Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Elham Ehsas Is Helping To Change Our World

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Make and make better. Keep making films even though you might not be very good at it at first. Keep doing it and consistency will make you better.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Elham Ehsas.

Elham Ehsas is a London-based actor and writer known primarily for his controversial roles on both the big and the small screens. He made his acting debut in the acclaimed international hit film The Kite Runner, and has since appeared in numerous films and TV including Brad Pitt’s War Machine, Netflix’s Young Wallander and the final season of ShowTime’s Homeland, as well as performing on stage in the Young Vic, West End and New York runs of the play ‘The Jungle’. Elham continues to challenge himself by tackling complicated characters in both film and television, in addition to writing and developing his own thought-provoking projects.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I was born in Kabul in Afghanistan and emigrated to Europe when I was 10. I remember even in Afghanistan I was always watching people. I would sit outside our family home (in fact, right now I am typing this from the exact same spot in Afghanistan) with a piece of Afghan bread and just watch people walk by and invent stories for everyone. One man would be on his way to close a business deal, another woman had a secret date with an ex-lover, and a boy would by cycling past to see if his cousins had gone to eat Sheer Yakh (Afghan ice cream) without him. This sense of storytelling came with me when I came to Europe, and after having studied law and hated it, I decided to bring some of my stories to life on the small screen. Being a refugee, I have always been pulled in two directions, born in the East but adopted by the West. My two mothers. So, my shorts always had themes of home and identity. My first short film was about an Afghan village girl on a first date in London and that’s how I started to teach myself about story, structure and actually shooting it.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This wasn’t funny at the time but like many things that aren’t, they become funny in hindsight. My latest short film is about a girl who walks into a shop that sells Chadaris, the infamous blue full-body veil that Afghan women used to wear in the 90s. The whole film was about Chadaris. On our first day on set… guess what I forgot to pack in the car. The Chadaris. All 16 of them. It was an hour’s drive to set and as soon as we got there, I realised that the one prop that the entire film is based on is sitting in the corner of my room about 68 miles away. But thanks to my producer Azeem, he raced back and saved the day.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I did a documentary where we were following refugees travelling the migration trail at the peak in 2018 and 2019 when more than a million people migrated to Europe. I was in a refugee camp in Calais called The Jungle interviewing the people there. There was one man who had been away from Afghanistan for 4 years now, stuck in the Jungle and trying to get into England. He has used his initiative to build a bakery right there in the camp where he would make genuine Afghan bread. He said he saved up for a year to buy the specially made oven to bake his bread in.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”

I have always looked to history to learn and the person I have learnt from the most is a Roman Emperor named Marcus Aurelius and that’s a quote from his only book Meditations. He is known as the last of the Good Emperors and the only one who embraced the art of stoicism. I remember reading his book when I was going through a hard time in my life and it really helped me get perspective of myself and the world around me.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

As an Afghan filmmaker, I am deeply committed to sharing stories and perspectives from my country with a wider audience. The recent decrees passed by the Taliban restricting the freedom of Afghan women have particularly motivated me to use my voice and platform to shed light on this important issue.

The inspiration for my new short film Yellow, about an Afghan girl buying her first full-body veil, came to me in May 2022 when the Taliban issued a new mandate requiring all Afghan women to wear the Chadari, the well-known blue burqa that was the dress code for women during the Taliban’s first regime in 1996. This decision had the potential to significantly impact the lives of Afghan women, and I felt a strong desire to explore and bring attention to this through my film.

I made this film to bring awareness to the struggles faced by Afghan women and to inspire change. Through powerful cinematography and compelling storytelling, I hope to ignite a conversation about the ongoing fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

I always knew I had to do something to help my country and the women of Afghanistan. I was sitting watching Afghan news like I always do when I came across the live press Conference passing the decree that women should start wearing the full-body blue veils. This made me realise that there are girls in their 20s who have never worn one and now have to go out and buy this alien object that they have never used before. What if she is buying it from a Talib shopkeeper that’s what inspired my journey to make Yellow.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

As the film is so new and currently doing the festival run, it hasn’t yet directly impacted Afghan women but all the people at the different festivals around the world who have watched our little film have been touched and reinvigorated by the message, and have asked me about how they can help the plight of Afghan women. The main thing is to publicise it so that we don’t forget the people of Afghanistan and hopefully, it can start a dialogue between the Taliban and international communities and open the door to giving women their rights back.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Certainly! Here are three things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support my efforts in bringing awareness to the struggles faced by Afghan women and promoting women’s rights:

  1. Spread the word: Individuals can help by sharing information about my film, “Yellow,” and its message on social media platforms or through word-of-mouth. By raising awareness about the challenges faced by Afghan women and the importance of their rights, you can inspire a broader conversation and mobilize support for the cause.
  2. Support film screenings and discussions: Society can organize screenings of “Yellow” in various venues such as theatres, community centres, universities, or cultural events. Pairing these screenings with panel discussions or Q&A sessions can provide a platform for dialogue and create opportunities for audiences to engage with the issues portrayed in the film. Encouraging open conversations about women’s rights in Afghanistan can help foster understanding and empathy.
  3. Advocate for policy change: Governments can play a crucial role in supporting efforts to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan. Individuals and organizations can reach out to policymakers, lawmakers, and relevant government agencies to advocate for policies that protect and promote women’s rights, both domestically and internationally. This can include diplomatic pressure, humanitarian assistance, and support for initiatives that empower Afghan women economically, socially, and politically.

By taking these actions, individuals, society, and the government can contribute to raising awareness, creating dialogue, and driving meaningful change in the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

5 things I wish someone told me when I first started making films.

  1. Make and make better. Keep making films even though you might not be very good at it at first. Keep doing it and consistency will make you better.
  2. Follow your heart. Write what you know. Things will come easier when you know what you want to say and you will say it better.
  3. Be ready to adapt: No matter how well you plan, things will go wrong. The weather may not cooperate, an actor may not show up, or you may run out of time. Be ready to adapt and find creative solutions to these problems. Being able to think on your feet is a valuable skill in filmmaking.
  4. Don’t forget the importance of sound. Make sure you have a professional sound recordist who can capture great sound. What you see on the screen goes into your eyes and to your head. What you hear goes into your ears and straight to your heart.
  5. Don’t forget your full-body veils when you are making a film about full-body veils.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

You have the power to create a better future.

Every action, no matter how small, can make a difference. By taking steps to positively impact our environment and society, you become part of a larger movement of change. Your actions can inspire others and create a ripple effect, leading to meaningful transformations in the world around you.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

If given the opportunity, I would love to collaborate with Ava DuVernay. She is a talented filmmaker, producer, and advocate for social justice. Her work, such as the documentary “13th” and the TV series “When They See Us,” has shed light on important issues like racial inequality and mass incarceration. I deeply admire her ability to tell powerful and thought-provoking stories that challenge the status quo and inspire change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Move and the universe will move with you” — Afghan proverb

At a time in my life when I didn’t know what I was doing but wanted to embark on a path that seemed impossible to reach, but I started putting one foot in front of the other and just moved and things started to slowly fall into place.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am mainly active on Instagram @zoradzo.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Elham Ehsas Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.