After Love: Aleem Khan’s inspirations – from Edward Hopper to Chantal Akerman

To celebrate the release of After Love on Blu-ray and DVD, we asked writer and director Aleem Khan to talk us through some of the influences and inspirations behind his critically acclaimed feature debut.

27 September 2021

By Aleem Khan

After Love (2020)

In Aleem Khan’s feature debut After Love, Joanna Scanlan plays Mary Hussain, a British woman in her early 60s who converted to Islam when she married. When her husband Ahmed dies unexpectedly, her quiet domestic life in Dover is dramatically upturned. As Mary grapples with her grief, she makes the painful discovery that her husband has a lover and child, Geneviève and Solomon, living just 21 miles across the Channel in Calais. Delicate and unexpected, Khan’s film follows her as he makes the journey to track them down.

Inspiration #1

Aleem Khan’s mother and grandfather

This picture of my mother and grandfather was on my desk the whole time I was writing After Love. I don’t know the context behind this photo or when it came into my possession exactly, but I’ve always been drawn to the contrast and duality captured within it.

On the surface it’s just a photo of a father and his daughter, of two people bound by blood and a love that is not concerned by the obvious differences in clothing and the two worlds they represent. But it’s my mother’s composition in the centre of the frame and the tiny nuances of her physicality that intrigued me most.  

My grandfather sits with ease, the kind you have when you’ve lived life long enough to know its secrets. My mother, a recent convert when this picture was taken, radiates youth and innocence and appears content too, but the intricacies of her demeanour reveal something more – her slant, her softly clasped hands between her knees, the way her feet are tight together with one foot ever so slightly lifted, and her timid smile speak to the uncertainly of the new way of life she had just embarked upon. She represents something both strong and tentative at once. I also really like that this photo is out of focus. It feels right somehow, for just like its subject, she is yet to fully emerge. 

Inspiration #2

The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich

The Monk by the Sea (1808-10) by Caspar David Friedrich

The Monk by the Sea was Caspar David Friedrich’s most radical composition. The broad expanses of sea and sky emphasise the meagre figure of the monk, standing before the vastness of nature and the presence of God. 

I came back to this painting again and again because it reminded me of very fond times in North Norfolk, where I’d go for stretches at a time to write in solitude in the winter months. I found a lot of comfort going for walks on the vast empty beaches under huge skies and I embraced how insignificant the landscape would render me. I wanted this for Mary too, and while walking the White Cliffs of Dover I found a perfect spot that jutted out just as it does in this painting. 

The colour palette was a key reference for the parts of the story that were set in Dover and the composition in the painting inspired what would become an important reoccurring visual motif in the film, with the three characters looking off into the distance towards the unknown. 

After Love (2020)

Inspiration #3

Aleen Kham family home movie

When I was a child my father was always filming my siblings and me on his VHS camcorder and so when he turned 60 a few years ago I thought it would be a good opportunity to digitise all of the home movie tapes that I had taken with me when I left home at 18. 

I’ve used VHS and archive material in a number of my short films, often incorporating photos and clips from my own life with fictionalised or staged recordings into the story. Going through my father’s tapes inspired the scene where Mary spies on Geneviève and Solomon going through old home movie footage.

After Love (2020)

Many of the props, photos and costumes in After Love were borrowed from my family members – the mat Mary prays on is my father’s, the gold bangles and jewellery Mary wears belong to my mother, and the mugs Mary and Ahmed drink tea from were my grandmothers and now belong to me. Even the prop photos of Mary and Ahmed around their home are a mix of my parents and composites using the actors’ faces.

After Love (2020)

I quite like sneaking these little details in. If you examine the film’s poster carefully, you’ll notice the framed photo on the left wall is in fact my parents on their wedding day.

I’ve since wondered why I do this. I think there are two reasons – one, I believe a prop with a real history can help charge and bring life to an otherwise artificial set, and two, I think including pieces in this way is a way of preserving and honouring the people who have inspired the work somehow. 

Inspiration #4

A Woman in the Sun by Edward Hopper (1961)

A Woman in the Sun by Edward Hopper (1961)

The psychological ambiguity of the subject in A Woman in the Sun was an important reference for me. The voyeuristic, almost cinematic setting suggests a narrative, enticing the viewer to imagine the events that may have occurred prior to the scene we now view, and what will happen next.

After Love (2020)

There is no way to fully articulate what grief is, or how it is experienced. I see it as the thing that happens when eyes are lost in the middle distance; it’s quiet, internal, personal, and has to be sat in. In After Love there are many moments like this, with Mary lost in herself, remembering or being caught unawares by the wave that consumes her. I tended to stay close with Mary in these moments and leave it to her eyes and facial muscles to guide the viewer in, while retaining a certain level of ambiguity.

In one scene that this painting directly inspired, Mary is alone, almost naked in her bedsit in Calais. Is Mary searching for signs of her own pregnancy? Is she comparing her body to that of Geneviève, or is it something else entirely? I prefer for the audience to make the moment their own.

