Sam Arbor is a butterfly in constant metamorphosis, constant motion; an artist who resists the confines of a single chrysalis. The dazzlingly talented writer and director is fresh out of winning the prestigious Iris Prize and the Best British Award at Cardiff’s International LGBT+ Festival for his short film, a collaboration with its lead actor Adam Ali, entitled, Baba - the first LGBT film to locate Libya as its creative environment. Watch it on Channel 4 in the UK at the end of November.
Arbor has been on a steady, golden crescendo since his first breakout at 16 winning the BFI’s Most Promising Talent award, going onto write and direct a number of highly acclaimed short films and plays, many of them focused on the realities of queer identity, each of them searingly honest and stunningly realised; his play Butterfly (co-written with Clodagh Chapman), which ran in London on the cusp of the pandemic, was a kaledescopic romp through queer history. His latest film project, however, centres its gaze firmly on the concerns of the present.

In Baba, Ali plays the raucous, feisty Britannia, a queer man forced to live in the neon-tinted, underground tunnels of Libya, where queerness is still criminal. He dreams of a life lived in Britain, a country which, in his eyes, is the zenith of queer experience; he imagines strutting down Manchester’s Canal Street and holding hands with a man - any man - in glorious sight of the whole world. For his interview with the British Embassy, he must return to his family home for his passport, a home he was turned away from due to his sexuality years before. This nocturnal pilgrimage will place him in the harsh spotlight of a revelation, in the form of his imperious, complicated Baba. It’s a film that not only displays a love of queerness, but a love of Libya too; it’s a celebration at heart, and it shows a warm tenderness for it’s subjects, both in character and setting. For Arbor and Ali, this deeply important virtuosic film planted in the fertile grounds of unashamed joy and becoming has borne a glitter of conversation-starting award-winning neon-coloured fruits.
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Hi Sam! I’d like to begin by talking about your short film Baba, which you wrote and co-directed alongside it’s lead actor, Adam Ali. You both just won the Iris Prize and Best British Award at Cardiff’s International LGBT+ Short Film Festival for it, congratulations! How do you feel seeing the amazing reception to Baba?
Thank you! It’s crazy to be honest, because my biggest hope when making a film is that it makes sense, that the story actually adds up. So to feel like people not only understood it, but can connect to it feels unbelievable. The Iris Prize was the first time we screened the film, which was lovely; the audiences are all LGBT+, so it felt like people were really backing the characters and the story; a lovely place for these characters to be born into the world! Being able to hear people chatting afterwards, at the drinks or wherever, to hear people wondering about what happened next and what the film was really about was a cool moment. To have audiences talking about the story once the film’s over, I mean, that’s why we make films right? It probably is for me.
When I watched the film, I was really moved by the struggles of Britannia, the film’s protagonist, in both expressing his queer identity and embracing the potential freedom to do so. I thought it was such a nuanced perspective – how do you like to tackle these particular subtleties and complexities of queer experience, especially an experience which might not be personally familiar to everyone?
It is something that we really worked on. I think it’s working to avoid that temptation of making a character queer by simply making them flamboyant (in our case, given Britannia is a cis gay man). That thing, of putting a silk handkerchief around his head and doing that Angels in America talking over your shoulder thing, you know what I mean? Which is queer, sure, I’m not saying it isn’t… but the hope with the film was for Britannia to have a uniquely queer perspective on the world. And it’s that which makes him notably, beautifully and visibly queer in the film.
Because his perspective on the world is that he has to become British to become more queer - in his case, a gay cis man. So I think it’s really focusing on that really simple goal, and then everything that he does in the film becomes part of that queer attitude; it’s thinking that, if this is someone who wants to become a ‘better gay’ essentially, as right or wrong as that is, he’ll think ‘I’ve got to become more British’ - he’ll get the blonde hair dye with the handsome British man on the front, he’ll try and get himself blue eyes, he has posters of 90s Take That (so camp!). For him, and for most people in the world, this is all queerness is. What I mean to say is, I think it’s his action in the film that’s distinctly queer; that’s what makes him feel queer in the film, the crop top alone isn’t enough (although Adam does look stunning in it and he knows it). Without this drive, queer characters on film often float around in this weird glittery no-mans land space, where they go ‘Look I’m queer and I can do a death drop!’. Whereas actually, it’s what they want and how they try to get it that reveals people’s queer experiences. I’m definitely still working all these things out in my head.
Another thing I got from the film was about feeling queer, as in, am I queer enough to be part of these communities, to feel I belong?
