Interview with French-Iranian Film Director, Producer, and Screenwriter
Text by Luisa Tarantino
Interview by Kathia Cambron
Multilingual and multicultural, having lived in Berlin, Paris, London, and Los Angeles, she is able to navigate multiple worlds, drawing on different ways of feeling and forms of expression, as is apparent in her films.
Her last film, 3 Days in Quiberon, (92% on rotten tomatoes) offers an intimate portrait of actress Romy Schneider, as she gives her last interview to two journalists in a spa hotel in Quiberon. The film competed for a Golden Bear 2018 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) and won 7 Lolas at the 2018 German Film Awards (including Best Director and Best Film). She is currently working on a French-language feature film that will star French actor Gaspard Ulliel and Vicky Krieps. Dealing with the themes of love and loss, life and death, storytelling and art, Emily Atef’s films contain a depth and gravity that only truly incredible filmmaking can have.
We meet at the CHANEL Haute Couture Spring/Summer collection.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How is cinema important for you and how did you go about choosing that medium?
Since I was small, I was actually not very good at school, but I was really good at telling stories. All my stories had loads of spelling mistakes, but they were the ones that the teacher would read out, and still give me a bad grade because there were so many mistakes – but, the story was there. I was always interested in stories – in telling stories, in making up stories, and especially in reactions. In looking at the reaction of the people, trying to get [people] even more into their inner self, to trigger their emotions. To give them pain, emotions, joy. So, that was always my thing. In the beginning, I thought it was acting, and I studied that, but then I realized, somehow maybe it wasn’t.
You’ve acted in a film, though, right? Yes, I did one movie and then I also did theater, in London especially. I studied in Paris and then I went to London. But I was never, you know [pauses] – my acting friends would be talking after a play, and somehow, I was much more into travelling. I then started writing stories and I used my acting friends as actors in them. I bought myself a little TV camera, and then I really realized that it was like a calling. I felt like I had roots all of a sudden.
And how old were you at that time? Actually, not even that young. I was 27. So, in my twenties, there was this surge of not feeling balanced. I was thinking ‘I have to do this’ or ‘I have to do that.’
So, at 27 years old you thought, ‘I think I might want to direct.’ Yeah – it was like, ‘this is it.’ I directed just to try, and that’s when I felt like, ‘This is it. This is what I’m really made to do.’ It was pretty clear. But it was pretty hard to make films if you came from nowhere, like coming from a theatre school, and I always had this nostalgia to go back to Berlin because I was born there. One of my friends was in the national film school there and she said, ‘Why don’t you come? It’s free.’ and so then I was back to Berlin. So, I applied, but it was really quite difficult since you had to make a film, and do this and that because they only take 12 directors a year. But it worked, and so that was the start!
I haven’t had the time to see your recent film – You need to see it! Because it’s also – with Trois Jours à Quiberon, Romy Schneider had a lot to do with Chanel. She made her, in a way. She taught her how to walk and posed her.
Even for other Canadians like me that may not be familiar with you, I still really wanted to do this interview with you! Why?
I love Persian culture. One of my business partners, Shervin Shirvani, is Persian and I’m very interested in the people of Iran. They’re amazing storytellers and diplomats. And unfortunately, with what just happened [the plane crash in Iran], it really broke my heart. I know, it’s so sad! It’s again about hate. I was thinking if this happens now, and it escalates, it’s going to be so bad for the people. So bad.
Yes. At the end of the day, it’s the people that pay. Always! It’s never the big guys. They’re always going to be okay.
I think all of us [people] have to do things together and be united. Yes, and art is exactly that. You know, with art over there, they find ways to create. They’re not allowed to criticize, women are not allowed to perform in front of male audiences, but they always find ways in Iran to show their art.
There are a lot of very good directors from Iran. Yes, they’re amazing.
What are you working on? Actually, I am working on my new feature film which will be my first French film. I’ve shot a lot of films in France, but they were always German films. You’ll see when you watch Trois Jours à Quiberon, but this one will be French and Norwegian. I always need to travel. It’ll be with Gaspard Ulliel and Vicky Krieps.
So, right now you are in production? Right now, we’re in the financing stage. I’m looking for money, always. [laughs]
Are you presenting at TIFF in Toronto? When it’s finished, definitely! You know, it’s funny – my films went to Canada, three days in Quiberon, the Berlinale in Berlin, but never went to Toronto, and my Iranian uncle lives in Toronto! So, I want to!
“ART CAN CHANGE THINGS, SOMETIMES PROBABLY MORE THAN POLITICIANS. AND I TRY – I WANT TO INSPIRE PEOPLE.”
Without revealing the punch line, what is this film about? Like all my films, it’s about a woman in crisis who gets out of it and finds a light. This time it’s about a young woman, a 33-year-old woman, who is extremely in love with her husband and she has a lung sickness. She knows she will in the next month leave and her younger husband does everything to keep her through living while she’s already looking for a way to find her peace with that [death]. She finds a blogger from Norway who is also sick, and very cynical and funny, who has a different way of seeing the living and the people who are on their way out. Every day, she posts [on her blog], and it’s just one picture and a title. She [the protagonist] sees these pictures of nature – she lives in Paris – and she is so moved, she decides to go there even though everyone doesn’t want her to. She decides to do what she wants for once in her life and live. She also is always having these visions of herself in nature, as if nature is saying ‘Come back. Come to me.’ And so she goes [to Norway]. She arrives there and this blogger is very different than she thought. But he’s not that important, he’s le passeur in a way. Over there, she realizes, and it doesn’t come fast, that though her health is not better, she’s finding inner peace and that this is the place she wants to be. And when her husband finds out, he goes to her, and the whole third act is a huge love story. It’s about living, and expecting to let go, even if it’s totally that she wants to die alone.
Where do you find your inspiration? Through other people’s stories? It [inspiration] is many things – things that interest me, but also my relationship to death. In a way, I’m very curious about it – I do sometimes have fear, but I don’t want to be afraid. I want to be curious. And I feel that if you’re open to what’s coming, you’re going to live so much more intensely. And of course, I’m influenced also by what has happened. I lost my mother four years ago, so that was also an important inspiration.
Are your movies to help people? Always – they always have something like that. I believe movies can change things. It’s the same thing with Iran. Art can change things, sometimes probably more than politicians. And I try – I want to inspire people, I want people to come of out the cinema, like for this film for example, and talk about how they want to go. Ask, ‘would you accept if I wanted to be alone?’, and to have a discussion.