Q&A with Sema Basharan, director of The Branches are Hope; The Roots are Memory - Leeds award winner
Sunday 21 November 2021, by
Sema Basharan’s short documentary explores the history of peace activism and grassroots resistance in Bradford and the way the city’s religious diversity inspired movements towards peacebuilding, through a creative use of experimental art and visuals, archive footage and interviews.
What inspired you to make a documentary about Bradford? And why the specific focus on concepts like peace?
I’d previously made a film exploring Christian attitudes to war and peace through the story of some conscientious objectors in WW2, so it was a subject I’d been interested in for a while. I was really interested in how they saw peace through the lens of their faith, and the actions it led them to take as a result. In The Branches are Hope; The Roots are Memory I wanted to explore this topic further by looking at other faith groups and how faith and peace work together in people’s lives to inspire them to act. Finding myself back in my home city of Bradford at this time felt like the perfect place to explore this idea. It’s a city with a rich heritage of peace and is a melting pot of cultures, with a real independent spirit, so there was so much to dig into. It was also a chance for me to explore my own connection with the city after some time away, which was part of the journey of this film.
Can you tell us a bit more about the process? How did you choose the archives, the testimonies... Was there some level of collaboration with the Peace Museum?
The testimonies mostly came by recommendation, although I put out an open call looking for people to take part. A lot of the faith communities in Bradford are well connected, as are people involved in the peace movement, so most people were suggested to me by others I’d met, including by the Peace Museum. Bradford is full of people who would fit what I was looking for though, I could have spent a year interviewing people! I only had a month to fit in as many as I could. Choosing the archive was more tricky and there was a lot of experimentation, along with the other visuals, to weave the images and testimonies together and build up the picture bit by bit. I worked with the Yorkshire Film Archive for this who were really supportive in helping me find what I needed.
You integrated art and experimental imagery into the documentary. What’s your background in fine arts?
I originally studied fine art, but couldn’t really see myself working as an artist at that time, and didn’t pursue my own creative practice until I started making documentaries ten years later. My first two documentaries were more of a mainstream style, but with this one I was feeling much more confident in developing my own voice that I wanted to revisit some of my past work. What’s interesting is that I discovered the themes I was working with way back on my art foundation and undergraduate degree were the same themes I’m interested in now as a filmmaker, such as memory and identity. It felt so easy and natural to bring these together in this film.
You’re primarily a documentary filmmaker. Are you looking to explore other formats? What would you like to work on in the near future?
Right now I’m sticking with documentary, although I wouldn’t rule out other genres in future! This was the first film where I’d written something of a script, and it turns out I really enjoy writing, so I would like to explore that more for sure! I have a couple of other ideas in development right now, but with very film I make, I try to challenge myself to try something new, or tell the story differently, so that’s on my mind now with the next one. I like to build on what I’ve learned but also to experiment where I can.
What have been your highlights from the film’s festival run? Any comments or reactions that stood out?
The film premiered at Sheffield DocFest this year, so I have to say that was a definite highlight and
completely outdid my expectations. It was nominated for an award there too, so the whole experience was really amazing! Picking up an award at Leeds International Film Festival was the absolute icing on the cake, and I’m still a bit shocked that a film about peacemakers in Bradford would be of interest to other people! But people really seem to connect with the film, and I’ve had some great conversations with people who were really touched by it and have wanted to screen it at local community events, including an inter-faith group run by one of my contributors. For me that’s one of the big successes of the film, that it doesn’t just appeal to festival audiences. It is screening in the communities that it came out of and inspires further discussion on topics of faith and peace.
What best bits of advice would you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Honestly, just make films. Do what you can with the resources you have. You can do so much with a smartphone and a laptop. It doesn’t matter how big an audience you get just keep making and honing your skills. The other thing I’d say is find people you trust who can give you really honest, constructive feedback, even if it’s hard to hear sometimes. Those people are vital for the process so seek them out and take them on the journey with you.
Find out more about Sema’s work on her website.