Set in June 2014, when ISIS took control of Mosul, Iraq, ‘Grace’ is a 10-minute short film by director and writer Brian Patto, that tugs on the heartstrings by mixing fictional characters with real-life events, to shed light on the terrors ISIS inflicted on the people of Mosul.
Basing the characters of the film on his own family, and specifically on his cousin, who was living in Mosul at the time of the ISIS attacks - and had his daughter killed in the crossfire of a gunfight - Brian developed the story of a father and a daughter living in the city trying to protect what is left of their family. Putting himself in the shoes of a parent during the attacks, Brian could only think of one way he would go about protecting his child from something as horrific – a game of hide and seek, which is exactly what he entangles in the plot of the film
Being shown virtually in a number of countries and festivals worldwide and having won the award for best male director in the Prague Indie Film Festive, ‘Grace’ talks about loss, trauma, fear and faith in a way that’s not often portrayed this masterfully. The theme of losing the sense of identity for the people of Mosul is woven throughout the film, but is also parallel to the question any parent would ask themselves when put in those circumstances – does one stay truthful to a national identity, or leave to save what is left?
Brian Patto spoke to LBB’s Zoe Antonov about how he came up with the themes within ‘Grace’, the challenges of turning north Melbourne into Mosul for the production, and the importance and symbolism of light and sound throughout the project.
LBB> Tell us more about the historical context of the film and the life events that inspired it.
Brian> My cousin who lived in Mosul was attacked by Isis. Unfortunately, his five-year-old son was killed in the crossfire of a gunfight. As a father, this broke my heart. I felt compelled to tell his story. This sparked something in me and got me thinking - If I was in that position, how would I protect my daughter without causing panic or distress? I would disguise it in a game of hide and seek.
LBB> What was the development of the characters like and following that, what was the casting process like?
Brian> The characters were based on a combination of my own family and actual victims of the Mosul invasion of 2014. I reached out to several members of the community in Australia, I heard horrific stories of their experience, their trauma, their loss and their terrifying escape. This formed the basis of the characters in the film.
Casting was a tough one as it was important to me for the film to be in the native Assyrian language. Casting took months, I cast non-actors aiming for authenticity.
LBB> How long did it take to create the film, from start to finish?
Brian> I wrote the film in 2014 but from the rewrite (in 2020) all the way through to festivals, it was three months.
LBB> Tell us about the significance of the character of the mother and is there any parallel between that and the roses?
Brian> The mother is the anchor between the father and daughter. She is the most important character. Grace takes all her strength from her mother, she has almost taken her place as the heart and soul of the family. Her father struggles to accept their loss. I wanted the audience to have their own interpretation of what happened to her. Is she dead? Was she taken? Is she missing? The roses symbolise Grace’s mother. I’ve had so many different interpretations from people who’ve seen the film. Is she buried in the backyard? Did Grace plant them to remember her? I purposely left it open. I know what I thought when I wrote it. What did you think?
LBB> What were some of the main themes you were trying to convey? Were they more organic or did the ideas for them come from the start?
Brian> The ideas came from the start. The theme of loss and sense of identity as a people and culture. I wanted to shine a light on a people whose culture has been stripped from them. A culture that goes back thousands of years, all the way back to Babylon and the Assyrian Empire. Also, there’s a theme of regret and the complexities of parenthood. Do I leave? Do I stay? Do I fight? How do I protect the ones I love and still maintain who I am. Do I abandon generations of tradition or do I stay and risk my child’s safety. It’s a tough decision to make. A decision that unfortunately results in either loss of home or loss of life.
LBB> Most of the film unravels inside the household of the family. The ambience in the house is very calming and homely, but dense and always rich with anticipation - how did you achieve that? What role did lighting and sound play in it?
Brian> Lighting was designed specifically to come only from the outside, symbolising the outside world trying to break in. The home is essentially their Safe-haven and he wants to keep Grace safe. The light is harsh and directional, bursting in with power.
The sound also plays a crucial role. The impending danger can be heard from a distance away and as the film progresses it nears closer and closer until inevitably it arrives at their doorstep. I wanted an unnerving sensation, the mixture of calm and external violence is achieved by highlighting certain sounds at specific moments.
LBB> The only time we really see the outside world is through the hole in the concrete fence of the house, where another little girl says 'Goodbye' to our main character. What is the significance of that scene and of the parallel between 'inside' and 'outside' for the film?
Brian> When Grace sees the girl on the other side of the wall it’s signifies thousands of people who are leaving their homes and escaping. People that she knows, that she’s gone to school, who live on her street, all of a sudden picking up their things and leaving. The inside world for her father is safe space while the outside world are abandoning their homes and escaping because they have no choice. That’s why he tells her ‘it’s not safe here’, he doesn’t want her to panic and leave.
LBB> What were the main messages you wanted to convey with the film?
Brian> First and foremost the film is about a father and his daughter and the love that he has for her. This for me is very personal, as I named the film after my own daughter, Grace. Secondary, I wanted to showcase that the Middle East is more than what you see on the news. It is full of different cultures, religions, people, and backgrounds. And a lot of these people are persecuted for their beliefs. There were many minorities who were affected by this tragedy. I wanted to focus on a certain culture, the Assyrian/Chaldean people are the indigenous people of Iraq. They come from thousands of years of culture and now they are being forced out of their homelands and spread across the world.
LBB> What were the most challenging parts of filming? What about the most memorable?
Brian> The most challenging part of making the film by far was transforming a suburb in the north of Melbourne into Mosul, Iraq. We had hundreds of reference shots of interiors and exteriors of buildings. We built renders and 3D designs. Luckily the team we had working on the film were all incredibly talented. We were lucky enough to shoot in a house that was scheduled to be demolished so essentially we had a soundstage. On the day of the location scout, the neighbourhood throughout had rubbish on their lawns. Things like rugs, old TVs, tables, couches etc. The suburb we filmed in contained a large percentage of Middle Eastern refugees that migrated to Australia in the early ‘90s. So we were lucky to find such a great, authentic art department. It was however a challenge to make it work within the timeframe and budget.
The most memorable was working with the talent. They were incredible, they offered such brilliant performances. It was heart-warming and everyone on set was touched by their performances and authenticity. Johnny in particular (who plays the uncle) was in Mosul when ISIS invaded. He and his family narrowly escaped with their lives. I became very close with Johnny as he offered such an insight into what happened. I worked with him even in postproduction with things like the sound design. ‘What did they say?’, ‘What did the neighbourhood sound like?’ etc.
LBB> Any final thoughts?
Brian> The short film acts as a proof of concept for the feature film we are working on at the moment. The feature film will explore what happened to the mother and the relationship between Grace and her father in depth along with their uncle and how they eventually escape.