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Cannes & Women Directors (3) - Zia Mandviwalla

Zia Mandviwalla at work
Four thousand five hundred short films were submitted to the Short Film Competition at Cannes this year. Ten were selected. Women wrote and directed three, and New Zealander Zia Mandviwalla’s Night Shift was one of these.

Zia was born in Mumbai. She's a Zoroastrian–a small religious and ethnic group who went to India to escape the Islamic invasion of Persia several hundred years ago–and came to New Zealand in 1996, at the age of 18, via Dubai. She went to university here, and then reached filmmaking following a scriptwriting course. Night Shift is Zia’s fourth short film, following Eating Sausage (2004), Clean Linen (2006) and Amadi (2010).

Zia’s represented New Zealand at the Berlinale Talent Campus and at the prestigious Accelerator program at the Melbourne International Film Festival. And in 2008, she spent four months in India working alongside Nandita Das on her directorial debut, the award-winning, multi-lingual feature film Firaaq. Zia has received many awards including New Zealand’s New Filmmaker of the Year Award in 2009. She also makes commercials, and has been represented by Curious Film in Australia and New Zealand since 2010.

Because women directors’ participation in the Cannes Film Festival is so controversial, my initial questions for Zia focused on Night Shift and her experience with Cannes. I hoped that, as with my podcast with Destri Martino, Zia’s story might help demystify Cannes. But when she emailed her responses from Denmark, and we Skyped during her visit to Berlin, I expanded the interview a little.

You’ve said that your stories are stories are born out of and are a response to your own life experiences, and I really like your Director’s Notes for Night Shift that seem to expand on this:
The story for Night Shift came about through considerable delays at airports and long hours flying to and from the antipodes. Night Shift is a film about people who exist on the periphery. As we walk through the security checks, lengthy queues and muffled announcements, rarely do we notice or pay attention to someone like Salote – much less think about what her life might be like. This is also a film about perception. How we perceive and judge others based upon their jobs, their appearances and their actions. And how those perceptions can shift and judgements can be misguided until we fully understand the nature of someone else’s predicament. Night Shift shows us a different side of a country renowned for its majestic natural beauty and its idyllic lifestyle: a more ‘interior’ landscape, in every sense of the word.
Have all your films come primarily out of your New Zealand life experiences?
My films are born out of the sum of my life experiences and some of this is heavily grounded in my experience of coming to New Zealand. Eating Sausage and Amadi are about isolation and adaptation and they come from my own experiences as an immigrant, cut off from anything familiar and learning to adapt, to re-establish life. Other ideas and thematic preoccupations are born from other places (and not all them are geographical): the human experiences of relationships with other people. I write about what I know about, and become preoccupied with particular times but they may not be present times.

What else and who else influence you?
Other people’s lives…the worlds, spaces and places they inhabit…I am also influenced by the work of other great storytellers, be they other filmmakers, artists or writers. Films and filmmakers: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, the English filmmakers Lynne Ramsay, Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold. Lodge Kerrigan, Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Walking, Air Doll). Florian Habicht has always watched my work and given feedback and inspired me through his processes, which are unique, not conforming to traditional ways that development should work and how films should be made.

Do you think that there are advantages in not going to art school or to film school?
I certainly made a lot of very expensive mistakes learning to make films on my own outside of an institution! Once I planned an entire shoot with Super 8, getting the camera just the night before and then finding that it was as loud as a lawnmower, when we were recording sound! But otherwise it’s hard to say, as I have nothing other than my own experiences for a comparison. Some exceptional work comes out of some institutions that provide incredible platforms for careers; I think of the VCA graduate films at Cannes.

For a long time I didn’t think about filmmaking in terms of a career, but as something to do. The career path evolved. Up until I wrote Eating Sausage I followed the advice I was given: “Make the best film you can within your means, using what you have. Don’t try and make an action film or science fiction.” But there was a turning point when I wrote the ending of Eating Sausage. I knew I could not make it at home or with available means. I was going to have to acquire more, to apply for funding. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make a career, but it was upping the ante, to ask the government for money.

Clean Linen
Would your films be very different if you were working in Mumbai or Dubai?
Of course! Aren’t we all, to whatever greater or lesser degree a product of our environments? If I’d remained in Dubai, I might have been a housewife, or preoccupied with other things.

