Sahar Mossayebi

Sahar Mossayebi was born in Tehran. She graduated in Theater with a BA from The Azad University of Art and Architecture. She has worked across diverse positions in the world of Cinema, including as a Production Manager, Planner, Script Supervisor, and Assistant Director. She became known as a director through the award-winning documentary Platform.

Tara Karajica talks to Sahar Mossayebi about her latest film, “Orca,” a powerful and poignant portrait of a young Iranian women who, after reaching the lowest point in her life, fights back against an abusive spouse and religious governmental obstacles to set the Guinness World Record in Endurance Swimming with both her hands and feet tied.




How did you become a filmmaker?

Sahar Mossayebi: I was born into a family deeply involved in Cinema; my uncle and father were producers, and another uncle was an editor. I had a passion for cinema from childhood and graduated in Theater from the University of Art and Architecture. My professional journey began in Theater in 1995, and I ventured into Cinema professionally in 1999. Within the realm of Cinema, I held positions as a Script Supervisor, first Assistant Director, Project Executive, Production Manager, and Project Coordinator. I started directing in 2010 with two short films, and in 2014, I began my first feature-length documentary called Platform. It was the first documentary about women’s sports in Iran. Following that, I embarked on creating my first cinematic feature, Orca, in 2019.

How did Orca come about?

S.M.: After I made the documentary Platform and the significant reception it got from Elham Asghari requested a friend of mine, Maryam Majd, a renowned photographer in the realm of women’s sports who also participated in the Platform documentary to connect with me. Elham came to my office, shared her life story, and asked me to craft her life’s tale into a film. Initially, her story seemed unbelievable, but Elham had meticulously gathered evidence and documentation for all her claims. That day, I arranged a meeting with Tala Motazedi, a screenwriter. I told her Elham’s story and she agreed that it had immense potential for a film. Additionally, Iranian producers took a keen interest in the story. Tala began the scriptwriting process, spending about six months in sessions with Elham Asghari, jotting down every detail recounted by Elham. Afterwards, Tala worked on the script for a year and a half. We underwent multiple revisions until the final screenplay was ready.

Orca is the tale of a woman’s resistance to a violently cruel patriarchy. Can you elaborate on that?

S.M.: As a woman in Iranian society, I deeply understand this discrimination and have always believed in the power of women in my country. Iranian women have been fighting for their basic rights for years, and this struggle has taken various forms over time. It has evolved into the women’s movement for freedom. Perhaps, it’s hard to grasp that in its simplest form, a woman is forbidden from breaking a swimming record. This prohibition signifies the restriction of half the population of a country from a simple choice. When contemplating the broader scope of these limitations, it leads to a horrifying realization. Being a woman in a society where men, through unwritten religious laws and regulations, exert control, can easily deprive you of your fundamental human rights. When half the population is entirely restricted, controlling the other half becomes easier. Thus, as a female director, creating films becomes my sole tool of resistance, allowing the silenced voices of women in my society to be heard. I consider it my responsibility to showcase their resistance and efforts for an equal life in their own society and within the international community. I strive for this cause.

That resistance also entails fighting against a repressive state that endorses sexism and the violent religious and cultural enforcement of male dominance, but also women who don’t help women. Can you expand on that?

S.M.: Here, it’s not merely about gender; it’s about an ideology opposing you, against which anyone or any ideology not aligned is condemned. Hence, whether an individual is a woman or a man, it doesn’t matter; they are obligated to align with the ruling ideology. It means that any dissenting voice against this regime must be suppressed. In this type of governance, even family doesn’t matter. If children are opposed to the prevailing traditional thoughts, they could be killed by their father, brother, husband, or family. The law often aligns with the killer in this scenario, granting permission for such actions.

The film also deals with domestic violence and the subsequent consequences such as trauma and suicide attempts. Can you delve deeper into that?

S.M.: Certainly… Yes, many women and girls face irreversible mental and physical damage due to experiencing domestic violence, ultimately leading to one thing: death. These deaths are sometimes self-inflicted or brought upon by the men in their lives. Elham finds herself in this exact situation. She has nothing more to lose. Even a peaceful death is not her choice. Her decision to attempt suicide challenges death itself. In this challenge, she doesn’t understand why even death rejects her, adding to her overwhelming sense of frustration. It’s at this point that she discovers something within herself, and her act of self-liberation becomes an act of reclaiming her autonomy.

This story that is true is also banned in Iran, which is its best endorsement, and speaks volumes on what is going on there in terms of women’s rights and the revolution for them. Can you talk about that?

S.M.: Indeed, it is so painful for me that Orca is banned from screening in my country because my society needs to know what is going on in its hidden layers right now. The fact that Orca is banned in Iran adds another layer of significance to its portrayal of women’s rights and the challenges they face in the country. The banning of the film suggests that its narrative and themes are perceived as sensitive or potentially critical of certain aspects of Iranian society, particularly regarding the status of women and the ongoing struggle for their rights. The decision to ban the film can be seen as an acknowledgment of its potential to spark conversations and discussions about issues that might be considered taboo or controversial in the context of Iranian cultural and political norms. Films and other forms of art have often been powerful tools for expressing dissent, highlighting social issues, and advocating for change. In the case of Orca, the narrative revolving around domestic violence and the resilience of the female protagonist against oppressive circumstances might be seen as a commentary on the broader issues of gender inequality and women’s rights in Iran. The ban could be an attempt to control or limit the discourse around these issues, reflecting the complexities and sensitivities surrounding discussions related to women’s rights in the country. This situation also underscores the challenges that filmmakers and artists face when addressing social and political issues, especially those related to gender, in environments where certain topics are considered off-limits or potentially subversive. Despite these challenges, the banning of the film might serve as a testament to its impact and its potential to contribute to a broader dialogue about women’s rights and the need for societal change. It reflects the ongoing tension between artistic expression and political constraints in Iran, highlighting the struggles faced by those who seek to bring attention to important social issues through their work.

