SPOTLIGHT ON: Darius Shu – master of twists and turns

Brian Butler April 12, 2023

It seems Darius Shu was always destined to be behind the lens. As a teenager he was an avid photographer: “I got adrenaline from it,” he told me. Born in Malaysia, he came to Britain to study at Bristol, and later took a Masters degree at Bournemouth.

Gradially he moved from stills photography to experimenting with moving images. “I always told stories, but often without dialogue,” – it’s become one of his signatures. Indeed he believes films can be more powerful without words. His directing debut was with the short film His Hands, his graduate film, which was presented at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, and featured Arron Blake – someone he’s forged a close link with. It deals with a young man and an older man, in a silent psychological thriller, full of sexuality and loneliness. “I like to make people feel uncomfortable, or fool them with a twist in the ending”, he told me, and it has all the hallmarks of that.

Stockholm is a disturbing and atmospheric fim about a young gay man’s first date – but with flashbacks and exciting ever-changing camera angles, it becomes something far more ambiguous. It won for best cinematography at Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival in 2021.

Tainted, which he made with Rikki Beadle-Blair, was filmed in Brighton. It concerns an intense young woman who stalks a gay couple. It is strong stuff – though the audience initially thinks the two male characters are merely gay lovers – the true storyline turns out to be about incest.

It seemed appropriate to ask him the current vexed question: should queer parts be played by queer actors?

”In the end it’s about the performance: getting the strongest performance you can from the actors.”

As there’s often little or no money to be made from independent short films, Darius has had a parallel career making fashion and music videos and commercials. But he admits it can be a very restrictive field. Though he says you can put storyline twists into ads. His work has included films with Lily James, Dominic Cooper and Kaya Scodelario.

Music videos have included one for Ru Paul’s Drag Race winner The Vivienne and her song Bitch on Heels. Billy Cullum’s single Kiss Away features the early stages of a love affair between two men.

In 2022, his musical Asian love story Queer Parivaar scooped the two top awards at the prestigious Iris Prize LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. Darius was approached by actor/writer/director @ShivRaichandani with this gay storyline, which contains the signature Shu twists to the plot – two twists in fact. As a couple prepare for their wedding, an unexpected guest turns up, with staggering news from the trans bride’s past. But then another twist leads to the uncovering of not only trans but lesbian storylines. The film stars Shiva as the bride-to-be and also has a cameo for Asifa Lahore – more on them later. Darius was in charge of cinematography and the original music in the film.

It’s an absolute gem – still available on All4. The film was two years in the making due to being stalled by Covid. “I never knew how big it would get,” he says. Darius has often gone for films with strong queer, Asian or mixed queer and Asian storylines. I Am Norman (2020), a documentary drama which he co-directed with Arron Blake, has themes of gay conversion therapy and suicide which are both shocking and educational – again with the tell-tale twists.

Peach Paradise, also a collaboration with Shiva Raichandani, is a Netflix documentary about Japanese/Irish drag star ShayShay and a group of Asian drag performers known as The Bitten Peach.

I was curious to know what a cinematographer did. Darius explained: “The director envisions the story and how to tell it, and deals with the actors. The cinematographer executes that vision, through the visuals, lighting and camera angles, and the way the camera moves. Luckily I am usuallly the co-producer of my films so I get a say in how it’s edited and how it ends up looking. Queer themes are important to me but so is social awareness, human drama and the stories of outsiders. British-born Asian stories are very important to me.”

“I like to make people feel uncomfortable, or fool them with a twist in the ending.”

Next month sees the BAFTA‘s and Darius is in with a shout for his documentary Always, Asifa, for which he was cinematographer. It follows the run-up to their transition by Muslim drag star Asifa Lahore, winner of Drag Idol, and again it was the inspiration of Shiva Raichandani. It’s available on Together TV and it’s a very frank exploration of one trans person’s journey – honest, open and heartwarming.

Talking to Darius, you quickly get a sense of his energy and passion and his frustration at the lack of prominence given to short films, and the difficulty of funding and making them. He cites Amazon, who now set a minimum running time of 45 minutes on the short films they distribute. “Iris are among the few who are promoting short films”.

And his parting shot about his career path with queer films is this: “A queer film set is much more of a family – we are all family”.

Find out more about this exciting film maker at his website, and look out to see if he won a BAFTA on 14 May.