Salma Azzam on the Titanic, Leonardo Di Caprio and the power of filmmaking

The 24-year-old Syrian filmmaker, who has a clutch of titles to her credit, tells Tessy Koshy why she enjoyed making her latest movie Where is Lucy?, which boasts a predominantly female cast and crew and was shot entirely in Dubai

On the sets of her upcoming film, Where is Lucy?, shot entirely in Dubai, Salma Azzam felt a strong wave of feminine energy every day. As the director of the movie starring a young actress, with a predominantly female cast and crew, she agrees it was but obvious that girl power was omnipresent. "When I started my filmmaking career, it was rare to find many women on sets. So, this was a beautiful coincidence and we were very fortunate. Women, I feel are so great at problem-solving that it ended up being a very supportive atmosphere," Salma tells Friday.

At 24, the young Syrian filmmaker, with a slew of acclaimed titles to her credit, Salma is no less a role model for aspiring women filmmakers. In 2016, at the age of 18, she wrote, edited and directed Life’s Notes, that earned her a place in the Short Film Corner, at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. A year later, her next directorial venture, How We Lost What We Found, also made it to the Short Film Corner at Cannes. Her latest film, Where is Lucy?, starring 11-year-old Dubai student, Eva Petersson, has already been submitted to several international film festivals. "Where is Lucy? is all about personal growth and believing in oneself. It is a Christmas story with a strong central female character that explores themes of love, loss, magic realism and spirituality," reveals Salma. The 21-minute film was shot in Dubai over two weeks and is slated for a premiere in the UAE in December.

Addressing a bigger audience

Entering the Cannes film festival was a turning point in her life, says Salma. "It was a new beginning for me. The vibrant atmosphere of the festival brought new opportunities and proved to be a great learning ground." The Cannes Short Film Corner allows creators of short films to showcase their work to a big audience, network and pitch for future projects.

Tall, slender, doe-eyed with a cascade of black hair fanning her attractive face, Salma could easily have been in front of the camera. So, why don’t we see her acting in lead roles? "Ironically, I feel awkward facing the camera. I am more intrigued by the behind-the-scenes process of movie making," is her candid answer.

Starting off early at the age of 17, over the years Salma worked through various cinematic departments and gained experience in scriptwriting, production, photography and direction. Along with a Bachelor’s degree in filmmaking from the School of Audio Engineering (SAE), Dubai, she has also completed a year-long intensive filmmaking course at the New York Film Academy, Abu Dhabi. "Filmmaking is such a powerful tool," she points out. "There is always a vision that goes behind making each movie come alive, with the ability to send across a loud message to a wide audience."

Born in Washington DC, Salma moved with her family to Damascus, Syria, in her early childhood. Movies, she recollects, became an integral part of her growing-up years.

The magic of movies

"We often had movie nights at home. It was during one such fun night that I saw Titanic and was heartbroken to see that Leonardo Di Caprio dies at the end," she recalls. "So, imagine to my surprise, when I saw him a few days later on the telly all hale and hearty, in another movie. This was baffling for me and you can say, I was hooked for life, intrigued and fascinated by the world of cinema where stories and actors get to relive characters again and again."

From then on young Salma’s mind was propelled to research and study cinema on her own till she gathered the nerve to tell her parents, that filmmaking is what she wants to pursue in the future. "Today, I can safely say that all the experiences I had while working on sets have shaped me as a person: from speaking up for myself, translating my ideas aloud, to dealing with people and enhancing my creativity, I learnt all these life skills along the way."

Friendly and easy-going, Salma, her colleagues say, can be quite a stickler for discipline on shoots. Eva, the lead actress of her latest flick, Where is Lucy?, shares that, Salma’s passion for perfection, inspired her tremendously to perform better. "I have several emotional scenes in the movie. Had it not been for Salma’s vision and motivation, I would not have enacted them so well," says Eva.

The young actress, also the host of The Buzz with Eva, a talk show on OSN says, working with Salma has prepared her to take on more challenging and dramatic roles in the future.

When not directing movies, Salma can be found painting, writing poetry, travelling and reading books on psychology. Having lived in different cities, Salma says you can find nuances of her cultural experiences in her work. Besides being a fan of Lebanese actress-director Nadine Labaki, Salma is influenced by people she meets every day. Her dream project has long been brewing in her head. Reluctant to reveal more details, she shares, "It’s that one big movie that I hope to make one day, then I will just chill.

Salma's Filmography

  • Why Me (2018), Director
  • Malak (2018), Director
  • Chasing Stars (2017), Actor, Director
  • How We Lost What We Found (2017), Writer, Director
  • Here (2017), Producer
  • The Shrink (2017), Producer
  • 22 Twenty Two (2017), Assistant Director
  • Better Date Than Never (2017), Director of Photography
  • Life’s Notes (2016), Writer, Director
  • Misled (2016), Producer
  • Remember Me (2016), Assistant Director
  • Sunset Fate (2015), Writer, Director