Interview with Naghmeh Shirkhan, writer, director and co-producer of The Neighbor (Hamsayeh)

Mrs Naghmeh Shirkhan, “The Neighbor” is your first feature film. What was your objective?

As this is my first film, I wanted to put on screen something that hadn't been shown on film before. For me, this goal was really important. I wanted to present women characters who are Iranian, who are living in the West, and who don't have a lot of similarities—not the same surroundings, money or poverty—yet are struggling to find their way. A lot of films that I have seen that were shot in the West featuring an Iranian female character (and there have been a few but not that many) have been really over dramatized. I couldn’t relate to them. So my objective was to depict deprivation while showing joy in the Persian character, set in the West, and told in a very minimalist style. This is the type of filmmaking that I like.

The body language of the characters is powerful in “The Neighbor.”

Were you looking for emotions through the body language?

Cinema is a visual media. If you make it heavy with dialogue, you get further away from true cinema. I wanted to do something more realistic: action rather than words. Through the actions of the characters, you are able to see what their personalities are like.

I work in the documentary industry. I like watching daily routine in documentaries.

I wanted the movement and the action to reveal the character. I didn't want to explain everything. The audience is alert enough to catch a lot. The people coming to see this film can gain a strong understanding through the images, the context. I didn't want a lot of verbal dialogues even about their background. If you watch them interacting, you have the knowledge of their Iranian culture. You can get so much contextual information about the characters, about the fact they are very independent yet very lonely. And you have another key through their faces.

The actresses were acting from their own experiences of relationships; this is what gave them their melancholy. 

How did you choose your performers?

In real life, Azita Sahebjam (Shirin) and Tara Nazemi (Leila) are mother and daughter.

I was looking for the main character, Parisa, and my producer said, “You better go to Vancouver.”

I had been thinking of doing the auditioning in Los Angeles. So when I went to Vancouver, I met Azita. I thought she would be really great for the role of Shirin. As for Tara, she had been acting before yet had no acting ambition. I had my hesitations about her, but to direct a mother and daughter, well, I wanted to try it. And they operated really well together.”

During the shooting, they distance themselves in real life to stay in the character. In Montreal (World Film Festival, 2010), nobody could believe it.  I thought they did an amazing job acting as perfect strangers.

Do you have a background as an actress to be able to direct your actresses that way?

No, but I had enough of an understanding of what I wanted to achieve. Because of that, I was able to communicate what I wanted. 

I didn't stop shooting before I got what I wanted. We reshot until I got the essence of the film.

On the set, people were good about allowing me a chance to push onward until we got what I wanted. We never had any time to rehearse. The first shooting was our rehearsal.

I never had experience working with actors, but I worked on a lot of documentaries. I feel like the characters need to connect with people on an individual basis, and it is up to you to communicate what you want the actors to deliver. It takes lots of patience. Faith and patience.

Parisa, the little girl, is a natural. She has a gift. In real life, she is a quiet little girl. She was four years old when I first met her during the casting. And she just turned five when we started shooting the film. It was wonderful working with her. I am the mother of two young boys. My oldest will be seven years old in a week and the youngest is five and a half. I know these ages really well. It helped me to be able to direct her, to achieve that friendship. Most of it is not even directing; it is building trust. When the child trusts you, the magic happens.

Shirin and Leila express themselves with their bodies (tango and figure skating). Is that something they can do in Canada rather than in Iran?

Tango is a wonderful contrast. It is so intense in Iran that you cannot shake somebody's hand if it is not a near relative. So to have a woman dancing with strangers in such an intimate way, in a such a sensual way. It is a metaphor for sexual intimacy that is in great contrast with such relationships in Iran.  

Shirin wants to be free. In Iran, you can't have big parties; you can't dance the tango. She wants to be true to herself.  She knows that she won't go back to Iran. Even if she misses her grandmother, she doesn't want to go back.  What is meaningful is what you really fight for.

There are a lot of emotions shown on her face, but it is never overly dramatic. There are lots of layers.

Figure skating came later. Tara was a champion. That adds a layer of complexity. It makes her most likeable. She has a passion for something rather than just this loser boyfriend.

It is easier to relate to her.

And iceskating adds movement. This is nice.

The theme of solitude is really present in your story. Do you think this is a problem in modern society?

Yes, this is very much a modern problem. The tango is poignant because it is without dialogue; people are in search of something, but every three dances they change partners. This is very much a modern story, showing temporary connections; you make a connection and then you move on, so I think the tango is an apt and beautiful metaphor. This is a modern story for sure... for women and for men.

In your film, men are really absent.  Did you want to focus on women only?

I wanted to dedicate these minutes to filming women’s stories. I thought that theoir stories were more interesting. It was more touching to see women as people separated from men, lost in their lives. This is the story of women who are lost. I wanted the focus on them.

Shirin doesn’t have children and she wants to take care of Parisa. Is that a way for her to fulfill her role as a mother?

In Iran, lots of women get married at a really young age. Like Leila. She is young. She has a child.

She is a child, raising a child.

Lots of Iranian women get married and divorce. Married, they realize that the man is not the right one. They remain childless. This is a very conscious decision.

“I don't want a child, I will take care of yours,” is what Shirin communicates.

It is very difficult raising children in modern life, especially in the West. There is so much movement away from the family. In the United States, there is not much help for mothers, six weeks off and straight back to work. For most people I know, mothers are out of the picture in another country.

Why did you choose Vancouver to tell this story?

The film wasn't meant to be in Vancouver.  But in Vancouver, everything is fresh. The immigration experience there was much better for this story, as there is a stronger connection with Iran. In Vancouver, lots of people speak farsi. The story is set in a small community. It could not be told anywhere else. A husband and wife working in different countries is common. Leila lives in Vancouver and her husband is in Teheran.

In the States, Iranians have had no connections since the Iranian Revolution, thirty years ago. Removed from Iran, a lot of my friends don't go back there.

Also in Vancouver there is the contrast of the landscapes: the beauty of all that contrasted with the isolation of these women living in this corner of the world. They have to let go, to open the door.

Vancouver was the best place for this story, better than Los Angeles where it would have been more difficult to recreate that situation, as this is a period film.

Interview by phone with

Valérie Lecomte

Intermedias reviewer at  VIFF 2010

Official Film Website