An Interview with Shirin Neshat - Believer Magazine
×
header-image

An Interview with Shirin Neshat

[ARTIST]
“PART OF ME HAS ALWAYS RESISTED THE WESTERN CLICHÉD IMAGE OF MUSLIM WOMEN, DEPICTING THEM AS NOTHING MORE THAN SILENT VICTIMS. MY ART, WITHOUT DENYING ‘REPRESSION,’ IS A TESTIMONY TO UNSPOKEN FEMALE POWER AND THE CONTINUING PROTEST IN ISLAMIC CULTURE.”
Places Mentioned in This Interview,
and the Feelings Associated with Those Places:
Los Angeles—Alienation
Iran—Obsessiveness
New York—Restlessness
Morocco—Homesickness
Mexico—Homesickness
by Dorna Khazeni
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Shirin Neshat

[ARTIST]
“PART OF ME HAS ALWAYS RESISTED THE WESTERN CLICHÉD IMAGE OF MUSLIM WOMEN, DEPICTING THEM AS NOTHING MORE THAN SILENT VICTIMS. MY ART, WITHOUT DENYING ‘REPRESSION,’ IS A TESTIMONY TO UNSPOKEN FEMALE POWER AND THE CONTINUING PROTEST IN ISLAMIC CULTURE.”
Places Mentioned in This Interview,
and the Feelings Associated with Those Places:
Los Angeles—Alienation
Iran—Obsessiveness
New York—Restlessness
Morocco—Homesickness
Mexico—Homesickness
by Dorna Khazeni
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Shirin Neshat

Dorna Khazeni
14 Snaps

Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran, in 1957. Latitude 36° 16’N Longitude 50° 00’E, the city of Qazvin sits 6058 miles (or 9,749 kilometers, or 5,264 nautical miles) from Tribeca, where she lives today. It’s hard to convey how far it really is from Qazvin, a provincial Iranian city, to the pinnacle of the international art world that this tiny, slender, forty-six-year-old woman occupies. That space is rarefied, and the journey to it from her point of origin is as unlikely as a trip to the moon.

Neshat came to the United States from Iran in 1974 to study art at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1993, after a return trip to post-revolutionary Iran, she presented her first collection of photographs, Unveiling (1993), which was followed by another collection, Women of Allah (1993). Both stupefied the art world: Islamic women had not often appeared as subjects, much less as empowered ones. Neshat’s images were of women whose mettle she knew to be sturdy as steel, veiled or unveiled.

In 1998 she exhibited her first video installation, Turbulent. She used two video screens facing one another. On one, a man with his back to the camera sings to an audience of men. On the other, a veiled woman sits in an empty auditorium. The crowd applauds the man as the woman sits silently. When the man pauses, the woman begins to sing, but without using words. Her voice rises and falls and quivers in mesmerizing tones. She fills the empty auditorium with her wordless song as the man looks on in astonishment from the opposite screen. The video installation was partly inspired by the Islamic law established after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which forbade women from singing in public.

Since 1998, Neshat’s works have been exhibited both in the United States and internationally at numerous venues, including the Whitney Museum in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and The Art Institute of Chicago. She has been the recipient of many awards, including, in 1999, the First International Prize at the forty-eighth Venice Biennale.

Turbulent and the two pieces that followed it—Rapture (1999) and Fervor (2000)—form a trilogy made in collaboration with a core group of Iranians who included her partner, Shoja Azari (he acts in Turbulent), who cowrote and coedited some pieces with her; Ghassem Ebrahimian, who shot many of the films; and the incomparable Sussan Deyhim, who composed many of the soundscapes that buoy Neshat’s images. Several other collaborators, including Shahram Karimi and Hamid Fardjad, have worked closely with Neshat over the years.

When the award-winning director Abbas Kiarostami finished making his film The Wind Will Carry Us in 1999, he stated that he wanted to make films like Shirin Neshat’s. Since then, he has made Ten, by far his most experimental feature to date, as well as at least two video installations. Neshat, meanwhile, is taking her first steps toward a feature-film career. In January 2003 she attended the Sundance Institute’s prestigious screenwriter’s lab to develop a project based on Women Without Men, a novel by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur.

This interview took place in mid-June over the course of several conversations in various locations, including a Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood, and a Standard Hotel bar, where a magician set a dollar bill on fire and transformed it into a rose.

