Aadil Dhalech from Patriot Films gets real about how his journey as a mixed-raced misfit has shaped him as a Director.
What started out as a catch up with Director Aadil Dhalech from Patriot Films about his latest work soon turned into a candid two hour face-to-face. Aadil opened up about having to navigate his own identity in the industry and how living a life in the ‘in-between’ spaces has contributed to making him a better performance Director.
Aadil was born to a Thai mother and Indian Muslim father in 1984 in Newcastle in Northern Natal. Apartheid laws meant Aadil’s father was unable to practice as a pharmacist in South Africa and the family packed up and moved to Thailand. In the early 90s, because of the changing political landscape and that the country was about to welcome a new President, the family once again returned and settled in Newcastle. Aadil attended a series of different schools ranging from government run ‘Indian’ schools, to ‘Model C’, and eventually a private high school. He jokingly adds: ‘Guys a private school in Newcastle just means there were chairs, running water, and white people. Anyway, all three of my siblings are Doctors now, so yes we really are living the Indian dream.’ Aadil ended up doing a year of medicine at the University of the Free State as his father regarded his love of filmmaking as nothing more than a hobby. Eventually, he went on to complete his honours degree in Psychology. But the dream was too powerful and finally Aadil got a little bit closer when he convinced his father to let him enroll into AAA. He soon rose through the ranks as a Copywriter, but his love of filmmaking never went away. Over the years he had dabbled behind the lens, but it was only when he turned 31 that he decided to commit as a full-time Director.
iDidTht: ‘How do you think your journey has helped you become a better Director?’
Aadil: ‘I found that my experiences and background really sharpened me as a strategic thinker and in developing insights because I was able to observe so many groups and so many different kinds of people. Growing up in a very Indian and Coloured neighbourhood, while simultaneously attending a predominantly white high school, going to uni in Bloem, and living in Joburg for 12 years after that, gave me a lot of perspective and insight, which have been some of my strongest creative qualities – I am quite adaptable and I can empathise with different groups and people.’
What makes Aadil’s journey so unique is not necessarily only his talent as a Writer and now Director, but rather his experience as a mixed race brown man having to navigate his way through the advertising and film industry. Moving in-between different race and class groups combined with his background in psychology, Aadil has developed a truly unique voice. In the two hours we sat with him, we absolutely fell in love with his soft-spoken and gentle nature. The adversity he has had to face is not something he wallows in for one second but has rather shaped him into someone truly empathetic with a deep understanding of the differences and similarities we as South Africans share. You simply cannot learn that at any film school.
iDidTht: ‘You have such a rich history, what was it like starting out in the industry while South Africa was still such a young democracy?’
Aadil: ‘When I started in advertising it was very much still the old guard – all older white men and their prodigies; younger white men. But there was also this group of young amazing talented black dudes making inroads and shaking shit up. So there were these two sides, and in the middle, there were guys like me. Somehow along the way our voices just got lost in-between.’
iDidTht: ‘Do you mean Indian and Asian people?’
Aadil: ‘Yeah. It’s weird though, even within that I’m not really part of either of those groups. I’m not really Indian and I’m not really Asian. I also wasn’t white enough or black enough. I kinda fell into this in-between space. It’s something I’ve had to deal with my entire life. So, I found myself dropping any sense of ethnicity just to fit in, anywhere. I dropped my Hernández.’
