Interview with Shehab Satti
22nd October 2020
Interview with Shehab Satti, director of Serotonin, conducted by Federica Bianco, Postgraduate in Film and Television Studies 2020/2021, University of Glasgow, and member of the Short Film Competition Viewing Committee.
FB: First of all, I want to thank you again for allowing me to set up this written interview. I am honoured to have given this opportunity to open a dialogue with you. I personally loved Serotonin for its cinematographic poetics and the narrative on how memory is represented through the main male character based in Khartoum (Sudan). This movie employs editing processes in such a creative and complex way that the syntax, or the unfolding of narrative, leaves room for (artistic) joy within the serious topics on life, love, and death explored in the film. What motivated you to write a story about memory and the passing of time through the eyes of a young male character?
SS: I was motivated to write a story about memory and the passing of time because the film expresses me perfectly. I am that young man who always got lost in the city. I used to walk in the streets of Khartoum and think about my private life and about the people who I would meet in the street; people who sit on the streets and walk in the streets or travel via public transport. This is one of the reasons, of course. The other reason is that there are a lot of ideas in me. I think that I am not good at expressing my feelings and my thoughts except through art. I express everything through Serotonin. I wrote the story, produced and directed the film as well as composed the soundtrack to resonate with the general state of the film. I went through a lot of experiences that made me at one point confused, frustrated, and depressed. I cared for my wellbeing by transforming this situation I was in into the art of film. I think that I was writing the film from my soul, my sadness, the fatigue, and the moments in which I also looked up to, to be happy.
FB: As the film opens with the cinematographic shot of a man sitting by a tree while playing his instrument, did you think of a particular mythological figure or significance when using this shot as an establishing scene?
SS: Honestly, in this film there is this story told in a parallel and circular way, to which I would add that in writing the film I remembered all the myths, symbolism, and sometimes even religious aspects of the symbolism that revolves around the narrative.
So, in the first scene we hear the sound of a loud trumpet, and here I meant to focus on the birth of life, and it is a belief that inspired me because of a religious aspect which I used appropriately for my story. So, the trumpet blows, life begins and the soul is blown into the body of the main actor who we see emerging from a bright, white room. This room resembles the condition of the child when he is born - his life is completely bright. But the main actor here was in a despondent state among this utopia, so he leaves his room in search for happiness and love without worrying about the troubles he will face. In fact, he does so not knowing if his impulses come from his own free will or the will of a greater force than him. Coming back to the scene of the man carrying the trumpet in a place similar to Paradise, this establishing scene is a scene that can be a fantasy, but it is very important and is the main engine at the beginning and the end of the film.
FB: What is your relationship with ancestry and/or the genealogical roots?
The relationship with ancestry is a relationship with the human being. I believe that with this film I search for this one person, his feelings, his psyche, his relationship with others, and the relationship he has got with places which I explore combining art and psychology. I believe that the human psyche is full of potential which we can turn into narratives. As for the genealogical roots, for example, I am Sudanese, but I grew up in the Sultanate of Oman, so I became a lover of Oman but I identified with my country as well. Putting this question in relation to cinema, it is spiritually connected with several art schools in the world around me, and these schools may be a little far from Sudan, but art is a universal language; it is not linked to a place. Our souls are linked to the places that they love and to the places that have brought them memories. It is not necessary only to be associated with one another as human beings, rather we can be associated with trees, the sea, old buildings, with a street, or with perfumes. All this stirs up and refreshes our memory and It makes us think and feel.
Often, I was inspired by ideas and scenes coming from other art media, such as from music, pictures, paintings, even by walking down the road at night. The human soul is very complex, and very intertwined with itself and with the nature of things that surround us. And I think that is an important reality to think about in the very nature of art.
FB: There is a recurrent theme around memory that involves a return to a room that is furnished with only a chair, and this recurrent sequence is always filmed in black and white. I was wondering what that space signifies in relation to memory and what place love and the dancing couple hold within that space? What particular reason do you have for using black-and-white as a visual narrative?
SS: I would like to tell you something that I did not mention before. All the events in the film may be fictional and illusionary as the movie is totally linked to memory, and that is my question: how true is this memory, and whose memory is it? Through whose eyes do we see these memories? There is more than one scene shot of and in the white room, and in each scene, we find a different actor. There is a scene where the main actor sits in the chair and this is a scene in which the soul is breathed into him to leave his isolation and face life. Then there is another scene of a person wearing black; we see him falling to the ground, dead. He may be suffering from psychological disorders and conflict that made him believe that he knows everything and that everything he knows is a fact. And everything may in fact be just an illusion. All the movie scenes may be just delusions in the mind of the main character or the man who wears black. The scene of the couple dancing may also be an illusion. This whole scene might just be an illusion portrayed through the girl's mind, as she has never met the main actor in the film. If there may be many delusions in the film and psychological conflicts, they may be explicit or implicit. The most important thing is that while watching the movie, everyone sees it from their perspective and understands the film as they perceive it. I love films which engage the viewer.
On the other hand, I expressed depression in black and white. Whereas the colours express life as for example with the amusement park which is symbolic of life as well. As I mentioned, the film is full of intended symbols which I studied through writing, photography, directing, montage and music to express an integrated artistic vision. Symbolisms are everywhere, there is the tree of life, the trumpet, the characters’ clothes, the dark scene, the scene of the white room, the descent of the character at the beginning of the film and his ascension in the last scene. I play with delusional or intentional decision-taking, for example thinking of whether it is true that the male character’s descent means that he believes that he had chosen this decision by his own will. But the opposing scene of his ascending might also express a force higher than him that was driving him.
