Director Bijan Sheibani on making a short film about motherhood and mental illness
The director behind theatre’s The Arrival, Barber Shop Chronicles and The Brothers Size talks about writing and directing a viscerally powerful short film. By Nicole Davis.
Bijan Sheibani, a writer and director of theatre and film — perhaps best known for directing Dance Nation by Clare Barron for the Almeida, The Brothers Size by Tarell McCraney for the Young Vic, Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams for the National Theatre and most recently his debut play The Arrival for the Bush Theatre — is not interested in making anything with an easy answer.
We’re talking over Zoom about his short film Morning Song, which he created with support from Film4 and is currently available to watch on All4, and centres on a young woman’s experience of motherhood and mental illness. “My ideas can start quite vague and as something that I’m figuring out or thinking about. The thing that often sustains my interest when I’m trying to write is the thing that I don’t get or understand. It can be quite frustrating as a process, but ultimately that’s what drives me to revisit it. I think if an idea is really good, you’ll never figure it out. And that’s why it needs to be turned into a piece of art, so that everybody can look at it together and wonder.”
Sheibani’s personal connection to the material is evident, his mother having had the illness shortly after he was born. To bring his experience into a contemporary context, he “started researching and meeting people” who had been affected by Postpartum Psychosis through the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP for short), imbuing the script with remarkable sensitivity and intimacy.
I’m intrigued as to where you even begin with distilling an idea as complex and misunderstood as mental illness into something with a 15 minute running time. “The short form is so challenging because you want it to have weight but not heaviness. I visited a hospital in Birmingham and coming away after that, I felt like that was the location for the film.” Most importantly for Sheibani, the hospital could be a symbol for hope and positivity, a starting point for this young woman’s journey to recovery.
“I’d done so many different drafts and attempts at telling this story” and then the version that went on to become Morning Song was actually a “swift” process, Sheibani admits abashedly, (“I hate it when people say they wrote it really quickly, it’s so not useful when I’m trying to write something”), as if he’d been incubating the idea for so long it just had to come to out.
The story unravels onscreen with the same kind of visceral intent. There is a thrilling uncertainty and disorientation to the opening sequence which arose from Sheibani trying to get “into this young woman’s head and her feeling paranoid and vulnerable and unable to trust the people closest to her.”
It plays like a heist movie, which is retrospectively fitting when you consider that this young woman’s mind has been hijacked. “I wasn’t trying to make it purposefully suspenseful”, Sheibani muses, but the fact the audience doesn’t know who the man driving the car is, or why the woman in passenger seat hatches a plan to make a run for it, situates us in a similarly confused headspace. Before we even discover that she’s returning to a mother and baby unit for women with postpartum psychosis, our thinking has aligned with hers. The brief moment of freedom she experiences as she bolts from the car is a freedom we very much want for her.
The visual language for Morning Song is something that transpired after several conversations with his cinematographer Molly Manning Walker (who also shot another short film available on All4: Pompeii). Sheibani was inspired by directors like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Michael Haneke. “The way in which Ramsay and Arnold can evoke such tenderness and truth and the way that a character’s psychology is worn on their body is particularly incredible.”
“There’s a coldness there and a forensic eye that I find really compelling”, Sheibani says of Austrian director Haneke, known for provocative films such as Funny Games, Hidden and The White Ribbon. “I love the way he holds back information and is really careful about what he keeps offscreen. That’s something that’s very much in the language of theatre. It’s as much about what you’re imagining is happening, either offscreen or offstage.”
It provides the perfect segue to ask Sheibani how his extensive theatrical experience translated to directing a film. Did it feel like a natural step? “I have found it pretty comfortable. Having worked with lots of great playwrights my understanding of story structure and narrative lends itself really well to filmmaking. Likewise the experience that I’ve had with actors. In theatre you get a lot of time to rehearse, so you really come to understand what it means to direct an actor and what they find useful, or not.”
“The way you tell stories through image is completely different to the way you tell stories in theatre. Just the fact you can do a massive close-up in film opens up a completely different way of telling a story. This film was very much about trying to get as close to someone’s experience as possible.”
That experience is portrayed brilliantly by Scarlett Brookes, an actress whose credits include Othello and The Merchant of Venice at the RSC, as well as roles in TV series such as Kiri and Misfits. Sheibani sent her the research he’d done on postpartum psychosis and they talked through the script, but was equally in awe of “the speed at which she was able to take herself to these places”, ranging from determination, to confusion, to despair, to curiosity and beyond.
“I was keen for Scarlett to have freedom,” Sheibani continues. “That’s one of things I’ve tried to develop through my theatre work: you give the actor’s enough structure and enough of a framework, but ultimately you want them to have total freedom within that, because it’s only then that they can take the audience somewhere special.”
“The underbelly and the unconscious part is what I’m most interested in, finding a way of talking about the deeper and darker stuff and putting that out there. That’s what people like Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay do so well.”
It feels almost cruel to ask Sheibani what he hopes audiences might take away from Morning Song, given how much he’s iterated his resistance to neat resolution or easily packaged answers. I reframe it to ask what he himself has gotten from the experience.
“I guess something about keeping going. It can be easy to tell yourself that your weird idea is insignificant, so I hope a boldness and bravery is what I can take from it, and continue to apply to my work.”
I suspect Sheibani has answered both questions at once. The concept of perseverance through any mental health experience, however shameful or lonely it might feel, is exactly what Morning Song gets to the heart of.
“I hope that people will feel like they know a little bit more about what it’s like to go through it.”
Action on Postpartum Psychosis is a national charity to support women and families affected by Postpartum Psychosis. Their workshops, conferences and arts events enable women to articulate their experience of PP and develop information to help other women and families. They facilitate ground-breaking research into the causes of PP at the universities of Birmingham and Cardiff and produce ‘Insider Guides’ and other expert literature to support affected families and health professionals caring for those with PP.