‘I Had To Drop My Hernández’
Actor Óscar Isaac Hernández, born to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father is best known for his acting roles in the Hollywood films Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis, and the newest Star Wars series. Although you probably only know him as Oscar Isaac. Shortly after enrolling in Julliard, Oscar dropped his last name stating that casting directors would only see him as the gangster, the dead body or the Bandolero. By dropping his last name and suppressing his racial and ethnic cultural differences Oscar hoped he could ‘pass for white’ in a white-dominated Hollywood. Spoiler alert: it worked. Oscar, of course, is not an isolated case, think of Martin Sheen (born Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez) and his son, the winner filled with the Tiger Blood, Charlie Sheen (born Carlos Irwin Estévez). Although Aadil has not dropped his surname, he explains how he metaphorically had to drop his ‘Hernandez’:
‘Whether it was consciously or subconsciously, I distanced myself from my heritage. Then I found, when you don’t fit into one specific group you kind of start fitting into lots of different groups because nobody really knows what you are. You get invited to all the parties, but it’s never your party. You become this observer, and in retrospect, this was a privilege. It was a privilege to able to move around like that, to watch and study all of these different people, and the industry. I’m grateful for that.’ – Aadil Dhalech.
Perhaps Aadil’s love of directing performance is because of his own perspective as an outsider or perhaps it’s because his life has been a sort of performance too – performing as a certain group out of necessity to fit in. Nonetheless, Aadil’s ability to direct strong memorable characters, rooted in rich performances is clearly evident in his work. He carefully constructs background stories for all his characters, which on the day assists his actors in finding the motivations behind what they are doing in front of the camera. His latest spots for Kia and Royco are no different and beautifully showcase him as performance Director, who is also very much invested in visual storytelling. After just a year with Patriot Films, he is already a Director to watch out for and we’re excited to see what lies ahead.
Aadil on Kia Sloth: ‘I decided I was going to make this the kind of car ad that I love, the kind of car ad that makes you smile. This ad was all storytelling and the car is very much an integral part of that story. Also, when I read the script I thought to myself, ‘This is my life’. My two-year-old has this black plastic motorbike; you know the one that so many South African kids have. She makes me carry it everywhere – to the beach, the shops – even though she’s not going to ride it. I have to hold it a very specific way – she hates it when I hold it under my arm, I have to hold the handles. The sloth was this character’s plastic bike.’
Aadil on Dinges: ‘When I read the Dinges script it reminded me of the great South African ads I watched as a kid. The David Kramer VW ads, and specifically the Castrol Boet and Swaer spots, which were a big inspiration. It had that iconic tone to it, with a really honest South African feel. I was just really excited to tell a fun local story with compelling characters that captures the essence of South Africa and our sense of humour.’
Aadil on Royco: ‘This was a really brave ad for a brand like Rocyo to make and I have to give them and the agency Net#work BBDO props for that. It was such a technically challenging and exciting ad to make. Chef’s Table and other cooking shows have over romanticised cooking and makes it this avant-garde experience when it should just be easy, and about family. So it was fun to flip the world of Chef’s Table on it’s head. And even though it may not look read like a performance piece, to me it was. I wanted to make each character as real and honest as possible.’
iDidTht: ‘Do you think the industry has changed at all, is there space for the ‘in-between’ voices yet?’
Aadil: ‘I get a sense now that there are a lot of guys from similar backgrounds starting to speak up and be heard. I think it’s the right time to do it. I think everything else has needed to run its course in this country. Of course, I don’t think we should stop celebrating those narratives, but I think there is space now for some other voices.’
iDidTht: ‘So, we gotta know, are you bringing your Hernández back?’
Aadil: ‘Haha, on a personal level I am trying to embrace it more. For a long time, because I felt like such an outcast in my own culture, I didn’t want to connect with it so I just distanced myself. Now I am exploring it more and I’m finding it rich and filled with colourful stories that I can draw on. Everyone always says how amazing my history and heritage is, it’s just taken me a while to feel that.’
As a consequence of the racial and ethnic prejudices Aadil has had to face, he has become masterfully insightful when it comes to South Africa’s diverse people and complex political and social landscapes. And although, in the end, it has perhaps made him a better Director, his story has taught us a valuable lesson fam: Let’s finally start celebrating racial and ethnic differences instead of erasing them in this industry, let’s encourage diverse storytelling and stop feigning racial, gender and sexual diversity. Let’s bring back the Hernández!
Produced by the iDidTht Content Studio
Credits: Anne Hirsch (Writer) / Julie Maunder
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