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Mai Iskander | SHOOT New Directors Showcase Event
Mai Iskander

Perceptions of Care: Louis Family

Mai Iskander

1) How did you get into directing?
I was a kid and I loved my dog: the way his tongue lolled to the side opposite his gaze, his proud display of black paw pads as he laid on his stomach, the freckles on his nose. I wanted to remember him forever, so I took endless Polaroids of him. I fell in love with photography. It was so magical to me—the sense of capturing moments. The knowledge that moments in life were so fleeting, yet film had the power to etch them in memory. I was making the ephemeral endure, perhaps forever. And choosing to participate in—and perhaps have some control—over that seemingly ungraspable process. I didn’t realize it then, but it was a first glimmer of the impulse to make films.

2) What is your most recent project?
I have an ongoing branded content project that I can’t say too much about, but it’s been very rewarding.

Basically, I’m directing a short documentary piece about the efforts of a corporation helping out a community in need, and over time, we’ll be following the long-term effects of a corporate investment in people – it’s an endless source of fodder for storytelling. I’m also in development on a longer documentary project and a short narrative film. I wish I could say more, but I don’t want to jinx it! Busy, but open to anything that comes my way.

3) What is the best part of being a director?
I think of myself as a filmmaker rather than a director. I first try to figure out what makes a story authentic. Then, I look for what’s beautiful in each project – so the motivation is to do it for the love alone. Finding that connection allows me to cradle the project enough to let the story unfold authentically.

That personal connection is the best part of being a director. I become invested in my characters wants and needs, so every scene can propel a larger story. I aim to embolden people to share themselves with the camera. I seek moments of poetry in my realism. Sometimes a look or a quiet pause can communicate the most about a person.

4) What is the worst part of being a director?
As a director, it’s crucial to always be emotionally present. So filmmaking can be exhausting. It’s important to separate myself from filmmaking now and then. I make sure to take breaks, travel and read widely. Or I take classes—acting, scriptwriting, fine art, and more—to see aspects of filmmaking from different perspectives.

5) What is your current career focus: commercials & branded content, TV, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre—comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
It’s important to me that my work makes people think. That’s my goal regardless of genre. I always look for the soul of a project: uncovering the unique spirit in the characters, and the universal in the story.

I never ask, “how can I tell this story,” but, “how can I share this story.” The audience is an essential part of any story because it’s about dialogue, not monologue. Sharing stories is the most effective way to engage viewers in complex emotions and truths. It takes viewers into the realm of the heart—where meanings are felt more than understood. That is the power of story-sharing.

I have worked in all genres of film in some capacity, and I’m excited to work in the different genres as a director.

6) Have you a mentor and if so, who is that person (or persons) and what has been the lesson learned from that mentoring which resonates with you?
Right after I graduated NYU, I shadowed the Czech DP Miroslav Ondricek (Oscar-nominated for Amadeus and Ragtime) on a number of feature films. He taught me that the best cinematographers always prioritize the story. By the end of a long day, he’d get too tired to speak English, so he’d tell me things in Czech to relay to the director. It put me in the middle of everything very early on in my career.

Jeremy Warsaw, a commercial director at Washington Square Films, is always willing to lend me an ear. Whether I need some creative guidance or have a business question, his advice is always a phone call away. From him, I learn how to reveal the essence of people—he builds trust so they are willing to open up.

7) Who is your favorite director and why?
Designating favorites feels so finite, but there are certain directors I very much admire, such as Alejandro G. Inarritu. I love his films Amores Perros and 21 Grams because they’re presented in such a narratively fractured way—the viewer is left putting the jagged pieces together to figure out what’s happened. I like the branded content piece ‘Best Job’ he directed for P&G. It weaves vignettes about parents supporting their children in sports, as a lead-up to Olympic victories.

8) What is your favorite movie? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
I love the movies of the Czech New Wave, where stories are not always revealed in linear fashion. One that stands out is Milos Forman’s The Loves of a Blonde—it’s a feature film, but shot like a documentary, using telephoto lenses and handheld camera. Its main concern is not to follow the development of a plot or character, but to employ sequences to shed light on social issues. Milos often used a mixture of actors and non-actors, relying on improvised dialog. Czech movies of that time make me think what it might have been like for my mother to live in Communist Czechoslovakia, if she’d never had the opportunity to escape.

9) Tell us about your background (i.e. where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I’m the daughter of a Czech mother and an Egyptian father, who grew up in an expat community in Washington DC—where everyone I met was from another country. Being immersed in these different cultures inspired me to share differences through film. After graduating NYU Tisch School of the Arts, I worked as Union camera assistant for many years on narratives and commercials, then I worked as cinematographer.

I spent many of my childhood summers in Egypt. I often went to the “garbage city” on the outskirts of Cairo, where my aunt worked. Returning as an adult, I filmed a few students applying vibrant colors to a drab concrete wall in the garbage village’s school, thinking that I could cut together a little film as a present for them. That was the beginning of my first documentary, Garbage Dreams, which took me five years to complete. It did very well – and I realized that through filmmaking, I could generate understanding and compassion for other people’s experiences, and highlight larger social issues. That’s what motivated me to become a director.


Paula Cohen
Partner/Executive Producer

Susan Horn Toffler
Partner/Executive Producer