When Naghmeh Shirkhan set out to make her first feature film, The Neighbor, she chose to embark on a journey into her own past as a young immigrant from Iran.
Shirkhan spoke with the Georgia Straight on the phone from Toronto about why memories of her childhood were a vivid source of inspiration for the film.
“One of the reasons why I’m drawn to film is because it’s a visual medium, and my memories of my childhood from Iran are very much intact,” she said. “I think it’s the trauma of being uprooted and having to fend for myself that I’ve never been able to forget.”
When she was five, Shirkhan’s family left Iran for Boston, Massachusetts. Shortly after the move, her father was forced to return to Iran during the 1979 Revolution, leaving his wife and two young children to fend for themselves. She explains that with her mother working full-time, she learned to become very independent at a young age in what was “the worst time to be Iranian in America”.
“I think anybody who immigrates from their country, for whatever reason, still has that feeling of displacement and wanting to fit in,” she said. “How do you make that adjustment? What are you ready to let go of? And what can’t you let go of?”
These questions are the focus of much of The Neighbor, a film that brings together several generations of Iranian mothers and daughters who are trying to find their place in each other’s lives and in their adopted homeland.
As the writer and director of the film, Shirkhan knew she wanted women to be a dominant force on set. To do this, she had to take a leap of faith and trust that everyone’s desire and passion for her film would make up for a lack of experience.
“From the beginning everyone felt very strongly that this is a story that had to be told and wanted to be a part of it and I think that everyone sensed that this was going to be quite unique and special,” she said.
The movie offered lead roles for first-time actors (Azita Sahebjam and Tara Nazemi) as well as her director of photography, Armaghan Sahebjam, who had never shot a feature film before. But Shirkhan decided to challenge herself and let the final product speak for itself.
“I thought that it would be a testament to me as a director if I could pull it off,” she said. “I wanted to do something to make people think, ”˜Wow, is that really possible?’ ”
The three-month shoot took place in Vancouver, which wasn’t Shirkhan’s initial choice of locations. The director had chosen the blue skies of L.A. to counter the somber tale she wanted to tell. But after speaking with her producer and meeting with the cast and crew, she knew Vancouver was the right place and had the right people for her film.
“It was kismet,” she said. “We had such a great vibe on the set, and I think it was a unique environment, especially because there were so many Iranian women.”
Having previously screened the film for a sold-out audience in Montreal, Shirkhan is excited to see the reaction the film will gets here in Vancouver when it plays at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 3, 4, and 11.
“One woman said to me in French, ”˜It’s a love story between mothers and daughters’, and I think that’s what it is, but I know that each person will have their own personal interpretation”.