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Rouzie Hassanova & her 'Radiogram'

Rouzie Hassanova at work
Rouzie Hassanova’s award-winning Radiogram is #directedbywomen #aotearoa’s first screening for 2020, at Parliament on 16 March.

It will be hosted by Jan Logie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Justice, a visionary and very effective politiciant. In particular, Jan’s an outstanding advocate for those affected by violence and discrimination, including women in the screen industries, through her support of the Screen Women’s Action Group, as well as #directedbywomen #aotearoa’s programme. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Jan, Rouzie and legendary editor Annie Collins. If you’d like an invitation, please get in touch ASAP: radiogramscreening [at]!
Based on a true story from 1971, Radiogram is set in a Muslim community in Bulgaria under the Communist regime (1946–1990), where religious expression and western music are forbidden. It’s about a father who decides to walk almost 100km to the nearest town to buy a new radio for his rock ’n’ roll obsessed son and it celebrates the strength of the human spirit, family, friendship and the power of music.

I can’t remember how Rouzie and I met. But I remember an exciting long walk with her around the beachfront in Oriental Bay, not long after she arrived in New Zealand with her Kiwi family, after 20 years living and working in London. At the beginning of the walk I knew she was an award-winning writer/director of several short films and a feature. But by its end I’d learned that she is so much more: she has extensive experience within post-production, international film finance and distribution, production and drama development. And a lot of fun. And it was no surprise when she later became the Development Executive at the New Zealand Film Commission (currently on maternity leave).
And it was no surprise, when I first saw Radiogram among a small test audience in 2018, that the audience loved it for its writing, its story, its direction and its performances (it has won multiple awards). Radiogrambecame one of that year’s #directedbywomen #aotearoa screenings and played to a packed cinema, followed by a brilliant Q&A with Rouzie and fellow writer/director Casey Zilbert.
This Parliamentary screening comes the day after the first anniversary of the massacre at two Christchurch mosques.

@devt: As someone from a Muslim background — perhaps the only one in this country who’s made a feature film — you hope that, because of last year’s tragic events, audiences will approach Radiogram with a desire to understand and relate to the Muslim community. Why did you choose to tell this story in particular?
Rouzie Hassanova: The story was inspired one day over a coffee, when I heard my grandfather recall how in the 70s he risked his life to get a radiogram for himself, for his son, for everyone in the village.
Years after I heard that story, I wrote a short film script, which got nominated for the Robert Bosch Award and following that I was encouraged to develop it into a feature film by the East European lab called ScripTeast. The story took a long time to form into a screenplay because I was too close to my family and wanted to stay loyal to all of them. But in film you have to be honest and consider the audience at the same time. The script took eight years of development.

What appealed to me was the universal theme of a father risking his life to make his son happy. And having grown up hiding behind a Christian name and discriminated against for being Muslim, I wanted to share a story about my community that I’m so proud of and let the viewer inside so they can relate and understand. After all people are all the same, we believe in the same God who we call different names. I am not sure if the film is fitting with last year’s tragic events, but I hope that its human story will allow the audience to see Muslims as everyone else.
@devt: One element of the story is that the regime compelled members of the community to change their names, a very specific kind of oppression. Was it only Muslims who had to change their names?
Rouzie: Bulgaria is predominantly a Christian Orthodox country with an over 1300 years old history. Ruled by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, Bulgaria naturally has a healthy Muslim population. There are a few different Muslim communities, but the main ones are Pomaks, whose origin is debatable, and Turks living in Bulgaria. All of them were the subject of different assimilation campaigns — 1912, 1940s, 1960s, 1970s and the mid ‘80s.
Communist ideology is about creating one nation, where everyone is the same (equal) — status, education, wealth, etc. It prohibits any religious expression, influence or individualism that would threaten its power. As part of equalising the nation under the Communist regime, the assimilation process included changing the names of individuals within communities that were deemed ‘different’. This is why the government first targeted the Romani, who easily adopted their new names. Then it was the Pomaks, who are dispersed and hidden in the Rodopi Mountains.They had to change their Arabic names to ethnic Bulgarian ones and to achieve that the Communist party paid their own people to get the job done, so it was hush hush and away from the public eye.

