Sina Muhammed on ‘Transient Happiness’

Sina Muhammed’s feature film debut is Transient Happiness, a drama that blurs the line between fiction and reality with uncommon authenticity and emotional integrity. A labour of love based on moments from his life, the sparsely scripted allows the writer-director to capture real moments with a documentary edge. Now screening at El Gouna Film Festival, Spling and Sina discuss some of the efforts taken to realise this deeply human story between the simplicity of a peaceful life and the ravages of war.

Can you tell us a bit more about the film’s title and what the film is about?

The title of the movie is about transient happiness. It’s our life, we are Kurdish. We are living in a country between the Turkish, Iranian and Iraq borders. So all the time we have a lot of war, but those wars are not our wars. So we are living in a country where Turkish and Iranian fight and bomb us. Iranian and Iraqi fight, they bomb us too.

So we are living in the middle of the war, but those wars are not our wars. So at these places we are living, we are taking care of our life, even small things. My mother takes care of her flowers, farms, beautiful, loves everything.

So it’s these everyday things that my movie is talking about. In the main story it’s about the woman, who lives there, but she doesn’t have small things like attention from her husband. So these two things, mix together.

They live in a beautiful village in Kurdistan. I saw a lot of women around me, like my mother, my grandmother, my friends… when they don’t have those small things like attention, they get old, they get alone, they get sad.

Like I saw my mother, we are in a big family, she takes care of all of us. But when she’s sick, no one takes care of her, no one asks “why are you sick?”…

She’s giving all the time.

Yes, but one day I took her to another city, I say “mom let’s go there”. I found a doctor, the best doctor in the region there. So we will go there and the doctor says she’s already good, but she needs a little rest.

When we came back, I saw my mom… she feels better, she feels even younger. I saw those things. After that, these days, I am noticing this point with all the women around me.

So I got the idea for the movie from those times and bring a lot of real things from life to make this movie. Everything is real in the movie, just there is one line, it’s the movie. I bring everything from the reality of the life in my country. But I make my reality, like the movie, I try to be realistic.

I’m curious to know about the film’s opening and why you felt it was important to introduce the actors?

Because I want to say this is a real life, this is not a movie. We built a house there as a Kurdish family, all of them built a house. I planted sunflowers, I watered them and waited for nine months for them to grow.

The whole section of sunflowers next to the road?

Yes, I bring a lot of animals: sheep, chickens, everything. I totally integrated myself into living there. We live there for three years… before we made the movie.

That’s why I like to have, to say we are acting in the movie but we are also living at this location. We are enjoying our life, but all day the war airplanes fly above with this dangerous sound. And every day they bomb around us. So that’s why I put this scene to make sure it’s real, it’s not a movie.

You know there is that real sense of authenticity in your film and I think it’s so lifelike at times. Was this documentary quality important to you? I mean I think you kind of answered that a little bit in just how much effort you took to actually make this a lived reality.

Because I did a lot of documentary, so maybe…

It’s natural for you…

Yes, maybe there’s something pushing me to work like this, but the point is I just want to convey to my audience, this is a real life, this is not a movie. Just believe that.

transient happiness film

I really love the dialogue between the husband and the wife. There is such a sense of history and there is a gentle comedy at play. How much instruction did you give your actors in directing them? Was it quite hands-on or were you letting them make lots of choices?

She doesn’t know anything about the dialogue. I give her the idea that she’s the wife at this house, you work a lot, but he doesn’t care about your works – doesn’t give you attention. So, like I say, the dialogue is from my grandmother. She talks all the time with my grandfather like this. So I try to remember those things and write it down, but we talk about it on the set, when shooting.

So I give him direction, please talk about this and say that. And she really believes she is a wife of this house. That’s a great thing because all three of us lived at this location for six months together.

Okay, so that was your preparation?

Yes, and all day long we do all the routines you see in the movie.

Like cleaning, washing and milking?

Yes, she cares for the sheep. Sometimes they fight because they are living together.

…they can get that sense of shared history.

They are talking, there is a scene in the movie when they are working on the construction of the house and there is a scene where rain is coming. This was not part of my plan. We were shooting at this time, but the rain was coming, so we stopped. While we were busy covering the cameras to keep them dry I saw both of them sitting there.

So I turn the camera to them and I say to the crew, please be silent. And we are shooting. This is a real shoot, I’m not directing it – we catch it in the moment.

transient happiness movie

Okay, and it’s quite sparse when it comes to dialogue. Can you tell us a bit about the script’s evolution? I think what I am hearing from you is that it was quite an organic process.

About the script, I don’t have a real script for this movie. I have ten pages… more like an outline. Just like an idea. So I am just shooting those days with these ten pages. But then I see and add things, like there is a scene where three women are talking together.

On one of the rest days of the shoot, I heard them from the house next to us. There are three women talking together about relationships when it comes to husbands and wives. I heard them, so two days later I asked them to be part of the film.

To have that same conversation?

Yes. But I put my actors in one of those three women. So I didn’t really prepare a complete script for the movie.

Okay, so it is like where the fiction and the documentary meet…


The story takes place against some beautiful natural backdrops. Now that I know you planted the sunflowers, it adds to that environment.

There is a funny story about the sunflower. I planted these sunflowers and I drive about 3 hours every day from Sulaymaniyah to the location. Each day I go there and come back.

Each time you pass by this location?

Yes, I water the sunflowers. Because I didn’t have much money for making the movie. Four days before the shooting, my team is cancelled and I had to change a member of my team.

It is like I stay in the city for seven days. When I go back to my location, two women from the village near there say, let’s help this man because he is working so hard with these sunflowers.

They cut all the sunflowers and put them at my house to say the bird is not eating the sunflower seeds. They think I am doing this as a business. For another reason. I did everything myself including set decoration, so many things. Many are working on this movie as volunteers.

This drama comes in at 67 minutes. Was there ever a plan for a longer version of the film, or was it always going to be short and sweet?

No, this is the final version.

There is this constant threat of death from above with the planes. And then you have got this gentle love story playing in the foreground. What message would you like your audience to take away from your film? I know it sort of builds to this very transformative moment on the motorbike.

If I talk about this I just want to say there are so many small things between us as humans, as lovers, as a family, as friends. There is a lot of small things between us. If we care about those small things we can have a better life, we can have a better relationship. Even sometimes we need a smile from each other, we need a hug from each other.

That’s why sometimes when you are sad you go out, your friend hugs you and you feel better. So if you are caring about those small things in our lives I think we will be a little happier than we are.

Do you have another project at the moment that you are working on?

Yes, I am working on a new project, new movies. I finished the first draft of the movies.

Is it going to be in a similar fiction/documentary space?

Yes, because I’m inspired from everything in life. I like to say there are two or three generations of filmmakers. The first generation are making a movie, looking at life, they are making a movie. The second generation are looking at the first generation’s movies and look at life and make a movie. The third generation is just making a movie. So I am still first generation, looking at life and I love to make a movie about that.