Filmmaker Files: Episode 1 - Featuring Rania Attieh / by Casey Kohlberg

Welcome to honto88’s first installment of the Filmmaker Files, where we interview filmmakers we love. Launching today, which coincidentally happens to be International Women’s Day... Not that we planned that, or anything.

Meet RANIA ATTIEH whose film Initials SG will be premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in the US Narrative Competition.

Rania, outside her home in Brooklyn, NY Photo by Rachel Kessler

Rania, outside her home in Brooklyn, NY
Photo by Rachel Kessler

Together with her partner Daniel Garcia, Rania has co- written, co-directed and produced four feature films to date. She was the winner of 2015 Independent Spirit Award “Someone to watch”, and was also a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow and 2012 U.S. Rockefeller Fellow in Film.

Rania and Daniel’s films have screened at various film festivals around the world, from Sundance, Venice and Berlin, as well as in many prestigious museums, such as the MoMA and Tate. Rania holds an MFA in film directing from the City College of New York. She has been on the jury member of many global festivals and prestigious film grants, and currently teaches directing at Columbia University. Rania hails from Tripoli, Lebanon, and lives and works in Brooklyn.

Rania, pictured with her daughter Emi, 2 Photo by Rachel Kessler

Rania, pictured with her daughter Emi, 2
Photo by Rachel Kessler

At honto88 we focus on making brave stuff that makes you stop, think, and look again. Describe a moment in your career when you felt the most brave.

Rania Attieh: I don’t know if I have a specific moment when I felt brave. I feel brave all the time. I always am making a movie within specific restrictions –– budget restrictions, language restrictions, location restrictions, other things that are new to me. So I feel like I’m always in a risky situation of some kind.

What is something you’d tell yourself when you were first starting out?

RA: I always said, I will be one who ends up making it in this business. The majority of people won’t and if there’s one percent that can make it, I’m going to be a part of that. I have something to offer –– everyone does, in some way. You know when you’re good at something.

In one’s artistic life, there are some very long seconds or moments, that make us stop. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one?

RA: When I met Daniel, that was a moment when something shifted. I had always wanted to do something creative, and when I was in undergrad, I met Daniel in a drawing class. I had read a short story he had written, and I realized that I could make that story into a film. With him. That was the day I realized that this is someone I could collaborate with for the rest of my life.

Emi and Rania share a mother-daughter moment.  Photo by Rachel Kessler

Emi and Rania share a mother-daughter moment.
Photo by Rachel Kessler

One of your more recent collaborations can be celebrated as Emi, your vibrant two-year-old daughter.

RA: True. But we have had many "kids" before. Each film takes a toll on you, like becoming a new parent. You get postpartum after a movie, too. You get down, you want to move on to the next thing, but you can't. You have this moment of limbo and similar fears as when you are having a baby. As a parent now, and with Emi sleeping next to me, I think “I don’t know how good I’ll be as a parent” –– those are the same feelings I have when I finish a film.

Is there a moment from one of your earlier films that is special to both you and Daniel?

RA: We had met this charlatan-like-character while we were still in college and he told us that he was making a movie on the border of Mexico and Texas. Daniel invited me along for the ride and said that if we wanted to be filmmakers, we should really get on set. This guy claimed to be the Son of God, and even said that there were demons who wanted to stop the movie. He spent three months taking money from everyone in the town and told people that he worked for Columbia Pictures and would put their teenage kids in the movie. This was the biggest, craziest experience of our lives in the movie business and it really marked us. Ultimately the set was shut down, and the FBI got involved and confiscated everything… except the camera that was left behind, we used make our first short. Years later, we ended up making a movie about this very story called Recommended by Enrique.

Now, on reflection. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?  

RA: It was never a film. It was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I read it and I kept thinking, what a wonderful adventure, what a wonderful thing to make into a movie. When I was still in Lebanon, I wrote Coelho a letter and asked to adapt it. He actually replied and we started a correspondence. I eventually heard that Warner Brothers had bought the rights and that Madonna wanted to be in it, but the movie was never made. I didn’t really watch a lot of movies until after I went to graduate school for film. The first film I ever saw in a cinema was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I used to go to the cinema to meet boys, not to watch films really.

Rania in her lobby in Brooklyn, NY Photo by Rachel Kessler

Rania in her lobby in Brooklyn, NY
Photo by Rachel Kessler

What was a recent film, video or series that you had a visceral response to ?

RA: I really loved Roma. I thought it was cinematically impressive. The long takes, the choreography, the working with non-actors…. It’s just really amazing what he pulled off. The movie that is most influential to me is Attenburg by Athina Tsangari.

What about the film spoke to you ?

RA: Experimentation. I always look for things that surprise me in films, in form or in content. Seeing that someone took a risk, and if it is executed well, that exciting to me.  

On the future. What is next for you?

RA: We’re going to be directing some episodes for a TV series soon, which will be our first foray into television. We’re also writing our new film that’s set here in NYC –– we are ready to make another one.

What keeps you going?

RA: Getting a great idea for a new project,  Or remembering that I have a kid to send to school soon.

What does the world need now?

RA: I can't speak to what the world needs now. It's a broad question. But if you mean the world of filmmaking specifically, I am not sure I have a satisfactory answer for you. We make the films that reflect our own personal phases, preoccupations, critical social observations, and timely fascinations. So I can’t speak to what a film can do politically until you catch me in the phase when we are in the political mood and we make a political film.

Rania in Brooklyn, NY Photo by Rachel Kessler

Rania in Brooklyn, NY
Photo by Rachel Kessler

8 is an important number for us. What are 8 film scenes or moments you love or can’t forget.

  • The suicide scene in Buffalo 66, with Vincent Gallo

  • The opening scene of Godard’s Contempt

  • A scene n Xavier Dolan’s Mommy where the aspect ratio opens up.

  • Any long take scenes from any movie by Ruben Ostlund (The Square)

  • I love the scenes with older couples being interviewed in Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally

  • The scene in Vera Chytilova’s Daisies where the girls get up to trouble at the bar and get kicked out

  • The end scene in the pool of Harmony Korine’s Gummo

  • And finally, the last scene of Jane Campion’s The Piano


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Photography by Rachel Kessler
Edited by Shruti Ganguly