Tracing Footprints On Water
London based director Nathalia Syam talks about her award winning debut film
Nathalia Syam is the London-based director of feature film ‘Footprints On Water’. She won the Best Debut award at New York Indian Film festival and the best award for direction, celebrating stories theme at UKAFF. Between the British and Indian film industries, she has experience working as an associate director/ 1st AD and has broadcast credits for her previous short-films and commercials.
She is also a Film Practitioner at a Film School in London. As a director-writer duo, with her sister Neetha Syam, their previous short film, Lehenga, was nominated for the 'Best of British' award at the BAFTA qualifying 'Iris Prize' Award in Cardiff.
‘Footprints on Water’ is an English language film centered on the everyday anxiety, tension and the constant threat to their existence and identity faced by illegal Indian and other Asian immigrants in the United Kingdom, shot entirely during the lockdown. I chose this film over the others because (a) it explores the truly challenging subject of the victimisation, oppression and exploitation of Asian illegal immigrants. (b) It is based on the observed experiences of the director and her sister who are legal immigrants into UK and are now British citizens but were witness to the struggles and pains of illegal immigrants themselves. (c) The film is a powerful statement on identity and oppression. (d) Technically too, it is very good as the crew had to shoot the film in extremely limiting circumstances during the pandemic and the lockdown and (e) the acting by the father-daughter pair is outstanding as is the work of the other actors many of who are amateurs in cinema.
Why the intriguing title ‘Footprints on Water’?
‘Footprints on Water’ is based on the lives of undocumented migrants living in the United Kingdom. We were intrigued to understand the community of people who don't have a choice but to stay invisible. Hence the title footprints on water, representing the population that has to stay under the radar and not leave any footprints behind.
You said you were inspired by a short story penned by your sister. Is the film based on real experiences?
My sister, Neetha Syam, is the writer of this film and she won the Cinestaan award in 2019 for this script. As immigrants of Indian origin who moved to UK at a young age, I was 10 when we moved, we were intrigued by the migrant community in one of the most Asian dominated parts of London and this got us thinking, what would happen if an undocumented migrant went missing and if such a situation did arise, how they would deal with it while staying invisible. Although the film is not based on a real story, it is a collaboration of numerous stories that we brought up amidst.
Where in UK was the film shot?
This film was shot in Birmingham in the UK. We started filming for ‘Footprints On Water’ in December 2020, bang in the middle of the pandemic. We followed rules set out by the BFI on social distancing etc. I live in London and was brought up here (much of the story is inspirations from what i have seen around me growing up) and as I have been working with the British industry as an AD, I was familiar with how to shoot in the UK and that helped with navigating the scene. Our producer, Mohaan Naadar at the TPHQ was very helpful in getting through tough situations which helped us complete filming successfully.
The family appears to be educated, how did they get trapped in this terrible experience?
Although the family appears educated, we wanted to look into the group of people who come out of desperate measures in hope for a better future for a better life and when in such situations, they may not have the mind space to fully research the process through. In our research we had come across numerous people who had come from India as teachers/professionals who then ended up having to work for hourly wages until they could find their feet and move on.
Where did you organise the funding from and how much?
This film is produced by Mohaan Naadar at the production headquarters UK. This film was self-funded by the producer himself. The budgets and figures can be discussed with the production.
How did you decide on the cast?
I was a big fan of Adil Hussain and when I found out that he was shooting for a film in the UK, I reached out to my producer. He set up a meeting with Adil which went well and as soon as Adil read the script, in three months we started shooting. With Nimisha Sajayan, I reached out to her on Instagram and narrated the story to her which she loved so she came on board soon after that.
With Antonio and Lena, we reached out to their agents and narrated the story to them and that is how they came on board. Regarding the other cast, we had run a couple of auditions both in London and Birmingham so we can get a good mix of people including actors who are aspiring and experienced. This allowed us to scout out to talent that we otherwise wouldn't have known of.
What brief did you give to your actors, as this is your debut film?
As a director, I have always been a fan of realism and the idea of depicting reality on screen. I was very keen to replicate reality and as a result the process with the actors was truly collaborative. We went with what we felt seemed most organic for the scene and stayed away from any exaggerations or forced intent to create melodrama. I was fortunate to have such a stellar cast who brought on brilliant performances which made it easier for the film to hold true to its story.
What brief did you give to your music director?
We had a fabulous music director from Finland named Tuomas Kantelinen. I am a huge fan of music that's minimalist that forms a part of the scene rather than something that stands out separately. Tuomas was wonderful in understanding exactly what we needed for the film and then creating scores that uplifted the scenes. Resul pookutty was our sound designer and together with music, we tried to bring out a real sense of the realm through sound and music.
How long did it take from concept to censor board?
Neetha started working on the script around six years ago and she was very clear that she wanted to conduct a whole lot of research before getting into writing. Since then we have had our first draft completed around four years ago where she won the Cinestaan award for her script.
Soon after, we found our Producer and started filming in December 2020 completed in May 2021 mainly because we had to wait a short while between UK and Kerala Sched due to the pandemic travel issues. We finished post production earlier this year and had our world premiere with NYIFF on the 13th of May.
What problems did you face with the shoot during the pandemic?
Some compromises had to be made to ensure we could continue filming through the pandemic. Especially when it came to locations and the availability of supporting cast, we had to be quick on our feet and find backups as the shoot progressed. Certain locations were closed down due to the pandemic and other locations were not being willing enough to allow us in to shoot.
We also had a few delays in terms of starting postproduction and various other works as we had to wait some parts of the pandemic out. Overall, with the help of production and the HODs who were so understanding, we were able to get through.
Are you happy with the final product?
After having the world premiere in New York followed by the UK premier, I was overwhelmed with the response we received. Although the story is set in the UK and speaks of an undocumented migrant in the UK, it still struck a strong chord with the audience in New York. This has made us believe that the story we have is something that can cater to a global palette.
In the UK we had a sold-out screening and at the end credits we were received by the warmest standing ovation, something none of us were expecting. There were people in the audience members who were in tears as the story resonated with many people. As a debut director I am just incredibly grateful that this film got made and it's completed and premiered.
To answer the question whether I'm happy with the final product or not, I would say definitely yes mainly because I believe the story needed telling and now there is something out there that discusses the plight of undocumented migrants in the UK.
If given the chance to change something, what would you have picked?
I believe every decision I made for the film was a result of a lot of collaborative effort by many of us together, so with that in mind I believe the magic of creating this film was unique and therefore I cannot think of anything I would change but instead feel extremely grateful that this film is made and will soon be there for the world to see. All my learnings from my debut project will always remain close to me and will help me grow professionally and as a person in future.
How do you define cinema?
Cinema for me has always been a medium that has allowed me the opportunity to understand, experience and learn from the various scenarios that's going around in the world. Being a true fan of Nouveau realism and the idea of depicting reality on screen, I have always aspired to include elements that one can connect to easily. I believe cinema has the power to entertain, inform, educate and inspire audiences around the world and therefore to me cinema is the ultimate artistic medium that can encapsulate the present for the future.
Name five directors whose works inspire you, and why?
My top five favourite directors ever are Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali), Francois Truffaut (400 Blows), Walter Salles (Central Station), Ashgar Farhadi (A Separation) and Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding). I feel all their works have something magical that depicts reality and true emotions in the purest form possible. I have often felt the lines between my reality versus the screen's reality fade.