—Dorna Khazeni

I. ON LIVING ABROAD: “IT’S WITHIN THE LAST FEW YEARS THAT THE NOTION OF EXILE REALLY STARTED TO SINK IN FOR ME.”

THE BELIEVER: I read somewhere that you trained as an Indian dancer. SHIRIN NESHAT: Yeah, actually, in the seventies, before I went to UC Berkeley, I studied at a small Catholic college called Dominican College in San Rafael, Marin County. It was a very conservative campus; I felt very bored and rather depressed in that environment and in Marin County altogether. But I was lucky to discover a classical Indian dance institute, called Ali Akbar Khan School of Dance and Music in San Anselmo, a nearby town. Next thing I knew, I was a fulltime student of Kathak dance. I danced every day. That lasted two years. I was the only dancer in the school who was not a Westerner. I was enjoying the dance and was getting really good at it, but eventually I stopped because I became very frustrated by the culty environment of the school. I found a lot of the dancers approached Kathak as a lifestyle, and as a type of religion. Most of the women dressed and acted as if they were from India.You can’t steal other people’s traditions. You can borrow from them, you can be influenced or inspired by them, but you can’t pretend to be something that you are not. The teachers were suddenly treated like gurus… It was silly. So I quit after two years, even though I was very saddened to leave, as I truly loved that dance.

BLVR: Have you noticed how many Iranians there are in Los Angeles? It’s known as Tehrangeles.

SN: Every other person on the street seems Iranian to me! Coming to L.A. for me is a little bit like going to Iran.There is a concentration of Iranian people that I’ve never seen other than in Iran. But I don’t quite identify with this scene. I feel like Iranians living in different parts of the world have all acquired different identities. For example, Iranians living in Europe are very different from those living in New York; or the L.A. Iranians are different from the ones in Ohio… They all have distinct identities.The L.A. identity is one that I feel most alien to, it appears to be more about wealth and class.Whereas when I’m in London, the Iranian community is very active culturally, intellectually, regardless of class issues. However, Los Angeles has created a unique subculture, particularly among a new generation of Iranians, and provides a certain social comfort for those who immigrated from Iran. It’s just that none of it is what I am looking for.

BLVR: I guess for me, L.A. is not so much a place as a series of destinations, so you make your map of L.A. every day.There is no city. It’s not like New York.

SN: That’s really interesting. I’m sure that, living here after a while, you develop a unique relationship to it and grow with that relationship. I was just never able to establish that relationship with L.A.

BLVR: I read somewhere that you don’t think of yourself as living in exile so much as living in displacement.

SN: For a long time I resisted that word, exile. I feel like when you say “exile” it implies a state that is not voluntary like when you leave your country. At the time I made that statement—that was quite a few years ago— I had been traveling to Iran, and I was really proud that I had made the effort to go there.

It’s within the last few years that the notion of exile has really started to sink in for me. Every time I tried to go back, there were all these blocks that prevented me. I started, for the first time, to really feel this frustration. Before, it had always been a matter of choice. I made the decision. This time I realized I didn’t have the choice, and I felt really angry and frustrated.Then I said,“Well you know something? I am an artist in exile.” I decided that maybe once I accepted that, other doors would open in my mind in terms of the way I situate myself, in terms of my work, my psychology.

BLVR: Did other doors open?

SN: Well, it lets other places, other cultures, other countries, become more of a home. You tend to feel more integrated as opposed to always feeling distant. For example, if I go to Morocco, I can allow myself to feel temporarily at home. When I go to Mexico, I don’t feel like an outsider. I try to feel at home. It changed my relationship to passing places. I’ve become less of a foreigner. Of course, I’m Iranian. But now it’s almost not an issue anymore.

In a way, I feel a little bit displaced anywhere I go. Anywhere I am. Even in Manhattan. Up until now, I’ve never been able to stay any place very long. My nature is nomadic. [My stay in] New York has been long mainly because I have a family. But I have this sense that the deadline’s in sight. I need to go. I need to go to the Middle East, or I need to go all over the U.S., or I need to go to Mexico. I constantly feel that somewhere else I’ll find something that I’m lacking. Then, when I get there, I realize it’s not there; it’s somewhere else. So the sense of displacement is something I live with every day. It’s very personal. It’s partly just my nature to feel displaced, and part of it is situational.