Definitely, that’s where I suppose it came from. Adam and I were talking about home; we’re both in Manchester so we talked about feeling at home in the LGBT+ spaces, and I said I’ve never really felt at home there. I feel like other people feel more at home there than me, so what’s wrong with me? Why don’t I fit in! You try to change your appearance, you dye your hair, you get an earring, you freeze to death in mesh at five in the morning, but those things didn’t change anything for me (maybe they do for some people, but not me). Aesthetic choices don’t always change where you feel you belong, so that’s really part of the journey that he [Brittania] goes on I suppose, realising that.
The judges noted the film’s emphasis on the ‘strength of community.’ How did you want the film to express these notions of community, (whether that be queer, familial, or a combination of the two, as is common) and to what purpose?
Baba means ‘Dad’ in [Libyan] Arabic, and I think we wanted family to be at the centre of all of it; he’s [Brittania] got these two families, this one that seemed to reject him in the past (although I like to think we made it more complex than this!) and his found family that has welcomed him in. What was really important in the film is that queer friendship is a thing that is celebrated. It’s hard to say because I’ve never experienced a straight friendship, but I do feel like queer friendships have this weight that other friendships could never have. We all kind of grow up in the wrong world, unfortunately, it wasn’t built for us. So I think that the way we experience everything is different, whether that’s our experiences in different places, the things we want to buy, the way we approach relationships, our experience online. Given that we grow up as aliens, it’s more than just nice to hang out with friends, hanging out with other aliens when you’re sort of on the wrong planet, is special, and important, and vital actually. Queer friendships offer the powerful and rare opportunity to talk really openly about being an alien, and you end up feeling less like one. Or maybe you still feel like an alien, but feeling like an alien suddenly feels like a great idea. So yeah, that’s why queer friendships should be celebrated. That, and queer people are more fun to hang around with!
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The film is dedicated to “those hiding in Libya, where it is still illegal to be queer, to protect themselves and their families - and to those brave enough to start discovering what it means to be Arab, Muslim and Queer.” The film explores the tensions that can arise between these facets of identity within a homophobic environment; how would you like a viewer of the film who falls under these intersections to feel or react to it?
I think it’s really hard to hope that people react in a certain way or take something from it, with a film, especially when it’s about a very unique experience. People around the world in different situations will probably react in very different ways. I guess all I can hope is that they’ll be entertained enough to watch the first minute, and then to watch the second minute, then the third, etc, until they reach the credits - that’s my number one hope as a filmmaker. If those minutes start to add up to them feeling something, or something worth chatting about after the credits, then that’s super special. I just hope people, whoever they are, can find love for Britannia and his friends.
The film begins with a transformation of sorts – in Britannia's quite unnerving self-bleaching of his own hair. It’s a defiant show of queerness which worries some of his friends in its explicitness – how important do you think being visually, openly or unapologetically explicit about one’s identity is to the notion of queerness? It definitely becomes a more complicated idea considering the setting of the film.
I think Baba asks ‘what is the cost of being visibly queer?’, visibly queer in a world that wants to keep you hidden or underground. Britannia has no desire to have a romantic or sexual partner who is the same gender as him, his dream is to walk down the street holding hands with someone, someone he’ll pretend to be in love with, just to hold hands and let everyone know that he is queer. For me, anyway, I think it’s really important that whilst what makes me queer is who I want to fall in love with, I don’t only want to feel queer when I’m thinking about love or relationships. But it’s different for different people. Britannia is an extreme example of this. His sexuality is almost unimportant, and being visibly queer is the only thing that matters to him.
You co-wrote the script with Adam Ali – how did you find the process of writing this collaboratively? Do you and Adam have similar creative dispositions?
It definitely brought different things to it - I’m a narrative person who likes to think about plot, and structure, how this scene develops into this, and what keeps the audience hooked and Adam comes from a character perspective. Adam will swan in (yes, Adam swans everywhere he goes, see it to believe it) and say something seemingly small, about how this character would want to wear this make up in this scene, because they feel a certain way. I’m thinking, what the hell, we need to be thinking about what the story means, and how it all connects up! Then I’ll realise three hours later when I’m scratching my brains out in a Costa Coffee somewhere, about why what he said was relevant. He breathes life into all these characters, they are real people to him from the first moment we thought of them. So Adam has this real actor’s approach to it, he has a real instinct to know what’s a powerful thing for the character to feel, and he really knows what’s political, and what makes the film activist.
