a beautiful documentar, besides yourself, a camera, and a subject you’re passionate about. That is part of what makes the documentary genre so accessible for new filmmakers.
NYFA: Congratulations on all your film festival success! What is next for I Stand With Jessy?
RMS: I Stand With Jessy has an adjacent petition for the government to lower the age of breast cancer screenings and include screening options that go beyond the basic mammogram. It can be found and supported at change.org/p/i-stand-with-jessy. As of now, 1,702 people have signed it.
I hope to continue the petition and reach out to members of congress to discuss a reasonable goal for healthcare in the United States.
Luckily the film has gained major publicity for winning India’s biggest film festival, the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival, and last year it gained American publicity thanks to winning the Impact Doc Awards Film Festival. These two festivals have helped spark public interest in bettering the healthcare system in the U.S. for immigrants.
NYFA: Would you say your time at NYFA was at all useful in preparing for the work you are doing now?
RMS: The wonderful hands-on approach at NYFA helped eliminate the wasted time of theories and repetitive classwork with no relevance to film. Thanks to NYFA’s one-year program in filmmaking, I was able to find work immediately, with the right connections in the film industry. I have not yet been on any set where my skills have not been at par with serious film professionals and former students with degrees in film.
I am thankful to NYFA for creating this brilliant, expedited opportunity to learn the true essence of film. After that, it is up to each individual student to continue learning and filling in any blanks for themselves.
NYFA: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
RMS: This year, I am directing my first horror film in Boston with Mtown Films. Along with that, I am working on directing multiple Bollywood music videos, which has become a fun niche of mine in the past few years. The music videos will be shot all across the United States and India, and will be releasing later this year. I am also looking forward to developing more medical documentaries that expose the truth about the negative impacts of our healthcare system.
Sundance gave Documentary Cinematography Instructor Claudia Raschke some serious love, lauding her work as director of photography of the acclaimed, RBG, featuring her on the celebrated “Women Who Shoot” panel. You’ll find Claudia-centric articles include American Cinematographer, Filmmaker, Indiewire, etc.
Schechter scored these key reviews despite the lack of a release date, a publicist, or even a production company. A good, old-fashioned bidding war immediately broke out and it looks like Journeyman Pictures has won worldwide rights with a promise of theatrical release. A Sniper’s War has since gone on to win multiple festivals including Best Foreign Documentary at the Academy Award Qualifying, Arizona Film Festival. (With the new eligibility rules, the Arizona win almost certainly qualifies the film for the Oscar race. The Academy will confirm their new list of qualifying festivals later this spring, so we’ll know for sure then.)
Documentary Producing Instructor Dorottya Mathe also premiered her feature, The Independents, at SBFF. The Hollywood Reporter likes it too, especially, “the way in which it subverts all the clichés of the star-is-born story,” and pronounces it, “an extremely engaging film.” Graduate Erica Wong (’14) assisted Dorottya on the production, and fellow NYFA Instructor Piero Basso served as DP. Documentary Instructor Jessica Wolfson’s feature, Hot Grease followed its Discovery premiere with VOD roll out on Discovery Go.
Furlough, the second 2018 fiction film from NYFA Documentary Instructor Dorottya Mathe (Production Supervisor) opened in theaters. The female-driven comedy starred Academy Award winners Melissa Leo, Whoopi Goldberg and Anna Paquin.
Mariko Ide (’16) edited her first piece for Google.
Kristen Nutile editedWeed The People (directed by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein), which premiered at SXSW — where Indiewire and Interview magazine both pronounced it a “must-see” film. And even People magazine gave it a write-up.
The Stolen River, directed by Krisztina Danka (6-Week ’17), won Best Environmental Film at the Calcutta International Film Festival. That was after taking Best in Show at Cinema Verde International Environmental Film Festival, as well as awards at Independent Shorts Awards, Impact DOCS Award, LiFFT Filmotsav and others.
The Second quarter of 2018 is off to a great start as well. More on that shortly.
One spoiler, though…
Two documentaries nominated for Peabody Awards this year have NYFA Documentary School bloodlines: Heroin(e), edited by prof, Kristen Nutile and Newtown, Associate Produced/Associate Post Produced by Laura Snow (’13).
HBO’s Women in Comedy Festival (WICF) is an inclusive event focused on smashing gender inequality in comedy, where they flip the usual gender ratio in comedy: 80% of WICF performers are women.
The ninth annual WICF will be held April 19-22 in Boston. Along with HBO, this year’s event is sponsored by NBC, ImprovBoston, and Le Chevalier. Major stars are headlining, including Wanda Sykes and Tig Notaro, with additional performances by Kat Radley, Gina Yashere, Emma Willman, and Kelly McFarland.
Although Wynona Barbera studied documentary filmmaking at NYFA, El Cat is a fiction film — which just goes to show how NYFA students can apply their skill set in so many ways as they forge their own paths as storytellers.
“Congratulations to Wynona,” said NYFA New York Chair of Documentary Filmmaking Andrea Swift. “HBO’s Women in Comedy Festival is a major player in launching the next generation of leaders and innovators in comedy. It just goes to show the skills NYFA Documentary Filmmaking students develop here can be applied to all kinds of content, especially fiction films. Can’t wait to see what’s next!”
El Cat will be competing in the The HBO Insider Comedy Short Challenge and WICF Comedy Short Contest with Paul Feig on Saturday, April 21, in Cambridge, MA. #WomeninFilm #WomenOfNYFA