BLVR: That makes sense.You began your training as a painter, and then you decided to stop making art. Then you decided to start again after a trip to Iran after the revolution. What happened when you went to Iran that time?

SN: I had an overwhelmingly shocking but powerful experience when I first went back to Iran in 1990,after having been away for about twelve years. It is hard to describe; I was both terrified and excited by the new Iran. The country was nothing like I remembered it from the past. The Islamic Revolution had transformed this culture beyond belief on every possible level. I became obsessed with an understanding of the roots and causes of these changes, and, more importantly, with finding ways to once again feel a part of this community.

Making art became a tool—an expression that formulated my understanding and questions in regard to the sociological picture of Iran, the subject of the revolution. On a personal level, art became an excuse to keep my relationship to my country alive, whether I was in Iran or in New York. From then on, I started traveling back and forth from Iran regularly. I felt that the gap that had existed between me and Iran for so long was slowly vanishing.

BLVR: When did you first go to Mexico?

SN: By early 1996, my travels to Iran eventually became problematic as my work became more well-known in Iran. So I started to film in Turkey and particularly in Morocco between 1998 and 2001, pretending it was Iran. But in the spring of 2001, I tried to go back to Iran and made some attempts to gain permission to shoot a film there—but all of my efforts failed.Then came 9/11. I was so horrified by the whole event that emotionally, I felt the urge to stay away from all Middle Eastern countries and their politics—I wanted to travel to a country that was safe and politically neutral. I had lost all of my romanticism towards finally shooting a film in my own country. Instead, I chose Mexico.

I had never been to Mexico prior to this trip. But I knew, from a distance, that it was an amazing culture with a rich history, a beautiful landscape and people. Once I had arrived, I found many similarities between Mexico and Iran.The landscape in particular drew me in and reminded me of Iran. And of course the main objective was to find a landscape that was Iranian! So I shot my film in Oaxaca, and ended up having a wonderful collaboration with Mexicans and particularly the Indians who became the cast of the film.

Just a few days ago I came back from Mexico City where they were showing Tooba (2002), the film that I shot in Mexico at the Museum of Modern Art. I was really moved by their response and the level of dialogue and understanding of the [film’s] concept. I could easily claim that the Mexicans understood the meaning and the poetry of the work far better than the Americans and Europeans have.

II. ON RETURNING TO IRAN: “THERE WAS AN EXCITEMENT IN DISCOVERING THAT I WAS ONCE AGAIN A PART OF THE IRANIAN COMMUNITY, THAT I HAD A VOICE AND EVERY RIGHT TO EXPRESS IT.”

BLVR: What were your exact impressions when you went back to Iran the first time? What were the things that you had not been aware of prior to that trip?

SN: It was 1990, and on the immediate level everything seemed more severe than before, particularly the government control on people’s physical presence in public, such as all women behind veils, no jeans, etc. The changes were more upfront and visibly in your face.This transformation was so clear on a visual level. Everything appeared so black and white. Almost like all color had altogether been lifted from the country. I remember the only things in color were these big murals of Khomeini and other political leaders.

On the more sociological, political levels, I was drawn to an understanding of the initial formation of the revolution.You have to understand, I had been in America for twelve years. The generation that I came from was the generation that brought about the revolution in Iran. A lot of my friends had been involved in the events.When I met them again after all those years, and we started to exchange stories, I realized that many of them had been in prison and passed very difficult years. I was struck by their experiences and how they had survived, in every sense of the word. In a strange way, I became envious, and also felt like I was very spoiled all these years and may have lived a very trivial and meaningless life. I had many questions to ask them, like,“Who were the true leaders of the revolution? Who were some of the writers that were critical in bringing down the Shah’s regime?”

I remember reading a philosophy paper a friend of mine had written on the subject of martyrdom, or shahaadat, in post-revolutionary Iran. It was such a fascinating paper because it touched on the exact nexus of what differentiates the East [from the] West.The type of rationality that came with Islamic fundamentalism and the Islamic revolution was so difficult to comprehend according to a Western idea of rationality. His thesis was a philosophical, not a political, paper. He gave an overview of how this concept of martyrdom had been institutionalized during the revolution in Iran. He wasn’t defending it. He was just explaining where all the ideology came from and why; he explored the context and why it raised such fear in the Westerner. His thesis was a perfect document of the phenomenon. In fact, the work that I did—Women of Allah—was really inspired by reading his paper.

