Sophia Al-Maria on Her TV Melodrama Inspired By Anaïs Nin’s Erotic Stories

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Little Birds, 2020
Little Birds, 2020(Film still)

Artist, author, and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria speaks to AnOther about Little Birds, her new TV series coming soon to Sky Atlantic

In the early 1940s, Anaïs Nin was part of a literary group penning erotic novels for a dollar a day, amassing a series of short stories published as Little Birds in 1979, two years after her death. “I had a feeling that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate,” Nin said in the preface to her 1976 masterwork, The Delta of Venus.

Though Nin’s efforts had a revolutionary effect, she was as much a liberator as perpetuator of white cultural hegemony. “As a teenager, Little Birds busted me out of cultural mores that I had grown up inside between the United States and the [Arabian] Gulf,” says artist, author, and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria (The Girl Who Fell to Earth). “Going back to it as an adult, I felt quite disturbed by viewpoints that were Orientalist, sexist, and racist.”

In Al-Maria’s hands, Nin’s erotic vignettes have been transformed into the basis for Little Birds, a six-episode series airing August 4 on Sky Atlantic. A kaleidoscopic melodrama set inside the decadent “international zone” of Tangier, Little Birds presents a multi-perspective look at the lives of troubled American heiress Lucy Savage (Juno Temple), local dominatrix Cherifa Lamour (Yumna Marwan), impoverished English aristocrat Hugo Cavendish Smythe (Hugh Skinner), and Egyptian prince Adham Abaza (Raphael Acloque) in 1955, the year prior to Moroccan independence from France.

“Tangier was a tinderbox at that moment in time,” Al-Maria says. “Each of the characters will explode in their own ways; meanwhile the world around them is going to as well. The way in which the political is personal and the personal is political was always key for me. The interconnectedness of all the characters goes from the bedroom all the way up to the lives of millions of people.”

Offering a captivating snapshot of the butterfly effect, Little Birds reveals how each of the characters’ lives are hopelessly intertwined by love, desire, denial, betrayal, and rebellion in their quest for freedom. “There’s the old adage, ‘History repeats itself.’ It’s true,” Al-Maria says. “It says a lot about these games that the powerful play. The characters understand the matrix they are living in and decide to take actions to be right with themselves.”

Set amid a luxurious landscape that recalls the sumptuous colour palette of Slim Aarons’ photographs, Little Birds strikes the perfect balance between drama and camp. “Melodrama is so much fun to write. You can really be extra,” Al-Maria says. “When I was writing some of the scenes I was cackling to myself because it was so ridiculous but it also has this under layer of real heft in the history and the research that went into it.”

Al-Maria’s exquisite portrayals of sex, wealth, power, culture, and identity allow her to create characters so true to life that we become deeply invested in their destinies. “The story shows the ways we push each other to grow. That is one of the realest stories I can hope to tell,” Al-Maria says.

Directed by Stacie Passon (Billions, House of Cards) and featuring a stellar supporting cast that includes cult actress and fashion icon Rossy de Palma and Nina Sosanya (Killing Eve), Al-Maria’s characters speak to the confluence between the past and present times. “I was joking early on in the writing that it could be called ‘How Lucy Got Woke,’” Al-Maria says. “She has to escape the patriarchy that was also drugging her, then meets Cherifa and people who fundamentally change her worldview, her moral compass, and her loyalties. That’s an important story right now.”

Like her characters, Al-Maria is reckoning with the cataclysmic changes we face as today. “I’m trying to educate myself and grow quickly,” she says. “I’m thinking a lot about how everything is connected: the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the desire for abolition, the environment, and the way that all of that will radically impact the future. How to be an active participant in history is what has been on my mind the most.”

Little Birds airs August 4 on Sky Atlantic.