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17th July 2020
Bad friends and good sports
Experimental, daring and playful, Partizan director Ali Kurr has literally learned her craft on the job, eschewing a formal film school education and throwing herself into the deep end of filmmaking. Whether it’s adding a gritty twist to Sport England’s This Girl Can series or confronting casual racism and rampant consumerism with a hefty dollop of kitsch for pop-rock star Rina Sawayama, every job is met with a joyously can-do attitude, a magpie-like attraction to new and shiny sources of inspiration and a determination to educate herself. Constantly searching for new challenges, she found herself at the bottom of a very steep learning curve with her latest project – a porn film about a performer who can’t conventionally perform – but couldn’t be prouder of the final result, she tells 1.4

You came to directing while studying history of art at the Courtauld Institute, creating video clips to accompany your projects. What led you down the path of directing, and how do you think your background in art has influenced your aesthetic and approach as a director?

 My favourite directors, artists, musicians are people who have experimented and played, and I strive to do the same.  I’m always up for drawing from different influences and that keeps me challenged and excited.  The more I’m making, though, the less I’m experimenting with the grade that often leans on richness of colour and depth in the contrast of the image.  I’ve got Joseph Bicknell, Daniel De Vue and Jonny Thorpe to thank (amongst others) for helping me find that ‘look’.

 These are also the people who helped me become a director.  Having never gone to film school, the talented colourist, editors, art directors, producers and cinematographers that I have worked with have helped me to discover my voice and style.  I think this is something that typifies my shoots, and work is a collaborative effort where we play together to create something.  The focus is always on the director, but I play a fraction of the combined effort and I aim to bring everyone together to get the best result.


Still from Sparrow


Looking at your reel, it feels like you have this magpie-like tendency to pick and choose from different styles that appeal. Your short film, Sparrow, has a strong Andrea Arnold vibe in its bleak depiction of an English seaside town, which is a big contrast to adrenaline-pumping sports spots like This Girl Can, or your music videos for Connie Constance and Yonaka. Who or what do you look to for inspiration? 

 The beauty of music videos is the inspiration is right in front of you.  You can bounce off the track and you’re in this world you hadn’t even thought about.  For Connie Constance’s Clouds, the track took me to this kind of purgatory world and so I felt drawn into Tim Walker’s photography.  Then, for Yonaka, I wanted to make it about sexuality and so thought it would be hilarious to have a big piece of bubblegum that exploded and turned everyone into horny animals (aka the reverse of the iconic film The Blob).  So it’s a brilliant fusion of inspiration straight from the artist and then wherever my mind takes me.


BBC, Change the Game


As a female director, you’ve been keen to avoid being pigeon-holed into doing ‘girly’ work and instead focused on sports ads for the BBC Netball World Cup, Puma, Sport England etc. Was that a conscious decision to pursue those opportunities or did it happen more organically? 

 With minimal experience in the industry before I started making films, I realised I needed to learn quickly.  Sports adverts required different camera equipment, filmmaking techniques and so I figured this was an interesting space to educate myself.  So, I sought out sports work when I started to build a commercial reel and have ended up almost specialising in it really.  Plus, I’ve also learnt you often get to work with the best of the best.  I’ve done jobs with the English Basketball Team to GB’s Netball Team.  Getting to work with the best sportspeople is fantastic and also makes the films looks great.



Sex education: Ali Kurr on set of Outercourse.  Photo: Megan Eagles 


Your latest project, Outercourse, is a porn film with a difference – for a start, it stars a performer who can’t actually have ‘conventional’ sex due to a painful condition. What inspired your foray into the world of porn? 

