Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Sahar Mossayebi Is Helping To Change Our World
Blind trust destroys you: Many of us have the bitter memory of being struck by a love and trust that was baseless. I cannot live without trusting; it is my personality. But now, I am trying to take signs and logic a bit more seriously.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Director Sahar Mosssayebi.
Sahar Mossayebi was born in Tehran on May 4th, 1975. She graduated in Theatre with a BA from The Azad University of Art and Architecture and started her career in 1996 as an actor in a performance by Davoud Mirbagheri called ‘Eshgh Abad’. She has worked in different positions in cinema including as a production manager, planner, script supervisor, and assistant director.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I was born into a cinematic family. My father and one of my uncles were producers, and another uncle was an editor. Before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, my elder uncle owned the Sierra Film Company, which produced significant films. Unfortunately, after the revolution and the ensuing circumstances, the company closed down. In the early days of the revolution, my father had a film dubbing studio, but its activities were halted for political reasons dictated by the government at that time.
Since childhood, I had a strong interest in films and cinema. When my father came home at night, he often carried a Samsung bag, which usually contained Betamax tapes. In the early days of the revolution, watching videos was considered a crime, and people secretly watched films. My father’s Samsung bag was like a magical pouch for me, containing a film on some nights that I eagerly anticipated. I watched films like Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, and many other important classics during my childhood, alongside my family. It was from that time that I fell in love with cinema.
I studied theater at university and entered the film industry professionally in 2000. I worked in various roles, Script supervisor, first assistant director, production manager, and project executive. In 2011, I began directing with a short film, and in 2015, I made my first documentary called “Platform,” which was the first documentary about women in sports in Iran. The film received numerous awards in Iran and at international festivals. In 2019, I directed my first feature movie ORCA which tackled the issues faced by female athletes and their challenges in Iran. Unfortunately, its public screening was prohibited in Iran.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I entered the professional cinema, the veterans of Iranian cinema were very strict and serious. They didn’t engage in pleasantries with you and treated you very seriously. The cinematographer had strict and firm rules. For example, if you wanted to hold the clapperboard in front of the camera, you had to get permission, and you had to, according to the camera lens and distance, ensure that your clapperboard didn’t change the focus of the camera. At that time, cameras used negatives, and there were no monitors to see.
I was a Script supervisor, and we had an important shot to shoot. We were in a hurry because it was late in the day, and at any moment, the light could change, I quickly took my clapperboard in front of the camera, and suddenly, the loud voice of the cinematographer shouted, ‘Take that trash away from in front of my camera” and “You don’t have the right to do this until you get permission”
I was very embarrassed by the confrontation that had happened in front of all those people. My heart wanted to leave the scene due to embarrassment, and I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye. However, the shot was sensitive, and leaving the scene would be very unprofessional. So, with all the difficulty and embarrassment, I stayed, and that day ended.
For several days, I was upset about the cinematographer’s behavior, and I didn’t know why he treated me that way. When I realized that the mistake was mine, my embarrassment increased. That’s why I went in front of everyone, apologized, and said that from now on, I will be careful in my work. He was a very serious and even somewhat ill-tempered person, but after my apology, his behavior changed significantly.
I learned many important lessons about scenes, especially regarding light and cameras, from him. He even allowed me to check the shot from behind the camera viewfinder, which was a very important permission. At that time, he patiently explained to me about lenses and the effects of filters in lighting. I learned to accept my mistakes and apologize for them.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
The most interesting people in my workplace were those I got to know through work or filming locations. They were ordinary people from all walks of life in the capital and other cities. What was fascinating was that these same people would help or provide solutions even in very difficult and sensitive situations. I became acquainted with their lives and thoughts, facing interesting, and sometimes strange and challenging stories. I would occasionally accompany them in their lives.
These individuals had a significant impact on me, and I have many stories to share. If I were to describe one of them, we worked in Kurdistan, in the city of Uraman. It was winter, and the weather was extremely cold. One of the common tasks in this region was bringing goods like cigarettes, fruit, and fabric from the border of Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran. In this region, the month of Bahman in winter is quite challenging, and drivers are at great risk of avalanches.
