WFilm founder, Scarlett Shepard, caught up with Rolla Selbak, Writer, Director, and podcaster, to talk about her latest project, CHOKE. For those who aren’t familiar with the project, it’s about a rising MMA star who hides her refugee status from her small American town, and the world. Plans for developing CHOKE into a TV series are in full swing.
Rolla Selbak is a triple-minority in the filmmaking world, representing the Queer, the Muslim-American, and the Female. She is a Sundance 2017 filmmaker whose most recent credits include co-producing American Paradise, a reflection of a desperate man in Trump’s America, and helming the internationally acclaimed feature film Three Veils, a first of its kind to confront homosexuality within the Muslim-American subculture.
Scarlett: Let’s talk about Three Veils, which played at our annual film festival in 2011 to a sold-out crowd. It was one of my all-time favorite moments of the festival. Tell us about this story because you directed it and you wrote the screenplay, which is really impressive to do both.
Rolla: Three Veils is about three Muslim-American women living in the U.S., each with their own secret. It touches upon really heavy subjects like arranged marriage and homosexuality within a Muslim subculture. It was quite ambitious, but I tried to do it in a nuanced and non-heavy handed way. It meant a lot for me to make it as a woman who is Arab-American, comes from Palestinian family, grew up in the Middle East, and grew up in that Muslim subculture.
Scarlett: It’s a really groundbreaking film. It’s emotional. I feel like it’s really relatable, while being professional looking and Indie all at the same time. It went on to screen in the film festival circuit, and you got so much press around it. Fill us in on the budget and writing the screenplay.
Rolla: What I was doing was going to different online forums and trying to cast actors in a trailer for the movie. Basically what I wanted to do was shoot a 1-2 minute piece which would showcase what the movie might look and feel like in order for me to approach investors. Then this producer, Ahmad Zahra, called me from Zahra Pictures and he happened to see my posting for the casting call. He reached out to me and said “Wow, this looks interesting. Do you have a script I can take a look at?” At that point, I had no clue who he was or what the company was, so I looked him up. He seemed to delve into films that wanted to make a difference, and wanted to bridge cultural gaps in the country. So I sent it to him, and he loved it. He asked if he could option it. I said “Sure, but I am directing this,” and we made sure that was in the contract.
Rolla: Altogether, we shot the film in 3 weeks (21 days), which is so ambitious for a 1 hour 40 minute feature. We actually shot 1 week a month throughout the summer because we couldn’t afford to keep the same crew all summer, hoping to goodness that the cast members weren’t cast in something where they had to change their appearance! I have to give kudos to the actors because they had to keep that emotion over three months. They did a phenomenal job. The budget ended up being $220,000. We raised $64,000 in cash, and the rest was from deals that you make with production houses or post-houses or things of that nature.
Scarlett: Wow, that’s really impressive. So this whole deal came about through a casting post!
Rolla: I know!!! It sounds so surreal and absurd, but it’s absolutely 100% true! The important thing is I really understood what I would compromise on and what I wouldn’t. I’m a very compromising director in general – on set I absolutely love collaborating. But for me, not compromising meant to direct the story that I wrote. I knew that no money in the world would be worth it for me to give it to someone else.
Scarlett: I think that’s really good to recognize. That leads to my next question. How did you become a filmmaker? Did you always know you wanted to do filmmaking?
Rolla: I grew up in the Middle East in Abu Dhabi to a Palestinian family. When I was in the Middle East my parents got this huge, gargantuan camera for birthday parties and family events, and I immediately hijacked it to make plays and commercials and all types of stuff. When I came to the U.S. I was like, “Oh! This is something I might be able to do,” but it’s funny because I never thought I’d be able to direct. I thought, “I could write, so why don’t I become a writer?” I went to the library and I got every screenwriting book I could possibly check out at the same time. I got all sorts of books and I was going to teach myself how to write scripts.
Scarlett: So you were training yourself!
Rolla: I was! They say that the first 2-3 scripts that you write you can keep for safekeeping and inspiration, but they probably won’t see the light of day. Which they didn’t! I tried to sell my scripts, but of course no one bought them. I started thinking if no one is going to make my movies, maybe I could try. So I ended up writing a short film called London Bridge and I hired a crew and started learning on the job. I launched the short film, and then another one and another one. I ended up paying an editor extra money to sit behind him and ask questions so I could learn how to edit. For my first feature film I wrote it, directed it, and edited it. I just kept going and going. The main point for me was to keep analyzing what really connected with my audience and what didn’t. I had to be really objective about it, and use any feedback that I get as an opportunity for growth. You never stop learning in this industry. My mom passed away before she could see Three Veils, but she was my first DP before I knew what a DP was! So I want to give a shoutout to my mom.
Scarlett: It’s also good to work together with people you know you can count on.
Rolla: Yes!!! Trust is more valuable than money.
Scarlett: Let’s talk about your curernt project.
Rolla: I’m currently working on a short film called CHOKE. It’s about a rising MMA star who hides her immigrant status from her small town and the world. The main character is a Syrian refugee, so it’s really meant to be an exploration of what we choose to hide and what we choose to reveal.
Scarlett: Tell us more about the story.
Rolla: CHOKE came from my own feelings and commentary about immigration and refugees. I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t preachy – where maybe someone who didn’t empathize before could look at this film and understand that identity isn’t really a choice. I wanted to show what different emotions someone might go through if they have the ability to “pass” as an American; if they have the ability to not say they are Muslim or Arab. For this rising MMA star, she seems like she’s the All-American girl to everyone in her town. Little do they know she’s actually a Syrian refugee who came to this country with her family. As far as MMA goes, I thought that was a really powerful backdrop of symbolism: fighting for your life, fighting for who you are, fighting for identity. Those are all of the different layers that came about when I came up with CHOKE.
Scarlett: I’m excited about this project! I can’t wait to see it. So how can people stay connected with you?
Rolla: If you want to keep up with any of my work, visit my website rollaselbak.com. My Twitter is @rollaselbak.
Watch the making of CHOKE here: