The idea for “Simone” came to writer-director Aisha Amin after countless hours on public transit observing parents and other caretakers struggling with young children. For our Vol. 16 Periodical Podcast, Asha Dahya speaks with Amin about how she developed the title character in collaboration with actress Cree McClellan, a single mother herself.Support the show
If you haven’t already, subscribe to our monthly newsletter where you will get each episode of the pod straight to your inbox. Learn more at reprofilm.org or at @reprofilm The rePROFilm Podcast is executive produced by mamafilm. Looking forward to bringing you our next conversation!
Hello rePROFilm Podcast fam! I am your host Asha Dahya, back at it with another episode for the month of May, a time where we celebrate Mother’s Day and get ready to see endless vapid commercials and empty messages about how much we love and supports moms…by buying them flowers and chocolates instead of giving us what we really want - ending the motherhood penalty wage gap, paid parental leave, universal or at least affordable child care, and how about tackling the maternal mortality crisis here in the US? That’S just the tip of the iceberg, dear listeners!
Our theme this month certainly does revolve around mothers day, but it’s more of an investigation or examination of what Mother’s Day should actually be about, and perhaps all the ways we are failing to really uphold our end of the bargain as a society - WHO is caring for the moms! And of course, this also extends to all parents and caregivers. We live in a society, at least here in the US, where the idea of a support system entirely depends on your geographical location, your education level, your income status and even your abilities.
There is SO much stigma we need to dismantle when it comes to motherhood - the way we dismiss stay at home mothers, the disdain toward working mothers who need to rely on childcare or nannies, the stigma and negativity toward teen and single mothers, those who breastfeed exclusively for more than a year, those who don’t breastfeed at all, and hell, even people who choose to live their lives child free. The message is clear - you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, and a lot of that has to do with patriarchal systems that take away our choices, control and autonomy. We have a long way to go until each of us are free to make the best decisions for our lives, with the support we need in an accessible way, without shame, judgment or fear.
This month we’re featuring a brilliantly powerful short narrative film titled ‘Simone’ by director and writer Aisha Amin. It couldn’t be a more perfect way to create thought-provoking conversation around our perhaps stereotyped and even reductive ideas of motherhood in America today. It follows a young mother, Simone, navigating the New York City subway system in order to get her baby to daycare on time, so she can make it to a job interview. Simone is a story about motherhood, survival and resilience. And let me tell you, as a mom watching this film, there is one scene in particular that took my breath away and left me with tears, goosebumps and anxiety all in one. It is that powerful.
As a director, Aisha works to tell authentic stories built from real experiences. Her past film projects have explored and highlighted overlooked communities particularly in New York City where she is based, including formerly incarcerated mothers and communities struggling with the presence of gentrification in their neighborhoods. Simone is her first narrative short film, and as she shared with me in the interview, she worked closely with the actress Cree McClellan, who is a mother herself and was able to inspire the character of Simone. If you are looking for a conversation that cuts through the vapid BS of mother’s day messages and instead explores what it means to truly value and support motherhood, please listen to my interview with Aisha Amin and share this far and wide.
Thank you so much for joining me on the rePROFilm Podcast, Aisha, and before we talk about your short film, Simone, I'd love to learn about you and your filmmaker journey. Where did it all begin and what inspired you to get into the craft?
Aisha Amin (03:55):
Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here and, and talk about the film, which I love since it was released some time ago. I don't really get a chance to talk about it so much anymore and every time I do, I I I love it. So thank you for having me. So my filmmaking career began several years ago actually. And I, I come from a traditionally documentary background. I came to film in a sort of strange roundabout way when I was in university. I was actually on a pretty strict science track. I was a neuroscience major, very interested in research and, and you know, the human brain and, and studying it, human psychology as well. And I had finished my credits by the time I was a senior in university, I was sort of looking for electives to like fill up my free time. Ne of them was a film class at a different university that looked interesting to me. It was actually a super eight film class and I didn't even know what so great was. I basically knew nothing about music except that I loved watching them and, and you know, talking about them. And I was a cinephile, but I never ever considered being a filmmaker as a career. But I took this selective class. I ended up making a short documentary on a super eight camera cutting and splicing the film myself with my hands. And it was just totally gratifying, cool experience to be able to like make art that is film with my hands. I was at one point taping pieces of film together and it was, it totally just like changed my life. That little film I made. And I had a real sort of like coming to Jesus moment where I thought, you know, "do I do the thing I'm supposed to do or do I pursue this new thing that I really, really am passionate about?"
