The Riddle of the Stranger

INTERVIEW. "The Charmer" is about an Iranian man struggling to get a residence permit in Denmark. Playing with our notions of "the stranger," director Milad Alami slowly unfolds his protagonist’s secrets like a mystery. Premiere at San Sebastian Film Festival 2017.

Refugees and migrants from the Middle East dominate the news cycle and the political debate in Scandinavia. But who are the people behind the headlines? What makes someone leave their house, home, family and culture to start a new life at the other end of the world, and what are the consequences of that decision?

The idea wasn't to make a political film but to point out human and psychological aspects of being a stranger in a strange land. The political aspects of being a refugee I think are better left to politicians to discuss.

"The Charmer," a story of an Iranian man trying to get a residence permit in Denmark, provides no easy answers. First-time feature director Milad Alami is not out to make a political statement or even say anything about refugees and migrants in general. 

What he does do is exploit our curiosity and preconceptions about "the stranger" to craft an intense thriller by slowly unfolding an individual person's inner struggles.

Revealing nothing at first about the background, thoughts or motives of Esmail, the protagonist, the film follows his desperate quest to find a Danish girlfriend to help him get permanent residence. But his charm offensive does not go as planned and he falls in love with a student with a Persian background instead – just as his past catches up with him.

"The film started with the character: a foreign observer that the audience might have a lot of thoughts and preconceptions about but that we never really get to know. Through him, we examined themes of identity, class differences, race and powerlessness," Alami says.

"The Charmer" by Milad Alami. Framegrab 

"The idea wasn't to make a political film but to point out human and psychological aspects of being a stranger in a strange land. The political aspects of being a refugee I think are better left to politicians to discuss," he says.

"But I imagine that the audience, after they see the film, will want to talk about the political issues: Are his actions right or wrong? What's the price of the life he has chosen? But all of that is just post-rationalisation."

Two-Way Exploitation

Alami wasn't interested in making a film about a refugee we would just "feel really sorry for." That "felt too simple." Even if Esmail's "fishing" for women at first glance might seem calculating and cynical, we can't reduce him to a villainous seducer. End even if we don't know exactly what's behind Esmail’s actions, we sense that, while he may be desperate, he is essentially a good person.

Plus, the exploitation works both ways, Alami says.

"The different women he's with get something from him, too. He experiences obvious exoticism – the sexualisation of the stranger."

Alami plays with this fascination with the mysterious stranger in the film's structure and its withholding of information.

"Esmail is a riddle. He's hard to pin down. The audience may have a lot of presumptions about this enigmatic man that change as we slowly get a clearer picture of him," Alami says.

"The Charmer" by Milad Alami. Photo: Jason Alami 

For the role of Esmail, he cast the Swedish-Persian actor Ardalan Esmaili, who had the ambiguity the film needed.

"He has sensitivity but also darkness. There's something unpredictable about him. It's important that the character has this duality," Alami says.

"Directing him was one of my biggest challenges. The entire film is on his shoulders in terms of how 'secretive' he can be as a character while remaining interesting to the audience. Ardalan went beyond my expectations, he is such a rare talent. We worked with the acting a lot to create the intensity and paranoid mood I wanted to bring out."

An Outsider’s Look at the World

In his short films, Alami was also concerned with depicting the psychological universe of outsider characters and people who carry secrets.

His graduation film at the National Film School of Denmark, "Nothing Can Touch Me" (2011), is about Kathrine, an outsider who survives a mass shooting at her high school and experiences a growing sense of communion with the shooter.

The Robert Award-winning "Mommy" (2014) is about a young mother who tries to balance parenthood with a normal social life. "Mini" (2014) is about a teenager, Simon, who lives in the shadow of his bodybuilder mother, while "Void" (2014), co-directed by Alami and the Kyrgyz director Aygul Bakanova, follows the meeting of two strangers on a ferry, one of whom has a hidden agenda.

"I was always fascinated by people you can't pin down or pigeonhole. That's why all my films are about outsiders. When I come into a room, I'm always interested in the people who look like they want to be there the least. I think they have a different view of the world and we can learn something from it," he says.

Personally, Alami does not feel like an outsider, and Esmail is nothing like him. Being Iranian-born, he knows what it's like to have "an identity that's split between two cultures."

But, he says, "My story and Esmail's story are extremely different. I moved to Sweden when I was six years old and had a fine childhood." Esmail is a product of fascination more than identification, and he thinks audiences will see him that way, too.

"It's not super important for me to be able to identify with a character, and that wasn't the focus of the film, either. I'm more concerned with whether the character is interesting," he says.

"The Charmer" by Milad Alami. Photo: Jason Alami 

Everything Is Planned Out

With a good handful of short films under his belt, Alami felt "super ready" to direct his first feature. He didn't really see any big difference between telling a story in 15 minutes or in 1 hour and 43 minutes. He was enormously inspired by the process, the actors and the crew and never had a crisis about how to solve the task. The biggest difference for him was the physical aspect.

"When you get to week four and you're only sleeping four hours a night, it starts to get tough. It was tough mentally to stay focused six weeks in a row. This isn't the kind of film where we did a shot just for fun or to see what would happen. Everything was incredibly planned out," he says.

Alami is delighted that his film is world premiering at San Sebastian.

"That's where Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' premiered! It's a festival with a great history. They show films that are structured differently and play with the language of film. I think it's the perfect place for 'The Charmer'" •

About the film

"The Charmer" is directed by Milad Alami, who wrote the script with Ingeborg Topsøe. The film is produced by Stinna Lassen for Good Company Films, with support from the Danish Film Institute's New Danish Screen talent-development scheme and the Swedish Film Institute. It is co-produced by Garagefilm and Film i Väst. International sales are handled by Alma Cinema, Paris.

Festival premiere

"The Charmer" is world premiering at the San Sebastian Film Festival (22-30 September).