It was a long journey from premiere to release for Mark Jackson‘s This Teacher, a wonderfully unorthodox character study of a young French-Muslim woman who winds up wandering through an unpredictable odyssey in the backwoods of New York when she goes to visit her old best friend.
I saw it back in 2018 at the BFI London Film Festival and it never left my mind for a multitude of reasons: the portrayal of an underrepresented character, Hafsia Herzi‘s dynamite lead performance, and the thrilling viewing experience of a constantly surprising narrative, to name a few of the things that struck me.
This terrific indie thriller is now available on DVD and VOD in the US and I took the opportunity to speak with Jackson about his film. This interview includes a discussion of how he and his co-writer Dana Thompson conceived of the idea for This Teacher, the collaboration with Hafsia Herzi, the film’s spirituality, Reed Morano‘s (The Handmaid’s Tale, Meadowland) role as executive producer, and his next projects.
Musanna Ahmed for Film Inquiry: Hi Mark, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. First of all, congratulations on the film’s release! I saw it at the London Film Festival 2018 and it’s now available almost two years later. What was the journey of the film like during this period?
Mark Jackson: Kicking off the interview with a dagger to the heart! It’s only been a year and seven months since our premiere in London, Musanna! But, yes, it certainly took longer than I would’ve liked to get this thing out into the world beyond festivals. I learned the hard lessons that if you make a movie that has any language other than English and you talk about religion and spirituality in that foreign language then it’ll be a real hard sell to distributors.
Dana and I wrote this thing two and a half years ago. I would love nothing more than for this film and its message to no longer be relevant, but unfortunately, it remains a “timely” piece.
This Teacher is unique in its narrative and character development, so much so that it’s hard to offer a logline to anyone with no knowledge of the film because you want to be careful at hiding surprises (of which there are several). How would you describe the film in your own terms and how did you sell the premise of it?
Mark Jackson: I’ve only made three films but I’ve written at least a dozen more. I’m not sure I can think of a single one of them that had a straight forward logline. Which makes me very bad at sellable premises and probably why I’ve only made three out of fifteen.
We conceived of the film after the horrific ascendence of this current U.S. administration on a platform of hatred and the subsequent Muslim travel ban and deadly white nationalist Charlottesville rally, so I would often describe the film on those terms. There was tremendous urgency to collaborate with Hafsia Herzi to provide a humanizing and complex portrait of a Muslim woman to battle the rampant, dumbed-down demonization of a vast and diverse group of people.
You wrote this film specifically for your lead actress Hafsia Herzi. How much of the story came out of you and your co-writer Dana’s imagination and how much of it was based on Hafsia’s own experiences?
Mark Jackson: Hafsia is just extraordinary. She has such tremendous power as a performer. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see her first film as writer/director “Tu mérites un amour,” but it’s my favorite movie of the last year and a stunning debut.
I loved working with her on my previous film War Story and couldn’t wait to do it again. We wrote this one specifically for her, but it’s not like we tailored it to any specific skill set. We just knew that we could write anything and she could pull it off because she’s just that good. It was a real gift to be able to write something with such confidence in her eventual performance. This film would not have been made without her, but it’s not based on her experiences. This was her first trip to the states though and she has, of course, been on the receiving end of racism and bigotry in her life so could easily identify with her character.
And speaking of imagination, I’ve never encountered a richer one than my beloved Dana Thompson’s. She has more creativity in her fingernail than I have in my entire body. She’s my favorite writer alive.
How did you guide the supporting cast around Hafsia in order to amplify the sense of alienation that her character feels? Was it a reverse psychology process where in fact the cast were all really close?
Mark Jackson: That was easy! Aside from Sarah Kazemy, all the other actors didn’t speak French and Hafsia didn’t speak English!
Sarah and I are old friends and Hafsia is a dear friend, but they didn’t know one another before this film. I always thought they’d make a great onscreen pair and I filed that away knowing that one day the right idea would pop up. When it did I called them both back to back and they immediately said yes and I felt so honored and motivated by their trust. When they finally did meet for the first time at a cafe in Paris they sent me a photo and my heart exploded. They formed a quick connection based on their similar upbringings and just generally being wonderful people and I think it shows on screen.
And we had the great fortune of having a tremendous supporting cast. From Rebekah del Rio to Gabe Fazio to Lev Gorn and Larry Novak and then the incredible Kevin Kane and Lucy Walters who are basically putting on a one-act play in that third act. I felt so lucky to have such great actors be able to come in and nail it with so very little time to rehearse. We shot that entire third act with its many, many pages of tough dialogue in just a couple of days. New York has such a deep and talented pool of actors in general, but it all felt just perfect with this cast.
Considering the subversive writing and performance, your film feels like not only a response to the stereotypical news cycle but to the limited screen image attached to Muslim women in Western cinema. What are your observations on contemporary depictions of Muslim women in media and how would you say Hafsia fits in or out of the hypothetical canon?
Mark Jackson: I am not aware of any American films, especially working on an independent micro-scale, that have given us a lead like Hafsia. I discovered Hafsia through French cinema and specifically in Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain, but there’s a real dearth of three-dimensional Muslim characters in Western cinema.
