25 Apr 2024

“Let the bodies speak for themselves”: an interview with Creature producer Uzma Hasan


Producer Uzma Hasan talks to us about the magic of ballet, the power of non-narrative storytelling in a post-pandemic world and subverting notions of ’diversity’.

24 February 2023

By Joseph Wallace

Creature (2022)

With a mission to bring “subversive stories to global audiences”, producer Uzma Hasan is proving herself as an important figure for British productions unafraid in challenging conventions.

As co-founder of Little House Productions, Uzma has been proactive in facilitating a collaborative environment for a multicultural cross-section of Britain’s most visionary filmmakers. In 2019, she produced Londonstani, a short screen adaptation of Gautam Malkani’s novel, with previous works including Josh Appignanesi’s The Infidel (2010) and Nirpal Bhogal’s Firstborn (2016).

Here she tells about her new project, a unique fusion of ballet and cinema set in an Arctic research station that found her teaming with both Asif Kapadia and Akram Khan.

Creature is quite a departure from usual depictions of ballet on screen. What drew you to the project?

I’d always wanted to make a film with Akram Khan after seeing Giselle, one of his first commissions for the English National Ballet. I had not really been to the ballet before, but I’d seen all his work and became an obsessive fan. His work combines very traditional ballet and reworks contemporary and classical Indian kathak, so you end up with a really interesting mismatch of forms. I just saw it and said, “Wow, this is cinema!”

You made Creature during a challenging time in the pandemic. What was the creative process like?

It was exciting. Filmmaking has a really long gestation period, and we had initially planned for that. I had started the conversation with both Akram and the English National Ballet back when they had originally commissioned Creature. Like all shows they produce it was to have a life of its own with a six-month run while we found funding to raise money for the film; then the pandemic happened less than three weeks before it was due to open at Sadler’s Wells. But then there was something exciting about being in the middle of the pandemic and thinking: let’s just make it.

The film is the product of some of the best artists in their creative field. How did you bring them together?

I just thought, as it was in the middle of the lockdown, I am just going to call up my dream team of people I’d love to work with that I don’t usually have the money for, and so we got this brilliant team including the sound designer Stephen Griffiths (Tár), cinematographer Daniel Landin (Under the Skin), editor Sylvie Landra (The Fifth Element) – and Asif Kapadia of course. They had never worked together before, and I wanted that. Having long-term collaborators is good, but sometimes that pattern means you’re just reproducing the same work. It was important that we worked outside our comfort zone, because what we’re doing is very new.

Can you talk about working with the English National Ballet. Did they try to push the film in other directions?

I have to say they were brilliant. They basically provided us with a whole bunch of facilities, their studio and dancers and left us to make the film. Live dance and theatre didn’t come back [after the lockdown] for a while. Cinema and TV found a way, but not live stage productions, so I said to them, “We can make this happen; it’s gonna be tough but let’s make it happen,” and they did. So as soon as restrictions were lifted we scrambled it together. It took 10 days to film and cut it in four weeks, and I think you sense that energy.

Was filming a difficult process for classically trained ballet dancers?

I call them athletes and that’s not an exaggeration. The dancers all have to be warmed up: their bodies are in tip-top condition to perform all the pieces, and they’re doing that for 90 minutes, non-stop. Filming is different because it’s very stop-and-start, but our protagonist, played by Jeffrey Cirio, is also an actor, and his expressions are incredible. I remember being in rehearsals and being close to tears, being so close to these dancers. Akram’s level of detail is simply astounding, and Asif and I didn’t want to mess with it too much.

What drew you to working with Asif?

I wanted to choose a director who was not so committed to a certain form of expression. Asif has an ambidextrous form – he does documentary, fiction, long-form, short-form, TVVR – he’s not precious about that, and that lack of preciousness means we could find more of what works, rather than fixating on what isn’t working.

When we think of British ballet on screen we often think of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) and other classics. What do you think of Creature becoming a part of this legacy?

Because this is a British film – in that Akram, Asif and myself are British, worked with the English National Ballet and made the film in Britain – I think it is still very singular in terms of what British films usually say; what they say about the state of the world, but more importantly, who they focus on. In Creature its two leads are workers; they are the experimented on, the used and abused. It’s a film that’s open to many interpretations, from fascism and misogyny to environmental aspects, depending on who you are and where you’re coming from.

Many of these spaces are traditionally inaccessible to people. How did you navigate through notions of exclusivity and elitism?

Another reason that I wanted to do this project was to bring together a team of three Brown creatives that were making something that was not entirely about our own identity; specifically, about our own identity or Brown suffering. For me, the film is a very political one. How often do you see non-white filmmakers tell stories outside of their own coming-of-age? It’s sad that my perspective is a rare one, as a Brown woman working in the film industry in general, but it’s important that we have lots of different voices at that level.

Do you feel that the industry is moving in the right direction to support more artists of colour?

Things are changing, but they’re changing at the level of writers and directors; who controls the narrative hasn’t really. The role of a producer is incredibly important to ensure we don’t keep regurgitating the same stories. It’s important that culture evolves. Right now we’re in a situation where there’s lots of white producers and financiers wanting to be seen supporting diversity, to work with Black and Brown filmmakers, but those stories are weird broken monsters simply because those filmmakers don’t have the support system to surround them. Sadly my films will be seen as a political act, regardless of what I make. That’s why I think Creature is powerful.

How do you hope this Creature finds its home?

We knew that we wouldn’t approach the film in a traditional ‘documentary’ way, even though earlier we had discussed using talking heads or silent-film-style cards and intertitles. But after being locked down I felt we needed to feel that release after being inundated with information on a daily basis. Our bodies had been compressed, and in many ways we did not have our freedoms, so this was really a liberating experience of form. To make an art film with a capital A, to feel like we were all part of the same dance, to feel free and – most importantly – to let the bodies speak for themselves.