Award-winning Canadian-Pakistani writer, director and producer and CFC alum Zarrar Kahn is heading to Cannes Film Festival this month for the world premiere of his directorial debut, In Flames. Directed by Zarrar and executive produced by fellow alum Shant Joshi of Fae Pictures, In Flames will play in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight section. The film also includes an original score by Slaight Music alum Kalaisan Kalaichelvan and editing by Craig Scorgie. In Flames marks the first horror film from the South Asian subcontinent to premiere on the Croisette. The film follows the aftermath of the death of a family patriarch, where a mother and daughter’s precarious existence is ripped apart, and they are left to find strength within one another in order to survive the malevolent forces that threaten them.
Zarrar, who is an alum of the 2021 Norman Jewison Film Program, is quickly making a name for himself for his unique storytelling and international presence. His work has screened at over 70 film festivals worldwide, including TIFF, Locarno, BFI London, and now Cannes, where In Flames will premiere on May 19, 2023.
We caught up with Zarrar to discuss his upcoming appearance at Cannes and what’s next for the multitalented creator. Read on in the spotlight below.
Your debut feature In Flames is set to have its world premiere at Cannes Director’s Fortnight this month. Congratulations! Can you tell us about the inspiration and genesis of this film?
In 2018, I made a short film titled Dia. The film spoke about a family, living in Karachi, dealing with loss and secret grief. The film screened at Locarno, and was my first time travelling with a film overseas to watch it in a cinema. I remember watching it on the huge screen, and thinking that I wanted to return to this world, that I had barely scratched the surface of what could be explored. In the interim years, I wrote drafts of what would become In Flames, and kept making short films, honing my abilities as a storyteller. I met Anam Abbas, another Canadian-Pakistani producer, who came on board the film and together we attended the Berlinale Talent Project Market in 2020 – in hopes of raising financing. In Berlin, we met Shant Joshi of Fae Pictures, who urged us to apply to Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program. Shant became a friend and later an Executive Producer on the film. We got our financing during the first year of the pandemic – and it felt like a miracle. I remember not quite believing it. We shot the film nearly a year later, in mid-2022, and completed it a few months ago. It’s been about 6 years. And now Cannes – something I still haven’t wrapped my head around.
Directors’ Fortnight is known for showcasing innovative, daring and original films. How would you describe In Flames? What can viewers expect from this story and its characters?
I would describe In Flames as a love story, a horror, a psychological family drama. I don’t like neatly fitting into the confines of cinema, and so I have borrowed from a few genres in creating the film. What excites me about contemporary cinema is how, for the first time in history, we have a diversity of voices behind the camera – who are using genre to tell new stories, in inventive and exciting ways. I feel In Flames continues that tradition. To be at Directors’ Fortnight is … just incredible. DF [Directors’ Fortnight] has discovered and championed so many of the filmmakers who inspire my own work – Bertolucci, Spike Lee, Alice Rohrwacher and Fassbinder. It’s surreal to be playing here.
Why was it important to you to tell this story?
I was born and spent most of my formative years in Karachi. I wanted to tell a story that reflected the city I know, with all the horror and joy and complexity.
We noticed that you collaborated with fellow CFC alumni on In Flames, like executive producer Shanti Joshi, editor Craig Scorgie, and composer Kalaisan Kalaichelvan. How did this collaboration come to be and what is it like working alongside fellow CFC talent?
As I had mentioned, I met Shant at Berlin. He also suggested I apply for the CFC Directors’ Lab, and even put forward my recommendation! Shant has been hugely instrumental in bringing In Flames to life, and helping me realize that there is space for stories like mine in the Canadian landscape. I remain in awe of the work he is doing with his production company, Fae Pictures.
