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Us By Night 2018: KNOTORYUS Talks to Amira Daoudi

Us By Night 2018: KNOTORYUS Talks to Amira Daoudi

Belgian graphic designer and art director Amira Daoudi loves what she does. It shows in her hands, gesticulating when she speaks about designing the shining figurehead of every movie: the poster. This designer has carved out her own lane in the film industry: founding her company Studio Daoudi at age 23, she crafted the poster for Academy Award-nominated juggernaut ‘Bullhead’ in 2010 and has propelled her career forward as Belgium’s foremost cinematic artwork designer ever since.

Working from her polestar city of Brussels, this Us By Night 2018 speaker continues to labour with love until a single defining image is distilled from the vast universe each film casts out around itself. Though a first exposition in 2015 focused on her film work – she has collaborated with some of the most prominent Belgian feature filmmakers such as Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead), Koen Mortier and Nicolas Karakatsanis (Un Ange), Fien Troch (Home), Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Patser) just to name a few – Amira Daoudi has also branched out into theatre and beyond, creating the brand identity for Brussels Royal City Theater KVS, an album cover for Belgian hiphop collective Le 77 and much more.

Before she takes the Living Room stage at #UBN2018, get acquainted with the woman behind the poster.

(c) Studio Daoudi

KNOTORYUS: Can you already share a little bit of what you’d like to cover during your Us By Night talk?

AMIRA DAOUDI: So far, I’ve mostly given lectures to graduates about founding your own graphic design agency. For Us By Night, I’ll probably be focusing on image-making and what it takes to create a film poster. You have to cover quite some ground in a relatively short amount of time, so I’ll be exploring a tight selection of work or a single theme for my UBN talk. And I’ll be giving it in a thick Brussels accent! (laughs)

KNOTORYUS: Love it. What do you hope attendees come away with afterwards?

AMIRA DAOUDI: I like when people realise that things are not as obvious as they might seem. The smallest detail has a hidden meaning. Film posters are plastered everywhere, but isn’t it fun to think about the story behind the design? A good poster gets someone’s imagination to run wild, I love that. My work exists somewhere between art and commerce, so I have to make specific creative choices. If a detail adds to the essence of the film, the director and I will decide. If it adds to the visibility and sales appeal of the film, the distributor has their say. It’s interesting for me to take everyone’s view into account, I learn a lot from marketing. I like knowing the rules and toying with them, instead of rebelling against them. Creating something beautiful that’s effective at the same time is my constant battle and exercise. Actually, the most difficult thing is capturing an entire film in one still. It’s practically impossible. There are so many scenes that could be relevant for the poster but aren’t at the same time. Each project is a surprise. I’ve done so many posters now but with every new one, I need a moment to take it all in. I still haven’t automated my process. But that’s a good thing, I wouldn’t be able to keep going otherwise. It keeps your work passionate, it feeds you.

KNOTORYUS: Absolutely. Has creative expression always been on your radar?

AMIRA DAOUDI: When I was a child, I remember my mother saying I was almost even more intrigued by the commercial breaks between films and series than by what I was actually watching. I could sit there and dissect ads with her; discuss their construction. I didn’t have an inkling that this would be a career path for me, though. I got into the industry by coincidence. I majored in sports in secondary school, was a total athlete from about 12 till 16. I did develop a passion for cinema at that age. I wasn’t drawing or anything, I was all about sports and movies. Then I started reflecting on the kind of life I wanted to lead. That’s why I landed on graphic design. Routine makes me very unhappy. I absolutely wanted to work on separate projects and got into the industry out of interest for the cultural sector.

KNOTORYUS: Do you remember which films struck a chord with you when you were 16?

AMIRA DAOUDI: Italian cinema from the 60s really did it for me: Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Rossellini. Asian directors like Wong Kar-Wai as well, each of these directors’ frames could be a poster. I used to cut out images from favourite films, my room was covered in them. I had no idea I’d be making cinematic posters one day, I was just a movie buff. But still I didn’t choose film school because of my interests in advertising and brainstorming on creative ideas. If you want to study film, I think you need to have that urge to tell stories. 

KNOTORYUS: So how did you get to make that first poster?

AMIRA DAOUDI: My neighbours in student housing were all film students at the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound – RITCS. We hung out a lot and that’s how I ended up making a design for director Gust Van den Berghe, it was a coincidence. I haven’t looked back since. Varying my projects with work for theatre is important though, I sometimes need to step out of the film zone before returning to it. Making theatre posters is also an entirely different craft. The season announcements are done a year in advance, so the creators have no idea what they’ll be making next year. You have to get inside their minds and get to the very source of a piece together. For film posters, I always come in at the very end, when everything is already shot. It’s fun working at both ends of a project.

KNOTORYUS: A poster is such an important part of the film process, it’s often the first thing introducing people to a new movie. What kind of headspace do you need to be in to capture the essence of someone else’s story in one still? 

AMIRA DAOUDI: I go off of gut instinct and intuition. Sound design and music really define a film as well. I try to look for key elements to capture that essence. First, I watch the film, talk to the director and then I make the poster. I never work from images that are sent to me, I refuse to. Since there’s no colour-grading or final sound design in the cut that I watch, it’s important for me to check in with the director on what the final result will be like and ask them about their inspirations. Directors usually start from 2D, still images like paintings or photographs so it’s nice to go all the way full-circle with them. It began with a still, became moving imagery and went back to becoming a still image. I know very little about other graphic designers, though, I try to look at different art forms for inspiration.

