The Making of Name me Lawand; the immersive documentary about deafness and communication.
31 July 2023
Georgia Korossi; BFI
Director Edward Lovelace tells about his inspiring new film about a young Kurdish boy learning British Sign Language.
Writer-director Edward Lovelace’s new documentary Name Me Lawand tells the story of a deaf Kurdish child of a hearing family. Through immersive visual storytelling and a carefully composed score and sound engineering, it ingeniously recreates what life has been like for young Lawand.
Born in northern Iraq, Lawand couldn’t find the support and education that he needed in his country; his life was exposed to danger because he couldn’t understand and couldn’t be understood by those around him. When he was five years old, his parents fled the country in search of a safer place with Lawand and his older brother Rawa. During their dangerous journey to the UK, while staying in a refugee camp in France, Lawand’s condition became known to a deaf volunteer working in aid. With his help, in 2016 Lawand finally arrived at the Royal School for the Deaf Derby, where he began to learn British Sign Language.
When Lovelace and his crew, including two deaf producers, first met the family, Lawand was seven years old, & was now learning English and sign language at school.
Their film follows Lawand’s learning progress, but also the family’s legal battles after the UK Home Office threatens to deport them.
Known previously for his 2014 film The Possibilities Are Endless, which used similarly immersive techniques to chart indie star Edwyn Collins’ recovery from a devastating stroke, Lovelace sat down with us to talk about the work that went on behind the scenes to bring Lawand’s story to the screen.
How did you first learn about Lawand?
I saw a photo of Lawand and [his eldest brother] Rawa taken in their house in Derby. A deaf photographer had taken this beautiful black-and-white photo of these two kids looking out of their window, both wearing their little football kits. I’ve got three brothers, and in all the photos of us growing up, we’re all wearing different types of football-related gear and I just saw some type of connection.
When I read about the family online, the first thing that came to my brain was, there is this family that had gone through all these events together to get to the UK, but they had no common language. The parents spoke Kurdish verbally, Rawa spoke Kurdish but was learning English and Lawand was wanting to learn British Sign Language. Then myself and my partner, producer Fleur Nieddu, we wondered if the process of making a film might allow the family to understand each other better.
How did the project develop?
When I was reading about Lawand, I thought this kid’s been through something, and clearly he can’t tell his own story yet. If we could make a film that would allow him to have the space to express what he’s been through, I hoped that people’s perception of refugees might change in some small way.
When I was a kid trying to understand what defines a country, I was learning that it’s a border that someone had created years and years before any of us were born. It’s hard to see how this might be relevant now. I’m not doubting people’s love for their own country. That I understand. Whether it’s the house you grew up in or your immediate environment, all those things can make you proud for different reasons at different stages in your life.
My issue is that some of the discrimination that exists throughout the world is because people just see a headline, which usually doesn’t humanise a situation.
At this stage, Lawand had no language. He was seven years old. So understanding or talking about what it is to be a refugee might be quite a big thing to get his head around. But the simplicity of a kid being like, “I grew up somewhere where I couldn’t communicate, and didn’t have opportunities, and now I’ve found somewhere where I might be able to learn the language that is going to let me have freedom”, it felt very poignant and important to me. I thought all the noise around a subject like the refugee crisis would go away.
When did you start thinking about bringing together such an inclusive team for the film’s production, and why is it important to you to tell diverse stories?
I’m very aware that I’m a hearing filmmaker. At the beginning I was like, what is my role in this? The film is going to be about a Kurdish family, and the lead character is communicating in sign [language]. These are two perspectives that I don’t have; I haven’t lived that experience.
Straight away I wanted to make sure that one of our producers, Beyan Taher, who is Kurdish from the same part of northern Iraq as the family, would ensure that the film is authentic to that region’s feeling. Then, I brought in two deaf filmmakers, Sean Chandler and Sam Arnold. Although I was driving us forward to make a visually true and emotive film, I encouraged the team to help guide each step of the process so that the story is entirely representative.
Someone said to me recently, “Oh, Ed, with the Edwyn film & with Lawand, all your protagonists have a difference.” I don’t even think about it like that. I’m just attracted to anyone who has a unique insight that someone else might not have.
If they share that insight, we can learn something new about the world and how to live in it. That is what I’m obsessed with, all of us understanding the world better and having more empathy.
In both this and The Possibilities Are Endless, perception and language are interpreted through expanded visuals of nature and the universe. What’s the connection between these visual ideas?
I love films where a filmmaker isn’t pointing the camera at their subject, but rather they are trying to look at the world from the POV of their subject. The first time I saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), it just blew my mind. That film had put the lens inside the lead character’s experience, and it was a powerful way of understanding what that person was going through.
Later I became obsessed with lots of documentaries like A.J. Schnack’s Kurt Cobain About a Son (2006). Everyone knows who Kurt Cobain is. All we do is look at him. But with that film, which used his voice and the places he had spent time in, I felt like I understood Cobain’s perspective in a new way.
With Edwyn, when he woke up from his stroke, he didn’t remember being famous, and he didn’t want to be thinking about being in the hospital. He seemed obsessed with this landscape in Scotland that he wanted to get to, beyond where he could physically go. Myself and my co-director [James Hall] loved the idea of showing that place; it was our film’s visual weapon, because that was Edwyn’s North Star.
