From Griffith to the director's chair
Zahara Moufid was a 2002 graduate from Griffith’s then-Graduate Diploma in Journalism and Media Communications - the programme that is now our MA in Journalism and Media Communications. Griffith has come a long way since, and so has Zahara! She has made a series of documentaries including films about 50 Cent and most recently Shelter Me, a 2018 documentary about the 2016 occupation of Apollo House by housing activists in Dublin. Zahara is also the founder of the Dublin Arabic Film Festival.
We caught up with Zahara during the lockdown to talk about her film career after Griffith.
How did your career develop after you graduated from Griffith?
After completing my postgrad in Griffith, I was lucky to get an opportunity to go to Libya as a freelance journalist /filmmaker to do a piece on Muammar Gaddafi. It turned out to be a major breakthrough for me. I had an agent for acting and she asked me if I wanted to do it and without hesitation, I said yes. So, I just took the opportunity - I didn’t think about dangers or anything. It was an amazing experience.
When I came back to Ireland another friend, who had founded a charity organization, asked me if I would go with them to India to film a documentary about Sri Lankan refugees there, and again without hesitation I said yes. It was for a charity and so of course I wasn’t paid. But it did give me something more valuable: I gained more confidence and experience as a filmmaker.
When I came back to Dublin, I took more courses on filmmaking and I took a job with another charity where I taught filmmaking to underprivileged children in the community.
Following this, I undertook a new role as an assistant to Oscar-nominated Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan, who was then working on the movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in Toronto. I shot behind-the-scenes footage during the making of that film, and to my surprise, that footage was picked up by MTV and Paramount Studios.
Having been broadcast by MTV producers, Paramount offered me a contract to direct a behind-the-scenes documentary about the movie and about Curtis James Jackson III, known professionally as 50 Cent.
For a period of approximately two years, I followed 50 Cent between New York and Los Angeles, recording interviews with him, his family and his friends. That initial project with Sheridan led to a rich and ongoing collaboration, and a contract with his production company Hell's Kitchen where I currently work as a filmmaker, scriptwriter and co-producer.
How is the film industry changing?
The internet has changed the film industry in both good and bad ways. The industry has become very competitive, and it’s also true that it has become easier for filmmakers to get their work seen. And I think it’s a positive thing that there is an increasing demand for movies made by women.
On the negative side, Netflix is globalizing the industry. The future of TV and cinema is in question because of Netflix, and more recently, particularly in the case of cinema, because of COVID-19.
What do you think are the essential skills needed to work in the film industry in Ireland today?
First, you have to learn the craft of filmmaking, from the script, camera, shooting, all the way to editing. Secondly, you need persistence!
You are a cameraperson and a director, what other jobs have you played in the film sector?
I am flexible. For most of the projects I’ve worked on, I have been involved as a scriptwriter, cameraperson, and director.
How did the documentary Shelter Me evolve?
I was called by Jim Sheridan to film the break-in to Apollo House as backup footage in case anything happened. When I arrived and saw the artists and activists involved, I was inspired. They were very passionate about helping the homeless in Dublin.
When I saw the footage after shooting, I knew I wanted to help in some way, too, so I asked Jim if we could do a documentary and he said yes. We started with a 40-minute documentary for TV3, and then decided to do a longer version to highlight the ongoing crisis of homelessness and bringing it to festivals around the world. The trailer can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVkcuPUcz_U
What is the day-to-day work in a film production company like Hell’s Kitchen?
We have lots of meetings. We are flexible in that we can work from anywhere, but we do have deadlines for projects that must be met.
You have worked in a range of projects from Hollywood films to documentaries, how does a filmmaker move between projects like this?
Because I work for a production company, my role is usually quite clear - no matter where the filming takes place. Being able to work with crew from different countries is a definite plus.
Where did the idea for establishing the Dublin Arabic Film Festival come from?
After 9/11, there was so much negative attention on the Arab world; Arabs were seen as one-dimensional, and usually terrorists. I felt a strong need to counter that perception. I approached Jim Sheridan and asked if he would be willing to help me put together a film festival that showcased the powerful work of Arab screenwriters, filmmakers, and actors and celebrate the Arabic culture. He agreed and arranged for Omar Sharif to open our very first DAFF in 2013. The festival was well-received and a great success, which led to more editions, with the last taking place in 2019. (The COVID-19 virus interrupted the 2020 DAFF.)
What is next for you? What other projects are you working?
I am currently working on several projects for Hell’s Kitchen. In addition, my film script Hiba, a fictional drama, is currently in development.
Would you have any advice for media and communications students today?
Learn your craft and continue to learn your craft with continuing education. Also, you must be persistent - which is especially true for women in the film industry.