KNOTORYUS: A few of my favourite posters of yours are the ones for ‘Domestica’ and ‘Girlhood’ for example. Can you give some examples of the art that took you there?

AMIRA DAOUDI: For ‘Girlhood’, I was referencing Matisse with those cut-out body parts puzzled together with a new meaning. The posters for ‘Lucifer’ by Gust Van den Berghe, were based on old alchemistic drawings from the 16th and 17th century. Paintings by Caravaggio, which is perhaps a bit cliché to say, are photographically very interesting to translate to a poster. You often boost light, dark or colour in a film still to make sure the image isn’t too washed out on the poster. I like looking at these baroque paintings to see where the light or darkness is added by the masters.

KNOTORYUS: You grew up, went to school, live and work in Brussels, you often collaborate with Brussels-based image-makers and artists. How much impact does the city have on your imagination and creativity?

AMIRA DAOUDI: First and foremost, I’m a true Brussels ‘ket’ (colloquial nickname for a born-and-bred Brussels native or ‘street kid’, ed.) I speak French, Dutch, English: the city has really shaped me into who I am. What Brussels brings to creativity is a certain openness and flexibility towards the world. Brussels is so eclectic. You can see pretty much any era or style come together here. You’re not formatted into a single mode of thinking or designing. I think your brain feels at ease with any shape. Brussels has a grimy side to it as well, not in a negative way – I love this city. But it allows for a kind of liberty, things can be a bit dirty or wrong. There are a few free nights left where I’m not out and about here.

KNOTORYUS: Have any recent pieces or films that you went out to see stuck with you?

AMIRA DAOUDI: I’ve just seen ‘Girl’, by Lukas Dhont. That one struck a chord. I felt like it was perfectly handled and created with a lot of delicacy. Didn’t do the poster though. (laughs) I just saw ‘STUFF.’ perform as well, they do reinterpretations of Marc Moulin’s music. I’m also going to Wim Vandekeybus’s ‘Traptown’ and Daina Ashbee’s dance performance soon. We worked on Wim’s poster, I’m curious to see the result.  

KNOTORYUS: This could be interpreted as being unfairly thrust on you, but you play an exemplary role just by being a young woman and a person of colour who’s successful in an industry still mainly dominated by white men. Is that something you reflect on sometimes, or that you’re aware of? 

AMIRA DAOUDI: I think my brand of feminism lies in the fact that it’s so obvious for me that a woman would work in this industry and be free just by doing it, really.

KNOTORYUS: Just by being present in a certain space, you can also have an impact that helps other people who see themselves in you.

AMIRA DAOUDI: Yes, I’ve never felt uncomfortable by being in a team of older white men, for example, just by making it self-evident that you belong in the room or team, no matter your age, gender or origin. That’s the plane I’m operating on: “Just do it.” I think that attitude also comes from the openness Brussels teaches you, so you’re not easily made to feel like you don’t belong in a room. Brussels strengthens you to operate in this multidisciplinary, multicultural world.

KNOTORYUS: Your athlete mentality may be shining through here as well.

AMIRA DAOUDI: I was just thinking the same. I’d train 4 to 5 times a week, we’d go out to do competitions almost every weekend. Running isn’t always about teamwork but it’s about pushing your own boundaries. Maybe that helped create discipline for me as a designer. I believe in practicing and continuously investigating what you do in order to better yourself as a designer. It’s really all about working incredibly hard. Period.

KNOTORYUS: Has anyone ever given you a solid piece of advice along the way, or is there anything you’d tell a fledgling poster designer?

AMIRA DAOUDI: You should learn from your mistakes, however trite that may sound. I founded my business at a very young age. The mistakes you make then can seem so huge and really drive you over the edge, mentally. The older you get, there are other missteps, but it’s about the way you handle things. Finding the joy in those errors, almost. “What problem am I solving today?” You become waterproof when it comes to those issues and you learn that your work almost constantly involves looking for solutions to problems. That’s okay. Getting the right feedback from your client is important too. There’s a difference between what they’re thinking and saying. You have to learn to read your client. In-person interaction helps with that.

KNOTORYUS: Are there any other projects you’re still dreaming of taking on?

AMIRA DAOUDI: There’s nothing mapped out yet, but I like collaborating. As graphic designers, it’s easy for us to retreat to our cave so I’d love to ping-pong with other artists and try out their way of working for once.

KNOTORYUS: Do you still have some free time left to create your own stuff?

AMIRA DAOUDI: Not as of right now, but I’d definitely like to revisit the posters I’ve made from the early days, without a brief. I’d also love to do more creative brainstorming for 3D, interactive projects. Of course, making film posters is always on my list. Some new work for ‘In Another Life’ and ‘Sakawa’ – which are striking documentaries – is coming up. I also just did the poster for ‘Pour Vivre Heureux’, which got selected for the Rome film festival and I’m getting started on ‘Binti’ by director Frederike Migom, starring Baloji and his daughter. That one’s really fun because it’s a kids’ movie, the poster’s going to be playful and colourful. One to look forward to.

(c) Studio Daoudi

KNOTORYUS is publishing an exclusive Us By Night Interview-series, digging deep and grilling the UBN line-up on what they do, how they live, their challenges and triumphs alike. Read them all HERE.

Amira Daoudi of Studio Daoudi will be speaking at US BY NIGHT 2018 . The festival is all sold out, but KNOTORYUS will soon be giving away combi-tickets via our Instagram page. Follow us here so you don’t miss out!

Header portrait by Gaëtan Chekaiban  

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