After Love (2020)

Inspiration #5

The physical and sonic experience of standing on the White Cliffs of Dover is exhilarating. The sound textures of gulls, winds and sea currents are in constant flux, but one thing that struck me was the constant low-level drone that fills the air. It’s generated from the numerous ferries that are crossing the English Channel and it has a quality to it that sounds like the earth is rumbling. It’s the heartbeat of the landscape and permeates everything.

Usually, before I know what the story will be about, I will know where I want to set it – in this case it was Dover and Calais. From the very start of the development process I collected bits of music, library track and recordings from the locations and just sat with them for a while. The question I asked myself was “What does the essence of this film sound like?”

The soundscape below is something I edited in an attempt to answer that question using the various bits of music and sounds I had collected. I listened to this almost daily to help get me into a headspace and plug into Mary’s world when I was writing away from the locations (and I would later share with all of my collaborators too). The mix is a little crude as it was an experiment and my ability is limited, but listening back I can hear what my instincts were trying to guide me to, and I can identify semblances of the structure, layering and keys sounds in the finished film. 

Another important touchstone for me was Come and See (1985) by Elem Klimov. It’s a million miles away from what After Love is as a film, but its subjective, first-person approach to sound was something I greatly admired in how it puts the viewer into the headspace of a child traumatised by war. 

Come and See (1985)

When writing After Love I incorporated quite a lot of specific sound description into the screenplay because I wanted the sound design to not only indicate what Mary was hearing, but also to see what the effects those sounds could trigger in her mind. 

Klimov’s treatment of sound design in Come and See is far more experimental and takes things much further and darker, but the basic principles provided food for thought for how sound designer Joakim Sundström and I could play with diegetic and non-diegetic sound design to blur the real and impressionistic expressions of Mary’s psychological dissonance.

Inspiration #6

Notes on the Cinematographer by Robert Bresson

Notes on the Cinematographer by Robert Bresson (1986)

Bresson has been a huge influence for me ever since I saw Mouchette (1967). 

I bought this pocket-sized book some years ago now. It’s travelled all over with me, first to the Sundance Labs where I spent six weeks workshopping scenes from earlier drafts, and then it sat on my hotel bedside table when I was shooting After Love.

It offers nuggets of observation and insight written down over the course of Bresson’s career. It was a great source of comfort and inspiration, and it’s really easy to dip in and out of. 

Inspiration #7

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by Chantal Akerman

The banal mundanities of everyday life have never been so deftly captured or transcendental as they are in Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. 

I first saw the film during the time I was editing After Love and I instantly felt a deep connection to it. I have since read that the film is a veiled study of Akerman’s own mother, which makes perfect sense since the minute by minute, gesture by gesture detail of Jeanne Dielman’s daily experience over the course of three days could only have been conveyed in this way by someone who truly knew and loved the character they were examining.

With a runtime of 3 hours 21 minutes the experimental form and treatment of how domestic lives are captured and expressed in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is strikingly original. Akerman’s framing forces the viewer to observe Jeanne’s banal everydayness in a way that is detached and almost clinical, and the result, incredibly, inspires a sense of neutrality and honesty. The viewer becomes a voyeur, but the detachment Akerman achieves makes us aware that we are watching and thus creates a two-way mirror.

I feel Mary has a kinship with Jeanne. Both are widowed, both work as cleaners, have sons, and both find comfort in the quiet order of their routines – and have them disrupted unexpectedly. 

I was moved by what I saw as a shared intention in wanting to really allow time to reveal Mary and Jeanne through the intricacies of their domesticity. How someone folds a shirt, cooks a meal, prays or makes a bed can reveal so much about who they are. When we perform these menial everyday jobs our physical bodies operate on a kind of auto-pilot, yet our minds can be somewhere else entirely. It was this duality, the interior and exterior layers of Mary’s character, that I wanted to capture, and it is through the quiet and stillness of her mundanity that the viewer sees her most deeply. 

Watching Jeanne Dielman reminded me of my own mother. I have spent my whole life observing her. I know how she moves differently when she’s wearing western clothes compared to shalwar-kameez; I know that she prefers to rub a fingertip of lipstick into her cheeks instead of using blusher, and I know the order in which she mixes the spices together when she’s cooking curry for the family. 

In After Love, housework, cooking or making tea are just as significant as the religious rituals of prayer or wearing the headscarf. I see them as one and the same. They are more than just routine or cues to help establish character, they are how Mary performs her selfhood. They are acts of love.

We rarely see Muslim characters like Mary on screen and it was important for me that the rituals of Mary’s domestic and religious practice were fully visible without too much editing. I wanted the viewer to be fully engaged in the way Mary performs the prayer, how she says it, and to know the meaning of the words that she is reciting. This, for me, was how I could give her the visibility and dignity that she deserved. 

Although I saw Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles after I had shot After Love (and so it could be argued is not technically a reference), I wanted to include it here because it does something perhaps more important – it reminds me of why I made my film in the first place. 

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