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Ghazaleh Golbakhsh; & The Waking Dream Collective

Ghazaleh Golbakhsh with cinematographer Jarod Murray

It's been thrilling to observe some new trends among New Zealand women who write and direct film. Over the last few years, more of them (us) are also actors. More are or have been part of various diasporas into and out of New Zealand and are global citizens. And, most recently, some have begun to form collectives. These trends profoundly enrich our filmmaking. And Ghazaleh Golbakhsh, like Anita Ross, is a filmmaker who embodies all three.

Ghazaleh’s thesis film Iran in Transit, made for her Masters in Documentary at the University of Auckland, premiered at the International Student Film Festival in Tel Aviv after winning the festival’s Alternative Competition and in 2013 won the Outstanding Student Film award at the Beijing Student Film Festival. She used a Fulbright General Graduate award for further post-graduate studies in film production and screenwriting at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, where she became an intern for Sundance and was elected as the Women of Cinematic Arts Student Board co-chair. As an emerging filmmaker she was selected for the first Commonwealth Writers Film Lab in Auckland.

Last year and this year, Ghazaleh’s feature screenplay At the End of the World, a coming of age road trip comedy, was shortlisted for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and last year it reached the Top 10% in the prestigious Nicholls Fellowship. This year, it’s been selected for the Writers' Lab Aotearoa run by Script to Screen and shortlisted for the 48+ screenwriting programme.

With two other other emerging filmmakers, Nicole Van Heerden and Mojan Javadi, Ghazaleh has set up the Waking Dream Collective and a film company, Waking Dream Productions.

You were born outside New Zealand and trained as an actor originally?

I was born in Iran, but moved here as a six year old in the mid 80's, so pretty much did my education here in Auckland. I went straight to university from high school, but hated it, then film school but hated it and dropped out and moved to London after my 21st birthday.

It was the best decision I ever made. I started my film work there working as a runner and in production on independent productions. Later I realised that I wanted to go back to university and finished my undergrad and later post-grad.

I think taking that break and living somewhere insane like London (trust me, it was pretty nuts) was a great way to gain some life experience before really deciding how I wanted to advance my career. In that time I also did some acting training and got an agent when I got back.

I enjoyed acting but was never fully satisfied with just acting – writing and directing always appealed to me so it was natural that I would then go that way. I also got extremely frustrated at the hideously limited roles on offer not just for women, but for anyone not 'white' in New Zealand. It is still the same sadly. Though we are progressive in some ways in New Zealand, we still have a long way to go in terms of diversity. I actually once got told by a casting agent, that for every seven roles, only one is for a woman. I also got, 'Oh we love your look but do you have a brother? We need a male'.

Ghazaleh with Homa Davari, the co-producer of Iran in Transit

Why documentary for your masters, and not fiction?

I originally was only going to focus on theory to be honest but I heard that there was a space in Annie Goldson's documentary class in my honours year so I was keen to get in – and thankfully I did, she's definitely one of the reasons I have been able to get work and continue down this mad route of filmmaking.

At USC you shifted to fiction?

I initially applied for the Fulbright in my honours year. I then applied to three universities in the US and USC was one that I had heard a lot about through my research. In my Masters year I was accepted for the Fulbright and USC so it was an opportunity I couldn't say no to. You don't get to choose your specialisation in the first year. Unfortunately I only did one year of the MFA due to financial problems and had to leave. I was one of the first students to transfer from production to screenwriting though which was a big deal! I think the production students thought I was nuts as production is sometimes seen as more worthy but all writers know, writing is the heart of any project.

USC is in a way the epitome of Hollywood. It is overhyped in a lot of ways but it also delivers what it promises. The beauty of it is that as a student you not only are required to create a lot of work in a short amount of time but you have access to some amazing resources (the fact that the school is known as a type of Hollywood mafia is not completely fabricated). However it's also a very rich school and like other film schools, you have to pay for your own productions.

