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An Afghan-American woman faces a life-changing dilemma in Henry Hughes’ Day One.

The 25-minute war drama follows Feda (Layla Alizada), a recently divorced woman on her first day of deployment as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

Following an escape from a surprise bomb attack, Feda and her unit, which includes a local doctor (Navid Negahban), search through the nearby homes to find the culprit, a man by the name of Jalal (Alain Washnevsky).

Although they manage to capture the bomb-maker, they also find his pregnant wife, Naheed (Alexia Pearl), who goes into an untimely labor. And due to cultural and religious limitations, it is only Feda, not the doctor, who must deliver the baby.

With two lives on her hands, and time as a crucial factor, Feda takes on a frightening situation in which she must find the courage from within herself.

A top 10 finalist for this year’s Best Live Action Short Film Oscar, Day One is a powerful, thrilling, and refreshing take on a genre that is often led by a very small pool of voices.

Hughes, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and an American Film Institute alumnus, served two combat tours in Afghanistan. But rather than telling his own experience of the war, Hughes gives a voice to his interpreter, the muse behind the story.

Along with earning a College Television award for directing, Hughes has also received honors at the BAFTA/LA Student Film Awards and the Stony Brook Film Festival for his work on the film.

I spoke to Hughes about his how his experience in Afghanistan informed Day One, the real-life hero that inspired his story, and how film can be used to challenge viewpoints.

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ScreenPicks: Along with serving as a paratrooper in Afghanistan, you grew up as an army kid from a long line of veterans in your family. So you’re more than qualified to direct this kind of genre. Can you talk about how your experience has helped you as a filmmaker?

Hughes: “Yeah, what you said is true. I do come from a family like that. One of the things I found most beneficial is management and leadership; it’s not something you’re taught much of in course work or school. But you actually are taught the fundamental ideas of how to get people to work together as a team when you serve in the army. And so I found it incredibly helpful on set to understand that, like, communication was my — was actually what my job is. I had to communicate what I think is right or wrong to other people. And so that’s something that came very naturally to me, having done about five years as an officer in the army, which is trying to reduce something that was such a big idea into very small pieces for many people who were under your command.”

ScreenPicks: You actually shot this film in Acton, California. What were the challenges of recreating Afghanistan in this small California town?

Hughes: “The first part is that a lot of people don’t know what Afghanistan looks like; it’s an incredibly vast country. It can look like the moon, it can look like the Grand Canyon, it can look like the Alps. And so it’s trying to figure out, okay, what is everyone else’s idea of what Afghanistan looks like. And how can I recreate that? And I thought that might be too big of a task, and so I did a bunch of location scouting.

“I finally went to a place. I was like, ‘hey, this looks like Afghanistan.’ It was just a gut reaction. I said, ‘okay, this will work.’ If I have a gut feeling that this looks right to me, I think it’ll work for almost everybody. And we did some post work and edited some mountains in the background. What’s really important is the texture and the humanity — or I should say, the humans inside the story and making sure you cast things correctly. On top of that, an amazing production designer, Benjamin Cox, who created that house and it is just superb.”

ScreenPicks: Although this film is set during the war in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t say that it really focuses on the politics of it. So it’s more about this woman’s journey of finding a new purpose in her life. We get to see how she deals with being in a field where her gender, the cultural differences, and religion are such huge factors. Was it a challenge to explore those areas that can be taken quite sensitively by some people?

Hughes: “You know, it is difficult because the culture it deals with is inherently a more conservative culture. They don’t have a word for ‘pregnancy.’ It’s just called ‘being sick.’ It kinda gives you an idea of how separate these things are — the genders and that culture. Men and women don’t occupy space. I did two tours, and on my first tour, I maybe saw — you would see women sometimes in burkas from a distance, but I never saw a woman’s face until my second tour.”

ScreenPicks: Oh, wow.

Hughes: “You would see girls, but I never saw a woman’s face. I’d say it’s a crazy idea on some level from where we come from. And so trying, yeah, to balance all of that ’cause I thought it was important that you didn’t make a war movie about a romantic white guy who goes to war and finds out that war is kind of a mixed bag. I’ve seen that story a few times. I thought it was better [that] we could see it through this woman’s eyes, this really masculine world.”

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ScreenPicks: The character of Feda was based on a real-life interpreter that you worked with. How did she inspire you both as a person and as a storyteller?

Hughes: “Being in the army, you start looking at who is strong. You ask that question. Who is a powerful person? Who has the most strength? And you look at it in terms of a very masculine point of view. And then you have this woman who’s my friend come in. I realize that the struggles that she had in life, they were — no one was there, like, in her corner, always telling her that she was doing a good job. She didn’t have the camaraderie of being in the army, being encouraged. The greatest strength that I saw from her, which was the most inspiring thing, was she was someone who had to figure out for herself what is important to her. It came from a real, true integrity.

“I think that that sort of perseverance of doing what you think is right in all situations versus what — you know, she was receiving incredible pressure from many different groups. I mean, she doesn’t really have a comfortable position because of inherently who she is and the occupation that she has. So it takes an incredible amount of strength to be able to do what you think is right every day when people around you, you know, maybe they don’t want you there, maybe you’re doing the wrong thing. That to me was true strength. That was well beyond jumping out of airplanes or going to ranger school. Those physical rites of passage were difficult for sure, and they had a psychological effect as well, but nothing like having to decide for yourself what you think is right and wrong and how you conduct yourself when no one is really there assisting you.”

