British short about racial tensions up for the BAFTAs

Studying the glitz and glamour of the BAFTA nominations, the Short Film contest is easy to miss, down at the bottom, one of the few categories aimed at the film-makers of the future.

Among them, this year, is Skin Deep, written and directed by Yousaf Ali Khan.

In Yousaf Ali Khan’s Skin Deep, Darren Sheppard’s Pakistani teenager tries to pass as a white skinhead.

Skin Deep is a film about the internal struggle of Rashid, a mixed-race teenager trying to rise to prominence.

Like Rashid, Ali Khan himself is mixed-race and grew up on an all-white housing estate, at a time when the National Front was at its most powerful.

Skin Deep examines how Rashid attempts to hide his Asian side to fit in with his contemporaries, going as far as joining a violent gang of racists.

“The story reflects events in my history,” recalls Ali Khan. “Like all of my work, it’s a very personal tale. It’s partly cathartic.”

Having often concealed his own racial background to blend in with his neighbours, Yousaf finds identity very interesting, particularly when the identity in question straddles two communities.

He acknowledges that in this sense, Skin Deep is very much a film of the moment.

“I suppose it’s just touched a nerve at the right time,” he argues. “There is that sort of tension. I think it is very pertinent to the times we’re living in, not just on a local level, but on an international level.”

But Ali Khan had not set out to raise deep issues. “My intention was just to tell a story as honestly as possible.”

The strength of the film very much depends on the believability of his main character, and Ali Khan remembers how difficult the casting was, auditioning almost 40 young actors.

“Although they were all very good, there was something that wasn’t quite right, so I was getting a bit despondent.”

It was not until he was visiting local schools, looking for extras for a scene that was eventually cut from the film, that he saw Darren Sheppard.

“He had an energy about him none of the more experienced actors had,” Yousaf remembers.

“It was a big risk to take on someone with no experience, but now, he’s gone from being in his final year at an East End comprehensive, with few opportunities ahead of him, to getting castings for the Harry Potter films and all sorts of things, so it’s been very good for him.”

The experience has clearly been worthwhile for Ali Khan too, with his first film shot on 35mm earning him a Bafta nomination.

“It’s great isn’t it? It’s wicked.” Ali Khan can’t contain his excitement as he lists the success to date of his film.

It won the Bafta Kodak award, which means Kodak will take it to the Cannes Film Festival.

He picked up an award at the Turner Classic Movies Shorts competition and it was well received at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

“From what people have been telling me, just to get nominated is a great thing. It would be nice to win, though, wouldn’t it?” he laughs.

A version of this article previously appeared on the BBC News website.