Thursday, February 20, 2020

UCLA Extension Helps Make “The Illegal” Happen

Enrollment is now underway for UCLA Extension’s spring quarter, which begins March 30. Within Extension, the Writers’ Program offers many courses for aspiring creative writers and screenwriters of all ability levels. It’s hard for me to believe it, but I’ve been teaching Extension screenwriting courses for a quarter of a century (yikes!), first on the UCLA campus and now online. For the past seven years, I’ve offered an advanced online course with the rather unwieldy title of One-on-One Feature Film Rewrite. Because it’s taught over the Internet, I deal with students from all across the globe: Australia, Taiwan, Mexico, Greece. This has led me to a number of unique experiences, like reading a sexy scene dreamed up by a Jesuit priest in Dublin. Some of my students—whom I personally select for the course—are retired professionals (doctors, teachers, bankers, airline pilots) who’ve always wanted to write. Others are film industry veterans, like the longtime cinematographer in my last class, who hope to make movies on their own terms.

One of my most motivated students has been Danish Renzu, who lives in L.A. but hails from a small town in the tension-wracked Indian state of Kashmir. Danish first came to the U.S. to study electrical engineering, but his passion for film won out, and he found himself earning a certificate in filmmaking at UCLA. Like most budding filmmakers, he really wants to direct. But he has learned the value of writing screenplays so as to provide himself with material that makes use of his deep understanding of a far-off culture.

His first feature film, shot in Kashmir in 2017, deals with an unfortunate facet of Indian life: the fact that a woman whose husband is taken away at a time of political turbulence must accept an in-between status that affords her few rights of her own. This ambitious film, called Half Widow, was a hit at some international film festivals, winning several awards.

I had nothing to do with Half Widow, which was written in Urdu and the Kashmiri language. But Danish’s next script won him a place in my advanced workshop. I could see its power immediately, but also had to acknowledge that it needed a lot of work. Though The Illegal is not Danish’s own story, it makes good use of his experience as a young Kashmiri film student trying to make his way in SoCal. The lead character, Hassan, is proud to have been admitted to USC’s famous film school, but finds that (despite immigration rules) he must work to afford his tuition. He ends up with a lowly job at an Indian restaurant, run by a conniving boss who takes advantage of his staff’s desperation to stay employed. When Hassan’s immigration status is threatened and he finds himself in danger of deportation, he ponders the need to give up his filmmaking dream while he slips under the radar as an “illegal.” Hassan’s drama is played out against the story of his family back home, dealing with their own joys and sorrows.

When I first read Danish’s script, I was worried that a long romantic section, involving Hassan’s liaison with an affluent American young lady, seemed too rom-com to fit in with the rest of the script. Both online and, later, in person, I argued for a re-structuring and re-thinking of this section. When I saw the finished film (starring Suraj Sharma of Life of Pi), I was delighted by what had been removed. Now The Illegal is both charming and powerful, a timely reminder of one of the great issues of our day.

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