All film schools expect students to pay for their own productions in terms of paying any crew costs (if any, most find lovely folk who work for free) and expenditures. Students however do have access to equipment (including camera gear, lighting, etc) and post-production (edit services, mixing and even composing). The only difference with USC was they had better resources and a lot of extra things such as clubs, organizations and a lot of industry events. Every week we had screenings of new films where the filmmakers would attend. I don't know if this all costs millions every six months, but it's not uncommon in the United States. I'm sure if you went to any Ivy league school you would also be astounded by the extortionate prices. Actually a friend of mine put it this way which makes sense, 'You're not just paying for film school, you're paying to join a country club'.

Though writing has always been a huge passion of mine, I did think that I would have a bit more power in terms of changing some of the inherent biases in the industry. It was sad however, to see that even some women in my classes still only wrote about male characters. Overall, I both loved and hated my time at USC, which to be honest, is what we want out of every experience right? I'm very glad I went and I am still in touch with some of the amazing people I met there.

In saying that I don't think that the level of teaching was any better or worse than what we get here in New Zealand. I think we are on par but as we are a small country, our resources just don't match. Our film schools don't have million dollar donations coming in every six months. In fact, we constantly are cutting funding to the arts which is depressing.

At the End of the World was your thesis screenplay?

It was a script I started in one of my writing classes at USC. I then continued working on it at home as another Fulbright friend was using the script as her thesis as she studied producing at UCLA. It was interesting to see how the script would work and be sold in the United States as opposed to here. There are definite differences in the ways you would sell something there to here. The budgets for what constitutes a low budget film are much higher; as part of the proposal you would try to add a casting wishlist of named actors; and the most obvious, you are selling to private companies rather than state owned funding organizations.

Because I'm obviously a bit insane and possibly slightly masochistic, I've now started my PhD. It's early days yet but the broad area that I am looking into is emigre Iranian cinema, particularly film makers and artists, like myself, who have grown up in the West but still continually make works that are somehow related to their homeland – despite the fact that most of our memories and experiences have been in the West. It's a creative PhD so I will be creating a film in relation to my thesis as well. The short will be based on the feature At the End of the World.

Iran in Transit was directly about you and your homeland. Was it necessary to go back there to make a film about your own experience in order to be able to move forward to At the End of the World, set in New Zealand? Part of the longline for Iran in Transit is 'There's no place like home...because it doesn't exist'. Is that true for you and if so, how does it affect your work?

I think it was necessary for me to go back full stop. I had always felt out of place in New Zealand and wondered if I would find a place where I wouldn't feel this restlessness. Reading about the importance of homelands made me believe that that is where my answer would be but once I was there I realised it wasn't. I felt more like a foreigner there despite the fact that people looked like me and spoke my mother tongue.

The whole experience was rather cathartic and I learned that perhaps you can have more than one place that constitutes home or perhaps you don't even have to have a specific place.

This romantic notion of homeland does not apply to everyone. I guess that's why I find places like Israel so interesting. The Israeli character came about after I visited Tel Aviv to present the documentary. I saw that despite the political hatred between the two countries, the people I met were very similar. Israelis and Iranians have a lot in common in terms of culture and it's a real shame that the Middle East has become this hideous factionized area where groups are pitted against each other. 

I don't agree with what Israel is doing politically in its oppression of the Palestinian people, but I also don't believe the common people are to blame. I met some amazing left wing Tel Avivians who are protesting against their government. I also know I don't live there so can only see the situation from an outsider's point of view.

Going back to the At the End of the World, the two main characters are an Iranian Kiwi and a Kiwi - the story is actually about them. The love story I think is about them. A friendship love story. The Israeli character is there as a romantic love interest to spice things up a bit. New Zealand is also a character. The settings play their own important parts in the film. I wanted to show both the beautiful and the ugly. The women start off in suburban hell on Auckland's North Shore (I'm from there so I can both hate and love it!) and end up driving through the North Island, get lost in an abandoned vineyard near Nelson, marvel at the West Coast of the South, see some sombre sights in Christchurch before ending up in an almost utopic Queenstown. For me, it's both a love and hate letter to a country that I have both loved and hated as an immigrant. I can't say it's always been great for me here, but I can definitely now say it's my home (at least one of my homes!).

I love it that At the End of the World is a road trip and coming of age story and a comedy.

