Face to Face with German Films interview: Zamarin Wahdat

Now in their seventh year, the campaign featured Afghan-German cinematographer and filmmaker Zamarin Wahdat and MIME caught up with her from Berlin.
Face to Face with German Films interview: Zamarin Wahdat

As a cinematographer, Zamarin Wahdat has helped to tell the story of a Chinese-American drag queen (Little Sky, 2021), a revolutionary Hasidic girl in Crown Heights (Esther in Wonderland, 2021), two gay Muslim women on their first night together (Five Times a Day, 2020), young girls in Kabul learning to read, write and skateboard (Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you're a girl), 2019) and much, much more.

As a filmmaker, in her first short film titled Bambirak (2021) she tackles the story of a young girl and her single parent father, trying to make it all work out in a foreign land.

For the most recent Face to Face with German Cinema campaign which took place during this year's Berlinale, Wahdat was chosen along with six other filmmakers to represent her adoptive country. The talents participating with her were documentary filmmaker Sarah Noa Bozenhardt (Among Us Women), actor and producer Sara Fazilat (Nico), actor and director Jerry Hoffmann (I Am), writer and director Matthias Luthardt (Pingpong), actor Anne Zander (For Jojo) and film editor Julia Kovalenko (System Crasher).

We wanted to catch up with Wahdat from Berlin, and ask her about identity and viewpoints as a multi-hyphenated, pluri-cultural filmmaker. We could not expect how perfectly insightful her answers would be.

What inspired the story of Bambirak?

The story is very autobiographical. My dad was delivering packages in Germany because he couldn’t practice his real profession as an engineer. And it is actually based on my collective memories accompanying him to his job for a day which was called “Girls’ Day.” 

This triggered a lot of memories that I had in my childhood, trying to understand my father’s frustration and why he was always so angry and not happy in Germany. Me, as a child, I always felt I belonged and this is my home, I have my friends here, I’m German… And only years later when I left Germany for my studies and came back, I experienced for the first time active racism. And through that I also started to become aware of subtle racism that was going on following the refugee crisis in 2015/2016. I then remembered my dad, and his frustration, and started to understand how it all affected me and our bond. How those influences affect a parent and their child’s love, the love for each other, their lives. They do live in parallel worlds. As a child, you don’t look out of your own universe and think everything should be fine with your parents; and as a parent, you just want the best for your child and  make a lot of sacrifices, work jobs you didn’t study for -- not your dream job. And you live in two parallel worlds, until you come to a point when you actually understand each other. And Bambirak is just trying to make a father and a daughter understand each other because in the end ,what holds them together is their love for one another.

And this is what happened to me too. 

How much of you is in the character of Kati?

That’s a very good question because I always thought the character of Kati is my sister. My sister’s name is Kati and she’s the person I’ve always told myself stories about. But when my family and friends watched the movie they were like “that’s actually you!” I think I drew a character out of my sister and me combined.

You’ve won both a “bridging the borders” award in Palm Spring as well as a short film award at Sundance. What do those awards mean to you?

I was so happy when I heard about them. Receiving so much feedback and people who identified with the story made me so happy. People wrote to me thanking me for telling the story, saying how this was the kind of feelings they had growing up and how their relationship was with their parents. That people could connect with it and felt represented by the story honoured me a lot. Those awards honour the story as well as the voices I am telling the story for. I’m still surprised that the film had such a huge success, a story so close to my heart. 

What part of you feels most Afghani, and which is more German?

This is funny because in Germany I’m the one a bit more chaotic, unorganised, not always on time person. But when I was in Afghanistan, or even the US, people were like “you are so organised, you are always on time, you are so German!” It was so interesting, because I don’t define myself but people define me. It’s interesting to see how in every country I am seen as quite different because their country is different. I am just me, I’m Zama, I’m Afghan-German and grew up in two cultures. And my hometown is Hamburg.

Do you think you have a particular viewpoint as a person with multiple nationalities, inhabiting different cultures?

I think as a third culture kid, or first generation, child of immigrants, who grew up in a different country from her parents. You learn from an early age how to adapt to different worlds, very smoothly and quickly. When I’m with my Afghan family, of course I’m completely immersed in that culture. But when I go back to Germany and am in my studies at school, or at work I don’t take the Afghan side of me with me. It’s very organic as we are used to adapting to different situations and different worlds. That’s probably the reason why when I went to the UK, I was so used to adapting to different cultures, I slipped into the UK culture and adopted part of it — the same also happened in the US. I think that benefits my work as a cinematographer as that is always about adaptation and being open. I became very observant because of it. I don’t know what my viewpoint is on the world if I’m honest, but I find it quite easy to adapt to different cultures. Maybe because I have no viewpoint, or maybe because I have multiple viewpoints. 

What does it mean to you personally to be a part of this Face to Face with German Films campaign?

I feel very honoured to be able to represent the German industry now, this landscape that is slowly but surely changing. We all seven who were chosen are so mixed, we all grew up in Germany but we have parents from different cultures. We are both women and men which is, I think, very important, because diverse means everyone. What you see in this Face to Face campaign is what Germany actually looks like and that’s why I wanted to be a part of it, because also this is what German filmmaking will look like in the future. The campaign showcases German talent that exists in Germany and that’s very diverse. 

Photos of Zamarin Wahdat courtesy of © 2022 German Films/ Marcus Höhn/ The Dream Factory

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