When did you decide to get into filmmaking and playwriting? You won the BFI’s Most Promising Talent award at 16 years old, so it must have been pretty early on!
That was a total shock. The most surprising thing about that award was that it made me a “filmmaker”. I’d never thought of myself as a filmmaker, and suddenly I was at this festival full of them. I was lucky, I’d walk to school with a couple of mates who were interested enough to talk about an idea for a film on the way into school and if on the way home the idea was any good, we’d still be talking about it. That weekend we’d then make that film. Then repeat, basically. And then a film a week became a film every month, and then this one film, O2 it was called… people seemed to enjoy it. Well, I don’t know about enjoy; basically, people at school didn’t laugh at it, that’s what was different actually about that film, it was the first film people didn’t just laugh at. So we submitted to this festival, it was the first film we’d ever submitted to, then it won the award. Which still feels crazy! I mean you can watch the film, it’s aesthetically pretty shoddy, it was made on a tenner and a pack of custard creams (and you can tell), but I guess the BFI saw something in it! But definitely, the most surprising thing about that award was being awarded the title of filmmaker, because before that I was a kid with a webcam, that’s what we’d filmed on for years.
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In your acceptance speech for the Iris prize, you paid tribute to the other films in the category, describing them as “beautiful, different, important – that is what film is about.” Do you think mainstream queer film is currently embodying these qualities? What would you like queer cinema to be tackling or covering, now?
I think what interests me about queer stories are those ones which might be about another aspect of the experience. Say, stories with trans characters which aren’t strictly about gender, or stories about sexuality which aren’t about romance or sex. We’re only scratching the surface of these stories. Tomboy is a great example, it’s a film which is curious about gender, but there isn’t this grand resolution, it’s just a little exploration of a feeling. I’m bored of seeing these (often straight) people behind the scenes just dropping in these queer fireworks into their films, which they hope to go off with a big glittery bang, but don’t ever really explode properly. They don’t have that genuine bang of a living, breathing person facing issues or conflicts specific to them. You always see LGBT+ characters who are friends with all these straight people and it’s like, when does that ever happen?! I feel like going in there and rescuing them! Maybe that’s a film in itself. A band of LGBT+ people infiltrate a movie to rescue the token queer. Who knows!
Have these projects over your career - I think of your smash hit, panoramic queer history play Butterfly here, actually - changed or developed the understanding of your own queerness too, as an artist and as an individual?
I think it’s definitely made me appreciate queer history, and it’s humbling that throughout history (in terms of Butterfly) people have being doing great work to make a stand in really surprising and hilarious ways, it’s not all placards and shouting and anger (though there’s, quite rightly, a lot of that), it’s knitting a moustache made from pubic hair to marry the person you love, it’s putting on a dress in a place that’s never seen it and smiling at everyone who passes you by. I think I always look for the joy in things, to be a filmmaker who is wanting to make queer work which is hopeful and joyous has probably made me a happier queer person!
I’d love to know, who inspires you as a filmmaker? Do you have any writers, directors or artists who you met with a revelation of some sort in terms of your own work?
The films of Danny Boyle I really respect, because I think he hasn’t holed himself into a niche, in terms of genre or tone. It’s always really unique to the story - I really respect that as a director that you exist as a chef, where you can use all styles of cooking, different pans, different ways to cook and different ingredients to best communicate what you want it to taste like. It feels the same with film, but some filmmakers end up using the same kind of techniques. I respect Danny Boyle because he lets the story lead how he makes it. He’ll make a big sci-fi like Sunshine, then do 127 Hours, which is basically a camera, an actor and a location.
Are you able to tell us about any upcoming projects? Or even, do you know how you’ll invest the £30,000 prize money for a Welsh based short film project? Perhaps it’s too soon to answer that one!
There are ideas brewing around and the notes section of my phone is starting to become more active with new ideas. Some things are sticking in mind. There is a short film script that I have which I’m really keen to shoot, and there is also a TV show that we’re working on, which is really exciting. I’ve just finished as Director’s Assistant to Euros Lyn on a new queer Netflix show (called Heartstopper, it’s absolutely lovely) and I’m currently a Director’s Assistant on a “major Netflix series” (that’s what I’m meant to say).
And finally, are you able to share with our readers where they’d be able to watch Baba, or some of your other work? It really deserves to be seen by everyone who can.
Baba will be on All4 [UK streaming service] this month November, it will be on there for a year. I think! The rest of my work is on my website, or on my Instagram.
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