From start to finish, the conversation between Iranian contemporary artist and film director Shirin Neshat and Italian actor and model Isabella Rossellini is laced with memories of one of the greatest cinema scenarists of all-time, Oscar-winning French writer Jean-Claude Carrière. He, who collaborated with Luis Buñuel (cue Belle du Jour with Catherine Deneuve), bid his adieus to this world in February, while working on what would be his last opus, Land of Dreams. The film, which premiered at the Venice film festival in September, was directed by Neshat and Shoja Azari and co-written by Azari and Carrière. Land of Dreams is Neshat’s third film, following Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017) and Women Without Men (2009), for which Neshat was awarded the 2009 Venice film festival Silver Lion for best direction. Land of Dreams features Rossellini, who recalls that Carrière wrote her first monologue for the theater drama Bestiaire d’amour, and consequently helped her recover from stage fright, announcing to the audience that the actor had “lost her voice and could the audience please look under their seats to help her find it.” It is with humor and introspection that Rossellini, the daughter of film titans Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, and Neshat, a recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most esteemed prizes in the arts, converse to reflect on women’s unique voice in film.
ISABELLA ROSSELLINI: I’m recalling how we first met and I first knew of you, Shirin, through your work as an artist. I always admired your work. We have two friends in common and we increasingly got closer. I was asked to be the president of the Berlin film festival and one Iranian director was not allowed to attend. I contacted you to ask what the best possible behavior would be [in this situation]. Let’s be reminded that in Iran there is a big repression of the intellectual and the artist. Then, Shoja, your partner, wrote this film Land of Dreams with Jean-Claude Carrière. So, there was a further connection with close friends and collaborators and now, we are family.
SHIRIN NESHAT: I’ve also known of you for many years – from your work as a model, then as an actor in Blue Velvet (1986). I was a huge fan. When we started to socialize, I always wondered if I could have the honor to work with you. I was waiting for the opportunity and then came Land of Dreams. The day we finished filming you, we sent a video message to Jean-Claude, who was on his deathbed. He sent a message back and two days later he passed away. I should share that Land of Dreams is about immigrants’ perspectives on the US, it of course being this land of immigrants. The way the film is constructed is six short stories, each with their own characters. The scene with Isabella, which is one of the longest, is the story of a woman who is in an unhappy relationship and it’s ambiguous because she is visually present [via a television screen]. The sense of humor and wit that you bring to the scene; the sense of absurdity, surrealism… It’s a very politically charged scene; the character makes racially charged comments about her maid, who “left her dreams in Mexico; and who hasn’t dreamed since.” There’s a lot of bigotry and while the character was slightly mad and blunt and laughing all the time, there was this sharp knife.
IR: I remember when you presented me with the script, it was incredibly beautiful and also illustrated with many photographs. Trying to make sense of America… It’s a country full of contradictions, laid by so many people from all over the world. [When reading it] I felt a sense of incredible nostalgia of Iran, of the landscape, of the desert.
SN: I’m happy you brought that up, Isabella. For a long time, I was obsessing about making work related to Iran, but now I feel that it’s not necessary. I am Iranian, my work will always be Iranian, and I don’t need to be only working on nostalgia and about a place that I can no longer visit. And this was a major departure for me with Land of Dreams.
IR: I also saw the exhibit you did in Los Angeles, at The Broad. It started with a series of images of women from Iran and then there is a room full of portraits of people–my father would call them neo- realists. And then the same kind of photos in another room of Americans. I had the feeling that you were seeking the common denominator–the soul. That moved me. The exhibit ended in a dark corridor, as if you couldn’t find the answer.
SN: Everything I’ve done is about duality. Iranian and American. The dream versus reality. For me, it was a conceptual idea to go after collecting people’s dreams. Because this is the one thing… We have similar nightmares. Especially today, during this pandemic. By collecting people’s dreams, the main character is gathering people’s fears because they echo her own. The message is the humanity within all of us, regardless of where we come from. Take the main character, Simin, played by Sheila Vand. She is a loner and an outcast to both the Iranian and American communities. She lives in her internal world, and her way of impersonating people becomes a way of coping with her own pain. In many ways, I put a lot of myself in her character. I wanted to expand the main female characters of each household who were the driving force of that specific short story, and they were all very vulnerable.
IR: I’m also always looking for characters that connect to me emotionally. I’ve worked with David Lynch, Robert Wilson–people who seek truth but might seek it through surrealism or abstract art. I don’t need a specific narrative. We hear a lot about women being oppressed, and we are, and I consider myself a feminist. I do also know that women have always found strategies to be in control. Even in a traditionally Italian family, once everyone is at home, everyone does what Mama says. I am familiar with that model; there is quickly an entente with women. This brings me to the impression of working with a woman director. I wondered all my life if there is a woman’s sensitivity to art. And if a filmmaker, who is a woman, would bring a different point of view. During Covid, because I was home so much, I looked at a series of films done by women to see if there is a common denominator. To me, what was interesting is that love seems to be treated in a much more family way. In women’s films, even though there may be a romantic story with a man, there is also a mother-in-law, a child from a different marriage, many other characters that are included. In a man’s film, the emphasis is on the relationship between the two, or the three if there is a competitor vying for attention. When I saw your work, even before knowing if “Shirin” was the name of a woman or a man–because it was a foreign name to me – I could tell that there was something feminine in the way you photographed women.
SN: I’ve been accused of putting too much focus on women and not enough on men. In this film, the women are dominant, but if you think of the characters played by Matt Dillon and William Moseley–who were Jean-Claude’s creations–Matt represents this modern cowboy: super macho, arrogant, knows it all, but also sympathetic. William’s character was very feminine, a pretty boy, a modern hippy. They are symbolic characters–the feminine versus masculine models of men in the US.
IR: During the era of silent movies, there were many women film directors. Then, when film became successful financially and the financiers came in, women were marginalized, the same as they were in medicine and in law, and only now do you see women directors once again. I’m still searching for that [female] voice that I think is coming out now.
SN: I had never worked with professional actors, and I see the difference of working with people who have years and years of experience in film. The way you were able to hold the scene remotely, Isabella, is incredible. When people saw this film in Venice, they could not believe that you weren’t “there.” The way that you controlled the environment and improvised a lot of your lines, relating to what you were looking at on the monitor. I realized that this is something that comes with experience, this intuitive creative ability.
IR: I think as an actor, I acquired more freedom as I became more experienced. I became, with age, much more experimental. You can throw anything at me, and I’ll make it work or I’ll try. When I was younger, I would say things that I was taught at school, “What is my motivation?” Now I just do it. I have to say, working with people like Lynch, Wilson, or Carrière, who worked in abstract and not in narrative, traditional ways, they free you. And you learn that you can tell a lot about humans’ souls. Not in a narrative way, but you must try. I’m not intimidated, and it was easy to work with you, you’re so talented and I admire you a lot. I don’t know that I would feel that confident with a young person who is inexperienced. When you can work with an artist who you know has serious work and is seeking to say something in a different way, I make myself available to it.
SN: The film we made is unconventional. The scenes are alive. We are making art together. It’s not a model we are following; we are pioneering and collaborating as artists. This was Jean-Claude’s last script, as far as I know. People like him are not born into this world often. As successful and legendary as he was, this man had no ego. When he worked until his late eighties, he was fully concentrated and loving. His way of storytelling, sharing his experiences with Buñuel… We had the best time, but he was also our teacher. He was a master. Every time I left him, I felt charged as an artist and hopeful. He always said to me, “We open doors and if we don’t like it, we close the doors. Be open.”
Originally published in the November 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia