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Nadya Mahdi
Nadya Mahdi

Nadya Mahdi is a freelance documentary film maker .She turned to writing short stories & plays seven years ago; inspired by the characters she met whilst making observational documentaries. She has written one 60 minute play: "Just Five Minutes", while studying on Birkbeck's Certificate in Creative Writing course and is currently working on a trilogy of plays entitled "Tales from the Steamer."

Realising Fictions

I first came to writing seven years ago when my eldest daughter was nearly one. Before children, I had worked my way through a career in television, starting at the BBC as a trainee editor. Ten years down the line and many hours of unpaid overtime later, I’d worked my way to becoming a Producer & Director of documentaries in the independent sector. As a documentary film-maker, my world revolved around finding contributors who would agree to have their lives laid bare, exposing their souls for my programme and the viewers’ enjoyment. As I searched the web and hit the phones in search of experts on any number of obscure subjects I was requested to cover – from Pest Controllers in New York, Murderous Mothers in Devon, Pathologists in Nashville Tennessee and Man Trackers in Mexico – the idea of sitting down and writing my own fiction became anathema to me. In fact, sometimes I would wonder if the executive producers at the American and British TV channels I worked for really just wanted me to find a way to produce a fiction they had envisaged would make compelling viewing.

          I spent nearly three months shadowing and filming a Nashville Medical Examiner as he slickly solved unexplained deaths in the autopsy suite, in between burger breaks and chats about how the remnants of sushi remained undigested in a person’s stomach – sometimes for years. I was urged by the channel to film him at the scenes of these mystery deaths he investigated. The 1970s American TV drama Quincy, which had inspired my commissioners to air my documentary, depicted Quincy, the Medical Examiner, out at the crime scene, so why couldn’t my medical examiner do the same as his fictional predecessor? The truth was, my Medical Examiner didn’t do any such thing; usually the first time he would see the dead body was when he opened it up, back at the morgue. Luckily for the channel, his attitude was, if the camera required it, he’d be a five-minute hero for the sake of my documentary. The line between reality and fiction had begun to blur for me.

          With the arrival of my first child eight years ago (I now have three), I took a year off television and near the end of that time, as I began to lift my head above the watery stew of nappies and child-rearing, I began an Introduction to Creative Writing course at Birkbeck. I began to write memoirs and poems based on my new experiences as a mother. Just as I had been required to do in my documentaries, I embellished my truths, as the reality did not always tell the story I thought a reader would relish. If I was a bit down, my narrator was in the darkest depths of despair. I personified my daughter’s comforters, her raggy blanket and dog-eared early-learning literature; all had a role in my flow-written narratives.

          A year later, I was on the Certificate in Creative Writing Course at Birkbeck, had a few more short documentaries under my belt, mainly for charities (my work steadily condensed so I could fulfil my new bi-polar life of near full-time mother and film-maker), and had moved on to writing plays – complete works of fiction; and I thought to myself, how did I get here?

          My characters were, and still are, real people; based on the plethora of folk I have met and got to know intimately in the course of my filming, then never seen again. They are also based on strangers I have encountered at close quarters; in a lift, in steam room, in a café, on the tube or at the school gates. I fictionalise these people; they do and say as I dictate. However, as I write my plays (short ones of course to fit in to the double life I now lead), I give them the opportunity to speak a truth that I will not allow to be altered by the preconceptions of a commissioner. As I breathe life into my characters, I vow I will only let them behave as they would in reality. Ironically, my fictitious characters now feel more real to me than if I had documented them for a television programme. A bizarre logic? Perhaps, but for the time being, it is one I am enjoying – that is until the next TV project comes along, perhaps something closer to home….. Butchers in Basingstoke anyone?


          Nadya is currently working on a trilogy of plays “Tales from the Steamer”, to date she has one and a half of them under her belt.


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