Even When I Fall (2017)

As the producer of a documentary that’s helmed by two unknown female directors, Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal (who both had babies during production), shot over six years in Nepal, involved a successful Kickstarter campaign and now a targeted distribution strategy spanning several months, Elhum Shakerifar has certainly faced her fair share of logistical challenges. Ask her about the biggest issue she overcame during the making of Even When I Fall, however, and the answer is both surprising… and not.

“It isn’t easy to tell a story about survivors when you’re talking about trafficking,” explains Shakerifar. “People expect to hear a story about victimhood. The questions that we heard while making this film surrounded the fact that understanding this story within the prism of empowered survivors was difficult. It’s a reflection of a reality that we don’t understand women as strong characters. It’s not how they are seen on screen.”

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Elhum Shakerifar

It’s certainly no accident that Even When I Fall bucks that woeful trend. Made and populated by strong, powerful women, it determinedly turns a familiar narrative – the exploitation of children – into an uplifting tale of survival and activism.

Filmed over several years, it follows Circus Kathmandu, a group entirely populated by Nepali men and women who were trafficked into Indian circuses at a young age, and have since been rescued. Among them are incredible individuals like Saraswati, married at 14 to the son of the circus boss, and Sheetal, who struggles to reconnect with the family who were duped into giving her away. They not only take control of their own lives through the circus, but take it out to villages and, eventually, foreign lands, in order to raise awareness of the human trafficking that has touched them all so deeply.

“[The film’s tone] is something that really took shape over the years of working with Saraswati and Sheetal and the rest of the troupe,” says Shakerifar, who has known directors McLanon and Neal, the latter herself a former circus performer, since their days as visual anthropology students. “It was about trust and relationship building, and finding the ways that empowered them to tell their stories. For it not to be a film about them, but a film that’s made with them. It’s about taking ownership of your own narrative, and there’s a real power in that.”

For Even When I Fall’s makers, this approach wasn’t only essential in terms of doing justice to the film and its subjects, but also in addressing wider issues of diversity and representation. Shakerifar is carving out a career working with filmmakers with unconventional stories to tell, including Sean McAllister (A Syrian Love Story) and Carol Salter (Almost Heaven). She firmly believes that the answer lies in supporting an array of different voices.

“There are many people that need to be listened to on their own terms,” she notes. “There are many out there, if only they were allowed to come onto a mainstream stage. There’s a lot of good in the focus and support that’s around diversity, but there is also the risk of reducing diversity questions into a tickbox situation. And the problem with the tickbox, just like with the label of victimisation, is that it is bringing you back to a situation where you’re only understood within that frame.”

While the rise of streaming and alternative platforms is offering different routes to audiences, Shakerifar says that nothing can yet compare to cinema’s impact. “The cinema is a beautiful space where people can experience something together. With documentary, and particularly documentaries that have these long journeys, cinematic qualities and immersive stories, it is an amazing thing to see them on a big screen.”

For Even When I Fall, this meant a carefully orchestrated distribution strategy beginning with a premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2017 and taking in a nationwide tour of screenings and Q&As to build word-of-mouth momentum before its theatrical release.

Even When I Fall (2017)

“It does take time for things to filter through,” says Shakerifar, who acknowledges the essential support of forward-thinking exhibitors, including independent cinemas and film clubs. “When you are a small fish in a big space, you need to find ways to stand out and give audiences time to get to your film. We had no marketing spend, so we had to work in a very smart way. We thought about who our biggest grassroots champions would be, and then planned a series of Q&As all over the country. We had a fantastic audience response; some have gone back to their local cinemas and told them that they must book the film in week of release.”

While reaching a UK audience was important, it was also crucial to ensure the film made a positive impact in Nepal and become another tool for Circus Kathmandu to use in their outreach. Money raised from Comic Relief will support the circus for the next 18 months, as they develop a series of new workshops around the film.

This idea of cinema as an implement of change is what inspires Shakerifar, who last year established her filmmaking outfit Hakawati (which means ‘the storyteller’ in Arabic).

Even When I Fall (2017)

“There is a real commitment to quieter voices, or voices that challenge a mainstream dominant narrative,” she says. “We’re positioned to be able to produce, distribute and curate, because there is an element of storytelling within all of those things, and the stories that get seen and heard are the ones that will determine our understanding of the world.

“Human stories have to be understood in their full complexities,” continues Shakerifar. “I think we are living in quite a scary world, where everything is simplified and made into news bites. The result is the current political situation throughout the world, which is almost like we live in this simplified reality with huge issues taking over our lives and changing things, but with very little power to impact on them. It feels to me that we must really recognise that life is complicated, and stories must reflect that more.”