Niloofar is a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl whose dream is to read and write in a village where education is only for boys. While assisting her midwife mother during a delivery, Niloofar meets a woman who allows her to secretly study. In the meantime, Niloofar’s father arranges her marriage to an older man once she becomes a woman. Horrified by this notion, Niloofar does everything in her power to postpone her first periods. When destiny catches up with her, she hides her womanhood from her community to pursue her dream. Until one day, the truth is revealed. Rather than live in a marriage without love, Niloofar runs away with her Uncle. Shocked, her family considers itself dishonored and sends her stepbrother to track her down. Award-winning editor Sabine El Gemayel (THE OLIVER HARVEST) proves herself into an accomplished director with her debut film, produced by Jean Bréhat and Rachid Bouchareb (DAYS OF GLORY, LITTLE SENEGAL) and co-produced by Fereshteh Taerpour (SON OF MARIAM, WHEN ALL WERE ASLEEP). The captivating young lead Mobina Aynehdar gives a rich performance, demonstrating an emotional range rarely seen in young performers. NILOOFAR artfully combines the modern and the past, the poignant and the tragic.
Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us how for the first time you were introduced to the ides of “Niloofar”?
Sabine EL GEMAYEL: I was a teenager when I met a girl in a similar situation in Lebanon; her father had arranged her to marry an older man and she had no say about it. From my westerner point of view, I was pushing her to escape and rebel. From her point of view, she couldn’t imagine a life of her own choosing. She must have been scared to face the real world as a teenager. It is not easy to create your own future specially a girl in the 80’s in the Middle East. This story stayed with me and I eventually used the concept of arranged marriage to write Niloofar.
Bijan: We have seen many films about arranged marriages, but honor killing is always a challenging matter to deal with. How difficult it was to come up with the final structure of the film based on its delicate subject.
Sabine: There is a scene in which the Sheikh says: “I still don’t know if it’s better to end a life for honor’s sake or live with dishonor”. I believe nothing is black and white in real life. Most people even if they commit this kind of crime go through an emotional turmoil and choose to do what they believe is the right thing in their cultural environment but their heart might tell them another thing. They are bound by tradition and what is expected of them. The dominant paradigm is that men are not supposed to be emotional so they act as if they aren’t. I am fascinated by the world of emotions and I wanted to show that every human being regardless of their gender and the choices they make are emotional beings
So in the film, I chose to stay with the emotions of parents who face such challenges. Tradition and honor are overwhelming concepts that push parents to allow theses crimes to be committed. It is an incredible concept for a teenager to commit a murder in real life and it made it difficult in the making of the film as well because I needed the audience to follow Niloo’s journey and fear for her life by having a believable young actor play the scene.
Bijan: Where is the location of the story and why and how you choose that?
Sabine: The story is set in Iraq at the border of Iran. However, it was shot in the Khuzestan province in Iran by the Iraqi border. Originally, the story was written as a Lebanese story and was taking place in the South of Lebanon. Because of the political situation in Lebanon at the time and some financial concerns I chose to make the film in Iran because my family lives in Tehran and I needed to be in a country Lebanon or Iran where I had logistical help for the care of my children who were with me for pre-production. We made it an Iraqi story because we needed the concept of honor to be a very strong one and it is in the Arab culture more than in the Persian culture.
Bijan: How much work was spent in writing and pre production stage?
Sabine: The rewriting and cultural adaptation stage took about a couple of months which I did with Mrs Fereshteh Taerpour, the Persian producer during the location scout stage, prior to the-production period. During the actual pre-production, there was minor rewrites and my concentration went into finding and securing locations with the crew, doing the casting, working with the art director Majid Lailaji, the first costume designer Samira Sinai, the director of Photography Bahram Badakhshani and with my first assistant director, Mostapha Ahmadi with whom I worked closely and who has a western approach because he is one of the few that works with a shooting schedule! I also spend a week rehearsing with actors. The rehearsal period was crucial for me because I didn’t know the actors and didn’t speak the language at first. I was also a way to establish a working style with the actors and get to know each other. The actors had my undivided attention, which is not always the case on a set where we are concerned with the set dynamics.
Bijan: Mobina Ayenehdar has a magnificent performance in the film, how did you find her and what was your way of working with her? Was she familiar with the subject of the film?
Sabine: Mobina came on board about a week before the shoot because the Dad of the girl I had chosen from Tehran didn’t want her to play in a movie. It was unfortunate because she spoke a broken French and some English so it would have made it easier for me. Luckily I had done a casting session in Ahvaz, the city close to our location. So we went back to the tapes and reviewed them over and over again. Originally we wanted a girl from the city of Tehran so we wouldn’t have to deal with the possible mindset of a conventional family in regards to the subject matter of the film. But surprisingly enough, her mother who was very religious allowed her to play in this film because she believed in destiny. It was Mobina’s first time acting. We started with easy scenes to get her used to the camera. I would not give the children their lines until the day of the shoot so they wouldn’t work on the scene and would stay fresh. Because the situation was foreign to her in her life, I used analogies and improvisations to get her to understand how her character would feel if she couldn’t study and was forced into marriage. She learned to cry when thinking of something sad that way. I was interesting to see her evolution as an actress. We would tune in together before difficult scenes with visualization and sensorial acting exercises.
Most of the time I would interact with her beside the camera so she would get the emotions from me because for some reason, she opened up to me but not always to the actors she was doing the scene with. By being in front of her, I would sometimes exaggerate my mimics to illustrate the emotions and she would get it. Often I would tell her we were only rehearsing and I would shoot the rehearsal.
Bijan: How did you go about casting the film? Were all of your actors professionals?
Sabine: There are no casting directors in Iran. Usually it is the producer and the first AD who do this. Mrs Taerpour and Mostapha Ahmadi helped me tremendously in finding the right actors. I am a very intuitive person so when I met the actors I would sense whether or not they would embark on the emotional journey that Niloofar would be. The children were non-professional and so was the man who helps them cross the border at the end. All other actors were professional actors and some where Persian stars.
Bijan: You have lived a good part of your life in Iran; did that help you in making of the “Niloofar”?
Sabine: I don’t think I would have been able to make the film if I wasn’t from this culture. It helped me shape the film as well as interact with my crew.
Bijan: You end up your film with Hope, but are there really any chanced for likes of Niloofar in our world?
Sabine: It was important for me to end up with some sense of hope because I believe that one should be able to choose their own path although I know that it may not be the case in some countries. For that reason, in the East this end is not perceived as a hopeful ending because Niloofar has no future because she betrayed her own honor. However in the West, the ending gives a sense of hope. I think that if Niloo is indeed with her Uncle it may be a true sense of hope. There are, very few but still, some girl who actually make it and are able to find help through foundations or caring relatives.
Bijan: Has Niloofar been successful in its official and private screenings and what are your plans for this film?
Sabine: Niloofar is a crowd pleaser. The screenings that we have had were very successful. At AFI Film Festival, they added a third screening because of the demand. However, with the world’s economical situation, the film industry is very slow and Niloo suffers from it like most foreign independent films.
Bijan: Please tell us about your future projects.
Sabine: I am working on another feature set in Los Angeles and South America. Incha’allah!