That's good to hear thanks! I think I wanted to use a very American genre such as the road trip but base it in New Zealand. I was also getting frustrated with all these buddy films and films that featured funny men but no women. I grew up idolising funny women, like French and Saunders and Whoopi Goldberg so I wanted to put my heroes in my own film. Even if we don't get academic about it, the majority of films are still being made in a very narrow minded kind of way for a very specific audience – and I want to go against that. I think we can make mainstream films about 'minorities' and have them do well.

The script has gone through a lot of drafts as initially it was being written for someone else. But since I was able to workshop it in the Script To Screen Writers’ Lab earlier this year, I have been able to start re-writing in the way that I wanted and I'm much happier about it.

I am rewriting it and I do have some interest in it which is great – especially since one of those people is someone I admire and wanted to approach about the project in the first place. The script definitely has potential for a co-production and I was conscious of this when writing it. Mainly because I'm such a wannabe global citizen, I love anything that involves working across borders.

Are you likely to act in At the End of the World, as being the writer/director?

To be honest, I have been thinking about it but am still unsure at this time. I once directed myself in a short and it was definitely difficult. I think if I were to act in my own work, I would have someone else there to help with direction, perhaps an acting coach like Brita McVeigh who often works with directors and first time actors in films, like a co-director.

You've been involved in a lot of short films. From the little I've seen on your website, I love the way you portray women and your visual imagery. I wonder who your filmmaker inspirations are.

Thank you, that's really kind of you! I always find this question hard as my range of filmmaking influences is so huge and some of them are not linked. I guess in the last few years I've really become a fan of Andrea Arnold, like Jane Campion. They are filmmakers whose work I admire but am also intimidated by, to the point where I wish I could make works like theirs but am pretty sure I can't!

I wrote Mandala – filmed in Los Angeles, Inner Mongolia and Tibet – and Lullaby for Guan Xi, a friend of mine who I met at USC and I absolutely love her visual storytelling. She's an amazing photographer from China who is now focusing on filmmaking as a cinematographer and director. I'm hoping to bring her on board as a DP for my short film next year actually. So she is someone I admire in terms of my own peers. 

I love the philosophies of the French New Wave, and dialogue-heavy filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Woody Allen. I have still to see a lot more Iranian films but the filmmakers I relate to are those like myself, in the diaspora. Ana Lily Amirpour did a bloody amazing job with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (about an Iranian vampire) though I absolutely loved Desiree Akhavan's Appropriate Behaviour, an anti-rom rom com in the style of Woody Allen about a bisexual Iranian woman in New York. Artist wise, how can I not love Shirin Neshat?

How did you become an intern at Sundance?

It honestly was a dream come true. One of the greatest things about USC is that it's in Los Angeles so there are thousands of internships on offer to students. Most are not paid though. I applied for as many as I could all year and luckily due to my experience and studies in documentary, plus the fact that they all knew Annie, I was offered an internship at Sundance in their Documentary Film Fund department.

I learned a lot about documentary obviously but also about funding, proposals and how a non profit works. Sundance is such a huge institution but they still get excited when they find new filmmakers and stories, particularly from relatively unknown areas of the world.

Luckily I am able to continue working for them as a contractor, where I am involved in the review process of work-in-progress films. From the documentaries, I also learned that the world can be a very horrible place and there are so many issues we should be learning about and helping support/stop. It can be disheartening but heartwarming too. I usually get a bottle of wine ready for the hard hitting films.

When making a doco, do you have a philosophy about your role as the director?

Not really. That sounds awful doesn't it? I think what I mean is that it would be the same with fiction or doco. My main philosophy is that I trust the people around me and that it is a collective process. As much as I love Godard and Truffaut and all those guys, I don't believe in auteurs in the sense that the director is God. I learned that early on as a runner.

I also hate that some people believe documentary directors cannot be fiction directors and vice versa. There are some differences of course, working with actors being one, but in terms of narrative and telling a story I don't think there is a difference. In documentary, story is key. In fiction, story is key. As a wannabe writer, I love stories so I do love both mediums. I personally think writing a treatment for a doc is just as important as having a script for a fiction. It's good to have at least a plan of what things you'd like to explore and perhaps even certain visuals you want to get. I don't think you could really go out and literally start shooting with no plan and get something great. Well, maybe you could if you're super experienced or a genius.