 I was diagnosed with vulvodynia the year I started directing.  It means ‘unexplained pain of the vulva’, making sitting down to having sex uncomfortable to impossible, and strikes whenever I am stressed. At its worse, I’ve been unable to attend shoots and I’ve spent many edits lying across the sofas with Meg Thorne, Leila Gaabi and Magda Plugowska clutching a water bottle.  It was totally maddening and then producer Sorcha Bacon (thank you!) said to me: you should make a film about this.  I pitched the idea for two years to various funding bodies and got nowhere.  Then, a friend who had made a film with Erika Lust (maker of erotic, beautiful porn) was giving REALLY decent funding to first time porn directors.  I changed the script (which wasn’t originally a porno) and thought why not.  So, I ended up making a film about a porn star who can’t have sex.  It’s fun, educative (how to have sex when you can’t) and sexy. I’m really proud I did it.



Lip service, Outercourse.  Photo: Megan Eagles


Coming from a non-porn background, there must have been some big differences in terms of casting, storyboarding and getting performances out of the actors on the day. How much could you plan prior to the shoot? And what were the biggest challenges once the cameras started rolling?

Superstar producer Rosie Litterick and I navigated it together and found it so eye-opening. Firstly, you cast by seeing people’s reels, not by getting them to audition.  Then, you approach them to see if they are interested in the script.  I ended up working with Lucy Huxley because she has experienced vulvodynia herself and so brought her own story to the role.  Then, whilst you definitely need to keep some of it fresh on the day, I did storyboard every element of the shoot.  This is important because you need to clarify what you want to shoot with the performers and then they can decide if they want to do it or not.  It’s a model based around consent. The most interesting challenge on the day was due to the fact you do not rehearse beforehand.  I found I needed more time to get the performances and teasing out any issues with the script on set than I normally would have, but it’s definitely an exciting way of working that means things don’t feel overworked before the cameras roll!


Were you happy with the final result? What have you learned from the experience?

I’m proud that I’ve made a porno.  It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and was too scared about what people would think, or whether I would lose commercial work but I think it’s one of the most honest calling cards I’ve put out there.  Durex, Skyn, Love Honey…hit me up, I’m available for adverts.




 Rina Sawayama’s Bad Friend


You’ve also just finished two music videos for rising futurist pop star Rina Sawayama, who you previously worked with on STFU. They’re very different in style and tone: XS feels like a dark comedy dig at consumerism through the kitschy lens of home shopping channels, while Bad Friend is more cinematic. Can you tell us a bit more about the concepts behind the videos? Were they shot fairly close together?

I think it goes back to that point about inspiration.  It’s about what works for that track and I felt they required different aesthetics and styles, which is great because it means I get to play! For XS, the lyrics, the message, was so clear that it felt obvious to do a shopping channel; a major influence was Charlotte Church on QVC selling her album.  Then, in a totally different inspiration point, I wanted to pay homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel for Bad Friend.  We shot these two films back to back, days before lockdown (big up to Mayling Wong on production!).  Having to switch from one style to the next, one with choreography and the other with stunt work was a brilliant challenge and I loved it!



Rina Sawayama’s SX


Having worked with Rina on several projects now, what’s the creative process like between you?

Collaboration is key.  Rina has spent a long time working her ass off to make these incredible tracks and I pop in just before they get released.  So, I really spend time listening to the music and then also talking to her about what she’s envisaging.  On STFU, the inspiration came directly from Rina’s experience and so I was there to make that vision a reality. However, on the last two videos Rina gave me a very specific brief. For Bad Friend, she said she wanted to be a Japanese businessman in a bar and then I took it in this 1950s, fight scene direction.  It’s a mutual exchange of ideas and we listen to one another and play around beforehand in rehearsals and on the day to make sure we’ve done our best.


How have you been spending your time in lockdown, and what’s coming up next?

I have been writing a TV series for the past four years and knew it wasn’t quite right yet. Since lockdown I have subsequently rewritten the whole thing and bombarded anyone who will read it with the script. I’ve also been working on a bizarre short film idea with Rina that will shoot when we can.


Interview by Selena Schleh

Ali Kurr is represented by Partizan and Partizan Darkroom