One of the locals in our group, a skilled and professional driver who was also adept at navigating routes, told me, “I can’t come to work for two days because I need to bring goods from the border.” He left, and the weather became cloudy, and a severe snowstorm hit the area. After two days, he didn’t return. The entire village and the locals said that something must have happened to him. It was decided that when the weather cleared, a group would go to the road to find him.
The group found that his car was stuck under an avalanche, and he had been trapped for three full days. His cargo was cigarettes, and he hadn’t abandoned the entrusted goods throughout those three days. When they found him, he was almost half-dead. When he slightly recovered, the first thing he wanted was a cigarette. The entire cargo of his car was cigarettes, but even in the moments of despair when he was unsure if he would be found, he did not touch the cigarettes that did not belong to him.
It was very valuable for me to witness someone holding onto their ethics and beliefs even in the face of death. In Kurdistan, I learned from its people to be true to my words and commitments. When you work with the people of Kurdistan, you don’t need a contract, they do what they say. They were the most honest people I have ever met.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Cinema has been a significant part of my childhood and adolescence, but it was when I reached the age to view it through a professional lens that two directors had the most profound impact on me: Alfred Hitchcock and James Cameron. These two directors, with entirely different perspectives, both deeply fascinated and inspired me.
Alfred Hitchcock, a master of suspense and storytelling, knew his audience well. He understood how to engage the viewer’s mind, and I still marvel at his film ‘The Birds.’ He was one of the most prominent directors of classical cinema.
James Cameron, with his extraordinary and creative mind that transcends time, takes the audience into a dream from which they never want to wake up. I was twelve years old when I saw ‘Terminator,’ and I remember not being able to sleep that night due to its excitement. When watching ‘Titanic,’ the scene of the ship sinking left me breathless. Recently, with ‘Avatar,’ I was so immersed in the film’s incredible imagination that I forgot about time and space. When the movie ended, I didn’t want to let go of that strange feeling and thought to myself, “How creative and complex can a mind be to create such images?”
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
I am always a positive thinker and hopeful person. If I don’t have hope, life becomes difficult for me. That’s why, in the toughest and darkest times of life, I seek a miracle or hope. In my films, whether documentary or feature movie, even though I depict challenges, the struggle to achieve a goal is a turning point for me. I believe that if I am going to show problems, I must also show the path of struggle. I think this approach has a more positive impact on the audience and makes the journey towards the goal smoother.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
I always had the desire to become a director. Even though I started late, when I heard the story of the Mansourian sisters, I always wanted to make this film. I was on the verge of turning 40, and most of my experience was in cinema. Until then, I hadn’t worked on a documentary, and entering a new world and a new experience as a director was both challenging and terrifying for me. I also had the concern that I might not succeed in this path.
In the past, starting a new path was the most difficult part for me, and I would avoid it. My main motivation was the three sisters who were putting all their effort into changing their lives and achieving their dreams, especially Elaheh Mansourian. Alongside them, I found courage and confidence. I learned that I had to face my fears, and it took me three years to create this documentary. I can confidently say that it was the platform for my personal and professional maturity.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I created the documentary Platform, as I mentioned, its story revolved around three sisters from a village in Iran. Faced with difficult living conditions and poverty, they decide to change their lives and become world champions in the field of Wushu.
Women’s sports in Iran face numerous challenges. For example, women’s competitions are not broadcast on national television. Despite all female athletes participating with the full approval of the Islamic Republic, their competitions and efforts go unnoticed. Even if a woman achieves a rank or medal, it is only covered in a simple report after the competition or a headline, and their achievements are not highlighted.
After the enthusiastic reception of Platform, important figures from the sports and cinema industries came to see the film during interviews and cinema screenings. They discussed why we should support women’s sports, and why we should recognize the female champions of our country. These discussions had such a significant impact at the time that national television aired part of the competitions of Kimia Alizadeh, the female Taekwondo champion. However, women’s competitions were still very limited in terms of television coverage. The platform was the first documentary to showcase women’s competitions in cinema. People who had never seen this effort and championship were excited, and I received many messages from girls saying that their families, due to the traditional views on gender roles, did not consider sports suitable for women within societal norms. This challenge always hindered them from choosing a sport or going to clubs. However, after watching this documentary, their fathers, who were considered the heads of the household, changed their perspective and embraced their daughters’ involvement in sports.