And I graduated at that time and I decided to pursue documentary filmmaking full-time as a career. And I just started making shorts. I just started making short films about my friends, my communities, new Yorkers, you know, anything that I could, I would rent cameras, I would my friends as my crew. So it was really like run and gun, kind of, I'm just gonna make movies cuz I don't know how to navigate this career, so I'm just gonna do the thing that I like. So I ended up, you know, leaving college and having all of these short films, you know, that weren't very good, but they were something, you know, and they were sort of raw and and special for the time for, for that age that I was, that's the genesis of, of it.
Asha Dahya (06:22):
<Laugh>, I love that you went from science to filmmaking, but there definitely is some sort of a psychological and scientific process to making films, you know, figuring out the story, the characters, the technical aspects of filmmaking. So there's, I could definitely see some crossover in that in your journey, and I'm sure there are many people out there who may be contemplating the same thing.
Aisha Amin (06:40):
Totally. I think there is crossover, you're right, I, especially with psychology and film and you know, film's ability to sort of like manipulate an audience and to sort of make us feel and think certain things, but that's all psychology. So it definitely seeps its way into filmmaking in, in ways that can be manipulated and, and and bad and in ways that can also be, you know, good and of service to a community, I think.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, let's talk about your amazing films, short film Simone. It's a narrative, short film. First, I'd love to find out where you drew the inspiration from to write the "Simone" story and what made you wanna make a film like this?
Aisha Amin (07:20):
"Simone" Came to me very randomly at the time. I was, I had just started a grad program at Columbia where I'm just finishing up my MFA in screenwriting. So I had just started this program. I was just living very far from Harlem at the time, and my commute was like an hour, like one way. And it was insane the amount of time I was spending on the train. And every time I would ride the train home it would be around three or four. And it's the same time that you don't really get like the work crowd, you get more like the nannies and the young moms picking your kids up from school, the babysitter, you know, picking their kids home. So I would always be with that crowd on the train after my classes ended. And I just for days on end would just observe these mothers or these caretakers navigating this intense subway system with babies, you know, going up the stairs and the strollers and getting through the turnstiles and paying for MetroCards. And I would watch them and sometimes I would help them, but you know, I just felt they were so in control and powerful and, and I admired these women so much at fathers as well. I admired those men a lot. And I just observed them and I thought, you know, it would be interesting if there was a film that combined, you know, motherhood and, and this train system in New York, which is really not catered to people with disability or mothers or people that just aren't like regularly abled. I just was thinking a a lot about how New York can be a very hostile environment for a lot of people, and I wasn't one of those people, but I wanted to explore the experience from mother's perspective.
On top of that I had a close friend Cree McClellan, who is a mother. She actually just gave birth to her second child. She's a fantastic singer and actress and artist and she's a friend of mine and she's younger, you know, she had her first baby when she was, I think she was 21, 20 or 21. And that baby Muzari and Cree, you know, Cree is one of those people that are on the train navigating the train every single day and you know, out there hustling. And she's a New Yorker, she's from Bedstuy. And I thought, you know, it would be interesting if Cree was the subject of this film because she's someone I know personally and I know that she would want to sort of develop this idea with me. So it's very much made with her in mind. I casted it before I even wrote the thing.
