An enduring love for cinema, a grandfather’s guidance, and a chance encounter with a producer—all these add up to Farah Idrees’ dynamic career as a producer extraordinaire, one that shows no signs of slowing down.
On April 18th, 2018, the Saudi Arabian government lifted its decades-long ban on movie theaters, pulling the curtains back on its first big screen in its capital, Riyadh. It was a day many thought would never come, and that includes New York-based producer-filmmaker Farah Idrees.
Born in 1997 in the Saudi Arabian metropolis of Jeddah, a bustling port city on the Red Sea, Idrees’ only reference for what a movie theater was what she could find in a Google image search. “Finally, Saudi has movie theaters, but when I was a kid, the possibility of being involved in the film industry, let alone producing a short film, was virtually impossible,” she shared with The Knockturnal. “No one around me was dreaming of doing that because there was no access or path.” Living in a cinema desert wouldn’t stop Idrees from trying to become a successful film director though, a dream she’s had since the fourth grade.
Raised on a steady diet of American and British music videos and films, Idrees was quickly enchanted by the idea of becoming a professional filmmaker at an early age. Her grandfather, one of the most prominent Arabic musicians in the world, was also instrumental in stoking that passion: “Watching my grandfather work on his music made me want to explore that world and what it could offer me…It was those [music] videos and my grandfather’s passion that showed me what was possible: how I could combine my love for storytelling and music into one amazing thing.”
Arriving in New York in 2015 to attend NYU as a journalism major, Farah found her way to record label 300 Entertainment as a creative intern in her third year of college. It was there she would meet the Director of Content, Xavier Andrews, who gave her a job as a production assistant on projects like Young Thug’s “Slime Language” Album visualizer. Hungry for more challenging roles, she was quickly promoted to an associate producer, laying the groundwork for 300 Entertainment’s first YouTube series, BRKRS, that summer. And it was on that shoot where she realized she “had the stuff,” that ineffable quality that makes or breaks a great producer. “Filmmaking, as a producer especially, is mostly problem-solving,” she said with conviction. “You have to think on your feet constantly. It is never all smooth sailing like you would hope it would be. And when an issue comes up, you just have to figure it out. No one is going to hold your hand.”
Taking those valuable lessons with her, she joined the team of Cinematic Music Group later that year as a freelance producer, working on everything from variety shows like “Follow My Recipe”, “Trap Trivia,” and “Cuffin Season with ABG Neal” to visually arresting music videos for Abby Jasmine including Groovy ft. Guapdad, Coneheads, and Poland Springs. Beyond working with record labels, Idrees established her own network of creatives and has worked with emerging artists such as Ilham, Halima, VON, and more. Idrees has also worked on narrative-driven short films, producing Nina Gofur’s experimental short-film “Into the Red” and Emily Gurland’s short-film “Blueberry Island.” Outside of her producing gigs, she is currently working on her debut film amidst the pandemic, FARASHA, a project she hopes will be the first step in securing her legacy as one of the most prominent Saudi female storytellers. “The project is short, around 15 to 20 minutes, but it is going to be something where I’m showing my reality—which will hopefully inspire someone else like me to show their reality too,” she told The Knockturnal. “There is just something so poetic about butterflies—that metamorphosis—and I view my own journey as a filmmaker and producer as something akin to the evolution of a butterfly…I feel like I’ve achieved some of that change during my time in New York. It’s been here that I’ve started to soar and gain those wings by my own efforts. But I’m still on that journey. There are still so many difficult hurdles to overcome, and the film explores some of that hardship, as well as issues of identity, race, and class. It is really special to me, and I can’t wait until I get the opportunity to film it.”
The Knockturnal sat down with Farah to talk about her foray into producing, what the industry-at-large can do to empower more women, and the indelible power of trust.
The Knockturnal: I love to hear about how you first got involved in video production.
Farah Idrees: Well, I started working with 300 Entertainment as an intern. In the first couple of weeks, I met this guy there called Xavier Andrews, who was, at the time, the Director of Content. I wasn’t very familiar with the logistics of video production, but I did know that I wanted to tell stories and really wanted to be apart of something where I could push myself creatively. So, one day, I walked up to Xavier and said, “Hey, if you ever need help on any projects, please feel free to hit me up.” He said yes, and that was that. I started working as a production assistant with him on a couple of projects around the beginning of 2018. But right before thAT summer, he asked me to be the associate producer on a series he pitched called BRKRS. I literally jumped from being a simple P.A. to associate producer very quickly. It all happened so quickly, but it came so naturally to me—everything from handling pre-production to making sure the talent was happy. I learned so much during that first experience as a producer, and those lessons have really stayed with me.
The Knockturnal: When did you first discover your passion for music and filmmaking?
Farah Idrees: Most of my family didn’t have a particularly intimate relationship with music, but my grandfather sang and played instruments, so there was always music in the house. I followed his footsteps and started playing piano at three years old. I had a really bad stutter growing up, and piano provided an escape for me, an outlet to express myself. I always felt more comfortable with myself whenever I played or danced ballet because they encouraged me to be fluid, to go with the flow so to speak. Watching my grandfather work on his music so made me want to explore that world and what it could offer me. I grew up in Saudi, which didn’t have very advanced music or video production industry at the time, but I did watch a lot of American and British music videos. It was those videos and my grandfather’s passion that showed me what was possible: how I could combine my love for storytelling and music into one amazing thing.