This is exactly what I, as a creator of works, aim to achieve — confronting religious families with an undeniable reality. Interestingly, Elham Asghari found me after watching the Platform documentary through one of my friends, who came to see me and shared her life story. The film Orca was then produced based on her story.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
I am an independent filmmaker. If you are referring to the Iranian government, I did not receive any support from them in the two films I made. An artist cannot be indifferent to their society and surroundings, and I certainly am not. Therefore, because I am not in harmony with a government that seeks to conceal the problems of its people and society, and does not listen to calls for change in its system, they not only do not support me and artists like me but also hinder our work by restricting us. The seizure of the film Orca in Iran and the prevention of its screening is an example of the policies of this system. However, the people in society have a different view. Most people support and appreciate their artists. By watching films and promoting them, they show appreciation and support for the effort that artists put into their work, despite the different perspectives held by the government.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
1- Making a mistake is your right.
2- Blind trust destroys you: Many of us have the bitter memory of being struck by a love and trust that was baseless. I cannot live without trusting; it is my personality. But now, I am trying to take signs and logic a bit more seriously.
3- Never say it’s impossible; there is no impossibility: When I was creating the documentary platform, Elaheh Mansourian was one of the main characters in the story. She was a champion Wushu athlete. In the world championship, she was competing with a Chinese rival, but the federation decided to replace her with another athlete because, until then, no woman in any country had been able to defeat the Chinese rival in the history of Wushu. Elahe was crying, saying that I am ready at the peak of my readiness, why don’t you take this risk? Maybe I could have defeated her, but all the federation members told her it was impossible and they eliminated her. That night, Elahe told me, “There is no such thing as impossible. Next year, I will defeat this rival.” The next year, there was no replacement for Elahe in the Asian competitions, and she was sent to the competition. She defeated the same rival and became the first woman in the history of Wushu to defeat the Chinese opponent.
4- Don’t be afraid; fear weakens you. Face your fears, and when you see fear, go through it. I wish 20 years ago I faced my fears. I always worked hard in the dream of becoming a director and gained experience. After 5 years In a movie directed by Kiumars Pourahmad who died last year, I was the Script supervisor in that movie, Mr. Pourahmad told me, “Sahar, why don’t you make a short film? You have the talent for directing. Start.” I told him it’s too early; I’m afraid I’ll ruin it and make a bad film. He said, It’s okay, you’re experimenting, I’m sure you won’t make a bad movie, start and don’t be afraid. I wish I had listened to him at that time and faced my fears. I learned a lot from him, but I started directing very late.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Take your wishes seriously; a wish creates hope for you, And hope gives you strength to move forward and places you on the path of your desires. I am a person who has my own fantasy world and a strong imagination. Sometimes, I think I’m too much in dreams, but these dreams and imagination help me navigate through the darkness around me. Right now, I’m in the toughest stage of my life, entering a challenging phase in middle age. However, it doesn’t matter how many years I’ve lived or how many more I have left; what matters is that I want to make my next film and experience a new life.
Therefore, I endure the current difficulties with hope, knowing that this period will pass, and I am confident that my goal will illuminate my path. this is important
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
The reality is that after creating a challenging narrative film and a documentary, I would like to experience television series production. For me, as an Iranian filmmaker, creating a series means Netflix. I have a story about World War II, for which my screenwriter, Talla Motazedi, has conducted seven years of research, and written the script, and it revolves around an American agent who comes to Iran to apprehend a highly skilled German spy. My aspiration is to one day create this series, based on real historical events, for Netflix. Additionally, I would love for Leonardo DiCaprio to portray the American agent, as I am a fan of his exceptional acting roles.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Nature’s timing is not the same as our timing; let nature take its course. In challenging times, we all become impatient and sensitive, seeking results and answers quickly, and often the length of this path makes us frustrated. I, too, was frustrated and impatient, and that frustration had an impact on my entire life at that time. My aunt told me, “Let it go. Your time is not the same as nature’s time. Live your life and don’t lose the important moments now for the answer you desire. Follow your path; nature will provide the answer in its own time.”
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me on social media
Instagram: sahar_mossayebi Twitter: smossayebi Linkedin: Sahar Mossayebi
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Sahar Mossayebi Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.