In Camera: A satirical lens into SWANA showbiz stereotypes

In Camera
5 min read
01 December, 2023

"Hey, I think, you might want to try an accent," says a white casting director. "Why don't you try something? Something more Middle Eastern." She's reading a scene with the auditioning British-Asian actor, Aden (Nabhaan Rizwan), the film's protagonist currently dressed like a stereotypical suicide bomber. What we see, however, isn't a nondescript audition room.

It's an office building with several cowering white employees in one corner and presented through the yellow filter typical of Hollywood films dealing with SWANA characters.

Aden's face goes from wide-eyed to discouraged as he realises he has only a few seconds to navigate this casually racist note. A long, awkward pause follows; the camera shifts between Aden and the two white women deciding his fate. He turns his back before letting out the sigh of a jobbing brown actor knowing he needs the work, no matter how demeaning it is.

"In Camera is a sharp, visceral and blackly humorous read on showbiz culture and society with the filmmaking nerve and performance receipts to prove it"

It's one of the many potent, shape-shifting audition scenarios in writer-director Naqqash Khalid's excellent debut; a psychological thriller tackling the film industry, late-stage capitalism and a generation striving for purpose in an ever more complicated world.

It's a cerebral piece of work, one that maximises the cinematic language to articulate these weighty themes and bolstered by a subtle yet utterly palpable lead performance in Rizwan.

Aden is a mostly out-of-work actor who seems completely brow-beaten by an industry that constantly rejects him. He's rebuffed by a white lead star of a police drama he's just starred in a scene with.

He's rarely referred to by his name – instead by his audition number – and that dehumanisation continues when he's frequently packed into a waiting roomful of almost identical Asian and Arab actors – all vying for the same small role they know will inevitably go to that one brown actor who gets all the jobs.

I'm sure plenty of actors, even the ones starring in the film, will recognise these scenes too well. Khalid certainly takes no prisoners when it comes to the tokenisation of performers of colour, in front of and behind the camera. He dedicates a chunk of the film to satirically skewering a business that sees diversity as a box-ticking fad more than a meaningful enterprise.

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Khalid conjures a cynical world for Aden to traverse yet it's only when he's in performance mode that he seems truly alive.

One of the plot's darkest elements is Aden agreeing to act as the dead son of a bereaved woman for a therapy project. He has rent to pay but his commitment to the role sees an excruciating dinner end in a nerve-wracking crescendo.

Aden likes acting because there's organisation to it. He knows, "where to stand, what to say and how to feel." Real life has too many variables and Rizwan executes a sharp shift between the vigour Aden displays when playing someone else versus being himself. Who that person is, remains a seemingly deliberate mystery even as DP Tasha Back spends significant time on Rizwan's face in close-up shots when other characters are speaking.

The camera lives up to the film's title by focusing so intently on Aden. Yet when he's back to the rigamarole of his non-work-related routine, Aden's energised performance reverts to rigid despondency. Each time, Rizwan shows remarkable restraint; refusing to give anything away too easily. How he will react or act at any given moment makes for anxious yet utterly compelling storytelling.

Paul Davies’ textured sound design adds a nervy undercurrent to the deep discomfort in just how unknowable Aden chooses to be to the people around him. Not that his overworked housemate Bo (Rory Fleck Byrne) does much to foster a relationship.

A junior doctor prone to insomnia-induced hallucinations, Bo barely raises a glance at Aden when they are together and his subplot gives some excuse for him awkwardly mistaking his housemate for Conrad (Amir El Masry), the Arab newcomer.

A "glass is half full" interloper, the successful art director has confidence, style and a welcoming attitude which Amir El Masry delivers with caramel-smooth precision.

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There's a real Edgar Allan Poe-esque duality at play as Conrad's patronising olive branches poke at Aden. Rizwan and El Masry serve up a dynamic dance with perfect subtlety especially as the story careens towards a climactic final act, perilously blurring the line between performance, imitation and reality.

In Camera is a sharp, visceral and blackly humorous read on showbiz culture and society with the filmmaking nerve and performance receipts to prove it.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint