A kind of immortality

Yasmin Afifi on shattering stereotypes in Jellyfish And Lobster

by Jennie Kermode

Jellyfish And Lobster
Jellyfish And Lobster

A woman with terminal cancer and a man with Alzheimer’s disease share a magical experience in Yasmin Afifi’s short film Jellyfish And Lobster, which recently received a BAFTA nomination. It’s an energetic, creative piece of work which frames the process of ageing and dealing with illness in a way we don’t usually see, so i was delighted when Yasmin agreed to meet for a chat about it.

I began by asking her about the tone of the. It film deals with some highly emotive issues and there’s subject matter that people could find upsetting, but there’s also a lot of comedy. How did she strike the right balance?

“I made the film off the experience of losing two of the closest people to me to cancer,” she says, “but one of the things that I picked up from that experience, particularly with my dad, was just how full of life and humorous and defiant they were against this illness and how they allowed themselves to exist beyond that. And so when I went into making this film, to honour them and everyone else who is dealing with the realities of that, I wanted to do it in a way where it was joyful and that it was truthful.

“I've been having conversations a lot lately around comedy and tone. For me, when I was writing it, I wasn't writing with the intention, necessarily, to be funny. I was just writing with the intention to be unapologetically honest. I think that's where a lot of the comedy comes from.”

I've spent a lot of time around cancer wards and places like that, I explain, so I know that there’s a lot of humour, and people are still being people - yet often when people get sent to nursing homes, the rest of society immediately thinks them as something separate and other and doesn't see them as people. I was impressed that her film invested in making its characters into full human beings.

“It was really important to me,” she says. “I rebel entirely against ageist expectations of people, or how society has these ideas of who they think people should because of their age or because of their disability or because of their illness. There was so much in that I wanted to unpack and just allow these two characters to be themselves and to still retain the youthful elements of life: the possibility of life and the joy that, for some reason, we feel that people lose as they get older or when diagnosed with a terminal illness. And so it was really important for me that these two characters were able to hold onto their identity and that zest for life.

“I kept saying a lot, when were in the edit and in the writing process, when we were getting notes back, it was just like, it's not really our job to judge these characters. It's our job to just let them exist. And that's what I did. And so to see the reaction and the response that these characters have had has been amazing.”

How did she work with the actors to get that chemistry between them?

“We had a few rehearsals before the shoot, but generally speaking, in the casting process, I was going for people who specifically, I felt, had elements of the characters to them whereby they already had that sense of humour. They already had that openness. They already had no self-consciousness to them. They were very honest and open and emotionally generous from the get go. And so I knew when I brought those two together, it would spark a flame, and it did. They both really loved and appreciated exactly what we're talking about in that they were characters of a certain age range from certain backgrounds who were portrayed as incredibly human and incredibly flawed. I think they really took to that, and they appreciated that.

“It was very collaborative. It was very open and safe, and the chemistry there was really just the natural chemistry and friendship that they built whilst working together.”

She tells me that she loved what I wrote in my review of the film about the importance of not overlooking the distinctive beauty of ageing.

“That was what I wanted to show, and hopefully will in the feature version. I did keep those youthful moments very limited so that they had impact, and they had this profound impact on the film, but that it didn't take away from the truth of the matter, which was that the story is Grace and Mido in their older selves.

“It's their story, and our job as an audience is to find the beauty in who they are now, today. And that's very much the journey that the characters go on as well. I wanted them to get to a point where they give in to the magic but ultimately reach a point of acceptance for who they are and the bodies that they're currently living in. And, of course, the inevitability of their mortality.”

I tell her that I think it’s particularly valuable to see a character with Alzheimer's disease in a story like this, especially someone who is allowed to have ownership of comedy and a sense of desire.

“I think a lot of the time in films when we talk about humanising a character, we talk about humanising in a sense of what is one's capacity for pain or what is one's capacity for a struggle or a trauma,” she reflects. “For me, I think humanising is what is one's capacity for joy and love and laughter. That, to me, feels so much more human.

“I knew I had two characters who are often portrayed in a dehumanising way by which they're just defined by their illness and by their age. I wanted to basically just allow them to be who they were. And that was just with conversations and what actually would happen. ‘Do you still have these desires? Do you still have these fears? Are you sitting there and just waiting to die, or do you continue to have dream and ambition in your life, however long you have left?’ Because once you lose dreams and ambitions in life, then, really, what else is there? I wanted to have these two characters that retained the ambition and the dream and didn't just wait around for their lives to come to an end.”

We talk about the animals referenced in the title.

“I read that jellyfish and lobsters are biologically immortal. But the idea and the message of it was that you reach living as if you were immortal by coming to terms and accepting the fact of your mortality. There's something that happens when your life is given a limitation, that you actually start living as if it was limitless. You realise that a lot of the things you thought were important are actually not. You stop caring what people think and you live without a sense of consequences to your actions. And so in that sense, they find immortality. And I just thought the image of the jellyfish and the lobster was quite peculiar and interesting, so I wanted to incorporate that into it as well.”

Those animals are introduced in the film through a terrible performance intended to entertain the residents of the nursing home, when both protagonists seem more capable than the performers of entertaining each other or other people.

“Yes, exactly. And just the irony of singing about immortality to a room full of people who are grappling with their end of life.” She shakes her head, laughing wryly. “And that rebellious moment that they have then is very much signifying them defying that idea that they just have to sit there and wait to die.

“We filmed in a place in Beckinsford which was actually a nursing home that had been closed down for a certain amount of years. They very generously let use it. I remember when we got into the location, they still had the names of the residents that had been there on the doors, and in the wardrobe there were still certain pieces of clothing and hats. It was quite an eerie experience, but in some weird way, it was quite beautiful. We felt connected to the space because we felt connected to the people that had once filled that space. We knew that were making the film for them and sort of everyone else whose story this.”

Modern care homes often feel too clinical, she says, so she was also grateful to have found a place with some natural warmth to it. I note that that warmth also comes across in the clothing choices in the film.

“I wanted the characters to be really vibrant and colourful against the backdrop of a world that, at times, does feel quite greyish. It's in that sort of gray palette. But that's the whole point of it, that these characters are vibrant and they're full of life.”

I ask if she had any expectation that the film would be this successful when she was making it.

“Not at all, really. I just wanted to create something from a really honest place. It felt quite scary putting this out into the world because I think it's probably one of the most honest pieces of work that I've done, and because humour is so subjective as well. Again, like I mentioned, a lot of the humour that we're talking about is just brutal honesty based on my own experiences, based on who these characters are. So I think there was a lot of fear around it. But to see it be embraced the way it has been embraced, to see the journey it's gone on in festivals and to see it fill rooms full of hundreds of people with laughter, but also tears, has really been amazing.”

Will she be nervous on the night?

“Honestly, it's just so exciting to be there. I think the win is in being there, and so I'm just really going to embrace that experience. Win or lose, to have got this far is absolutely incredible, and I'm just so thankful for it. I'm just going to make the most of the night, because it is such an incredible moment.”

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