Steve Won on being a director who can change direction

After picking up a Gold Screen in the Changing the World Frame by Frame category for his Kaizen-produced short, ROOTS OF MY RHYTHM – The dance journey of Majid Kessab, Steve Won tells Izzy Ashton about feeling the filmmaking flow and following new narrative paths.

What do you love the most about directing? Did you always want to be a director?

I love directing because it allows me to experience human connections, places, topics, and situations that I would never have encountered otherwise. Filmmaking pushes me out of my comfort zone, exposing me to incredible moments, fascinating people, and their unique stories. It takes me to breathtaking locations and teaches me valuable lessons that I can apply to my own life. 

Alongside the journey itself, I also appreciate the focus and concentration directing requires. The ability to capture a magical scene where nothing else matters in that moment brings a sense of peace to my mind. It’s what we call ‘flow’. As for becoming a director, it happened quite late in my life. Prior to that, I worked as a software engineer but discovered my passion for storytelling around the age of 20.

What was the inspiration behind Roots of My Rhythm?

It was the concept of home and Majid’s longing to connect with his roots and identity. This theme is universal and relatable to many people in Europe due to their multicultural backgrounds. While I was making a film about Majid, it felt like I was also telling the story of my friends who share a similar background. 

Additionally, Majid’s personality played a significant role in inspiring me to tell his story. His humble, lovable, and hardworking nature as an artist had a positive impact that I wanted to showcase.

Could you tell us more about Majid Kessab and why you wanted to tell his story?

I met Majid ten years ago when he was a young and energetic individual, trying to establish his name in the freestyle dance culture. It was inspiring to witness his growth over the years. His journey to becoming the number one dancer wasn’t an overnight success but rather a decade-long process of immense hard work, discipline, and dedication. I had been following his progress closely.

I didn’t know much about Majid’s background story until Red Bull approached me to direct a documentary about him as he had become their sponsored dance athlete. The real motivation to tell his story emerged after our initial conversations and meeting his family. It was during this time that I realised the depth of his character and the profound story that lay behind it.

Music is obviously central to the storytelling but there are many moments of stillness and quiet too, was this to provide contrast? 

Yes, it was essential to strike a balance and not get lost in Majid’s enormous energy, which we highlighted in the film with the powerful music composed by the incredibly talented Insightful. His powerful, yet sensitive, music served as a significant source of inspiration for me even before making the film.

For the film, it was crucial to include moments of authenticity – when Majid confronted his real conflicts from the past. The film’s ending is particularly powerful because of the quiet moments preceding it, which infused the last sequence with a lot of emotional energy.

Were there any memorable moments or challenges during production?

The project had a rough start, with uncertainty about the film’s direction. Shooting was quite challenging as in the first year, almost nothing seemed to work out as planned. We often had to cancel shoots due to COVID or because Majid wasn’t able to secure victories in the events we were following him for. 

However, after a few more tries, we realised that this film wasn’t solely about a Red Bull athlete always winning. I explained to Red Bull that I understood the importance for them to showcase their athletes as champions who always come out on top. However, I believed this film should focus on authenticity rather than presenting a fake picture of success. 

The world needs to see genuine stories, and even champions experience losses. What sets a champion apart is how they handle defeat. Majid doesn’t let it discourage him. He just prepares for the next challenge. That’s the mindset of a true champion. The most memorable moments occurred during our time in Kurdistan, Iraq. I didn’t know what to expect, but our team was deeply moved by the warm hospitality of the Kurds and their rich culture.

What do you feel you’ve learned from making this film?

Once again, this film taught me that no matter how much you script in a documentary, you have to remain open to real-life experiences and trust your own intuition. If necessary, you must be willing to let go of what you thought would be a strong narrative and follow your instincts in a different direction. 

You have to trust that feeling because it’s there for a reason. As a director, only you know what’s right and wrong. It’s your responsibility to make those difficult choices. You must have complete trust in yourself.

What does it mean to you to win a YDA, particularly in the Changing the World category?

Every artist desires recognition for their work, and YDA carries great importance as I have looked up to many directors who have won in the past. Winning the YDA for the second time, especially the Gold award in the Changing the World Frame by Frame category, is a motivation and positive affirmation that the decisions I made as a director were right and that I am on the right path. My purpose in filmmaking is to inspire through positive impact, which is why this category holds the most meaning for me.

What are you working on at the moment? And what’s coming next?

I have just finished shooting a short film that tells the inspiring story of Ikit Agudo, a surfer from the Philippines. The film delves into the significant issue of skin whitening in Southeast Asia. When Ikit began her journey, she faced more resistance than support from her family and society because they preferred lighter skin over darker skin. 

However, Ikit was able to overcome these challenges and became a local surf legend. Her influence and reach within the community enabled her to establish a foundation to help families affected by a powerful typhoon on her beautiful island of Siargao. She is a true hero in many ways, and her story needs to be shared.

Interview by Izzy Ashton shots


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