There is something lurking behind the quietness of films that comment on the current social issues in the world. From the oppression and control of people’s bodies, mostly women, films can showcase the many different way people are fighting back and resisting a system that is desperate to hold them down. The suspense is unbearable, yet it is necessary.
For Iranian director and co-writer Cyrus Neshvad, The Red Suitcase was a matter of urgency. The Oscar-nominated short film follows the harrowing journey of a 16-year-old Iranian girl as she attempts to flee an airport undetected by the man that she’s been sent off to marry. In one of the short’s most pivotal scenes, the young girl removes her hijab for her safety while defying her culture.
Neshvad set out to create a powerful film that spoke to issues in Iran and across the world that have been escalating. The film’s release coincided with the recent female-led anti-hijab protests in Iran reflecting how cinema can act as a window to our world, reflecting issues across cultures while preserving these harrowing moments in history.
Cyrus Neshvad sat down with No Film School over Zoom to talk about the message behind The Red Suitcase, crafting the visual language, and what screenwriters should focus on when crafting a powerful story.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on The Red Suitcase being nominated for an Oscar for live-action shorts. That’s an incredible accomplishment. Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration behind the short film?
Cyrus Neshvad: A few years ago, my mother, who is Iranian, was in contact with Iran and she was telling me that she was hearing from women who were expressing their opinion or who were not putting the hijab the correct way, were disappearing. I was really intrigued by this. I thought perhaps it was a joke, but it was the truth. So this was happening in Iran, people were disappearing and nobody was talking about it. I really felt that if I know this, I have to do something. For weeks, I was thinking, “I didn’t know what to do,” and suddenly I said, “Why not a short movie?” I decided if it’s a short movie, it has to be about the girl, an Iranian girl, with a hijab somewhere. So, that’s how we gave birth to this idea.
NFS: I know that you have talked about the scene of Ariane [Nawelle Ewad] taking off her hijab in the airport bathroom and looking down the lens. Was that shot the thesis of the film or was it something that came naturally during the production?
Neshvad: I wanted this to happen somehow in the movie. The free will of the woman was, for me, very important. Expressing this free will was a way also to go out of this hijab, especially since in Iran you’re not allowed to take it off. For me, it should be a personal decision to put it on or not put it on. I wanted that this girl decides to take this hijab off and I ask her also during the shoot to watch the lens of the camera while doing this, to invite other people all around to join her in this action to say that it’s possible.
But the idea behind this hijab, it’s a lot of topics because the topic here, it’s about … It’s somehow what is right now happening in Iran and was always there, the domination of the patriarch, the domination of the man on the woman. This is something that is there. The last time I saw a picture passing from my uncle who sent me, there was a meeting in Iran and the men were all sitting on the chair and the women were sitting on the floor. It’s totally normal in Iran, so they had their hijab and sat on the floor. So, in our country, it’s looked at it’s normal.
A woman who is married needs the consent of the man to go somewhere abroad. Now, Iran said that it’s really problematic that a lot of women are leaving. And they put the consent not only for the women who are not married, the consent has also to come from another person, from the father, and so on, to keep the woman chained. All this today it’s behind this hijab, which is in Iran. Taking this hijab off means a lot of things. Coming back to the movie, there is a patriarch deciding for the girl, giving to another man, and also dominating the woman. So these two ideas come together, transaction together on the faith of a girl where she has nothing to say.
NFS: You can feel that tension throughout your story and the writing. When you’re sitting down to write or standing behind the camera and crafting scenes how do you think about tension and how do you build it for the audience without kind of manipulating that emotion or making it transparent that you’re trying to create tension?
Neshvad: First of all, we need to know the conflict of the girl. In the first few minutes, we don’t know totally her conflict. We might think that she’s even a danger to us. The audience will judge her a bit, “What is she doing there? What is with the luggage? Is there a bomb?” and so on and so on. But at the moment when we know her conflict, the audience is already with her.
The tension is already there. So, the slightest things you will do will put the audience in a way that they are scared for her. When she’s exchanging the money, the man is passing and on the phone hears that she has a red suitcase. So, the audience will already go, “Ah.” Then, when he finds the envelope in the rubbish place and he understands that she’s not far, we are even more scared for the girl.
