There’s never been a project that’s felt so important that we need to make it right away, until this one. This is the project. And I’m so happy it is. It’s got the strongest voice and strongest moral compass. And I really believe in the protagonist as well—she’s incredible and I can’t wait to tell her story.”
Says Cassandra Virdee, London filmmaker and set designer. Cassandra is talking about her new short film 51 States, a project which she is now 18 months into making, and which is set to be released this summer. A dystopian thriller, the film tells the story of a young Sikh woman who tries to escape the wall that surrounds the UK, which has become a supremacist state inspired by Trump’s views and Brexit.
We meet Cassandra at Barbican, a cultural hub in the City of London known for its brutalist architecture.
“I feel quite at home here. It’s somewhere I always come: I come here to write; I come here to meet people; there’s something that calls me here.”
It takes knowing what has happened in the lead up to this interview with her, to really get a sense of what Cassandra’s doing and why.
Cassandra grew up in Essex, England, and is half-Indian. Her family’s history has not been easy. Long ago, her grandmother left India and moved to Kenya before eventually settling in the UK in her early twenties with her family.
“The wisdom my grandmother has in life, and her perspective and outlook after everything she’s dealt with (so many different levels of prejudice and racism), makes her a real inspiration.”
Throughout her childhood, Cassandra had a thorough and passionate approach to out-of-school activities. She and her sister took classes in ballroom and Latin dance and competed at national level. At home, she developed a passion for drawing and painting.
Outside of school hours and extra-curricular hours, Cassandra grew up with a film buff father and film buff grandfather, who would spend hours watching (and re-watching) films at home. Cassandra became immersed in films.
Aged 9, Cassandra moved, along with her family, to Atlanta, USA for 3 years, where she traded ballroom and Latin for cheerleading, maintained her passion for drawing and painting, and became immersed in American history and culture.
By the time she was leaving school, Cassandra knew she wanted to continue studying a subject which used her artistic skills for the purpose of storytelling. She applied, and got accepted, to Performance Design and Practice at Central Saint Martins.
Spending three years immersed in an artistic environment at CSM, Cassandra learnt a lot about creative practice. She also had the opportunity to develop her own film projects. In one such project, Cassandra teamed up with her classmates to tell the story of an incident that took place some 40 years ago in Stoke Newington, North London—a man had allegedly entered the police station and committed suicide with a shotgun. But as Cassandra would find out, none of the evidence matched up.
The projects Cassandra was involved with at university were instrumental in shaping her understanding of what it means to be a filmmaker. Film after film, something fundamental about the art form, if not creative practice as a whole, became self-evident to Cassandra: story is everything.
“I learned that there’s no point in making things unless you’re really saying something with it.”
After university, Cassandra didn’t deviate from the idea of breaking into the creative industries. Working part-time as a waitress in Shoreditch, Cassandra continued to build her portfolio as a set designer. She worked first as an art department assistant. After managing to score a job on the twelve-part comedy series Marshals Law, Cassandra built up a wealth of contacts and took every opportunity to network.
Cassandra soon made her way up to the role of draughtsperson and has worked on various international feature films, among them Wonder Woman, Murder on the Orient Express and Artemis Fowl.
Then in 2016, between films, Cassandra got the chance to visit India.
“I didn’t really know how much of an impact it would have and how much perspective it would give me, in terms of dealing with racism when I was growing up. Going to India and seeing everything I’ve seen in tiny chunks in a kind of context—when I came back it made me realise I wanted to say something about how we tackle racism and inequality and old views that our generation should know better about.”
The day she got back from India was the day that Theresa May and Donald Trump could be found holding hands on the front cover of every newspaper up and down the country. After 2 months of self-discovery in India, Cassandra was immediately brought back down to the reality of our political climate.
It started with the idea of someone cutting their hair off to change their identity before trying to cross a wall into a different world.
Cassandra Virdee continues on the subject of 51 States:
“51 States is like a worst case scenario of the combination of Trump staying in office and nationalist groups continuing to gain support here. Seeing the front cover, in the context of Brexit and Trump, was horrendous. I was like, “This is the worst year. How are we going backwards?”. This film is a product of those fears. Being in India and finally feeling a bit more comfortable in my own skin, which is kind of a horrendous thing to realise you feel at 26, and then coming back to this political environment. I went to a lot of protests and I just felt really empowered by having a voice and using it. It’s great to have a passion that you feel strongly about. It’s something that’s so innate.
