A new documentary offers an alternative perspective on the status of refugees with a focus on one exceptional individual – the Afghan footballer, UNESCO ambassador and soon-to-be surgeon, Nadia Nadim. Myriam Weil, Federation Entertainment’s Head of Documentaries, explains how this enlightening new film came to be made and the obstacles both its heroine and its production overcame to bring it to our screens.
Documentary kicks off on the right foot
Unifrance: This project was the result of your meeting with Edith Chapin, wasn’t it?
Myriam Weil: Edith Chapin came to see me in late August, 2019. She wanted to write documentaries about strong female figures from the world of high-level sports, in particular Nadia Nadim. I had never heard of the Afghan-Danish footballer, who had just signed with Paris Saint-German (PSG), and I did not know her story, but I was immediately captivated. Her father was killed by the Taliban when she was eight; she fled to Europe and found massive success as a footballer.
In the same week, Christelle Graillot, founder of the talent management agency Amepresario, spoke to me about Anissa Bonnefont. Her first documentary, Wonder Boy, was due for release a few weeks after we spoke. When I saw the film, I instantly knew that Nadia’s story could be paired with it as a kind of second volume in the works of this young director (perhaps even with more to follow). It would be a series built around profoundly human and inspiring characters who heal family wounds and turn them into something sublime.
Edith, Anissa and I went to meet Nadia in a little coffee shop in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where she was living at the time. As we talked, Anissa picked up on Nadia’s desire to return to Afghanistan for the first time since her father’s murder by the Taliban – in order to find her father’s medals from when he was an army colonel.
Christine Cauquelin, Head of Documentary Content for CANAL+, and Steeve Baumann, supported us, right from the start of the project. Christine had placed her trust in Anissa with Wonder Boy; she supports talented directors and the producers that go with them on their creative journey. We had complete artistic and editorial freedom! That was a real gift.
Unifrance: Through your focus on Nadia Nadim, you managed to highlight two seemingly very worlds: exile and football…
Myriam Weil: Football is one of the most popular sports in the world. It is synonymous with success, money and glamor; it is the dream of millions of children. Exile, at the other end of the spectrum, is depicted by the media in abstract terms: it is something that happens to other people, in poor countries, not “people like us”. The story of Nadia Nadim and her incredible family – I am thinking in particular of her mother, Hamida, who had to rebuild her life with five young daughters – could be anyone’s story! The attractive and entertaining world of football was the perfect context from which to change perceptions of a family in exile.
Unifrance : It sounds like the production of NADIA was an adventure itself…
Myriam Weil: All the producers you interview must say the same thing: filming and then doing post-production work on a documentary during the COVID pandemic was a massive challenge. The rules were changing every day and were different from one country to another. We had to stop work every time a border was closed, or someone’s COVID test came back positive. And, of course, all the stadiums were empty due to the health measures in place; the PSG players were all in isolation bubbles that had to be respected. The club did its best to open up to us, despite the complexities of the health crisis. Actually, I’ll take this opportunity to thank our Executive Producer, Céline André, who did remarkable work!
When you add the situation in Afghanistan to the COVID backdrop against which we were working, you have yourself a very complex situation. From the autumn of 2020, the French Ambassador in Kabul, David Martinon, warned us that the situation would only get worse, with daily attacks, some by the Taliban, some by Islamic State. We actually show him saying that in the film. Of course he was right, and we had to leave in the end – particularly given the presence of Nadia, who is a celebrity, a feminist and a sportswoman, and who has never been afraid to say that she hates the Taliban – a feeling that is mutual.
Unifrance: What message do you hope to send with this film? And to whom are you speaking?
Myriam Weil: There are several. First, we want to show an inspiring young woman who personifies some seemingly incompatible vales. Nadia is a high-level sportswoman and a feminist. She is a modern multi-lingual woman, and is soon to be a qualified surgeon – she is finishing her medical studies now. She is also a militant, a UNESCO ambassador, a Muslim – and very attached to her traditions. She is all that at once, because it is indeed possible to be all those things at once!
We also want to show that refugees are not parasites. They are people like us, who work, dream and want the best for themselves and their children. Some are exceptional, like Nadia, others more ordinary. Just like the rest of us.
Unifrance: The film goes beyond its role as a simple TV programme.
Myriam Weil: With the help of our partner and co-producer, Echo Studio, we put together an impact campaign headed up by Coline Aymard. The idea is to change perceptions of refugees and help them integrate more easily, in particular by working with the organisation Singa. Full information about this work can be found on nadia.lefilm.co. We also formed a partnership with UNESCO.
Unifrance: How did international programme sales go? Did you have any trouble selling to particular countries?
Myriam Weil: We are still at the start of the process. The film was broadcast at primetime on CANAL+ in October. DR bought it for Denmark. It was also bought in Australia, and we have had offers from the USA (where the film is represented by CAA) and the Middle East. We are also starting to see other offers from Asia. The film was selected by the Women in Doc Talent Hub at Sunny Side of the Doc last year, and it is now starting to do the rounds at the festivals. It is part of the official selection for Denmark’s CPH:DOX, for example.