Can you talk about the statement in the film: “In an Islamic country, women don’t swim”?

S.M.: Certainly. The statement “In an Islamic country, women don’t swim” reflects a different interpretation of the governing laws in an Islamic nation like Iran. It’s a product of the prevailing ideology within the society. This kind of thinking is transformed into an educational system, a cultural system, and anything that promotes this ideology.

The sea and the orca are Elham’s healers, and coupled with endurance they bring Elham back to life. Can you elaborate on that?

S.M.: When Elham spoke about the sea and her swimming practices in the sea, she always emphasized that when she went to the sea to commit suicide the sea saved her. Since then, she couldn’t eat seafood anymore. She felt like she was connected to the fishes and sea creatures as if they were her siblings. Whenever Elham entered the sea, she transformed into a different persona, becoming bolder and incredibly empowered. I wanted to depict this power she pulled from the depths of the sea in the film. Initially, there was no mention of an orca in the initial scripts, and we even had different names for the film. Since childhood, I have liked the Orca whale, and we extensively discussed Elham’s encounter with the sea. One day, I talked with Tala and I suggested naming the film “Orca,” which essentially embodies Elham herself. Ultimately, she sees her true self as the orca towards the end of the film, and the sea and the orca represent Elham’s real powers. By confronting them, she overcomes fear and vulnerability to emerge victorious. For instance, many Islamic countries do not enforce the compulsory hijab. Female athletes have the right to choose their attire. We have Muslim women swimmers, runners, and footballers who decide on their own clothing. This doesn’t mean that if a footballer, inherently Muslim, plays for their team wearing shorts without a headscarf, they cease to be Muslim. No, that’s not the case. Regarding swimming, we have Muslim women and girls who swim wearing full-body suits and special swimming caps, going to pools and seas. Even reputable sports brands design specific sportswear for Muslim female athletes who prefer coverage. However, the core issue remains that in countries like mine, if Islamic law allows women to swim in proper attire, it won’t be accepted or considered legitimate. This is where the main conflict between Elham and the authorities arises. Elham tries to wear clothing that aligns with the Islamic law, but she still faces obstacles.

The comparisons with Nyad are inevitable. Any thoughts?

S.M.: Unfortunately, I have not seen this movie yet.

Can you talk about the title?

S.M.: I answered this question in the above question, but I will explain why I chose the orca whale. The orca belongs to the family of dolphins and is called a whale because of its large body, but the reason for choosing the orca for me is the characteristics of the orca itself. The orca has the highest intelligence among its peers, it stays with the family until the end of its life, and the family is led by the mother, and the groups are led by the female orca, who is the mother. They are loyal to the family and an orca does not enter another family or colony. They talk to each other through sound waves and find each other. They are monogamous and if one mate dies, the other pair mourns only for the lost mate for the rest of their lives. Moreover, their refusal to stay silent in the face of oppression and their strong inclination towards seeking retribution align with the film’s themes of resilience, standing against injustice, and the profound emotional journey of the protagonist. The title “Orca” encapsulates these qualities and symbolizes the protagonist’s struggle, resilience, and unyielding spirit depicted throughout the narrative.

Do you think the film will have an impact on women’s rights in Iran?

S.M.: It’s unfortunate that those in positions of power have consistently shown a lack of willingness to listen to the issues and problems faced by the people, as demonstrated by their actions over the years. This is evident in the film’s censorship in Iran because it portrays the realities of the situation. Therefore, I don’t anticipate the film having a direct impact on the policymaking of this system. However, I do hope that individuals, especially women, who watch this film become more aware of their own power and capabilities. When people become aware, they are less likely to easily relinquish their rights. When a significant portion of a society demands change, the government becomes inevitably bound to consider change. While the film’s direct influence on policymaking might be limited due to the system’s resistance, its impact on individual empowerment and the collective consciousness of people, especially women, could spark a sense of awareness and determination for a better future. This collective awareness and demand for change from within the society might eventually create a transformative force, gradually pressuring for more significant shifts in societal norms and rights.

What are your thoughts on the situation of women in film today?

S.M.: The landscape for women in the film industry today reflects a discrepancy in representation and opportunities when compared to men. While we do have successful women in global Cinema, their numbers are significantly lower in comparison to men, except for actors who have relatively closer representation in terms of numbers. The stark underrepresentation of active women in the film industry, especially in positions beyond acting, signifies an underutilization of women’s potential and capabilities. There are incredibly talented and skilled women in cinema who remain unrecognized. Unfortunately, even in today’s world where conversations about gender equality are prevalent, many of these women in Cinema or other professional domains haven’t been given their due rights or recognition. It’s a concerning reality that despite the ongoing discussions and efforts toward gender parity, a significant number of talented women in the film industry and various other specialized professional fields are yet to receive fair and just opportunities. There’s a need for systemic changes and a collective effort to address this disparity, ensuring that women receive equal opportunities, recognition, and support in the film industry and across various professional domains.

Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?

S.M.: In Iran, my favorite female filmmakers are Rakhshan Banietemad in the film Narges and Manijeh Hekmat in the film Women’s Prison. As for my favorite filmmaker, it’s Jane Campion, known for the film The Piano.

What are your next projects?

S.M.: I have two screenplay projects in the works, one of which is particularly important to me. It addresses a social issue, and I’m very eager to make it as soon as I find a producer. Currently, the writer, Tala Motazedi, and I are actively working on this screenplay, and we hope to find a producer for it soon.



Photo credits: Courtesy of Sahar Mossayebi.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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