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Mahnoor Euceph on the Evolution of South Asian Filmmaking and Casting the Perfect Goat — FannBoy Friday
Mahnoor is interested in exploring entertaining stories about the South Asian diaspora through the female gaze. With her films, she seeks to decolonize the mind by empowering audiences to engage in radical self-love. And if she can make you laugh while doing it, even better.
FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.
Mahnoor Euceph is a Pakistani American writer and director. She immigrated to Los Angeles from Pakistan at age 8 and quickly learned that nobody else cared about cricket.
She graduated Summa Cum Laude from UCLA in 2017, with a major in design: media arts and a minor in film, TV and digital media. She spent one semester in London studying art and business at Sotheby's Institute of Art, one semester in the Middle East studying the Israel-Palestine conflict with the Olive Tree Initiative, and another semester in Pakistan working with Pakistan’s sole Oscar-winner, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. In 2021, she received her Master of Fine Arts from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in Film and Television Production, with an emphasis in comedy writing and directing, as well as production design. During her MFA, she worked as art director on “American Eid” (2021), Disney’s first ever Muslim story. In November 2022, she participated in the Islamic Scholarship Fund’s inaugural Muslim Centered Writers’ Lab, with support from Extracurricular and The Black List for her feature film, “Queen of Diamonds.”
Her professional directorial debut, a short film called “Eid Mubarak” (2023), was produced by Creator+ as part of their inaugural Flip the Script Short Film Fund; it is currently screening in festivals all over the country. In March 2023, “Eid Mubarak” won the Jury Award for Live Action Short at the New York International Children's Film Festival, making the film Oscar-qualifying. It was acquired by Ouat Media, a distribution and sales company that specializes in short film and boasts an award-winning catalog of titles featuring 12 Oscar nominees, including 3 Oscar winners. Mahnoor is currently running an Oscar campaign for the film, which is officially in consideration for the 95th Academy Awards.
Mahnoor is interested in exploring entertaining stories about the South Asian diaspora through the female gaze. Her work is injected with humor and features a hyper stylized sensibility informed by design and fine art. With her films, she seeks to decolonize the mind by empowering audiences to engage in radical self-love. And if she can make you laugh while doing it, even better.
She is currently writing and rewriting (and rewriting) her feature film “Brown Girl.”
Mahnoor and I were introduced through the Rifelion network, and I was very lucky to be able to watch her film “Eid Mubarak” before our interview.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Shahjehan: Can you tell us a little bit about "Eid Mubarak" for folks that don't know anything about it?
Mahnoor: So it's a 16 minute short film about a privileged little Pakistani girl named Iman who is trying to save her pet goat from being sacrificed on Eid al Adha. We shot it in Pakistan and it's based on my own childhood experience of celebrating Eid as a kid when I lived in Pakistan.
Shahjehan: What are the first steps you took in order to create a story like this as a writer? And then what are the first steps that you took as a director when it came time to actually make it?
Mahnoor: So the whole idea came about in a writing class during my master's at USC. I don't remember what the prompt was … I was trying to meet the deadline and … I wrote a quick five page thing about what I had experienced … It resonated with everyone really deeply, because even though it's such a specific experience to Muslim kids and Muslim people, I think anyone can relate to the universal experience of the first time you deal with the fact that you're eating meat, or that you're not eating meat and that it's a live animal that you're eating.
For a long time, I thought I would [make “Eid Mubarak”] at USC and I would do it as a thesis film or something, but then the pandemic happened during my degree and we shifted to virtual production … So I ended up taking a bunch of writing and development classes instead. I graduated in 2021 and I [needed] to make something because I felt like I didn't leave school with something that could be my calling card as a writer and director. So I was like, ‘Okay, let me try and do this in Pakistan’ because the story is set in Pakistan.
I started off by applying to a bunch of grants and programs, and ended up reaching out to Kamil Chima [to help produce] … We were in Pakistan for almost a month, just on the ground scouting locations, getting the heads of departments together and really figuring [it] out … We all were able to get together in one room and just make a lot of decisions quickly about, ‘Okay, we want this to look like this. We want this location. We want this actor.’ Once we had cast [the film], it [was] just about getting [our] shots.