So you can imagine: I was beginning to see friends, and I was beginning to see for myself how everything had been reconfigured. There was something both exciting and frightening about my discoveries. You know, for me, especially coming from the United States, it was like an alternative to what I was experiencing. What I had known was the opposite end of the spec trum: a society that has no boundaries.

My views about Iran have, of course, changed over the years. A lot of people have criticized me for all the time and energy I have put in to analyzing Islam in relation to Iranian culture. Many Iranians, especially those outside of Iran, detest the Islamic regime so much that they can’t even tolerate any dialogue about it. But I have always felt that it was important and I never regret it.

BLVR: It propelled you.

SN: Definitely. It also made me more politically minded. I had known things were happening in Iran, but I was so busy taking care of myself and basically surviving, which wasn’t an easy task.Then, suddenly, I saw that I had spent twelve years living in a state of amnesia. Being there made it real. There was an excitement in discovering that I was once again a part of the Iranian community, that I had a voice and every right to express it. Being politically conscious—or, “Siasyeh” [literally “he/she is political”]—was often problematic in Iran. People often turned away from them. But I must say that I feel my return to Iran was very positive, and it awakened something very important in me: to be more conscientious of the world outside of me.

BLVR: It seems also that you saw the possibility of life as part of a community rather than as an individual navigating solo.

SN: And, more importantly, how you can find a place for yourself within the community. For example I have always felt there are two things that run parallel in my work, the “social” and the “personal.” I think that you can’t look at one without the other. Sometimes it may be that one side gets more heavy-handed than the other, but they always co-exist. In a way, I could say that the poetic and the musical aspect of the work is reflective of the personal, intuitive aspect of the work. On the other hand, the images and all the symbolism echo the social and political dimensions of the work. Something that is larger than me. But somehow in there I’m asking about myself. Very often the public forgets to keep the personal aspect of my work and looks at it simply as a political statement.

III. ON SPACE AND LANDSCAPE: “WE LOOKED SO CAREFULLY FOR THIS TREE. IT TOOK US TEN DAYS TO FIND THE TREE.”

BLVR: That makes a lot of sense, because the context is neither obviously personal nor particular. But it’s intimate in that it’s poetic. Is that also how you treat “place” in your films? As a physical context that is distinct while being somewhat unknowable?

SN: Maybe because I worked for years in an architecture gallery and I was so immersed in the subject, in all my work the choice and use of both built and natural landscape becomes really critical.

For example, in my most recent film, Tooba, the use of space was crucial to the concept, mainly a non-conventional narrative depicting the conflict between three various elements: the woman/tree in the garden, the crowd of people moving toward the garden, and the men in the circle. Tooba is based on a mythical character from the Koran. It is both a woman and a tree, a “sacred tree,” a “promised tree.” As you know, the subject of the garden in both the Islamic and Persian traditions is really significant in both mystical and political terms. It is a space of transcendence as well as a place of independence and freedom. Universally speaking, a garden is a replication of, or a fragment of, heaven. So for me, in this film, this garden or this tree very clearly signified a sacred space, and the wall became the boundary between the sacred and the nonsacred. Of course, we exaggerated. The garden in the film was nothing other than this one beautiful tree surrounded by plain low walls. At first I was going to plant all these things around it, but it was so beautiful all by itself. The wall became such a significant barrier. The moment the others make contact with this wall, the woman disappears. For me it was like the Garden of Eden. Once the apple is bitten, the magic is taken away. Although the crowds seemed themselves to be tragic, seeking refuge or salvation of some sort, once their aggression touched the wall, that magic was dispelled, and she disappeared. We looked so carefully for this tree. It took us ten days to find the tree. Because what mattered was this little oasis in the middle of nowhere, the very dry land and the one tree. So everything was very carefully orchestrated to reiterate the separation of the sacred and the profane.

Fervor demanded a totally different type of space, a kind that imparted a sense of ambiguity. This was because of the nature of the event, which was a very dubious event. It’s never clear whether you’re in a mosque or a theater or at a political rally. What was important was the curtain that divided the space. This was a very concrete and graphic decision governing space.

