Nafiss Nia on the Poetry of Hope in That Afternoon

Iranian/Dutch director, poet, writer, and producer asks the audience of That Afternoon (link review) to consider the plight of refugees and immigrants who seek a better life. As an author of multiple books of poetry Nia uses art as a method for her protagonists Roya and Nassim to connect.

Nadine Whitney speaks to Nafiss about her work and how hope is universal and the antidote to despair.

That Afternoon screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 10 and 11. To find out more about Nafiss Nia’s work, via their site here.

Read Nadine’s review of That Afternoon here.

Nadine Whitney: Poetry features in That Afternoon particularly the poem ‘Bright Horizon’ by Ahmed Shamlu which works as a key metaphor. How did you work in your love of poetry into the script?

Nafiss Nia: The love of poetry I got from my father when I was child who recited classic Persian poets. I then discovered modern Persian poetry, and Ahmed Shamlu was the king of contemporary Persian poetry. I find poetry fascinating how poets put a big world and a big story in a few verses. The same goes for film, how you put a theme or an issue into a single work.

NW: That Afternoon shows that you can do just that. The film is stripped back but contains an entire world around of experiences around it that exists outside the frame. It’s a huge film done in a small space.

NN: I hear that a lot. It gives me a fine feeling because that is what I was going for. I wanted to have a small story, but the story is bigger than the film. It is a film that explores humanity as a whole. I’m really glad that I had the space and the opportunity to put two passions of mine, film and poetry, together.

NW: There is a very strong visual aspect to the work, for example Nassim’s photography. There is a visual poetry to the work. There is a distinct visual Persian visual language with Roya’s psychological state – almost touches of magic realism.

NN: When you make a film which is just two people talking with a door between them you have to make it more than something which is like a play. I wanted to make a film. From early on as a filmmaker you learn “don’t tell, show,” and I wanted to show that although these characters are speaking they are also not telling the whole story. Show what is not told I tried to show. I told my DoP Joris Kerbosch that I wanted these people to be layered with what is not spoken but shown with true imagery. I had a lot of ideas. I told my production designers that I don’t want these people to exist in a grey or beige corridor. Refugees are often put in such depressing colours. It’s wrong because these people have colour within them. When you have hope, when you have dreams, you have colour. I wanted to emphasise that with the visuals. I told Joris, “No pressure, but I want you to make a postcard of each shot that is beautiful.” People are watching a film about human rights and the sense of belonging and longing to have a home. You have that longing, I have that longing, everybody has that longing. I was thinking of every aspect of the film and how it would convey that. As it is my feature directing debut you have one chance to make a strong impression.

NW: You have been a producer on other films. What made you decide to move into directing?

NN: Before coming to The Netherlands, I was a writer and director of short and mid-length films. When I came to The Netherlands, I studied scriptwriting. When I graduated, I didn’t have a directorial portfolio, I had nothing to show them. I began to write and direct other things. I wrote Dance Iranian Style the other feature film and produced it. I realised it was too much to direct as well as write and produce a film especially on a limited budget. I decided to ask a friend of mine, a great director Farshad Aria to take on the directorial work because it was almost impossible for me to do all the production and writing work and direct.

Producing is such a hard job so I decided for That Afternoon to choose to focus on the directing so I could have the distance to think about visuals.

NW: How long have you lived in The Netherlands? And did you experience some of what your characters did in That Afternoon?

NN: More than twenty years. And, yes, of course I experienced some of what they did. I felt exactly the same hope that Roya has – hope to work and live in freedom, to do something and be part of a bigger world. To have a home where I feel safe, regarded, seen and heard. Roya’s hope and positivity were the same as mine. I didn’t have her life. I didn’t have the same experience of some of what Roya was forced to do in Iran. At the same time for Nassim I had many moments of despair. The feeling of not being regarded and not being seen and being ignored. But I am naturally very positive, perhaps in a naïve way but I think it’s better to be a naïve positive person than being bitter. I did have many moments of what Nassim thinks and feels but I never thought of doing what he wants to do. I never wanted to shut the door and stop people being inside my life. There were moments I really did just want to be left alone like he does.

NW: Both Nassim and Roya just want to be able to exist and to “be” and it’s made so difficult. At one stage Roya says, “Everyone is looking for happiness and that’s not a crime.” It’s not a crime to want stability and happiness.

NN: Exactly. There is a feeling especially in Western countries that refugees are something other – not a person. Fleeing a country because of war, or because of a dictatorship is something you do to survive but also because you want a better life. People change where they live all the time. If you move from one place to another for a better life because you are seeking happiness. I’m always repeating that being a refugee doesn’t give you a specific identity, it’s an experience that you’ve been through that makes you deeper as a person. Refugees and immigrants want to participate in society. People coming to The Netherlands from places like Poland just want to work and contribute and they work so hard, sometimes more than sixteen-hours a day. They want to participate; they want to be a part of the society they have moved to. They aren’t there to be a burden. We all want to be one of, we all want to be seen.

NW: That’s something you capture in the film. The desire to belong, the need to have a home, to not live between places and to have a chance to contribute. Can you tell me about your working relationship with Hoda Niku and Alin Whiska?

NN: It was very intense. First of all, I looked very hard at finding the right actors. Alin was easier because he lives in The Netherlands. From the moment he stepped into the audition room I knew he was the right fit for Nassim. He told me, “Nafiss, when I read the script, I had the feeling this is my story you are telling.”

With Hoda it was a little bit more difficult. I had audition tapes from all over the world, but I couldn’t find the right person. After watching forty-three tapes I couldn’t find my Roya. We did everything. We searched refugee centres in The Netherlands and Belgium. Eventually I found Hoda on Instagram. I was really desperate. I didn’t want to give to part to someone I wasn’t 100% sure about. Hoda is a model in South Korea. She lives in Seoul. I knew that her photographs are a kind of mask, but behind them I saw Roya. I contacted Hoda and she was more than happy to join our cast. Hoda told me it was her Cinderella story because she’s always wanted to be an actor. There’s a saying in South Korea that there are more actors than inhabitants there because of the huge nature of the film industry in the country. So, an immigrant girl from Iran doesn’t have a lot of opportunities in the film industry in South Korea. She couldn’t believe that she had the chance to play a lead role in a movie in Europe.

NW: I would not have picked up from her performance that this was her first role.

NN: No this is really her first time and she’s fantastic. She worked so hard. She was so well prepared. She knew the script better than me and she had so many questions. Both Hoda and Alin were very curious about their characters, they just wanted to know everything. We had enough time to do the rehearsals and during that time I listened to them and tried to answer their questions. Both of them have different methods of acting. Hoda had to be very well prepared but Alin was more about experiencing the character and making it his own. It was a joyful collaboration.

NW: Are you excited about coming to Australia for the Sydney Film Festival?

NN: I’m so delighted to share my film with another audience and to talk about it. Also, to spend time with other excellent international women filmmakers and get to spend time with them and to speak to people from Australia. It’s really fantastic opportunity to be there.

NW: Why should people go see That Afternoon?

NN: Because everybody, not just me and you, but everyone experiences moments in their lives – hope and despair. I just want to emphasise that we can manage the worst of times if we do it together.

NW: That’s the core of the film. Two people in a time of crisis come together.

NN: These people are far from their home and they are seeking a new home. They want to work hard for it, they really want to do their best. That goes for all of us, we all want to be part of a community, we all want to collaborate. Seeking happiness is something everybody does, not just refugees.

NW: Thank you for your time, Nafiss, and as the poet said: That day – house doors will not be shut. Locks will be but legends.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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