Sindha Agha on how to make a YDA-winning how to series

The Corner Shop director, Sindha Agha, won Gold at the Young Director Award for her funny, honest and touching film How to Get an Abortion. Here, she discusses casting, colour and faking it till you make it.

How – and why – did you get into directing?

It’s something I always wanted to do but put off for as long as I could because it sounded kind of embarrassing to me, the whole idea of being an artist. I was just way too self-conscious for it. But then, in 2018, I was struggling intensely with endometriosis and the disease cut me off from the rest of my life in many ways. I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom that year, and it was writing and still life photography that brought me comfort during my isolation.

I ended up combining some of that writing and the style of photography I was doing into a short film called Birth Control Your Own Adventure. I sent it to The New York Times on a whim and, to my surprise, they published it. That little film really took off — it went viral, got me two Sundance Institute fellowships and was nominated for an Emmy. After that, everyone started treating me like I was a director and I played along. Four years of ‘fake it til you make it’ later… now I’m a director!

How did the series of How to… films for Channel 4 come about?

How to Be a Person wouldn’t have happened without Navi Lamba. She was one of the very first people to have believed in me and gave me my first opportunity to direct outside of my living room. Navi was (and now again is) a commissioner at the BBC when she reached out to me about doing a series. We did a project called Body Language, which we both loved a lot, and when she went over to Channel 4 we knew we had to keep working together. Her focus there was content for teens, and I came up with this idea for a series based on my own adolescent obsession with reading WikiHow articles about everything under the sun that pertained to my coming of age… how to kiss, how to flirt, etc. The world needs more people like Navi!

This film’s sensitive topic is handled with care and with humour; how hard was it to get that balance right?

Not hard at all, really. Humour is how I get through the stickiest, most painful moments of my life. I am always desperate to find a way to laugh about things, without minimizing the pain. I am a maximalist and I always like every feeling dialled up, all at once.

My favourite kind of writing blurs the lines between comedy and tragedy.

I don’t believe life is compartmentalized, especially not our emotions, and so my favourite kind of writing blurs the lines between comedy and tragedy. In my writing process I try to get as close to myself as possible — as close to my true voice. It’s more about protecting that from outside forces, or even just the internal fear of external judgment. That fear can be quite noisy, shouting out over and over again “Don’t show everyone what you’re really like! You’re too sensitive and weird for the public eye!” So, yeah, that’s the hardest part. Ignoring the inner critic.

The performances – especially by the lead – are great; can you tell us about the casting process?

Huge credit to casting agent, Heather Basten! I was so lucky to work with her and her assistant, Fran Cattaneo. Casting this episode was particularly easy. As soon as I saw Maya Torres’ tape I knew it had to be her, no question about it. I absolutely love her. She’s so earnest, hilarious and bursting with life.

Aosaf Afzal, who played the dad, was also wonderful to work with. He’s a very thoughtful performer who brought a lot of his own insight into the character and helped shape some of my choices, too. And Rahul Sidhu’s performance as Jawad absolutely cracked me up. It’s still one of my favourite things about the episode.

The use of colour seems to be an important part of your directing style; is that something you take a lot of time over?

Not really, to be honest. It is important to me, but I can’t say I take a lot of time with it. It would take me a lot more time to make something that isn’t particularly colourful, since that would be outside of my instincts and would require a lot of restraint on my part! I love colour and wish the whole world were more colourful. Filmmaking is the perfect opportunity for me to live in that colourful dream of mine for a little while.

How long did it take you to make the film and what was the most challenging aspect of its creation?

I had the idea for the script awhile before I wrote it, and I pitched Navi on it probably six months ahead of actually sitting down and writing it. Then I brought on my friend Samira Mian to co-write with me, since we have very similar backgrounds and I knew our voices would combine in a good way for this particular character.

Four years of ‘fake it til you make it’ later… now I’m a director!

We wrote the script in two days — super-fast! For shooting the film, we also had two days. And, I’ll be honest, a lot of things outside our control went wrong! So, we were pretty delayed, and lost about four hours of shooting time as a result, which was a big deal when you only have two days to capture it all. Luckily, all that chaos occurred on a day when we were shooting our most intense and emotional scenes, so I told Maya to roll with the turmoil and let it all out in her performance — and she definitely did!

What do you feel you learned from making How to Get an Abortion?

Always bring a Bluetooth speaker to set, because when shit hits the fan, you can put on some dance music and the whole crew will go wild for a couple of seconds before returning to work. Dancing cures almost everything.

What does it mean to you to win a YDA?

It was incredibly meaningful to win this award for a film about abortion, especially at the exact historical moment that abortion rights have been gutted in my home country of the United States. The very day after I won at YDA, Roe v. Wade was overturned.

On a personal note, it was comforting to be surrounded by people who are firm in their support of abortion access and reproductive rights. I can’t lie, I’m often afraid of what the future holds, but making films that represent the world I’d like to live in is therapeutic and empowering.

What are you working on next?

Blame my South Asian heritage for my superstitions but I can never bring myself to answer this question. That being said, whatever I do, I know I’ll be working with all the people who made How to Get an Abortion again. They’re all gems!

Interview by Danny Edwards shots

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