In Rapture, the women are in the desert and the men are in a fortress, and that is apt because the fortress is a military and masculine space; the absurdity of these men in their administrative clothes in the middle of this space was essential for this narrative.

In Soliloquy (1999), the architecture of each world represents its culture: the magnificence, value, and standards of that society, equally monumental and equally intimidating, but distinct and separate.

So, yes, sometimes I use constructed landscapes and sometimes natural landscapes, but they really play a significant role in my storytelling.

IV. ON INTERPRETING LITERATURE: “IT REALLY IS TRICKY, BECAUSE A WOMAN COULD BE SINGING A LOVE SONG AND YOU COULD SAY, ‘OH, SHE’S JUST SINGING TO GOD’ WHEN SHE COULD BE FANTASIZING ABOUT A MAN.”

BLVR: What’s your relationship to text? I’m interested in the text at the origin of your work—its inspiration— but also in the text that is woven into your work, such as the calligraphic lines written on the women’s bodies, in the photographs, the Rumi poem in Turbulent, the Forough [Farrokhzad] poem in The Last Word, and of course Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel that you are currently developing into a movie.

SN: That’s a really good question, and it’s a question that is not asked a lot. Actually, from the very beginning, every work I have done has been inspired by the words of a writer.

For example, before Women of Allah, the very first work I made was a series called Unveiling, which was inspired by Forough Farrokhzad’s poetry. I feel as though the photographs are embodiments of Forough’s work, because she’s such a visual poet, and there is her emphasis on the body and her use of metaphor. I love her poetry so much.

Women of Allah was inspired by the women who had been writing after the revolution in Iran, like Tahereh Saffarzadeh. She’s a writer who actually moved back to Iran from the U.S. just before the revolution, and as far as I know, she was very active in the revolution. Her writing changed once she became committed to the revolution. It came to be exclusively about the revolution and the subjects of responsibility and commitment to your faith and all of that. I read her poetry and I conceived those photographs. Really, between the thesis paper written by my friend, which I mentioned earlier, and the other subjects I had been reading about, by the time I finally arrived at her poetry, it made perfect sense to inscribe it on the photographs in the Women of Allah series. I don’t even see those images as separate from the text. I feel as if they are one.

When it came to music and the choice of the songs, poetry and its meaning in relation to my work became really important. The reason why Rumi’s poetry suits my work is the ambiguity of his poems. I’m not a Rumi expert, but there is always a question, an openness in his work, regarding the object of love. Whether it’s divine love or human love… and who he’s talking to. It’s really tricky, because a woman could be singing a love song and you could say,“Oh, she’s just singing to God,” when she could be fantasizing about a man. So in Pulse (2001), with Sussan [Deyhim], we just went through the books, and with the help of Shoja and Shahram, we picked this poem and gave it to Sussan, and she made a really magnificent composition. Or with Turbulent [the song], “yadegare-doost”—I think that was the best piece of music from Iran that I’ve ever heard. For years it just brought tears to my eyes. It is so magnificent. I think it’s Shahram Nazeri’s best song.

Tooba was, of course, inspired by the character of Mahdokht in Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men. She is the woman who plants herself to become a tree. And finally, in my last film, The Last Word (2003), this woman’s words are her only defense. Her words represent her world. His words are all empty slogans and represent where he belongs. Her answers have to represent who she is and what she belongs to—i.e., the creative realm.That allows her to rise above and beyond the rest. The way she answers him… I chose that poem of Forough’s because in it she talks about where she comes from and what she belongs to. The man interrogating the character in The Last Word is a moral judge.Women are always having to defend what they are about. I chose to show this with his words versus her words.

Of course, Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men is a major undertaking.When I read the story, I realized it had all the elements that I’m interested in: poetry, mysticism, the political, the philosophical, feminism. It’s all in there. It just needs to be pulled together.Then it becomes a question of how I can take this woman’s vision and imagination and connect it to my own vision and imagination.That is the process.

I’m convinced that it’s not just these women’s writings that I identify with, it’s also who they are .The trials and tribulations of these women are significant to me personally. Forough, Shahrnush Parsipur—these women were outcasts during their lifetime. And their suffering was not necessarily at the hands of governments,but was brought about also by society. They are outcasts who have one child, a broken home… very much like me. [Laughs] It finally dawned on me, “Isn’t that funny? Every woman whose writing I’m attracted to lives her life a little like I live my life.” And their madness, too. Because I think Forough was mad, in a way.And thank God for that. I feel that madness too. Somehow it gives me strength to know they were there and to know what they’ve done. Of course, they are my heroes, and I am nothing. It’s just that what they represent and what they struggle with is what I also struggle with.What’s more, Shahrnush is alive. I don’t know her very well. I don’t really need to know her. I need to know the book. But a part of me wants to be close to her.A part of me feels she could be an important person in my specific life. Because someone passes away and then you think, oh, I wish I’d gotten to know this person better. These are really important figures for me.

V. ON WOMEN: “WOMEN BECOME THE TRULY REBELLIOUS ELEMENTS IN SOCIETY, AND THE MEN BECOME THE CONFORMISTS.”

BLVR: You mentioned mysticism and feminism and madness.They seem interconnected in your work.

SN:Your reading is correct. It is rather intuitive. I see a duality in myself that is readily projected in the work. There’s always an element of resistance and protest countered by repression and mental cunning and tragedy. I think there’s an element of strength and an element of submission.They are always at odds.

BLVR: In your films, the women have an ability to be unpredictable, but the men often seem to pose a threat. So there’s this dialectic between the men and the women.The men’s power is visible, but the women’s is not and it surprises you. Like when Sussan sings in Turbulent: The man’s song that comes before is so beautiful, but when Sussan starts to sing, it’s otherworldly. Her song defies language, so it also defies rationality. In Rapture, the women take to the sea in the boat, and it’s such a move out of the blue. In The Last Word, in the face of the terrifying interrogation, the woman responds with poetry.

SN: I think the reason that this work is taken in that direction is because of women’s situation in Iran. The fact that they live under so much pressure has resulted in the most innovative approaches to resisting the system. There is a quality you find in women living in oppressive environments, a certain extraordinary resilience.This isn’t so evident in places where there is more equality between men and women. In general, any human being who is under pressure has more of a tendency to respond, to react, to do something.Those who aren’t under pressure have less of a tendency to do that. You see that over there on a street level, the social level; they are fighting every step of the way. And sometimes they get very creative about how to resist and fight.This has become their nature, their feminism: a very subversive approach to take control of their own destiny.This is what I mean. It’s not men against women, or women against men. It’s that the sociological situation is so different for men and women—the way they are treated is so different—that their response to it is also radically different.Women become the truly rebellious elements in society, and the men become the conformists.This is not some fantasy I have where I want to make the men look like fools and the women [look] like these incredible beings. It’s just that I think the nature of oppression by men actually makes them the reverse of what they want to be.

There’s another thing. Part of me has always resisted the Western clichéd image of Muslim women, depicting them as nothing more than silent victims. My art, without denying “repression,” is a testimony to unspoken female power and the continuing protest in Islamic culture.These women have their own unique ways of dealing with crisis.

VI. ON COLLABORATION: “EVERY TIME YOU GET TO WORK WITH A NEW COLLABORATOR, IT’S LIKE DANCING WITH A NEW PARTNER.”

BLVR: Ever since the start of your video work with Turbulent, your work has always been collaborative. How is it different each time you work with new collaborators?

SN: Every time you get to work with a new collaborator, it’s like dancing with a new partner:You don’t know their body language very well and you’re trying to get to know them.There is a thrill that comes with that. But there is also a comfort to working with people who really understand your ideas and aesthetic and with whom it’s not a struggle to explain. It took us a long time to get to that point.We can get right to the point. They know and understand what I would say no to and what I would say yes to. Still, the energy of a new person is so wonderful. I consider Darius Khondji a new collaborator.The first time I had to work with him, it put me on a new sense of alert:“Oh, I have a new person. I have to make sure he understands what I want. I have to understand the way he works.”

BLVR: The texture of that piece is wonderful, and it’s different from all your other works.

SN:With Tooba, Darius Khondji and I worked closely for the visual form of the work, deciding on each shot, the camera angles, the range of color, etc.Then, in the editing room, I worked very closely with Shoja and the editor Sam Neave. I remember Darius at the very start of the shoot in Mexico came to me and said,“Listen, I only work with the director. I cannot have five different people telling me what to do.” So I had to respect that and talk to my team members, who were accustomed to being a lot more involved.They were actually wonderful. But it forced me to take far greater control than I normally would have.

