An outdoor activity instructor spotted on the streets of Manchester has made her Cannes Film Festival debut after being cast in a £2m British movie about honour killings. Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, 24, stars in Catch Me Daddy, which has just premiered in the "Un Certain Regard" strand of the French festival, where films such as Steve McQueen's Hunger and the cult black comedy Sightseers were first seen.
The film, shot as a Western-style thriller on the North York Moors, is the directorial debut of Daniel Wolfe, 36, who, working with his brother and co-writer, Matthew, 34, took his inspiration from newspaper articles about "honour" killings. "We read one, in particular, about the use of two hired white thugs the press called bounty hunters. In that instance, they executed a Pakistani girl's boyfriend. So we were drawn to the idea of making a modern-day Western, where cars would roll into town, they're looking for a girl, and the girl is on the run – something that explored freedom and control and the father-daughter struggle."
He added: "I wanted to make a film with a real strong female protagonist, a heroine's journey."
Wolfe said that although he and his brother didn't want to be social commentators, they did serious research with organisations dealing with honour killings to ensure that the film was realistic.
And they reinforced the authenticity by doing much of the casting on the streets and in the snooker and shisha bars of northern towns, with non-professionals joining a cast that included Gary Lewis from Billy Elliot and Conor McCarron from Peter Mullan's Neds.
Ahmed, born in Britain of Pakistani descent, said she "didn't believe it at first" when she was stopped and asked to audition. When Wolfe saw her on tape, complete with dyed pink hair, he swiftly chose her from more than 600 others. "She was sparky," he said.
Wolfe wanted to shoot sequentially, with the story unfolding to the cast as it happened – so most of them didn't see a script. This meant that Ahmed did not originally know it was about an honour killing, although her mother read the screenplay and agreed she should take the role of Laila, who goes on the run with her drifter boyfriend.
"To me, she feels like a strong, independent person who is trying to do what she wants to do in her life. But then she realises afterwards that maybe she is not ready to do what she wants yet," she said.
Wasim Zakir, 39, from Dewsbury near Leeds, did see a script before playing Laila's father. He said: "It felt like it was a film about where I grew up. Stuff like that does happen there. There are characters in the film that are like that in real life." But the issue was handled "sensitively and sensibly and responsibly", he said.
Diana Nammi, founder of the Iranian & Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation consulted by Wolfe, said she was grateful that the film-makers had chosen to expose the issue of honour-based violence, which "remains very hidden in the UK and across Europe. Raising awareness is vital", she said. "The more we talk about honour-based violence and break through the taboo, the more those at risk will know they are not alone and that organisations like ours are here to support them."
That the film has its premiere in Cannes is a coup for Wolfe, a former chef who got the film bug when he talked his way into assisting on The Quiet American with Michael Caine when travelling in Vietnam. On returning home, he began making music videos – including the YouTube hit starring Jake Gyllenhaal for The Shoes' Time to Dance music video, before writing Catch Me.
"I couldn't wish for a better place to screen it than here. It's crazy," he said. The film is due for release in Britain in the autumn.