Fearless Mozhdah Jamalzadah takes a bold step into the Red Snow

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      There was a permanent security detail outside her house, armed barricades at each end of the block, armoured vehicles to take her to work, and another three barricades to cross when she arrived. For three years in Kabul, she lived under the persistent threat of death. But nothing shook Mozhdah Jamalzadah quite so hard as putting on a burqa in Kamloops.

      “That burqa was the one my mom used when we escaped Afghanistan,” explains the 34-year-old actor-singer, reached by the Georgia Straight at her home in downtown Vancouver. “Putting it on, in the 36-degree heat, I couldn’t breathe, my eyes were tearing up, I was hyperventilating. I said, ‘Okay, Marie, I can’t do this…’ ”

      Jamalzadah was shooting the film Red Snow with acclaimed writer-director Marie Clements. Kamloops was playing Afghanistan—very convincingly, it must be said. Jamalzadah’s character was that of a woman abducted by the Taliban and used as a pawn in the ambush and torture of a Canadian soldier. And the neophyte actor was, very clearly, deep into her role.

      “Everything came full circle,” she says. “It was very emotional.” The crew assumed Jamalzadah was reacting to the heat. She protested: “ ‘No! I think I’m having a mental breakdown!’ Because all these years I’m fighting for women’s rights but for the first time I’ve actually stepped into their shoes. At least they could call ‘cut’ and I could flip it over, unlike these women back home. They can’t do that. Hours and hours out in the heat. That was a big lesson for me.”

      There are remarkable stories on both sides of Clements’s camera. Jamalzadah’s family fled to Canada when she was five. After establishing herself as a singer-songwriter in Vancouver, she caught the attention of Afghan broadcaster TV1, which gave Jamalzadah her own talk show in 2009. The remit, largely, was women’s issues, and The Mozhdah Show became a huge, if controversial, hit. Back in Canada, what Clements saw was a proven personality and veteran performer who came front-loaded as a symbol of female resistance.

      “I thought it was a joke,” says Jamalzadah, recalling the Facebook message Clements sent in 2013 inviting her to read the screenplay for Red Snow. She loved it but had no acting experience. Clements’s response: “That’s not necessary because you are her. I’ve been following your work and what you do, and you are Kathira.”

      “It definitely wasn’t the first offer I had to work in a movie,” Jamalzadah says. “When you get into the industry and you’re the only Afghan out there, it’s bound to happen. But every time I was approached by other directors, it was with characters that were weak; a victim of rape, for instance, or domestic violence. I didn’t want to start off that way.”

      Kathira is no victim—not for long, anyway. She’s a “badass”, in Jamalzadah’s words, who turns tables on her captors, helping to rescue a Gwich’in soldier who sets off with Kathira’s family across tribal land fraught with danger. He’s haunted by memories of an Inuit lover and family tragedy, while Kathira and her kin grieve the murder of her mother. It’s an audacious move, nesting with poetic force these two images of Indigenous and tribal life separated by continents.

      “Marie’s a genius,” says Jamalzadah. “The more you watch it, the more you get from it.” Viewers evidently agree. Red Snow, which opens Friday (March 13), was voted most popular Canadian feature at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival. At the close of this year’s Vancouver International Women in Film Festival (March 8), it took home awards for best screenplay, direction, and film—an especially sweet win given the theme of Jamalzadah’s life and career.

      “When I read the script,” she says, “I thought if I were put in Kathira’s situation, I would have done the exact same thing she did. There were times when I was shooting it that I was filled with emotion just because of the similarities.”

      The vital difference is that Jamalzadah arrived in Canada with her family—including mom and two brothers—intact. Asked to identify the source of her own fighting spirit, she pauses before answering: “I’m thinking that some of it might be innate. Maybe it’s the Afghan blood. The crazy part. I’m not scared of anything, and that’s what helps me to stand up and speak out against injustice. And I think a lot of it had to do with my parents. By the time I was 16 my dad gave me the best advice ever. He said, ‘Don’t ever live for anybody else. Do what makes you happy. Live for you only.’ This is my hero. And my mom, she’s amazing. She’s been able to be the strong woman that she is, again, because of my father. He never restricted her in any way. We’re a power team. When I see them and I see their relationship and the way that they raised us—it’s just ideal. I’m very fortunate.”