How were you affected by your experiences at the Berlin Talent Campus, the Melbourne Accelerator programme, and working on Firaaq?
Through a broadening of experiences and access to other filmmakers, writers, actors and film commissions, distributors. Hearing them speak about their experiences was enlightening and inspiring. But perhaps even more valuable was meeting people at a similar place in their career trajectory. Regardless of country of origin we were very similar and some of us were able to form creative alliances. Back then I had no project that warranted working with people at the other side of the world, but because I went to Melbourne Ari Wegner [cinematographer on Night Shift] and I heard about one another through mutual friends and then met when she came to New Zealand.

Firaaq was a whole different experience. Once you’ve shot in India, no shoot in the western world is ever as difficult. It was amazing and incredible and challenging, the hardest shoot and life experiences ever. It was gratifying to get through it alive and to be part of a very important film, not shying away from contentious social and political issues. I learned endurance and to sleep when you can. It pushes you. It was grueling. I became harder and wiser from being part of this low-budget serious film. It made me creative in ways I shoot, taught me about life. It was like a really really hard tramp in the South Island in the middle of winter. You talk about how amazing it was once it’s over, at the pub.

My upbringing and perspective feel international and translate into the work that I do. I enjoy this opportunity to connect with European filmmakers. I’d love to work within and outside New Zealand. I don’t think that every New Zealand story has to be restricted to its shores.

What languages do you speak?
My French is OK. My Hindi is average. I can understand 95% of Gujarati but can’t speak back. Some Arabic. I’ve always lived in English-speaking environments and gone to English-speaking schools. But my parents despaired that I didn’t speak Gujarati.

Night Shift
What did you bring to Night Shift that was a little different than your earlier films? What kinds of insight and experience?
The execution of Night Shift was different to that of my other films because it was shot in a public place that was fully functioning while we shot. We had no control over the environment and no ability to influence its conditions. So we had to be very open, organic and receptive to what was going on in that environment. At the same time we were very thoroughly prepped and many of the details of the film were worked out to their finer points by myself and Ari.

Zia Mandviwalla on the Night Shift set
Has making commercials enhanced your filmmaking, and if so how? (I remember a while ago learning that it is much harder for women to get work directing commercials than it is for men, and that this not only affects skill development, and the experience of working with big budgets, but also the capacity to make money to support their independent filmmaking habits.)
Making commercials has done for me all of the above – most of all it has given me invaluable shooting experience. Being able to shoot a range of subject matter in a range of styles for a range of different reasons. I really enjoy it and yes, it supports me as a filmmaker while also honing my skills both as a shooter and a communicator of ideas.

Night Shift is by and about a woman, and you also had a woman cinematographer, Ari Wegner. What has influenced your ‘female eye’? Do you particularly like telling stories about women? Is it any different working with a woman cinematographer than with a man?
I’m not conscious of gender in my work. I fail to see gender distinctions in my films and filmmaking. I don’t think I have a female eye at all. I merely see people as people. I have made films about men, I have worked with men. I have also worked with Koreans, Africans and Indians alongside children and animals. I think of myself as a director, rather than necessarily a female director, or an immigrant director, or an Indian director or a New Zealand director. I am the sum of all my parts, not just my female-ness. Working with different people is always different, because everyone is different – the product of their gender, their age, their ethnicity, their neighbourhood, their friends, their eating habits etc etc etc…

There have been feminist readings of Eating Sausage and it’s great that the film evoked a certain kind of analysis. I was pleased they found it substantial enough to warrant that reading, but I had no preconceived gender or feminist intentions. Once films are out in the world as a director I lose ownership of any intentions and there’s validity in all of that audience interpretation and it's great when a film evokes it.

Do you define yourself as a feminist?

Were you brought up that girls can do anything?
No. My parents let me do whatever I wanted. They figured out early that it would be futile to try to stop me. I’ve experienced no discrimination. I feel very fortunate that I’ve lived in worlds that have welcomed me, opened doors, not closed them. Maybe I will experience the glass ceiling, but I’m surrounded by open-minded and free-thinking people and hope to continue that.