They always tell you: don't work with animals or work with kids. I worked with both.
Shahjehan: Tell me about working with kids in Pakistan.
Mahnoor: In Pakistan, the most popular forms of entertainment are TV dramas, so I think a lot of the people who act in those dramas act in a certain way — what I call ‘acting with a capital A.’ With kids, it’s ramped up exponentially. I didn't want any of that Disney Channel or soap opera sort of thing; I wanted it to be very naturalistic. I spent a lot of time in rehearsal with [the kids]. I love kids and I think it was very therapeutic for me … I had left Pakistan around that age, and to see these two girls reenacting my own experience in a bunch of the places that I grew up in was really great. I completely fell in love with them and I miss them every day. Whenever I'm sad, I look through BTS photos and think about them and how they worked so hard and they gave it their all. It's so delightful to be around that energy that children have where they're just so optimistic. They're not jaded.
They always tell you: don't work with animals or work with kids. I worked with both. I think that kids get a bad rap. [They] are actually in this amazing position to be actors — they have a valuable superpower [that can be applied] to the profession of acting because they have this really innate sense of play and a really refreshing newness to each take. I actually think it's a lot easier and less complicated to work with kids. I really prioritized casting my two girls, [making sure that they] had that kind of innate quality that I was looking for. Rubab, who plays Iman, told me right before we started shooting that she was really scared of goats. So I was [did] a lot of goat therapy with her, just making sure she felt safe and getting the performance out.
Shahjehan: Tell me about the goat!
Mahnoor: Oh my God, I went to so many goat shops. I looked at so many goats! I really wanted the perfect goat because I feel like the goat had to evoke all this emotion just from [its] face, and I can't tell the goat to act … There's no animal rental sort of thing [in Karachi]. It's way cheaper to just buy the goat.
I remember the day [we found our goat]. We call him ‘Barfi.’ Someone had sent me a picture of him, and I went to the goat market, and [in] a sea of goats, there was a beam of light shining directly upon him. And he was so clean — he was like the cleanest goat, just standing there perfectly. He didn't even have any of the [normal] markings on him. And he was just so beautiful. He was perfectly behaved and he just had that star quality. There's a kind of dichotomy [between the handlers and] the people who really raise them — they love their animals and they treat them with so much love and respect. So I think that was the attitude that I projected onto the set, and then everyone got really close with Barfi, and he became much closer with us too as time went on. [Even though] Rubab was scared of him on the first day, by the end, they were best friends and she wasn't scared of goats anymore.
[Barfi] was the best actor. He literally never made a fuss. There was like one time when it was so hot that he gave up and just sat down. But other than that, there were even moments where he turned to the camera and bawled at the perfect time. And he was amazing. I could not have picked a better goat.
I think [the previous phase, where we were educating about our traditions] was the first time we had the opportunity to tell our stories in America. We're leaving that phase one and we're entering [the phase where] culture is in the background and the plot is more about the characters’ relationships with each other.
Shahjehan: Your production design throughout is stunning. Why did you choose this particular style? What was the intention behind the color scheme?
Mahnoor: Part of it is my background; I have my own sensibility that I've developed through my education and my experience. I was obsessed with typefaces and specific types of paintings [at a young age]. I've always been an artsy sort of person, and I developed that through my own taste.
I also did a lot of production design during my time at USC. I think one of the most valuable things that really contributed to me [having] the kind of production design that I had in [“Eid Mubarak”] was a class I took at USC with the professor Bruce Block. He taught us the basic visual components, like space, line, shape, color tone and how to control them in reference to your story structure. He talked about … visual intensity and the principle of contrast and affinity, [like] if you have a monochrome color scheme then you have less contrast, and you have more affinity — more similarity — so that's going to create less visual intensity. If you have really deep space, with three point perspective or convergence, compared to really flat space where you don't have any depth, then that contrast is going to create visual intensity. So it was those kinds of concepts that I was using.
I had decided that the overarching color scheme of the film would be in the hue of red. Obviously, pink is in the family — [it’s just a brighter version of red]. As the story gets more intense and the loss of innocence arc happens, I took that pastel pink and upped the saturation and also some of the blacks and it made it into that deeper red to reflect what was happening in the world.
I've always been a very girly girl. I’ve always loved the color pink. [In] design school, I pretended my favorite color was black, but that's [actually] my second favorite color, so I feel like that kind of says everything about me in a nutshell. Pink was also the color of my childhood — girly, feminine, Barbie, fairytale world — so I thought it was a good color to reflect that naive, childhood kind of thing that Iman has at the beginning of the film.
Red, of course, is also the color of blood, so I think it worked. And I think it's majorly a color of celebration in Pakistan. So in weddings, one of the colors [brides] can wear is red. I thought that taking that mainstream feminine color and pushing it up to that passionate color of blood was culturally relevant. It also made sense according to the story and was visually more intense, so that's one of the sort of decisions that we made in the production design.
Filmmaking is always behind the zeitgeist a little bit because of how long it takes to make a film.
Shahjehan: According to your website, your mission is ‘entertaining stories about the South Asian diaspora through the female gaze.’ How do you think that's going in 2023 versus when you first started? Like where we're at now and what still needs to change.
Mahnoor: I talk with my filmmaker friends about this a lot. We're entering the next phase. I think with movies like “Polite Society” (2023), we're leaving the “Ramy” (2019 - ) and “The Big Sick” (2017) sort of phase where we [were] educating about our traditions. [Now we’re] saying we can also be bad people, or we're not all religious. We're marrying outside the religion. We're not all doctors, lawyers, engineers — that kind of thing. I think [that previous phase] was the first time we [had] the opportunity to really tell our stories in America. We're leaving that phase one and we're entering [the phase of] “Never Have I Ever” (2020 – 2023) [and] "Ms. Marvel" (2022).
I think things are evolving a little bit. We're … in this phase where we're not translating Mashallah, Inshallah anymore, we're just saying it. And the culture is in the background, but the plot is more about the characters’ relationships with each other; it's more story focused. And I think that is the natural arc of assimilation, at a global scale. When I think about American filmmakers ([which] of course we are) as Brown people — as Asian people — we are part of the latest wave of immigration. And I think because of 9/11 and what [has] happened [and is] happening in the Middle East, we [have been] targeted in a very specific way. [We’ve] had to work against that for so long, but if you go back to the early 1900s, there was European immigration [and] racism against them; in the 1950s, [there was] the Chinese Exclusion Act … There's always a group [being targeted] that changes in America.
Just like we don't see “The Godfather” (1972) as being an Italian film, I think we're eventually not going to see a film with Pakistani Muslim characters as just that community's filmmaking. I think we're getting to that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022) point where there are issues that are unique to a culture, but it's a multiverse movie and it's about the relationship between a mother and a daughter.
We'll see how it goes. And I don't know how I feel about it — I don't know if that's the right thing or wrong thing or whatever it is — but I think it's evolving. Filmmaking is always behind the zeitgeist a little bit because of how long it takes to make a film. I feel very lucky to be a woman of color making films at this point in history.
Shahjehan: Who are some of your favorite American Muslim creatives, whether they're directors or writers or actors?
Mahnoor: My ultimate idol is Malcolm X. I don't think I have many heroes anymore as I get older, but I think he will forever be a hero of mine.
To be honest with you, I'm really inspired by my friends. I have this weekly writers support group. A couple of us met up at the Muslim House at South by Southwest this past year. It's me, Maryam Mir and Huda Razzak. We are all Muslim, we all really like each other's work, we're all doing our best and trying really hard against all odds, and we're all women. I think we all have very interesting perspectives on film and I'm inspired by them. We keep each other going, and I really love having that space in that group because [this is otherwise] such a lonely process. Talking to them every week brings why we all started this in the first place to the forefront, and I love seeing how their stories are progressing and reading their work. I get so excited thinking one day [their] stuff is going to be made and we're going to be able to see each other's work. I'm really inspired by that spirit of lifting each other up and helping each other when we're early on in our careers.