For the CFC, I was part of the pandemic year – and so our cohort mostly met virtually. Despite the strangeness of only speaking through screens, I immediately was drawn to Craig and Kalaisan’s work. Craig is one of the kindest people I have met, and also straight up hilarious. After returning to Toronto, we met at Bellwoods – he was one of the first people I met in person after getting back to the city – and we just told jokes and laughed for like an hour. He’s also an incredibly intelligent editor and hugely empathetic. I normally edit my own work, so this was my first time letting someone into my process. Through the CFC, he edited a short film project of mine – and it gave me insight into what it would be like to have come on board my feature. Once I was done with the program, I knew having him on board would elevate the film – and I was so happy when he agreed. His expertise of working on big budget features, his passion for cinema (you should follow him on Letterboxd!) and his overall kindness and willingness to go along with my strange process – changed the nature of what In Flames could be.
I was also so happy to meet Kalaisan through the CFC. Despite us never working together through the program (even though I tried my best to land him), I knew he was the composer I wanted to bring onto my feature. We both share a passion for auteur cinema, and Kalaisan is a bigger film nerd than me! His wry sense of humour, shared passion for South Asian instrumentation and love of cinema made him the natural choice for composer for In Flames. After giving him the script, I asked him to compose a piece that would speak to the film that I could use during my rehearsals. The piece he scored was incredible – and helped my performers understand the tone of the film. I am so grateful to have had the chance to work with Kalaisan.
You are an alum the Norman Jewison Film Program Directors’ Lab. Can you speak to your experience at the CFC and what your biggest takeaway(s) are from your residency?
The lab program empowered me to see myself in the context of a larger Canadian industry – to feel like you are a part of something. Working in independent cinema, you are often so isolated and feel like you are doing it alone. Attending the CFC – it felt like I had finally found my people – the people I know I would want to keep creating art with for the rest of my career. The CFC is so fantastic at curating and cultivating talent – and I’m grateful to them for championing In Flames from an early stage [through the CFC/Netflix Calling Card Accelerator]. It was also through their former associate program director, Erin Burke, that we landed our sales agent, XYZ Films.
In Flames received support through the Netflix/CFC Global Project and the CFC/Slaight Family Canadian Music Fund, can you share if/how the CFC helped advance opportunities to help you make your film?
I remember getting an email from Kathryn Emslie, Executive Lead of Programs at the CFC, telling me that we were eligible for both funds – and man, I was over the moon! We’ve been penny-pinching all through creating the film, and the funds that we were able to get through this program allowed us to finish the film without making any sacrifices to the creative vision. In Flames wouldn’t have happened, and wouldn’t be at Cannes without the incredible support of the CFC.
Can you walk us through your creative approach to storytelling?
I usually start from a theme that I’m interested in exploring. That’s followed by doing research, and speaking to people who live in the world of the story that I’m interested in telling. In my experience, real life is often wilder than fiction. After spending months researching, I’ll start to write my first draft … then my second … then often a page one rewrite. When I have the script ready, I’ll start the laborious process of putting the team together and figuring out how we will make the film. I like being involved in all the processes of creating the film – like so many of my inspirations (Cuaron, Ray, Almodovar). I feel like it allows you greater creative freedom, when you know the budget – you know how far you can stretch it. I’ve found great creativity in limitations – and pushing their boundaries to breaking point.
What kind of stories do you want to tell and why? What’s one story you’d love to tell in the future?
I like playing within the confines of genre. Through my shorts, I made a Rock n Roll political musical, a thriller and a coming-of-age. It’s exciting to take what has been done, and subvert the expectations of your audience. I love stories that keep you guessing.
What are you most looking forward to at Cannes?
Watching the film with hundreds of people in the cinema. I cannot wait. I hope they either hate it or like it. There is nothing worse than ambivalence. I’ll take booing or cheering over someone saying, “That was nice.”
What’s next for you?
I lived through the climate change induced floods of Karachi a few years ago, and so I am developing a project about that – but in the landscape of a Canadian Drama school. It is a more ambitious project, an ensemble cast and stays within the territory of blended genre. I’m excited to work with a bigger palette.
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