Asha Dahya (09:50):
Wow, that's amazing. And yeah, you're so right. I mean, I've read a few articles where there have been mishaps on the subway, some really tragic accidents, you know, mothers and caregivers trying to take strollers down the stairs, and it just really goes to show that it is not set up for families and strollers and people in wheelchairs and you know, people with disabilities. So it's a really great way of showing audiences aside to New York that yeah, we don't necessarily see so often in films. So I think that's really wonderful. And speaking of motherhood, our theme this month is all about dissecting what it means to celebrate Mother's Day and most investigating the often contradictory ways mothers are hell in society, especially in the United States where we don't have a national paid leave policy or universal childcare. Our maternal mortality rates are the highest in the developed world, you know, and I men you know, many people are familiar with these statistics. Now, did any of these issues play a role in your process of writing or making Simone? Like how did that play into your writing of the script?
Aisha Amin (10:56):
Absolutely, it did. I mean, tho those things were always top of mind because I developed the film with Cree, the main actress, and I just, we would get dinner and I would just ask her to tell me what her day-to-day was like. And basically all of these themes came up. I mean, the fact that finding work is more difficult in the first place, being an artist, you have to give so much of your time to your own work. And when you have a baby, you know, balancing that is extremely difficult judgment, you know, the way that your friends react to you. I mean, Cree is a spectacular person because she's able to maintain like a very vibrant social life while also integrating her baby into that, you know, she brings her baby out to like the barbecue and like the par the day parties and stuff like that. Her friends babysit for her. Like it's very much a community that raises her child with her. But everything, everything becomes more difficult in her life. Everything changes. And she was so young that she really was judged a lot by just like random people, you know, on the street. And I remember her telling me that it was about the stroller and, and carrying the stroller up the stairs. And I was like, oh, I'm thinking of developing the scene where, you know, someone maybe helps you bring the stroller up. And she was like, "I don't need help doing that. I do that myself. I have a way of doing it. I'm strong. Like I lift the baby while he's in the stroller and I bring him up the stairs. It takes two seconds and I don't want people helping me because I don't want people pitying me."
And I thought that was so interesting because it's right, like, you know, mass media and, and, and you know, the social structure basically, we not look down, but we sort of like, we pity young mothers because we think that, oh, now your life is over, you know, now you can't work and now you can't do this now, now you're, you know, but that's wrong. I mean, and she's an example of that being wrong. She's someone who was able to maintain her career, her social group, and her freelance work, while also raising a child. And she's not interested in anyone pitying her because she's fine herself. I thought she was shattering that stereotype, just walking up the train, the steps to the train. She was, it, it was quite radical, I thought.
Asha Dahya (13:03):
Yeah, that idea of resiliency in someone so young and so judged by society and by the standards that we hold. So yeah, that's really interesting. I love that. In the story, Simone is a single mother juggling a potential job interview with childcare responsibilities in New York City, like you explained. Why was it important for you to show these issues through Simone's lens? You know, someone who's balancing so much and juggling so much, but is so determined to make this job interview.
Aisha Amin (13:31):
I always wanted the childcare element to come into it. I wanted her to be a working mother, which Cree is. I wanted Simone to be dropping her kid off at daycare because that's a real thing that is expensive that mothers have to do when they wanna work and the prices of it and sort of like the demand in daycare centers in such a populated city is real as well. And I wanted her to be someone who was actively looking to, to find work and to better herself and, and to get a job because she is a single mother and there is that pressure of I need to provide for myself because no one else is.
The character of Simone is different than, than Cree the actress. So we developed this character together and we figured that Simone's budget is tight. She is financially struggling as a single mother, but she doesn't seek pity or handouts from anyone. She's hardworking. She sends her kid to daycare, she goes on job interviews multiple times in the week to try and secure work. She's smart, she's determined, she's a great mother. So no one could have anticipated what happened, you know, and she's a hustler. I mean, she, every, every day she's hustling and trying to get to work on time and get here on time and do that, and she does it successfully. So that was the character that we developed. However, she's struggling financially a a which is very real living, living in a neighborhood that's quickly gentrifying in New York as well. Sort of all these elements and themes that come to play through her character. I mean, there's a scene when she's going to the deli, the bodega, and she's buying a snack, a banana for her kid. She's buying a coffee for herself and she wants to buy rolling papers, but the price of the rolling papers is skyrocketed because of gentrification. So they're like, whatever, eight, $9 now. And she looks and she thinks to herself, is this smart? Like, can I afford this? And she says no. So like, that was a moment that was important. It's tiny in the film, but it's sort of like showing that there is this pressure that's always on her. And kind of putting the audience in, in that head space.