The Knockturnal: The scope of your portfolio is quite impressive. What do you think allows you to have such versatility as a producer?
Farah Idrees: I never want to be boxed in, especially as a producer. I feel that I have the capacity to be just as successful at producing short films as well as music videos. I think everyone has that ability to be multifaceted, you know. No one person is bound to one thing. It’s all a mindset. We are all complex beings, and our art reflects that. I also love a good challenge. I don’t just want to do one thing because then you get kind of comfortable and you want to keep doing the same thing because it is easy. I want to push myself to grow as a producer, so I’m always open to new projects that aren’t always in my wheelhouse, and in turn, my portfolio tends to be more eclectic.
The Knockturnal: What do you look for on a project when you’re considering signing onto it? Is it the material, the attachments, the logistics, or is it a combination of those?
Farah Idrees: It comes down to the director’s vision. If I believe in the vision and love the treatment, then I go all in. But sometimes, people just reach out to me, and I will hop on their thing because I’m eager and want as much experience as possible. So when it comes to those kinds of projects, it is about improving my craft and building my portfolio. Though when I can, I love to work with artists and directors who I vibe with—creatively, aesthetically. As a producer, you’re able to see a small or big idea develop from these little pictures on a page and come to life on set. There’s no other feeling that can ever compete with that. You feel like a magician, almost. [laughs]
It’s all about rolling with the punches when those situations happen. And if there is one thing you can count on, it is something going wrong. You are leading the set. You have to keep everything together so that everyone else keeps it together. If you start folding, they’re going to fold as well. That’s what it means to be a producer.
The Knockturnal: If you look back at all your experiences on set, what is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned thus far?
Farah Idrees: Before walking on set, you have to be prepped, and all of that happens during the pre-production phase, which is, in my opinion, the most important step. If you’re not prepped properly, the product is definitely going to reflect that you didn’t put in the work beforehand. But even if you have solid pre-production, you can’t avoid issues that come up. Things almost always happen on set that you really didn’t account for.
Filmmaking, as a producer especially, is mostly problem-solving. You have to think on your feet constantly. It is never all smooth sailing like you would hope it would be. And when an issue comes up, you just have to figure it out. No one is going to hold your hand. There was one time when we had an issue with an artist since he came super late, and we just weren’t able to like to finish the video that day. So we had to book an entire second and third day, and that was super stressful because everything needed to be rebooked: location, models, and more. Another example just happened this Saturday. We rented a car, but as we were going to pick it up, the car owner canceled on us. We only had a couple of hours to figure it out, but thankfully, we had someone on set that had a friend that owns a car.
It’s all about rolling with the punches when those situations happen. And if there is one thing you can count on, it is something going wrong. You are leading the set, and if things get stressful, you have to keep everything together so that everyone else keeps it together. If you start folding, they’re going to fold as well. That’s what it means to be a producer.
The Knockturnal: You’ve worked on three music videos with Abby Jasmine. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with her and those shoots?
Farah Idrees: Yes, Abby is great! I used to work with Cinematic Music Group, and ADAM, who’s the head of their video production strategy and team hit me up and said, “Hey, this guy Mike Schmiegel has these two treatments for Abby. Can you make them happen?” So that was how it all got started: We shot two music videos for her—Groovy and Coneheads—in four days, back-to-back. It was definitely one of my most stressful producing jobs, but one of my most rewarding and fun at the same time. She was so funny, yet so professional, and because this project meant so much to her, it made me want to go harder and push myself.
The Knockturnal: What is the most important aspect of relationship building—one that entails artistic collaboration?
Farah Idrees: It’s definitely a mix of respect and mutual understanding. As a producer, you’re not just responsible for ensuring that the set runs smoothly, but also making sure that the director’s vision comes to life. If there is a lack of respect, understanding, and communication between you and the director, it is over. Of course, creatives may clash, but at the end of the day, you have to move forward and get the job done.
The Knockturnal: How does your role change as a producer when you are faced with a smaller budget and less time?
Farah Idrees: I’ve worked with big and small budgets, and I think smaller budgets teach you a lot because you often have to wear more than one hat with limited resources. So on a project like that, I’m not just a producer, but assistant directing as well—and possibly taking on some of the responsibilities of a production manager or assistant. You get creative in lots of different ways where you might be like, “Ok, how can I finesse this $500 location when I only have $200?” In these situations, you have to have people skills—and if you don’t, you better learn! The great thing about low budget shoots is that you are learning a lot, at a quick pace, all the time. I’m very grateful for smaller budget shoots because they push you to understand every single department. I started off doing smaller budget projects, but I feel like if I started off with bigger budgets all the time, I wouldn’t have learned those little things and made those mistakes you can afford to make. But no matter the size of the budget, I’m always going to keep growing.