“David Giles, co-writer and producer on 51 States, gave Jamie Gamache, producer of Lowkey Films, the script. They met up a few days later and said, “Yeah let’s do this! Let’s make it happen! We’ll crowdfund it!”. Jamie was really integral to getting it up and running. David and I had already been working on it for a year at that point. We just needed someone else to come in and say, “This is the time now, stop rewriting it and let’s make it happen.” So that was fantastic and working with him has been great. He’s brought a lot of positive energy to the group.
“We’ve just found this opening location in Dungeness for one of our opening shots. It’s really eerie down there. I went there on my own the other week. Half of me was like “I wanna move down here, it’s so unusual.” But then there’s just random houses in the middle of nowhere on the beach, then containers, then boats… It’s something I’d never seen before. There are these sound mirrors down there that were built in the Second World War. We’re going to use them as our wall in the film.
We did a workshop a couple of months ago – and we didn’t even really mean to cast anyone—we just called in a couple of mates to read for the two other leads. We thought it might be quite nice to bring someone in who might give us more of an idea of a character. Seyan Sarvan came in and just blew us away. She’s got such an amazing power. And she’s got such a wise soul—it just hits you.
Creative Londoners: What are your thoughts on the current nature of our political climate?
Cassandra Virdee: I know more people who support equality and diversity than people who don’t. It’s not an “England” thing or a “Britain” thing. It’s more that individuals can come together and form a pack of hate—that’s something we need to tackle. It’s not a national problem—it’s tiny groups; it’s gang mentality. Growing up, a few people didn’t know what category to put me into because I’m a bit of a mix. They couldn’t quite understand why I wasn’t fully “one thing”.
And it’s not a national thing—it’s tackling the ideals of certain groups that can ruin lives. It leads to horrendous roads, especially when there are gangs and packs.
And when I see groups come together, like Britain First, it can be so dangerous. People listen to the things they are saying and interpret it in their own ways, extending their words in anyway they want. We shouldn’t be hating anyone now. We should be all about equality. We’ve come so far and we shouldn’t be going backwards. I think Brexit bred a new spurt of rage—especially in its immediate aftermath. I know of a few incidents that happened to people in my group, and a few that happened to me, that I hadn’t had to deal with for years. I can’t believe I’m back in the mindset of having to be careful about where I walk down the street because of the extreme views of others. I think it’s the small groups and the larger political things that are going on right now that spur them on that I’m trying to tackle.
Creative Londoners: What are the big lessons you’ve learned from filmmaking?
Cassandra Virdee: I guess one of the things that I’ve realised more recently is that you’ve gotta put everything into perspective. You’ve got to realise that you’ve only got one chance at living. Just do anything that you want to do. I feel like it’s easy to give into fear—and it has always put everything into perspective realising that you only get one chance to live and just taking every opportunity you can. I think it’s really hard to do in practice, because it’s so easy to think logically and so easy to see clear routes for the life you could have that it’s hard to dream and push things that don’t obey that logic. That’s a big thing for me.
You also have to have a faith in yourself and what you’re doing. And it’s so easy to lose that. You have to put everything into perspective. David’s quite shocked because normally I can get quite stressed by things. And it’s so easy to stress out when things go wrong because this project is our baby—but if you put everything into perspective it gives you a kind of Zen. It’s hard because I’m a bit of a control freak.
Another thing is that, especially with what we’re talking about at the moment, I’ve realised that freedom of speech is what is allowing us to make this film: there’s kind of a life lesson involved in accepting the fact that anyone can have an opinion. But it’s important to be open to the fact that everyone has a voice. And even if their opinions are different, you’ve just got to learn the best way to deal with them and open up a discussion. The stuff I grew up with and the problems I’ve had in which people were prejudice or racist, I just wish I could have accepted that and then talked to them about why they feel that way. I think there’s a life lesson in realising the reality and then educating yourself on how to deal with that discussion.
Creative Londoners: What keeps you hooked on filmmaking?
Cassandra Virdee: The reasons why I’m making this film is the same reason I want to keep making other films. I want to talk about things that aren’t really talked about because they’re difficult subjects. I feel like you need authenticity and a strong viewpoint. There aren’t enough films made with the kind of moral compass I want to put forward. Especially in the UK—there’s a lot that’s coming out of America that deal with subject matters similar to 51 States, but you don’t see so many coming out of the UK.
51 States will be coming out August, 2018.
Photographs by Michael Wayne Plant, London-based social documentary photographer.