FB: In line with visual narratives, I recognised that the film only holds a marginal space for an open dialogue between people. I personally admire films that still use images as their main communication tool, therefore letting the visual tell a story by allowing a movement of images to unfold. Would you consider the rich use of your colour palette as the central point of storytelling? If yes, how did you take these decisions on the use of colour?
SS: I thank you for this question. For me, cinema is the language of the image. It is true that there are other elements that complement the film, but the origin lies in the image. I always try to convert my thoughts to a visual vision. There are only a few dialogues, what matters and is necessary is the context, using the picture as the expressive part. Especially since the film is an experimental film.
A white and black part expressing the depression and loneliness that the characters suffer from, a coloured part expressing life, a yellow part indicating illusion, imagination, and paradise, and a red part expressing blood and violence, the white part expresses utopia and the scene is intense. Darkness and blackness express the inside of our subconscious mind that may be an allusion to imprisonment.
Even in terms of mise-en-scène, the characters’ clothes express the features of a character and a scene and a certain feeling, the decisions for me were made almost entirely via the script due to the fact that I was always trying to relate the narrative to the psychology of colours, all of this helps in creating the effect in process. It is true that I was trying to tell a story, but I was also thinking about how to create a state of magic throughout the film.
FB: How did you select your actors and how long did it take for you to find people willing to participate in a story led by images, therefore telling stories with their own bodies and facial expressions?
SS: Serotonin took more than three years to produce: from 2015 until 2018. I started writing the film in 2015 and filmed scenes of a chaotic NYE at that time. Then, I continued writing and of course made many adjustments to the script, but I had production problems. In 2015 I did not have enough money to produce the film. I was very frustrated. I did not know how I would produce my film from a financial point of view. I was sometimes looking to find a producer, but many refused, and they had the right to do so as the script may be unusual with respect to Sudan’ society. In addition, I have not had a mature directorial experience before, therefore, this work was a challenge I hoped to win as I was frustrated. I took some time to collect money by working on tv production, advertisements until I collected enough money to produce Serotonin. It was a push and pull between collecting money, shooting scenes, collecting money again and continuing to shoot the film until I started editing from September 2017 until January 2018 when the film came out to light.
As for the actors, I had a problem choosing the main actor, whose face needed to be expressive and with particular features. When I made a selection, and the filming date approached, they were withdrawing because they were afraid of the script for religious reasons until I met the main actor, "Edreso". He was very cooperative; I gave him acting training; and he was committed to the film. All the chosen actors loved the work, and that is why they were completely committed without getting paid, helping me achieve my dreams. Even those who withdrew from the movie, I think they liked it and regretted their withdrawal eventually. I had a lot of blessings on the night of the first screening of the film and I was thinking of those nights in which I was feeling despair: I used to think that I had to burn my script each time sadness and despair intensified.
FB: I personally enjoyed the relationship between time, space, nature and the urbanisation that seems to hold a significant role within the existentialist narrative of the film. How does nature, or the nature of being, weigh in on life in the main protagonist, considering Khartoum as a contextualised place?
SS: It is true, there is a strong link between time, place, urbanisation and characters in this movie. We can say that the film’s narration line is a circular and there are scenes that may date from 13 billion years ago, before the cosmic explosion, and so on. Timelines. Even the circular narrative is linked to the reality of time. But is time an illusion? Places are always related to the characters, the scenes, and the story. I tried to film to the extent that the film gives way to realism in terms of places. It is true that it was a risk, especially since the film was shot before the Sudanese Revolution. The external scenes in the film are not totally revealed, but it was necessary to take the risk, as these scenes of the outside space are the crucial ones to the film’s narrative. For example, when the main actor in the film walks in the streets of Khartoum, he begins the process of mixing with people and life in his search for happiness. I have my personal ambition as a director to document the nature of life in real places, as you can see, because these places may well disappear someday. I think that documentation is important; buildings may change one day, and the people who appear in these scenes may someday disappear or die or grow older, so why do we not document life?
When I was young, I used to watch ancient Egyptian films, and I very much liked the scenes of Cairo’s outer streets where I saw people portrayed with narrative details which are important to create a specific emotional purpose in the main character who is trying to get close to people trying to know the nature of their feelings. But realism meets mythological elements in my film such as the tree symbolic of life and death. When I was young I heard about a myth of a tree in the sky: its leaves are associated with humans. If a leaf falls off its branches, life falls.
SS: To end this interview, I would like to ask what drives you to tell stories and whether you can tell us a bit about your next artistic project?
What drives me to narrate, to write, and to direct films is my attempt to express myself. I love to tell a story with my own eyes. It is not important to be a good writer as much as it is to express myself and my thoughts honestly.
Producing a new project is difficult; Serotonin took a long time to produce and it came out in a way that we can say that it is distinctively complete in its elements. That is what makes a director in a state of fear and anxiety about a next project. I would then like to direct five films and to die after that. I would not want to direct fifty bad films and then pass away. It is true that what matters to me is to direct my films as I like, but it is important that they come out in a truly distinctive way, and that is why it took a long time to finalise the film. Currently, I think I am still struggling to get out of the Serotonin condition which is inside me, although I am thinking of upcoming projects I have not decided which subject matter to focus on yet. I am currently trying to continue the international distribution of Serotonin to be seen by different cultures. I am delighted when someone new in the world watches my film, and even happier when someone discusses it with me. Sometimes viewers think about things that you did not think about as a director; this is something that makes me happy because it means that the film affected the viewer's perception.