The Knockturnal: Is there a particular project that stands out for you, that felt the most fulfilling?
Farah Idrees: That’s a really difficult question. It’s like asking me to choose between my kids. I want to say it has to be the short film I worked on with Nina Gofur, Into The Red. That was the first short film that I ever produced, and there was just something about the energy on set. We filmed it in two days and a half. We went to Upstate New York to this really eccentric house. I think that set was the most fulfilling because, in the beginning, I was nervous since I’ve never done a film before. I wasn’t sure if my music video experience was going to translate well onto a film set, but they trusted me with the pre-production. I think that trust and my relationship with Nina are what helped me a lot in that process.
The Knockturnal: Tell me about your time on the set of ‘Blueberry Island.’
Farah Idrees: I was working very closely with Audrey, who was the producer on that set. From start to wrap, Blueberry Island was truly a feat. It was a 10-day shoot and it’s still in post-production right now, but on set, it was very hectic. It was also fulfilling because it was an all-female, non-binary set. So many sets are male-dominated. It was definitely a nice change and gave the entire project a different vibe when we were filming. If Into The Red was a very experimental film, then Blueberry Island was more of a traditional narrative story—tons of dialogue, more structure. I learned a lot in those ten days about how to produce those kinds of projects. It felt almost like a boot camp, but incredibly fun. I have so much love for everyone on that set.
The Knockturnal: You mentioned how sets are very male-dominated. How does the industry assume responsibility for something like that and providing those opportunities to their female counterparts?
Farah Idrees: I feel like mentors are really important in changing the industry. If you’re an “outsider,” it can be hard to know where to start. You might even feel it is impossible and too out of your reach. It is an industry-wide issue, but not an industry thing, if that makes sense. It really depends on individuals doing right by others and making an effort to reach out to those “outsiders.” Professionals need to be more open to mentoring. Recently, I’ve been cold calling and messaging creatives on Instagram, and I’ve been getting responses. But ten years ago, without the help of social media, I wouldn’t have been able to directly hit up these people and make those important connections. The internet has made it so much easy for people like me and others to build our networks. The gap was so wide before, but now, you can easily find a DP or producer on Instagram, Twitter, or wherever and make instant contact with them. They may not respond, but that possibility is there, unlike before. I say all of this, but the industry is still dominated by a lot of white men. There is this call for diversity, yet those initiatives end up being performative much of the time. We are seeing much more diverse casts, but what about the people behind the scenes—the production assistants, the director of photography, the producers? We really need to diversify all aspects of production, from the talent to the people making it happen on set.
The Knockturnal: What can creatives, in positions of power, do to inspire female and/or BIPOC storytellers to pursue filmmaking—or even simply inform them that these opportunities and resources exist?
Farah Idrees: The solution is simple: women and people of color just need to be hired. We have all these stories and talent in the world, but we are overlooked so often. We don’t need inspiration—we are inspired, already! My mom sent me a photo of me in the fourth grade during career day and the words “Film Director” is written above it. You know, I can’t believe I aspired to be that then because I might have loved films, but I grew up in a place that didn’t have movie theaters. I just loved holding a camera, and I would just make like little films back home. I used to record everything in the family. My mom has so many videos. I think they found it annoying at the time, but now, they thank me for it because they have so many old, amazing memories captured. Finally, Saudi has movie theaters, but when I was a kid, the possibility of being involved in the film industry, let alone producing a short film, was virtually impossible. No one around me was dreaming of doing that because there was no access or path. Thankfully, things are changing a lot, and you have a lot of people championing female creatives. But before, that wasn’t the case, and I feel like I moved to New York as a leap of faith to see if I could make it happen. I just told myself, “You are going to find those opportunities. So work hard and get this done!”
The Knockturnal: You are currently working on developing a script for your upcoming debut short film, ‘FARASHA.’ What is it about, and what inspired its inception?
Farah Idrees: It is still in its “fetus” stage, but it is 1000% it’s going to be called FARASHA, which means butterfly in Arabic. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but it is about a girl who finds her wings against all odds—if that isn’t too corny to say. I really wanted the title to be an Arabic word because the film is going to be both in English and Arabic, and I don’t think that’s been done before. I might be wrong, but I personally haven’t seen a bilingual film in English and Arabic. I grew up bilingual, so that was my reality, it is reflected in the film. The project is short, around 15 to 20 minutes, but it is going to be something where I’m showing my reality—which will hopefully inspire someone else like me to show their reality too. There is just something so poetic about butterflies—that metamorphosis—and I view my own journey as a filmmaker and producer as something akin to the evolution of a butterfly. I almost felt invisible when was growing up because I wasn’t that talkative. I was social around my family, but I wasn’t brave outside of the house. I feel like a was a caterpillar, just waiting to become a butterfly. I feel like I’ve achieved some of that change during my time in New York. It’s been here that I’ve started to soar and gain those wings by my own efforts. But I’m still on that journey. There are still so many difficult hurdles to overcome, and the film explores some of that hardship, as well as issues of identity, race, and class. It is really special to me, and I can’t wait until I get the opportunity to film it.