With people you have worked with for a long time, there’s this comfort level where you say,“Oh! I have this idea,” and they say,“Forget it! That is so bad.Throw that one out in the garbage and don’t even bring it up again!” [Laughs] You don’t have any inhibitions, and you can discuss things and fight and scream, and there’s a beauty to the long-term relationship. I think we’ve broken some records as far as long-term relationships and collaborations are concerned. Collaboration is not an easy task, but filmmaking is a collaborative effort. It truly is. In my work, there’s an added element.

These are not just crew members. Their input is much greater.When I have an idea, I open myself up to their suggestions. But I ultimately decide and control the direction of the work.

VII. ON FILM VS. PHOTOGRAPHY: “IT IS UNNERVING TO MAKE THE TRANSITION FROM ONE MEDIUM TO ANOTHER, BUT IT SEEMS TO BE THE NATURE OF HOW I OPERATE.”

BLVR: So, at this point, you’re in this unique position, straddling both the art market and the film world.What are your feelings about the two worlds? How do you see them, and how do you travel between them?

SN: I certainly know the art world better than the film world. With film, I feel a little bit of the same kind of excitement and nervousness I felt when I first entered the art world, when every little invitation was superexciting. [When someone] from the film world knows my work, I am surprised: “My God! You know who I am?” I’ve sort of lost that type of excitement with the art world.

It’s always unnerving to make the proper transition from one medium to another, but it seems to be the nature of how I operate. I am never faithful to one medium for very long. I believe in taking risks, and in the moments that I’m not sure what I’m doing.

What I find exciting about cinema is that there seems to be more room for experimentation. There’s a larger audience. It’s more connected to the popular culture. The art world, on the other hand, seems more conservative, and rather elitist, but has its own advantages. I have a lot more to learn about how to better navigate between the two—but I think there are many exciting possibilities there.

I have been watching a lot of films lately. My favorite filmmakers so far have been Tarkovsky from Russia and Kieslowski from Poland. Now I’m focusing on other classic directors.

BLVR: Who are the artists whose work you like or are inspired by?

SN: I’m a huge fan of Louise Bourgeois. I met her at her house in New York. It was an extraordinary experience. Her art brings me to tears every time. Among video artists, I appreciate the work of Doug Atkins and William Kentridge, from South Africa. I also very much appreciate the sculptures of Anish Kapoor, from India, who now lives in London. Last fall I happened to see his installation at the Tate Modern in London, and I was simply blown away. There are others, like Mona Hatoum, from the Middle East, who also live in London.

So I have my favorites and I follow many artists’ work, but I prefer watching films to looking at art these days. Maybe it’s just a phase!

BLVR: What are you reading these days?

SN: I’m finally making time for reading. At the moment I’m reading Like Water for Chocolate to see how the film adaptation relates to the book. And The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Because they’re both magic realist novels [like Parsipur’s]. I’m reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and I’m really enjoying it. Last fall, when I was trying to find stories to film, I began to go to the library at [New York University] every day and I would just read novels by Iranian writers, short stories, lots of things. I also read Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time. Withdrawing from everything else and reading books really helped to pull me through the transition I was trying to make. [Looking out the window, she notices a meter maid ticketing the interviewer’s car] Oh, Dorna! You forgot to put money in the parking meter!

BLVR: No, I didn’t forget. I put money in it when we got here.

SN: [Laughing and speaking in Farsi] You know what this reminds me of? One time Mr. Kiarostami told us this story about how he was sitting outside of the screening of The Wind Will Carry Us, and a gentleman came running out of the theater. Seeing the director, the man was flustered and embarrassed; and, by way of explanation, had said,“Mr. Kiarostami, I swear I have to run and put money in my parking meter. I’ll come right back.” You know what Mr. Kiarostami replied? He said,“I’m so happy my film did not make you forget your parking meter.”

More Reads
Interviews

The Process: Joe Gibbons, Confessions of a Sociopath, 2005

Emily Watlington
Interviews

An Interview with Elissa Washuta

Sarah Neilson
Interviews

An Interview with Paul Lisicky

Rajat Singh
more