For Lawand, the first time we interviewed him, he said, “I spend a lot of time in my room because I’m in a town that I can’t quite tell is my home yet or not.”
He was very expressive about what he loves, and he talked about big places like the coast and the way the sun looks a certain way in the day. When he had a bad day, he would say, “I don’t exist on this planet. I want to be free in the galaxy somewhere discovering a whole other planet.” Visualising those ideas was key in telling Lawand’s truth.
I think something that connects Edwyn and Lawand is that they are people who dream big, and they see the world in a limitless way, which was inspiring to be around.
What were the challenges during production?
As a documentary filmmaker, you’ve got to be sensitive when you film in intimate spaces, like in a family’s home. Often your film crew can be bigger than the family. So, you are turning a real situation into a film set, and that’s not my way of creating.
I want the real people to forget that you are there, & that comes with trust. I spent so much time with the family without a camera or a crew, just building that relationship.
Then with my cinematographer, Ben Fordesman, we had all these ambitious cinematic ideas about how to film a kid with his family and friends in a way that’s authentic but still cinematic. But turning up and just trying to be open, to catch the magic wherever it falls, that was quite a challenge.
The moment I feel the most proud of during the filmmaking process was when Sam and Sean (our deaf producers) met Lawand and his family. Sam used to play professionally for the Fulham Deaf Football Club, and Lawand, who loves football, said to him, “Wait a minute, Sam. You used to be a professional footballer for the famous Fulham DFC?” And Sam was like, “Yeah, I was captain of the team.” That was just blowing Lawand’s brain, because he started being like, “Oh, it is literally limitless what I can do.”
And for the family, it was the first time that they were meeting deaf adults that were proud of their identities; they started to believe in Lawand’s future.
Can you sign?
I can, yeah. At the beginning of the production, I did an intense course for four hours a week. Before I knew sign, I thought Lawand was quite reserved, but he is so smart and funny; he just likes playing with people.
Sign also has its own version of slang, and quite quickly Lawand was like, “Oh, Ed, all your sign is wrong.”
I was learning with an amazing British Sign Language teacher, Lorraine, who lives in Lewisham, which is right next door to me in south London. So, she signs regional sign to London. Lawand is learning in Derby, and they have their own slightly different interpretations, the same way you might not be able to understand the spoken regional slang.
One of the beautiful things about sign language is that often someone gives you a sign nickname, which says something about your personality and makes you feel welcome. Lawand’s is ‘Why’ because he’s always asking “Why? Why? Why?” Our producer Sean’s sign name is ‘Trumpet’ because he’s a musician, and I was given the sign name ‘Slick’. I was like, “Oh sweet. That’s quite cool.”
Can you tell us about the work behind the film’s powerful score and sound engineering?
We wanted to make sure that Lawand’s audio experience and ways of expressing himself were truly reflected in the film. Lawand doesn’t wear hearing aids; he has a cochlear implant. So does Sam Arnold, our deaf producer. So, Sam ended up recording some test bits of audio through a cochlear implant. In the end, it was all down to vibrations and the feeling of what audio does to someone who is hearing impaired or deaf in an environment of anxiety, calmness or safety. Sam was in the sound studio with me and [sound designer] Ed Downham and everyday he was guiding these sound decisions, telling us what felt true.
We were working with two composers: a deaf pianist, Danny Lane, who wrote some pieces, and Tom Hodge who scored most of the film. Tom would give us a piece of music, and then me and Sam would feed back. There are certain types of sounds and instruments which clearly were connecting with Sam, and others that weren’t. So, the composer was using these as guidance.
Lawand and Sam were talking about films, like Interstellar (2014), which uses big pieces of music that you don’t just hear, they move your seat in the cinema. Sam said, “Yes, definitely. This film shouldn’t be a silent film. We should go big with the music.” Documentary can hit as hard as a powerful fiction movie in terms of how you feel when you see it in the cinema.
During the film we saw Lawand attending London’s BSL Bill rally. From the global migration crisis to issues of inclusivity and BSL recognition, how do you hope your film will inspire?
Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight (2016), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and The Underground Railroad (2021), is a hero of mine. I remember him describing movies as empathy machines. You can have someone that doesn’t care about something, and then they go see a movie about it, a real story about a person in that situation, and they leave the cinema truly caring about it.
At one-point Lawand asked me, “Why are films made?” & I was like, “Whoa, okay, that is a real tough question.”
I came back referencing Jenkins’ quote. I said, “To me, films are made because they allow someone to understand someone else’s point of view in a way that they would never be able to understand otherwise. You can begin to understand what it’s like to be someone from the other side of the planet if you watch a film, and if it brings you close to that experience, it helps you understand it and then care about it.”
Has Barry Jenkins seen your film yet?
I don’t think so, but let’s hope. That’d be a dream. Let’s get it to him somehow. I saw that he was a producer of Aftersun (2022), directed by Charlotte Wells, a beautiful film because it lets the story be told visually. Jenkins’ work has had maybe the biggest effect on me as a filmmaker, along with Gus Van Sant, so that would be unreal if any of my heroes saw the film.