A conversation with Amen Jafri, award-winning Ottawa-based documentary filmmaker
by Nickie Shobeiry
Amen Jafri is on a decidedly upward trajectory.
After launching her creative career with the Ottawa-based documentary, ‘The City That Fun Forgot?’, Amen went on to create the acclaimed web series ‘The Secret Lives of Public Servants’—for which she recently won an International Academy of Web Television Award for Best Directing, Non-Fiction.
She’s also a promotional consultant and a fellow at the esteemed Hot Docs Doc Accelerator Emerging Filmmaker Lab.
More recently, this talented filmmaker has also directed upcoming TV docu-series, ‘Creatorland’. As the host of the series, I had the pleasure of working with Amen and experienced her strong creative vision, her unique ability to find seemingly small details that go on to make huge differences—and, perhaps most significantly, her deep commitment to telling true stories.
Below, I speak with Amen about her life and career.
NICKIE SHOBEIRY How did you start your filmmaking career?AMEN JAFRI For the longest time I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I'd always been creative, but the school system can very easily stifle that sort of thing. I swore off doing anything creative because I resented the idea of being graded on it.
My parents are immigrants from Pakistan. My dad always said to us that you can be whatever you want to be, just be the best at it, and I really took that to heart. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and of course that took all the joy out of it. I finished school, did the whole 9-to-5 thing. I would write in my notebook, "I want to be creative,” but I had no idea how.
I get kind of obsessive if there's a problem I'm trying to solve; I was reading a lot of career books. One book asked, "When you walk into a bookstore, (which section) do you go to?" I thought, well, one of the places I'm attracted to is the arts section—so what, isn’t that just a frivolity?
And then one day it clicked. I always picked up the arts section of the newspaper, the comics, fashion. Film has also always been something I've loved. I used to watch a lot of television growing up and there's a reason for that. It's not just that I was wasting my time.
NS How did you reach the decision to leave the public service? It must have been difficult.AJ I got a job offer that was in broadcasting that was permanent, 9-to-5 and in Ottawa. So it was funny because I went from the comfort of the public service to that same secure feeling, to a certain extent. I’m not a huge risk taker; it was the perfect situation.
NS What happened in broadcasting?AJ The job was great. I really learned a lot behind the scenes, but again I had that same feeling: my job wasn’t creative. Because it had just been so many years of this struggle, I got to a point where I was constantly feeling physically sick at work. My last day at my job, my manager gave me my goodbye lunch, and I had to keep running to the bathroom because I was just so nauseous. And then after I left, I didn't feel that way any more. A weight had been lifted.
NS What was the reaction from loved ones when you left?AJ Trevor, my husband, was supportive, giving me techniques for managing stress. But then the day I came home and said, "I have to leave the job,” he said, "That's okay. If that's what you have to do, then we'll figure it out."
My parents didn’t understand. I think every parent wants their child to be in a stable situation, so they were really worried about me and what I was going to do next. Especially when you come from an immigrant family, it's not something that generation is used to because they had to financially struggle, coming here. It was the least of their priorities to think, “Well, what do I really want with my life?”
NS How has coming from an immigrant family impacted your work?AJ My parents were pretty good; they saw that I was really interested in drawing and art when I was a kid and they put me in classes, but it was always a subtext to getting an education. I think that's very much a mentality that a lot of children of immigrant parents go to, because your parents really push you to do really well in school. And so take that same concept, apply it to creativity, combine it with my own personality—it meant that I was a late bloomer.
NS What a journey! And now you’re here, winning an award for your web series, The Secret Lives of Public Servants. Why do you think it resonated so much with audiences?AJ A lot of people relate to the idea of your day job not defining who you are as a person. In North America, everything is so focused on what you do for a living. The Secret Lives of Public Servants is looking at other human beings, and taking away that mask, that public persona.
NS What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your craft?AJ As soon as you start actually filming, you're taking away the original idea in your head. It’s about learning to be okay with that. You know it's going to become something else, and that thing will be wonderful in and of itself, but you don't know what it is.
Sometimes there are unexpected beautiful moments. With The Secret Lives of Public Servants, we were at Fan Expo and wanted to film our subject, (cosplayer) Richard Wong interacting with children. Suddenly, these two little girls run up to him on their own and their emotion and excitement in that moment was so genuine. It really helped define his episode.
KS What was your experience like with the docu-series, Creatorland?AJ It was such an honor that (creator and producer) Zainab Muse asked me to direct. To be given that opportunity is huge, because I'd never done anything in broadcast before. I had never done anything in long form. I had never done anything as a television series. I learned so much along the way; everybody came to the table with different experiences.
NS What kind of stories do you find yourself drawn to?AJ A friend pointed out that a lot of my topics tend to be related to outsiders or those who are misunderstood and misrepresented. I do often feel that way. It's sort of been a common theme in my life; I'm never quite comfortable being myself in most places. I'm very aware of social relationships, other people, their personalities and their reactions. I'm always trying to negotiate that.
NS What’s your next project, ‘That’s Not My Name’, about?AJ Having an unusual name, I often get others going, "Oh, really? That's your name?” or just getting it wrong. It’s, again, that feeling of never quite fitting in, and it's so clearly defined me and my identity.
I started researching and I found a woman who lives in Toronto and also has an unusual name. She is a television writer and self-anointed ‘name therapist’ who is going to be working on her next writing project this fall, where she would be the showrunner on a television series. For the documentary, we would be a fly on the wall in the TV writers' room where they discuss the characters’ names. That’s a really important piece of the puzzle of who gets cast, and the kind of diversity that we eventually see on screen.
I like the idea of taking her personal story, and tying it into a public conversation that we're having right now.
NS You’re a promotional consultant too. Why do artists struggle to self-promote?AJ Part of the reason is that you're a creator, and you want your art to speak for itself. (But also,) as women, society reacts especially differently to us if we’re loud about ourselves. There’s a tendency to hold back.
NS What’s it like being a woman in the film industry?AJ It's hard. I’m always combating that negative voice saying, "You're not that great, you still have so much to accomplish. How can you talk about yourself as a filmmaker?" It never quiets. I never felt so aware of being a woman until I started getting into filmmaking. All the guys on set aren’t wearing makeup, obviously, and they're in their sweats. I can't wear something that I would wear to an office — you want to be comfortable, too—but there’s this chatter in my head, thinking, "Is it weird if I wear lipstick? Am I going to be taken less seriously?" Or even noticing how high the tone of my voice is.
The equipment's very heavy on set, and a lot of the guys will often say, "Oh, I can get that. Don't worry about it." They're trying to be helpful in the way that our culture expects men to behave, but I don't like that. I can't help but think, “Well, I'm a woman, that's why they're saying that.” On a set, I'm going to carry the equipment because I'm part of the team.
Also, when we’re out shooting, people will assume I’m not the director. It makes it challenging. I have to remind yourself, "I'm worthy, I'm allowed to be in this position, I am the director." I’m constantly having to remind myself that I have an important role to play. I think it's just because there aren't as many women usually around on film crews.
NS That’s incredibly difficult. What’s the best advice you’ve gotten so far?AJ Though I often still doubt myself, I realize I have very strong instincts and that I need to listen to them. I’m realizing it now more than ever.
Nickie Shobeiry is a writer and TV Host. As second-gen British-Iranian, Nickie hosts Creatorland, a documentary series following the lives of immigrant entrepreneurs in Ottawa. Nickie also works with Synapcity, local non-profit promoting civic engagement.