Asha Dahya (15:39):
Yeah, those small daily moments that really add up to all the things that she's juggling. So yeah, I think that was really great, being able to watch that and, and as a mother myself, having endured numerous anxiety and stress-induced moments with my kids when there were babies and toddlers, I, I physically felt Simone's stress and anxiety watching those train doors close with her child inside as she stood on the platform. I know this is a spoiler alert, but everyone who's listening to this is hopefully gonna watch this film on the repro website this month. Can you share more about, about creating and building that moment of tension as a director and how that scene came about? Tell me how it was all created.
Aisha Amin (16:19):
Yes, so that's like the pivotal scene in film and everything sort of leads up to it. And the way I conceived of it in the script writing phase was very different than the way that we built it. Me and my editor in, in the post production phase. So I, in the script writing phase, you know, when I came up for the concept, it was sort of like, this is a slice of life film of this woman Simone, and everything is calm and normal and this is her daily routine and this horrible, unbelievable thing happens that no one is to blame for, right? Because it's not really her fault and it happens and she solves it, and then she has to continue on with her day. So she has this incredibly traumatic thing happen to her, but as a mother in New York, you just have to be like, okay, I'm gonna put that in the, like, the darkest part of my brain and forget about it forever.
I'm just gonna like keep going and now I have to get to this job interview. You know, I can't think about what happened because it's too, almost too traumatizing the idea of losing your child. So it was very much just like a blip. But then in the edit it was difficult because we were dealing with moving active trains in Brooklyn, in New York, and we were staging everything and we had crew members at a previous station and at the station that was coming after the stop that we were at. And we had Missouri the baby on the train, and it was shot like a documentary, honestly, it was shot like a documentary and we did it so many times until we got what we thought we needed. So then Jamie and I went to the edit, we just carved it out and built the tension in the edit. I mean, it was entirely done through post-production and pulling things from coverage that we got in like a documentary style.
Asha Dahya (18:07):
Wow. And then talk about Muzari being on the train. Like what were the I guess the technical aspects or walk, walk me through how you set that up or was there some, obviously there was someone on the train with him and you know, how did you move between the two stations, you know, to get the whole scene shot?
Aisha Amin (18:22):
Totally. So that was, it was technically very difficult and it was thanks to the incredible logistical work of my two producers, Cameron and Annie, who had come up with a subway plan well in advance where we would station production assistance at different stations. So we would have Muzari and his babysitter at who was, who was playing an actor in the film as well, but you know, sort of like, it was actually his babysitter. So we had them on a train at the station previous to the hall one that we were at, which is called Halsey. And then we had a crew at the station right after Halsey, and then we had our Halsey station crew, which was me and the DP and Simone and our sound mixer.
So we timed the train cars, we timed the location of where we'd be standing on the platform. We marked it, we would call each other or we'd have walkie-talkies and we'd let them know what train car we're in and when it's approaching and, and sort of like, it was so logistical and it felt like I was in a spy movie or something. Like, it was crazy how we were operating. It was actually seamless, surprisingly, because the trains came really frequently that day and this was the middle of the day, and really they were quite empty and some of them were full, but they were mostly empty. So we got lucky, but we would have Muzari arrive, we'd have Simone do the scene, the doors would close, she would come out, then she would bang on the doors, the train would leave. And, and we just did that over and over and over again with every other train for the entire day. That was our entire shoot day was on that platform. And there were points on the train where what was happening was so believable that the train conductor would not move the train because they thought that a mother had actually left their child on the train. So we had done something that was sort of like, you know, I had to have my producer go and explain that we were shooting film and everything's a film. It's a, it's a film, the baby's fine, you know, but it was sort of a, yeah, it was a lot of moving parts <laugh>.
