Between the Cultural and the Personal: Javid Rezai and Afsaneh Dehrouyeh on Pegah
By Ali Moosavi.
Short narrative films are perhaps the most unseen and neglected branch in cinema industry’s output. In recent years, documentaries, another branch of cinema which received relatively little exposure, have really grown in stature, and many documentaries, as well as being shown in dedicated festivals and various TV channels, have received successful theatrical screenings. Short films, though, are normally confined to film festivals.
However, many new budding young directors use short films as their entry ticket to the much larger world of feature filmmaking. A good recent example is Whiplash (2014) which after a successful run in festivals as a short film, managed to attract the attention of production companies and its young writer-director (and now Oscar winner) Damien Chazelle was given funds to develop it to a feature film. The rest, as they say, is movie folklore!
For foreign filmmakers, the road may be rockier. However, if the talent and dedication are there, they will find a way. An example in this category is the Iranian-British filmmaker Babak Anvari. When his short film, Two and Two (2011), was nominated for a BAFTA, he received sufficient exposure to attract investors to provide funds for a feature film. The resulting film, Under the Shadow, has been a big hit with critics and public alike and was Britain’s entry in the 2017 Oscars Foreign Language film category.
Another young filmmaker starting his journey on this road is Javid Rezai. This Iranian-British director has just completed his second short film, Pegah. The film deals with the sexual awakening of an Iranian teenage girl from a traditional Muslim family, living and studying in the UK. The film’s subject matter can cause some controversy, specially in the current climate. However, as the old movie saying goes: there is no such thing as bad publicity! Film International talked to Pegah’s writer-director Javid Rezai and its young lead actress Afsaneh Dehrouyeh (FX’s Tyrant, 2014-2016).
Can you tell us something about your backgrounds?
Javid Rezai (JR): After university, I worked in the British Esquire but I always knew that I want to work in films. I started writing short scripts and made my first short, Another Life (2016), which had a successful festival run. Then I started working on Pegah.
Afsaneh Dehrouyeh (AD): I always wanted to be an actress. After university, I started going to auditions and attended the International School of Screen Acting. After some acting jobs in commercials and music videos, I landed a recurring role in the series Tyrant.
Where did the idea for Pegah come from?
JR: Most of my Iranian family are women and they all inspired me in so many different ways. Growing up, I would hear their stories and their struggles and I wanted to put it down on paper from Iranian women’s perspective living outside of Iran and the conflict between cultural and personal identity.
There seems to be two parallel themes in the film. One is a young girl having her first sexual experience with an older man, who happens to be the father of her best friend, and the other is a young girl from a traditional and religious family having a relationship outside of what her religion allows.
JR: I wanted to explore that conflict within Pegah’s identity, being that age and about to embark upon the next stage of her life and whether she would take her heritage and culture with her or carve out a new life for herself. The relationship with Ted (her best friend’s father) became one of the main points of the film.
There seems to be a little dichotomy in the film. Pegah’s mother is a religious Muslim who has Pegah praying with her. But at the same time, she allows Pegah to wear very western clothes and go to parties by herself where teenagers are drinking and partying.
JR: Because I’m half Iranian but have spent most of my life outside of there, I have this inside-out perspective. Even though they are from a traditional family, they are living in England and trying to find a balance between the English and Iranian traditions. This is something that Pegah herself struggles with.
Afsaneh, how did you find the character of Pegah?
AD: I found her very easy to relate to. Though my parents weren’t as religious as Pegah’s, the strict background was something that I could relate to. And her going to these parties was her way of breaking from everything at home. That’s very easy for anyone to connect to because everyone has their own way of escaping. And she sees this beautiful blonde girl who can do what she wants, with her parents never really caring, and it was a completely different world that she knew nothing about and that was incredibly desirable to her to explore before going to university. I loved this contrast of how introvert she is at the beginning and by the end she comes out of her shell and finds out who she is and what she believes in.
Given her cultural background, it was a bit of a surprise that she dived in rapidly into an intimate relationship with her best friend’s father.
JR: For me, the most important thing about their relationship was that it was two people from completely different backgrounds and different ages going through big changes in their lives. Pegah is going off to university and trying to find her place and what she wants to do with her life and Ted is in the midst of a divorce and trying to struggle this relationship with her daughter. So there was this instant connection and coming together of two people who are lonely and trying to find themselves.
Immigration is a hot topic now, even more so as regards Iranians. You show that they behave like normal people; they go to parties, they fall in love and so on. How do you think people will react to it in the current climate?
JR: Some people might find it surprising and some may find it shocking. For me, it was important to tell this story from an Iranian perspective. Traditionally when people think of Iranian cinema, it is about people within Iran. But there are so many different Iranian people all over the world and their stories are just as Iranian as anybody else’s. This is just one of them.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015) and is based in the United Arab Emirates.