ScreenPicks: So, as you said earlier, I thought it was amusing how you said that, when we think of war films, it’s really about this young, idealistic white guy. We don’t really see war films led by Muslim-American women, so I think it was really refreshing to see it from her perspective.”

Hughes: “Thank you.”

ScreenPicks: Do you think that this film’s success will hopefully encourage producers to take chances on these more diverse stories?

Hughes: “I mean, I certainly hope so. I think that the war genre itself is kind of tired because we’ve only seen that one character navigate the same story over and over again. In terms of my favourite war film, I go to Lawrence of Arabia. That is a romantic white man, to be fair, but it puts it in an actual position of him being a part of that culture. It is not just a typical, like, finding out that violence is a bad thing. So I really hope so because you get these different perspectives that allow you to see something you thought you knew in a fresh way.

“I’m really hoping we can tell more stories about characters who have different journeys, that are much more interesting. To say it plainly, I could’ve made a movie about my own story, or I could’ve made a movie about her story. And it was plainly obvious to me which one I found to be more compelling on a human level of trying to find yourself and putting it all on the line. That’s a very wonderful thing to witness.”

ScreenPicks: Especially with the rise of Islamophobia in the world right now, the character of a Muslim-American woman reminds western audiences that Muslim people aren’t foreigners and they can be your neighbours as well. Even the antagonist in this story was portrayed with complexity and nuance ’cause you got his perspective of why he was doing these things that are wrong. How can film be used to help break stereotypes? Especially, as you mentioned, most of us haven’t been to Afghanistan, so we only see what we see.

Hughes: “I read something the other day. It was ‘Five Things a Veteran Wants to Tell Those Who Have Not Gone to War,’ what they saw, or what they learned. One of the things that they said was, ‘We know that true evil exists in the world.’ I read that and thought, we must’ve had different experiences because that’s not what I saw at all. I do think that there are people who are certainly more violent and have different ideas of what is right or what is wrong. But I don’t think that makes them pure evil. There’s so much circumstance involved of, like, we’re just occupying their land. It’s very easy to think of it in that sort of binary mode.

“But the fact of the matter is that, if someone came into our country and occupied ’cause they said there’s a better way of living, there’s a lot of people who would do exactly what they did. I just think it’s really oversimplified that it’s just that, you know, these people have some sort of primitive worldview — or not even a worldview — just a primitive existence … I’m sure there is some of that. But they characterize the entirety of it? It’s just — I don’t know. It seems immature.”

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ScreenPicks: Through the American Corporate Partner’s National Mentoring Program, you got to be a protégé of George Lucas, and not many people can say that one of their idols is their mentor. Are there any words of advice from him that you can share?

Hughes: “It’s funny. I would show him my work over the years, and I always thought he was going to have conversations the way that most film buffs sit around and talk about movies. But he really stayed away from minutiae, and he asked me very big picture questions — he’s a very big picture man — about who you make movies for. And what he’s talking about is communication. Are you talking to other artists? Are you talking to a general public? Who is your audience? I really appreciated that, because I think that you do have to make that decision at some point, because that informs the manner in which you want to communicate, what language you’re using and that’s really all that moviemaking is, as far as I can tell at this point in my career. It’s just trying to communicate an idea. And so I think that’s a really basic starting point of who you are making this movie for.”

ScreenPicks: I know that you’re now working on a series with your Day One producer Michael Steiner. Is there anything you can tell us about that, or is it really early in the stages?

Hughes: “I’d say it’s really early in the stages. I mean, I’m actually developing a feature about it. We tabled the idea of a TV series based on this short, but I haven’t talked to some other people here in L.A. about the possibility of that. But I couldn’t tell you exactly — we’re basically still on the drawing board of brainstorming ideas of how to expand it. I wish I could give you more, honestly. I mean, I know the requirements if it were to be a series. You need to use time. That’s the important piece when talking about an experience like warfare. You need to have the presence of when it happens and you need to have the perspective many years later and it needs to be the same story.

“I think a lot of army movies are kind of based on one mission and there’s a finality to that … I’m 31 now. The way I feel about my two years in Afghanistan varies greatly from when I was 24. And it’s not because of just age — the distance away from the event itself to look back on it. And I think we need that perspective to really look at why it is that we go to war and why it is we kill each other in this way ’cause there are probably some good reasons from time to time that we should do that thing and there’s times that we definitely should not. But yeah, that’s about as far as we’ve gotten of trying to figure out how do you show the breadth of that experience and not just an isolated event, which is often what we get with these kind of rescue a person, capture a person, that sort of model.”

ScreenPicks: Finally, success is different for each person. It could be financial success, awards acclaim, or just the audience response. How do you define success for your film?

Hughes: “I can say that I’m thoroughly surprised that it’s reach as many people as it has. You always want many people to see your film, so it’s been such a blessing, in many ways, that with the recognition more people can actually see this thing that you made … For me, going to the movie is church; it’s a very spiritual, existential thing. I love being in an audience where we’re watching something I made and we’re having that experience together. It’s remarkable.”

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All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

(All photos are courtesy of Henry Hughes.)