Asha Dahya (20:27):
Wow. I love the behind the scenes explanation of that because watching it, it's like, you know, that there's a lot of logistics and planning and scheduling and rehearsal and, you know, making sure everything's down to the, down to the T. So that's, that's really wonderful. And so I, I, I hope people who haven't seen the film yet will watch it just based on that alone. I mean, it's such a powerful, you can't take your eyes away. It's just such a powerful scene and just really encapsulate this story in a nutshell. And speaking of all of that, what kind of emotions or thoughts do you want this film to provoke in viewers?
Aisha Amin (21:03):
It really depends on who the viewer is. I mean, I've had mothers like yourself that watch it and have a really visceral different reaction than people that aren't mothers or people that, that aren't from New York. I mean, it entirely depends on the context for the viewer, but I mean, there's feelings of stress and anxiety that exist in the film. But the takeaway is, is I think admiration and understanding of the main character that, you know, this is someone who has to go through so much and, and she just has to keep moving. So it's sort of like admiration of, of her existence.
Asha Dahya (21:40):
And what about Cree? What did, what was her feedback?
Aisha Amin (21:42):
She loved the film and she is an incredible collaborator and an incredible natural, such a natural and authentic actress. And you know, right after the film premiered on Vimeo we didn't have like a formal screening and Cria had that at that time, moved to live with her mother because she was pregnant and gonna give birth again. So we hadn't actually like been together in a screening on like a large, in a large cinema, and we're still kind of missing that opportunity. So hopefully that comes so that we can experience it together. But, you know, so many people have reached out to me and her about how the film has affected them and, and I think she sees that, that it really has an impact. And yeah, we definitely wanna keep working together.
Asha Dahya (22:28):
Yeah, that's amazing. I certainly hope that, yeah, that she shares more of her story too. It sounds like she's really got a lot of creativity in her and ready to take on the world and, and break down these, you know, stigma and misconceptions. And speaking of those, what are some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that you hope to break down through the character of Simone and through the whole story?
Aisha Amin (22:47):
It's so funny because I remember screaming the film for a friend and she watched it with someone, a guy that she worked with, and they both had different reactions to it. The guy was like, oh, Simone's a bad mother.
Asha Dahya (22:59):
Aisha Amin (23:01):
Why did she do that? You know, she could have proved that. And the woman was like, oh no, you don't understand because when you're in a situation like that, you cannot keep track of everything. And I was realizing like, okay, it's gonna provoke different ideas in people about what being a good mother even means. And, and in my head, Simone's an amazing mother. There was an accident, right? Like she's juggling so many things that an accident that nobody could have saw coming happen, but this does not mean she's a bad mother. But it did really make me think that people are so quick to judge mothers. There's so much pressure on mothers that are honestly put on a lot by men who don't even have to deal with half of the things and they don't need pity and they don't need sort of handouts. They just, Simone doesn't need anything from anybody, you know, she just is a very capable person. And I think I want people to walk away understanding that bad things can happen and people just have to keep moving through their life regardless of that. And pretending that everything's okay for their child. Mothers are incredibly giving and selfless and I think breaking the, the misconception that she's a bad mother, hopefully people don't interpret it like that at all.
Asha Dahya (24:19):
<Laugh>, that's an interesting reaction from a, a male for sure. And also the added dynamic that she's a young black woman as well. I think there are definitely some of those racial dynamics and stereotypes and attitudes and unconscious or conscious biases that come into play, I'm sure in some of those reactions. So I think it's really powerful to see her as a young black single mother who's handling her life and, and taking care of things and comes up against this, you know, potentially traumatic moment, but then is able to brush it off and go on with her day and, and take the phone call and, and, and, you know, continue on with that job interview. So I think that's a really a really powerful visualization for people to see. For sure. And when I was reading your bio I love some of the, the ways that you have approached filmmaking and some of the inspirations. And you talk about how a lot of your films come from a desire to explore and highlight overlooked communities, particularly the in New York City, like you explained, including formally incarcerated mothers and communities struggling with the presence of gentrification in the neighborhoods. Can you share more about how film is a tool for opening our minds to new perspectives and issues that we weren't previously aware of? Either an anecdote in your life or the impact that you've seen from your films and from this, this film. Simone,
Aisha Amin (25:42):
For me, film has become like a, a, a service that I participate in. It's almost a service entirely for the people that I'm portraying on camera. Simone was, was me using my filmmaking abilities and storytelling abilities to be in service of mothers, black, young black mothers in New York, like Cree and like Simone who don't have a voice or who people, people don't know what they go through. I was giving them a platform so people could see that it's a service-oriented career in my opinion. The very first film I made, which was a super eight film that I was talking about, was a short documentary about a friend of mine named Sonya, who was incarcerated and had two children, and while she was incarcerated, her children were forcibly put into foster care. You know, this was sort of like a very, very difficult situation. And she used to write them these letters that their social worker never gave them.
