Interview with Newsha Tavakolian

By Zanji Sinkala

The following piece is an interview with a filmmaker who believes in the power to dare, to challenge the status quo and above all, do what brings the most happiness. Her words will encourage you to find your own path and to follow it irrespective of what others may normally do.

Iranian filmmaker and photographer Newsha Tavakolian is a force to reckon with, and she makes this evident in the elucidation of her recent short film, For the Sake of Calmness, a thought-provoking film that tries to convey the whirlwind of emotions associated with premenstrual syndrome. It contains several cleverly woven together scenes that evoke a heavy atmosphere and leaves the viewer confused yet captivated at the same time. The abstractness of the film deliberately gives no answers away, making it a skilful piece of filmmaking and a worthwhile watch. I spoke with Tavakolian about a range of subjects, from PMS, to life, to what keeps her grounded. Without spoiling too much, let’s dive right into it, shall we? 

Hi Newsha, thank you for squeezing me into your schedule last minute. Could you tell me about your film?  

This project is very personal, it started four years ago when I wanted to do research into the effect of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) on the human brain and vision. I am a visual artist and photographer, so for me it’s very important to visualise feelings. Many women around the world don’t know about PMS. Each month they think they have depression because of the constant change in hormones. It’s like an earthquake happens inside you as a woman. You die and get reborn. 

For the Sake of Calmness still

How has Iran accommodated the nature of your film? I figure Iran is a very conservative country.            

Initially, I didn’t say what the film was about because I wanted to make people curious about my work and its topic. The first viewers of her film  all thought it was about Covid-19 and being depressed. Two weeks later, I announced on Instagram that it was about PMS. More than 1,500 people went to watch it in response, and I got several positive responses. I also made a lot of people angry – both men and women, not just men surprisingly. 

I was previously banned from working in Iran for a year because my images are quite critical. I love my country, and when you love something, you become both more sharp and more sensitive about it. I’m not interested in just showing the beauty of Iran, I’m interested in being a mirror to society and showing how Iran is to its people. This makes my government and people angry. 

If you were to shoot the film again, what would you do differently?

I haven’t thought about that because it’s very fresh since I made it. However, if I made this film now, I’d be harsher, more critical and I wouldn’t sensor myself. 

How did you select the scripts?

A friend who’s a writer helped me, it was very long at first but was cut down. I was brutal in cutting  words because I thought if I say one word too many, it will take away the power. Each section of the film is meant to touch on a subject and leave audiences thinking.

What are you working on right now?

After doing this work,  I’m going to DR Congo in two weeks to shoot a project in a refugee camp with Doctors Without Borders, so my work involves travelling around the world and at the same time doing personal films like For the Sake of Calmness.

For the Sake of Calmness still

Was there ever a moment that you realised filmmaking wasn’t just a hobby, but your whole life?

Absolutely. When I started, I was 16 years old and dyslexic. Till today, visual language is the method I use to communicate with the world and myself. It’s very difficult for me to communicate in writing or talking most of the time. If you ask me how I feel or what my mood is, I can show it to you with one image.

What’s your greatest achievement till date?

That I continued my work. I’m 40, but I’ve had professional experience for almost 25 years and I think this is my greatest achievement – that I never gave up. I pushed and I faced so many difficulties and problems but I never gave up. No one can take that away from me.

Any advice for other filmmakers?

Follow your heart. The world is a tsunami of moving images and visuals generally. What would distinguish you from the rest is being true to yourself. Young filmmakers should work hard and not take their opportunities for granted. There are many talented people out there, develop your own vision and be truthful to yourself.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve had to learn?

I’ve learnt that it’s really important to believe in yourself and your vision. If you can doubt, but also have self-confidence, it keeps you moving and growing. Because if you have too much self-confidence, then you don’t grow a lot. You’ll think you’re the best. So many filmmakers and artists have the goal of success, but when you get older, you realise the goal isn’t that important –what matters is the journey.

Zanji Sinkala
Written for the Young Film Critics 2021