Creating a Cinematic Universe with Maryam Zarei
Interviewed by: Denise Trevizo
Edited by: Marisa Sittheeamorn
Maryam Zarei is a theatre director turned filmmaker, who splits her time between Toronto and Tehran. Her first short, Magralen, premiered at Berlinale in 2019 and has been charming audiences and picking up awards along the festival circuit ever since.
A few years ago, after winning “Best Theatre Director” in Iran International University Theater Festival, Zarei decided to pursue her masters in theatre at the University of Alberta in Canada, where she ended up directing five plays. Upon returning to Iran, Zarei was faced with abrupt changes in her industry. She found herself needing more connections and a lot more money to see her ideas come to fruition.
These frustrations coincided with Zarei’s piqued curiosity in the film industry and interest in attending film school. As she shared this idea with close friends and colleagues, she was told by many that making a film would teach her everything she needed to know. This is exactly what she did. With an idea, she had the script written by Payam Saeedi, and started filming. Nine months later, Magralen was polished, and made its way to the grandiose halls of Berlin.
FCC: How did the idea of Magralen came up? The location, and your characters?
MZ: The main idea, the starting idea, was from me, and the rest was from Payam. I had watched a movie set in a wreck yard where everything was dark and dirty. I thought it would be a binary contrast to insert a child and her family there, as they deal with their own problems. So I talked to Payam about it, and he came up with the concept of a blind girl that has a wild imagination of her own world.
I also really like working with children; I love their work, they have colorful minds and can see the good in everything. Even if there is a fight between parents, children have the ability to think about something else and turn something ugly into something beautiful.
The last thing I drew inspiration from, was a moment I shared with a beautiful girl with long hair looking for something to eat in the garbage years ago. We made eye contact, and I have never forgotten her. All these aspects motivated my film.
FCC: How did you build the universe around your film?
MZ: I was looking for someone to play the little girl, so I went to a school for disabled people in Tehran, and found Atena Soleimani. She was wonderful – she learned the whole script and was so hardworking. And, while I didn’t expect to find the character of the brother there, I came across Taha Najafpour. Both of his parents are deaf, so he has taken care of them intensely from a very young age. He’s tried to build a bridge between his parents and the rest of the world.The characters of the parents were not hard to cast. They are theater actors and it was their first experience in the film industry.
The location, however, was very difficult to find. There are a lot of wreck yards in Iran and they are close to Tehran, but they only have five or six cars. So we finally found a wreck yard where they had more cars. They offered to move the cars to our shooting location and even taught us how to drive a forklift, so the set director Aram Mousavi and I, could arrange our own set. We painted the cars so they were not all white, and we built the little house where the family lived (which we left behind for the workers after filming). When there is a small budget, you have to get creative. My friends and I did everything!
FCC: What was your experience being behind the camera for the first time?
MZ: When I decided to make a film, I spent two to three weeks watching videos about how to make a film. I knew how to work with actors, but I did not know about how to work with a camera. So, I watched a lot of master classes about directing, lighting, editing, and everything! The post production took a lot of time, because I did not have any experience in editing, and I did not know how cuts worked.
I feel like I am a new person after Magralen because I have gained valuable experiences. My second film is better than my first, and I can see the difference between them now.
FCC: How do you see your future as an Iranian filmmaker living in Canada?
MZ: I am not sure where I will be going or working. It’s sad to say, but money plays a big role. I want to have enough experience with short films, and really want to make a feature film. I don’t mind if I have to go back to Iran or travel somewhere else to make my films, I just want to make films – it is the most important thing to me. It is my passion. I work full time in a retail store in Toronto, and save money to make my films. After I save enough money, I go to Tehran and make the most of it.
When I saw FCC’s mission, I was very hopeful because Farsi-speaking regions really need this platform. They need to be promoted because there are so many artists, like me, that work hard, struggle with budgets, and need promotional support. I think what they are doing is a very good opportunity for young filmmakers to join the industry, and network with others.