So the film was about reuniting with her kids and, and, and reading the letters together. And it was an extremely powerful moment for her, and I made that film in service of her. I wanted her and her kids to have something that they could, they could watch together and they did watch together and it was moving for them. And, and that was everything for me. That, that was the reason why I made it. It was there was no other purpose. And I think film, when you partner it with, with projects and organizations like repro and, and nonprofits that wanna promote sort of like screenings and service-oriented work and community-based work, that's where film can thrive. And that's really the only world of film that I wanna live in, is is where you're showing it to communities that you're portraying. And it's, it's changing opinions and it's changing misconceptions. And that's what excites me about the profession for sure.
Asha Dahya (27:34):
Yeah, I love that. That's so beautiful. I mean, it's everything that we want to promote as well with repro film. And I, I really, really encourage everyone listening to watch Simone on repro film.org during the month of May and think about motherhood and Mother's Day in a completely different perspective. And hopefully it'll, you know, encourage you to ask more questions and, you know, investigate deeper the misconceptions or the commercializations that we often throw on motherhood and Mother's Day. So thank you so much, Isha. And before we go, I wanna know what projects you're working on next. Where can people follow you and what can we look forward to in your world?
Aisha Amin (28:12):
Yes, thank you for having me. This was such a wonderful conversation. I am working on releasing another short film called Rumi that is being submitted to a few festivals at the moment. And it's about navigating the fashion industry in New York from the perspective of a Muslim woman. That film is sort of in the works and it's being released hopefully soon. And then I am writing a lot, I'm a screenwriter, so I'm working on a TV pilot about the ethics of documentary filmmaking right now. Yeah, a lot of my projects always have a young woman in the lead as the protagonist, and I think that's probably gonna be everything I ever make will just be like me reflecting on my own experiences in the world way. But that's what's coming up and people can follow me on Instagram and mostly that's where I post things and my website as well and my Vimeo maybe if they want. But this was wonderful and I really appreciate, you know, having the platform and the chance to talk about this film and sort of the deeper meaning behind it. And these questions were so thoughtful, so thank you very much.
Asha Dahya (29:15):
Yeah, absolutely. Aisha Amin, thank you so much for your time and we can't wait to see what you do next, and we will definitely be cheering you on and supporting and amplifying all the important messages that you put out into the world so thank you very much.
Aisha Amin (29:28):
Asha Dahya (29:31):
Do yourself a favor and watch ‘Simone’ during the month of May by heading to Reprofilm.org and subscribe to the repro Periodical while you are there so that you can get every episode of this podcast and the short film we feature each month, straight to your inbox! Share this episode with a friend and help us spread the repro film message and mission.
The rePROFilm Podcast is executive produced by mama.filmHosted and produced by me, Asha Dahya, Edited by Kylie Brown, With original music by ParisJane and Marrice Anthony.The periodical is programmed by Neha Aziz and written by Emily Christensen Alex Sgambati is our Social Media Manager and Rebecca Sosa is our Distribution & Impact Strategist. You can find us on social media @reprofilm on Instagram and @reprofilmfest on Twitter. I look forward to bringing you our next conversation. Bye for now and of course, Happy Mother’s Day!