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(MIME- Moving Image Middle East) Discussing Venice title 'Without Her'

There has never been a more timely film than Arian Vazirdaftari's 'Without Her', explaining to our senses what it must feel like to be in Iran at this very moment -- and Nina got to interview the filmmaker along with his two extraordinary leading ladies in Venice, for a chat you won't want to miss.

The press kit for the Iranian film Bi Roya, or Without Her as the title is translated, features a haunting logline: "Without Her is about the illusion of individual choice if others determine who you are –- a situation forcing you to either adapt or risk being replaced by those who do." As we watch what is happening in Iran from afar, I can't help but think how timely and even prophetic the film's message proves.

Without Her goes on to question all those preconceived notions of identity, particularly for those of us who have lived as women in this big bad world of ours. Arian Vazirdaftari's film world premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in the Orizzonti Extra section. For Vazirdaftari, the festival proved a fruitful one as another film he worked on as a co-writer (along with Azad Jafarian and the film's director Houman Seyyedi) World War III ended up winning the Orizzonti prize for Best Film in that section.

But this feature debut by the Iranian filmmaker, an alumni of Berlinale Talents whose short films have traveled the world cinema festival circuit, is a powerhouse of a project. It stars two perfectly complex actresses, Tannaz Tabatabaei and Shadi Karamroudi in a tour de force performance that will leave you simply breathless. And completely surprised, even though there are hints placed here and there throughout the film of things to come.

In case you were wondering, I simply love cinema that surprises me, and even more a work of art that will have me question my own opinions and place in the world -- all of which Without Her does.

I sat down with Vazirdaftari and his stars Tabatabaei and Karamroudi -- the latter happens to be the filmmaker's wife as well. The resulting interview still raises the little hairs on my arm when I think about it because of the moments that reflected how connected I feel to Iranian women. And how somehow, we managed to fill the gaps in the conversation with gestures that mean so much more than words.

At one point, Karamroudi felt comfortable enough in the presence of three women and her husband to remove her headscarf, revealing underneath her hair, cut in a fashionable cropped style. At the time, I considered it an extremely kind and intimate act, as if to say to me "you're one of us." Now, with all that is happening in Iran, that moment becomes so much more poignant, carrying with it an importance beyond ourselves and its setting.

If ever an interview needed to be dedicated to someone, this one's for you, Mahsa Amini, my sister, OUR sister.

What was interesting for me is that the film could be interpreted in so many different ways. Is that something you were conscious of while writing this?

Arian Vazirdaftari: I will always think that identity and what you believe in is dependent on the surroundings and atmosphere and our perception of that. It was horrifying to me the concept that if others agree that your identity is another from your own, you lose the game. It’s as easy as that. You can accept your new identity and move on, or kill yourself. That’s the premise of the film.

My other interpretation is that, as a woman, we tend to lose our identities when we are married.

Tannaz Tabatabaei: I agree with you on a certain level, however the mother figures like Roya’s mother, and even Arash’s are not present at these key points [in the plot's twists]. The mother figures are the ones who resist this systematic identity swap and are the ones who won’t give up.

I love the fact that your film has so many layers. I realize I know how one of your leading ladies was cast, she’s your wife. But how did you come to cast Tannaz Tabatabaei and what did she think when she read the script?

Vazirdaftari: Shadi is great as I always share my ideas with her. I trust her comments and it really helps to know that I can also have in mind the kind of character I’m writing because I know she’ll play that part. I try to somehow adjust the role for her performance. And Tannaz, is and has been a famous star in Iranian cinema and this was my feature debut, so no one knew me. I have made a couple of short films which were somewhat successful and I approached her through the leading male actor in the film. Saber Abar, who had signed up early on, and could get the screenplay to her for me.

Tabatabaei: The concept was very interesting for me when I read the script. And the different layers of how the story could be interpreted was what caught my eye. What amazed me what how the character had this emotional arc, and through the narrative at certain stages it changes. I found this great while reading the screenplay, that there is a starting point but the film ends on a totally different level as far as the emotional arc and the storyline.

Arian Vazirdaftari, flanked by his leading ladies Tannaz Tabatabaei on the left, and Shadi Karamroudi to the right

Were you ever afraid that these two very powerful women characters were going to overwhelm your writing?

Vazirdaftari: I didn’t want Ziba and Roya to be the same person. It would have been much easier, and that was the first idea. This circle, making the narrative very much symmetrical.

How was it for you Shadi to play this character, who also has a very big arc?

Shadi Karamroudi: I think my character appears really humble and weak at first, because she is the “leftover” from the previous life. She is what Roya then becomes at the end. She is beaten, and was coming out from her own life and forced to adjust to a new life. I somehow had this feeling that she’s very similar to Roya, but unlike Roya, we won’t see the arc of her life in the movie. We see the transformation but we don’t see her in her previous life. So I find her very fragile at first and then gradually she tries to adjust to her new life. She knows that she has no way out of this and she has to adjust to the man, who is her new husband.

The dynamic between you two, seems like Roya is being led into the new life, and your character is the mentor, the instigator. It’s interesting to watch how these two women deal so differently with what is basically the same predicament.

Karamroudi: I think when they get different people’s identity, the women act different from each other. For example Ziba, my character whose real name is Sareh, decides that it’s better to adjust to this living, she doesn’t want to hurt to Roya, but wants to lead her and educate her how to accept the situation.

One of the things from my previous life is my other character is dead. I didn’t swap with another person.

Do you think cinema creates this sort of movement that helps people understand what is different from them?

Vazirdaftari: Nowadays, everything is too speedy, and everyone wants to see and read one quick thing and move on to the next. But I remember back in high school when I watched the film that really impressed me, and is referenced in my film, Mulholland Drive -- we used to watch it over and over and find new things out and had different opinions about it. Right now, it is like on the one hand there are clear statements like articles or there are shallow narratives on social media. In that regard, it’s getting harder for movies to have real impact on the audience as audiences are very much rushing all the time.

We eat entertainment like that old video game PacMan, we have become very shallow. Shadi, how do you feel about the statement above, as you come from a culture we know so little about, especially in the US as we’re not allowed to interact.

Karamroudi: I don’t see it that way myself. I think of the film itself, and try to put aside the cultural representations. In my opinion, every movie goes its different way and has its different style and what is best suitable for the film. Sometimes we are representing our cultural society but sometimes we aren't. And in my opinion, nowadays we are like a small global village, we share lots of similarities. I personally share a lot of similarities with my friends from Europe and as you said a bit before, women lose their identity when they get married — I myself have thought about it. These days I don’t think it is a matter of culture, it’s a matter of concept, of the film, which matters more.

What I find fascinating is that here we are, three women from different backgrounds and hailing from different countries and yet, we are all dressed in black -- wearing what seems like a global uniform.

Tabatabaei: I think that cinema, every narrative shines the spotlight on certain concepts and when it tries to show these concepts within certain geographical zones it uncovers different layers of that society or environments. The most important thing in my choices {as an actress] is how humane the character is or how the film connects global audiences to the issues.

I believe throughout certain ethics or certain beliefs it is all a matter of cinema trying to connect audiences to other narratives. But I still believe that when I pick something, it will be representative of Iran and Iran’s culture and I take that into consideration.

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