Caviar director Lisette Donkersloot talks to Izzy Ashton about the complex themes, characters, and casting in her dark series, SiHAME, which won a Gold in the Best Original Series category.
Did you always know you wanted to be a director?
I definitely did not always know I wanted to be a director. Mainly because I didn’t know there was such a thing as the film industry that people actually could have jobs in until I was around 20, let alone being able to become a director myself. But the minute I found out about it and decided I wanted to get into film I immediately knew that it was directing that I wanted to pursue. I never really considered doing anything else in the film world.
What did you enjoy the most about directing this series in particular?
Making SiHAME was my first time directing a long form narrative/ series, ever. Before that I’d only done short films, commercials and music videos. So making this series really was a deep dive into a lot of ‘firsts’ and new experiences, and yes, many mistakes too. But going through this entirely different process for the first time just taught me so much.
And sure, on every type of shoot you’ll learn something. But the older you get, I feel the slower you’ll learn. Or, better phrased, the learning curve just gets less steep over time. But by jumping on board this series, I got bombarded with so many lessons and important takeaways, I felt like that curve got back into the same shape as when I learned how to speak. I think that feeling of rapid growth for me was the most enjoyable and rewarding part of directing this series.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Anything, anywhere, really. The obvious stuff like (fashion) photography and cinema. But even more often it comes from observing people around me. Or random quotes I hear in passing on the street without any context that makes my brain fill in the blanks with visual associations. And then those visual responses to daily stuff I see or hear ‘domino’ into a whole new idea on its own.
Where did the idea for SiHAME come from?
Exposing and shaming young girls online [through the sharing of explicit content] was, and still is, a serious issue in the Netherlands, and this sprouted the idea for this series. The idea was ultimately conceptualised by Achmed Akkabi, the creator of SiHAME, who wanted to make a female-driven thriller series.
How did you find directing for TV differed to your previous experience directing for commercials and films?
The biggest difference is the length of creating something. The distance between starting a project and seeing the end result. Making commercials is like HIIT sprints and directing a series feels like running a marathon. And in both cases you are fully dedicated and mentally nowhere else other than with that project. But the finish line is always in sight when working on a commercial.
With the series it feels like a never ending story for a very long time. Especially with my division of attention and energy which was just on a whole different level directing these series. So the moment you do finally finish it and get to reflect on the entire process and learning curve, it does feel more rewarding and wholesome.
Could you tell me about the casting process? How did you make sure you landed the right people in the right roles, particularly in the lead role of Sihame?
We really wanted to use this series to give opportunities to a lot of new and unseen talent. So for the most part we casted young, but very gifted actors of whom most of them were still in theatre/acting school. We worked really closely with them and gave the actors a lot of room for personal input to build further on their characters. Clearly the role of SiHame is quite dark and complex.
Ultimately, she’s a girl who really misses getting a hug, or receiving love in many moments of her life, and got hurt and felt unseen instead. And, therefore, she developed a certain disappointment and distrust in life from a young age.
Shamira, who was the director of episodes one to four, and I knew this part could only be played by someone who could actually relate to that feeling. From the moment we saw the casting tape of Ahlaam Teghadouini, who plays Sihame, we immediately knew she was the one. It was a two-minute clip I think, but she played that scene so cleverly and delicately.
There was this hidden, very nuanced sadness in every word she said. No one else had played that scene like her. But, she wasn’t available for the original shooting period. So we really pushed for the dates to move back in order for Ahlaam to get the part. I cannot stress enough how insanely talented I think she is and how she truly elevated the character of Sihame to a higher ground.
How was the overall process of shooting?
Honestly, when I think back, it feels like a really big blur, yet a rapid pop-up of very detailed memories at the same time. This sounds chaotic, but that actually does sum up the process of shooting to me. It was an accumulation of all the emotions on the spectrum for many weeks in a row for me.
My favourite scene to shoot though was the car chase and stunt in episode six. It took all night to shoot this fast-paced scene that only needed to be around 90-120 seconds in the edit.
What was your favourite moment during the making of this TV show? Is TV something you’d like to focus on more or do you prefer short form commercials and films?
I really cannot pick one favourite moment. But the most cliché thing to say will be my answer though and that is to work and collaborate with so many brilliant people for a long period of time, which is just really special.
And yes, I definitely want to focus more on TV/long-form narrative. But I still really love doing commercials and music videos too. I think the combination of doing both works really well for me. I don’t feel like I need to pick sides.
What did you learn making this TV show?
There were too many lessons really. But one of the bigger takeaways is that every actor and every person on set speaks a different ‘language’. So for me to get better as a director I need to be able to recognise and learn all these different tongues in a very short time, so I can convey my vision in the best and quickest way possible, bespoke to each individual on set.
Another important lesson was that I actually was able to pull it off, even though I really doubted myself at times. So I learned that I’m capable of so much more than I initially thought, and really should believe in myself more.
Is this a subject matter you’d like to explore in future projects?
I feel like we’ve explored the subject of online shaming in a very interesting and refreshing way, so I wouldn’t need to explore that topic any further in future projects.
But overarching themes like (female) revenge or exploring complex, dark and ‘imperfect’ female characters is something I’d like to get more into in the future.
Congratulations on your win. What does it mean to you to pick up this award?
Thank you so much! We put so much love, time and effort into creating this series and had to go through storms and fires to actually make it to the finish line. So having people watch the series, the YDA jury in this case, who normally wouldn’t have been able to see it, and then also receiving this recognition from them, really means a lot. It encourages me to continue this path and develop my ideas as a director even more.
What are you working on at the moment? And what’s coming next?
I’m just finishing up a commercial I shot in London. Besides that I am currently developing a new series with Shamira Raphaela, who directed the first four episodes of SiHAME, and I’m also writing my first feature project.
Interview by Amy Hey shots