We have two fantastic Muslim women in Congress right now, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. They have endured absolutely despicable treatment, yet managed to fight on as incredible progressive leaders. And they come across as real and relatable and genuine and not as phony politicians. My hope is that their prominence on a national stage can open more doors in all areas, including moving us forward with the representation of Muslim characters in cinema and television that isn’t just the corporate concept of diversity.
This Teacher offers doses of black comedy, social drama, and even horror. How did you ensure you maintained a coherent tone?
Mark Jackson: I’m happy to hear you think the tone is coherent! I think my daily life is a mix of comedy, social drama, and horror so it’s easy for me personally to go along for a ride like this, but I imagine it can be challenging for a viewer. All of my films have a do-it-all performance by an exceptional leading lady so grounding us firmly in their company for nearly every scene helps with the tonal shifts, I think.
There’s a particular visual aesthetic – almost every shot is from eye level and the characters are captured at a medium or long distance from the lens. Why was this your preferred way of shooting?
Mark Jackson: Every movie I’ve made has been a two-hour movie that I eventually conclude is not good enough to merit that long of a runtime. I acknowledge and learn from my failings, promise to do better next time, and cut the sucker down to an hour and a half.
I shot most of my first two films handheld and wanted to shoot this whole thing locked off like Tsai Ming Liang and just watch the main character in incredibly long takes. If I had any guts I would’ve done that, but we had so little time for rehearsing and shooting that I decided it would be best to get conventional coverage.
There is a scene where Hafsia eats an apple. I think it ended up being fourteen seconds, but we shot her eating the whole thing. I want to watch her eat the whole thing. Hafsia is natural enough for that to be possible. But I didn’t make a good enough movie to make it work. Maybe next time.
Reed Morano executive produced the film. Could you tell us more about her role behind the scenes?
Mark Jackson: Reed and I worked together on my previous feature War Story. It was a real battle and Reed is the exact type of ally you want in the trenches with you. She is the unicorn combination of a great director, a great director of photography and a great friend. Absolutely invaluable eyeballs to have on whatever you’re working on in whatever phase of the process. All three of her films as a director have delivered a subversive arthouse take on an established genre. I can’t think of anything more inspiring than an artist who continues to take risks even as their career climbs and the stakes get higher and higher. She’s incredible and she inspires me as a filmmaker to stick to my guns and as a person to live life with an open heart. I love her!
I’m curious to know what sort of responses you’ve received to the film so far. Are there any particularly unique interpretations you’ve heard?
Mark Jackson: BFI London was my favorite festival experience. I am not at all comfortable speaking in public so the brilliant BFI programmer Jemma Desai took over and had the idea to open the floor up to the audience to talk about their thoughts during the Q&A. It was so heartening to hear from all the Muslim folks who showed up and were appreciative of the film’s message.
Something that I’ve found odd is when a review/interpretation makes absolutely no mention of the film’s spirituality. The crux of the film is an impassioned soliloquy that details Hafsia’s experience with religious ecstasy/spiritual awakening. I love what Dana wrote there (“Let us not be afraid to love!”) and I love Hafsia’s performance. The film is structured as a saintly/prophetic journey. I don’t have an answer as to why people don’t see it. Just allergic to religion I guess. I also strongly disagree with any assertion that Hafsia is crazy or going crazy. And a few folks don’t seem to get that everyone is hammered drunk in the third act. But in general, the responses have been so warm and encouraging and I love that so many people mention the film’s humor.
And I loved Jemma Desai’s take on the film and I could listen to her speak about anything for hours. Everyone should be following her and reading “This work isn’t for us”. https://bit.ly/2ZcV7IK
What new projects are you currently working on?
Mark Jackson: There are always a bunch of sticks in the fire, but two projects have ahold of me currently.
I think Ingmar Bergman is probably the greatest horror director of all time. I studied film in Italy and he was the first non-Italian director to make a huge impact on me. It’s the horror of “having to listen to someone talk too much.” I have a Bergman-esque horror movie that I’m putting together with dear friend and virtuoso violinist Lucia Micarelli. It follows a former child prodigy returning home to face Mother. Lucia has limited experience as an actor, but she’s an absolute natural and is going to knock socks off. I wish we could start shooting tomorrow.
And the other project is inspired by the pandemic horrors of late-stage capitalism. It is unconscionable that tens of thousands of (disproportionately black and brown) people are dying and U.S. billionaires have seen their wealth skyrocket. Billionaires should not exist. DACA recipients should have a path to U.S. citizenship. These two ideas collide in my first attempt at a sort-of-action movie. I love the fire and heart that’s in the streets right now with the Black Lives Matter movement and I’m hopeful that revolution is coming. All power to the people.
Finally, as a Muslim myself, I want to thank you for this film. The themes are scarily relevant in any period of post-9/11 USA and to see a contemporary Muslim character who is so multi-faceted is a blessing.
Mark Jackson: I can’t think of a higher compliment, Musanna. Thank you so much. Makes it all worth it.
Film Inquiry thanks Mark Jackson for his time.
This Teacher is available in the US on DVD and VOD. The details of the upcoming UK release will be announced soon.
Read Film Inquiry’s review of This Teacher here.
Watch This Teacher
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