It’s a huge achievement to be selected for the Short Film Competition at Cannes. Is it the first time you’ve entered a film?
No I have entered before, this is the first time I have had a film in competition.

Zia at Cannes
How did the Short Film Competition work?
I flew to Cannes with the generous support of the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) and the Festival provided me with accommodation. It was an invaluable experience for my career – exciting, inspiring, challenging, glamorous!

There was a dinner for us before the screening of all the short films in competition together in a single programme. But the screening itself was during the day. We were told to dress smartly, but didn’t introduce the films and there was no Q & A. After the award ceremony we got to meet the jury and selectors.

The collection of directors in the Short Film Competition were such a down to earth, talented, fun group of people, I feel very privileged to have connected with them —it’s always inspiring to meet people who are at the same stage of their careers as yourself.

The festival invited us out, organized parties for the group and introduced us to new networks. I met other directors, international producers, other filmmakers making inspiring work. You feel you’ve made the big show, and have the logistics to access what you need. Cannes takes the business of filmmaking very seriously and feature filmmaking in the distant future becomes very imminent, tangible, achievable. The film world becomes interested in you and what you have to say and what you’ll do next, takes you seriously. It’s amazing to be part of that incredible access, with an unprecedented platform for the future. In terms of confidence, it made me feel validated in terms of knocking on doors: ‘I’m here with a film in competition and I’d love to talk with you in terms of a future project’. And because one producer, Matt Noonan, was there too, and Ari, it was really nice to have a little contingent and there was an NZFC contingent there too, which was great.

What films did you see that excited you?
Beasts of the Southern Wilds, Amour, Sofia’s Last Ambulance (La Semaine)….to name but a few.

Did people talk about the controversy about women directors being unrepresented in the main competition?
At Cannes, people were obsessed by gender and kept looking at the women who were there for comment. Lots of people talked about it. It feels like a complex debate and one that I don’t feel informed enough on to comment on.

Because women’s participation at Cannes is so problematic, it would be great to know what kinds of things you think contributed to your selection, beyond the high quality of the film itself. It seems to me that when there are 4,500 entries, when it comes to a final selection the selectors’ subjectivities become crucial and that’s where gender, nationality and race probably make a difference. And networks and advocacy from powerful people must have an effect too. Who were the selectors? When you looked at the other short films in competition, including the other women’s films, Emilie Verhamme’s Cockaigne and Chloe Robichaud’s Chef de Meute, did you perceive any commonalities that might reflect the interests of the selectors?
I met a few of the selectors and their backgrounds seemed to have been as diverse as their selection of films. I thought the shorts program this year was incredibly strong and representative of a whole range of styles, voices and stories from all over the world. I have no idea what else contributes to the selection of a film. Perhaps that is a question for the selectors?

Zia in blue, Chloe Robichaud in black, & Emilie Verhamme in pink, on the red carpet at Cannes, with the other directors of the  short films in competition
Destri Martino’s blogged about her experience screening her The Director in the Emerging Filmmaker Programme at the American Pavilion and I know that before she got to Cannes she worried about clothes etc. Did you feel pressure to be chic? Other pressures?
I didn’t really feel pressure to be chic, but I received some great support from two amazing New Zealand designers: Kate Sylvester and Charmaine Revelry – they took care of all Red Carpet needs! The other pressure at Cannes is trying to be everywhere at once. There is so much going on, you want to do everything, but it’s impossible. And after it ended, I slept for days!

What’s happening now? What can you say about your next work?
I have two feature length projects that are at various stages of development.

What does being in Europe offer you that isn’t available in New Zealand?
New Zealand offers me a home. Europe has more people and places and access to diversity. I have the best of both worlds.

Is it possible that New Zealand will lose you?
I hope not.
Night Shift

Night Shift website

Night Shift Facebook

Zia at Curious Film (includes Night Shift trailer and commmercials work)

Cannes video interview

Cannes Short Films in Competition

Renee Liang interview

Backstage interview

The Other Women Directors in the Short Film Competition


  1. Loving your posts about Cannes and women, keep it up!

  2. Tx, Kid! Know of any other women who were at Cannes and would like to talk about it? I invited Andrea Arnold, but she's not giving interviews at the mo.


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