Also, the slow pace of the movie. Let’s time to go slowly in her head, so this puts also for me the tension up that there is a conflict, but the pace is very slow.
NFS: I also think filming in one location and keeping it very confined also builds that tension as well. Can you talk to me about your choice of using the airport and were there any problems in securing that location for filming?
Neshvad: I really wanted this location because when you talk airport, you think about holidays, taking a plane, going somewhere where it’s sunny, having ice creams, for freedom. The symbol of freedom, which is the airport, it’s the symbol of her prison. I find it very interesting to film big spaces because I had the feeling the bigger you film the spaces, the more you feel her loneliness. So, these two were matching well together, the prison and loneliness.
NFS: And did you use wide lenses to make the spaces feel bigger?
Neshvad: Not only wide lenses, but I wanted also to have anamorphic. I put anamorphic and wide lenses to give these big spaces where she’s surrounded by all these ads about occidental beautiful women selling products.
NFS: Oh, I love that. What camera did you use on this shoot?
Neshvad: ARRI Alexa 4K.
NFS: That medium format with the amorphic lenses is great for this film. What made you want to tell this story in a short format, and what benefits do you find in the medium of the short?
Neshvad: At the time I decided to do the movie, it was just a choice to do something quite fast, at this moment. If you go into the idea of a feature movie, you need years and what was happening right now in Iran needed something now, that I should do now. So, I decided on the short format.
NFS: Do you believe that’s the best format for storytellers who want to comment on current events or say anything political or radical about their societies?
Neshvad: No, I think there is no difference between short and feature movies. Both formats are good, and the work you have to do in both formats is the same. It’s for me, the same parallel as when you are constructing a building. If you construct a building of three apartments or if you construct a building of 30 apartments, it’s the same work. You have to put the foundation, you need to build the first level, the second level, put the roof, put the windows, it’s the same work. So, there is no difference. There is just a difference of choice, which one I want to use now.
NFS: With The Red Suitcase, what was a challenge that stands out to you and how did you overcome that obstacle?
Neshvad: The main challenge for me was this conversation with my screenwriter [Guillaume Levil]. He said, “You are doing a movie talking about the problem of women in Iran. But the problem of women in Iran is not just in Iran, it’s everywhere in the world. We have somehow to bring inside of this that we incorporated the woman also from abroad, that they have also their issues. How to bring this into the script?”
We decide that then after discussion to put up these posters of occidental women selling products. If you watch closely, every product she sells is using the sexuality of the woman. We are selling champagne with the décolleté of the woman. We are selling pizza by using the sexuality of the mouth of the lips of the woman. We are selling holidays by using naked legs and so on.
So, this was the idea that somehow a woman is also misused abroad, perhaps differently. Perhaps not with her life, perhaps not that hard, but it’s existing somewhere else. This brings us to the last shot of the movie when our lead character, Ariane, finally went away on a bus. We are slowly going on and an ad for a shampoo where there is this beautiful girl with beautiful her with a beautiful smile. When the camera is going closely, closely, closely we see that she’s not smiling that much and we have the feeling that she’s terrified. We wanted to give this small notion that it’s a bit universal and that was a big challenge in the movie. They didn’t want to be one-sided too much.
We wanted just through this movie to bring a small equilibrium to this to see somewhere else also existing, it’s just not there. In Iran, you can die for it, but in other countries perhaps you will not die for it. But it’s different harm doing it’s existing.
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are looking to make their first short film?
Neshvad: For me, the most important thing is the script. When I say the script, [I don’t mean] story. If you have a good story and the script is not so good, you will do a bad movie. But if you have a bad story and you have a good script, you still can do a good movie.
NFS: What do you think makes a good script or a strong script?
Neshvad: The script is how to dramatize everything. It means you have a character who has a conflict and what are the obstacles and this makes it work. Even imagine the story is not that good, but if you have a conflict and you have obstacles, suddenly you have the attention of the audience. They want to know what will happen, so it’ll happen. They are intense in the movie and they will come with you. Creating empathy for the character is the most important. Because if the audience has no empathy for this character, they will be bored. We have this empathy, first point, and second point, obstacle. Then, the audience will focus on your movie and they will not even search for the story to see what will happen.