They didn’t expect to be met with resistance, but there was plenty. People lost their lives rather than change their names. This is because in the Muslim religion if you adopt a new name, Allah will not know who you are when you die and won’t be able to judge your sins from good deeds, and thus you will end up stuck in the middle forever.
@devt: How, if at all, had things changed by the time you were growing up? Were you able to listen to anything you wanted to?
Rouzie: The last assimilation process started in ‘84 targeting the Turkish Bulgarian community and lasted till the fall of Communism in ‘89. At first, people protested peacefully, but when they were forced to change their names, it got out of hand. Those that resisted were met with bloody violence, others chose to starve to death, while most packed their bags and left for Turkey. This did not go unnoticed internationally and some argue that it led to the fall of the regime. I was nine years old at the time and remember it well. We were filled with hope that we will be accepted as true Bulgarians, after all we were born there. But unfortunately the fear remained, this is why a large part of the Muslim community chose not to restore their Muslim names. On the plus side as soon as the Wall fell in Germany, and Communism collapsed in East Europe, we could listen to any music we wanted to. This is when I heard Michel Jackson for the first time.
@devt:What were the challenges and the surprises and the pleasures of making Radiogram? Were any of them specific to your being a woman writer/director?
Rouzie: We struggled to get finance from Bulgaria, because of the project’s Muslim themes and characters. And although many people encouraged me to make a thriller / action, I wanted to tell a family film. I didn’t want to add a rape scene or a sex scene because that would sell tickets. I wanted to tell a story that would be easy to relate to and stay true to my family and the Muslim spirit. I wanted to show that my family is like everyone else’s, that regardless of religion and status, they represent every family around the world, that Ali represents any person under oppression.
There were also plenty of challenges because of our limited production budget of €125,000. From finding the cast and crew that would agree to work for little to no fees, to reworking the script the night before the shoot so it accommodated the lack of extras. We also faced some threats from locals in the middle of the night, who were worried we’re making a propaganda film. But this is when a great producer like mine, Gergana Stankova, can do amazing stuff to make it work and spare you any concerns.
Being a woman and a first time director had its effect, I was constantly tested and challenged by the much more experienced crew, but sometimes you need to remind everyone that this is your story, your vision. Don’t get me wrong, I often asked for feedback and ideas from everyone, as I am a firm believer in collaboration. But there were a couple of occasions when I had to show I had balls.

What was fantastic was having experienced cast that encouraged me to be true to the community and suggested we change the dialogue to the local dialect for authenticity, just two days before shooting. I am very grateful for their encouragement and trust, as this changed everything, including their own performances.
@devt: You’ve said that Radiogram is about a man looking for a sense of freedom in a world of oppression. What does a ‘sense of freedom’ mean to you as a filmmaker, a woman, a woman from a Muslim background living in New Zealand?
Rouzie: Freedom is a different feeling for everyone. It comes from within, from your heart. This could be having a family, winning a race, escaping a war zone, or simply listening to the music you love. When your identity is oppressed, anything that gives you a sense of freedom is enough to keep you going through the tough times. What I wanted to show with the movie is a slightly different view, that a name is just a name and identity is about about knowing who you are and staying true to your self and your beliefs. And as a woman director, who has not done a film since Radiogram, my current sense of freedom are my two daughters, a short film I am hoping to film later on this year and music, lots of music.
@devt: I love the music in Radiogram! Was it easy to get the rights?
Rouzie: That took years, I am not joking. To clear music rights takes such a long time when you have a limited budget. In the end we cleared only the publishing rights for most of the tunes and got musicians to record them for us, which was cheaper.
@devt: What’s next for you?
Rouzie: Besides the short film which I mentioned, I am in the middle of writing three different ideas and slowly going crazy because of lack of time. Having kids has been a much bigger challenge than any film I have made. :)
@devt: Tell me about the short film?
Rouzie: The short is about teen sisters (immigrants), who get stuck on their way home and are forced to hitchhike home, only to be picked up gang members. It’s another true story, but this time it’s something that happened to me and my sister. The film is about judging on appearances, about manaakitanga.
The hardest thing I have had to accept is that I am unable to do as much as I would like to. My family and other general life obligations mean that my time is constantly interrupted or completely stolen. This has definitely affected my ideas and abilities.


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