With documentary I do love the more guerilla style filmmaking where it can be a small crew, shooting on the fly and not being too fussed about every detail in the shot. However, I find it more difficult to work with 'real' people than trained actors, perhaps because I trained a bit myself, I'm not scared of actors and actually enjoy their company!

Ghazaleh with actor Becky Kuek at the NZ Directors Guild's The Rehearsal Room 

I guess that's what I love about fiction – that and the ability to really control the narrative a bit more as a writer. I also have a love/hate relationship with editing which is crucial in documentary.

One of the factors that many people believe affect women's participation in filmmaking is our access to role models, mentors and advocates. Do you agree with this?

Definitely. One of the main reasons I have done well in the industry is because of great role models, not just in the industry but in life in general. I thoroughly believe if we can see people like us being successful, it helps us visualize ourselves there too. One of the people in the industry who I would classify as a mentor is filmmaker and professor Annie Goldson (and she would HATE me for saying she's my mentor!). She was my MA supervisor and now my PhD supervisor too, but even outside of university she was someone I could go to for help and someone who always advocated for me for work and other projects. Some of my most important jobs that I got were because of her.

Recently when I did the Writers’ Lab with Script to Screen, I noticed that all the board members were women, which was the first time I had ever seen that in my lifetime. And did the world come to pieces? No. Women are just as capable as men in this profession - obviously. Again, seeing that made me think, then perhaps one day I could be on a board like that helping other filmmakers. It may seem like a small step in the giant changes we need to make, but I think we are heading in the right way.

In my personal life I have been lucky to have a very strong supportive family and friend network, including an abundance of strong women. I also have had a lot of supportive men around me which I feel is just as important. I do want to stress this as I feel that some people think that only women should advocate for and support women in the industry. It should be all of us. We cannot achieve success without the help of men as well.

I love it that in your interview for Commonwealth Writers you are more interested in making human connections than making money. How does this affect your choices?

I am always poor! ha! But it's OK, I get along (somehow). I think I always had that romantic notion that all great artists are poor and that is why they make great art. As a result I have done numerous (and sometimes ridiculous) jobs to pay the bills. Sometimes I do think that if I had chosen the easier path of getting a real job, then maybe it would've been easier. But then I think I probably would've been miserable. I don't think any amount of money is worth your sanity. I've met some really rich people before and they were very lonely. Mansions aren't fun when you're by yourself the whole time.

The Waking Dreams Collective: Ghazaleh, Mojan Javadi and Nicole Van Heerden
How and why did you become involved in the Waking Dreams Collective?

After returning to Auckland from Los Angeles, I got back in touch with some of my Uni of Auckland friends, Nicole van Heerden and Mojan Javadi and I noted how at USC, most of the classes were just students being in a room and sharing ideas and scripts – so why couldn't we just do that ourselves? We started off with a writers’ group, each of us working on a short film. I had also been advised by Marc Boothe, who runs B3 Media in the United Kingdom (and helped run the first Commonwealth Writers Film Lab in New Zealand) that having a good team is absolutely the most important factor in being a creative. Mojan, Nicole and I decided that perhaps starting a collective would be an exciting idea. It was partly to support each other, partly to make our voices heard.

It is definitely is a feminist collective and though at the moment it is mainly women, we work with a lot of supportive men so would for sure have them be a part of the collective too. I don't understand how, as a woman, you're not a feminist. People who don't believe they are, don't understand the basic fundamentals of it. Which is basic equality, that men and women are equal in terms of human rights and should be treated as such.

Each of us did decide that the core values we would promote in the collective would be to service not only women in the industry but minorities too. Personally, I have my own mantra that every script I write will have a female lead (there was only one I have written that didn't and that was due to it being completely based on a short story). I will also have characters from diverse backgrounds. I don't care that I have to be so conscious about it and make a point about it – I think we are at that point in this industry that we need to take such measures.

I've had people say to me in film school, that women cannot direct, or that they hate being on set with women. I have been rejected from film jobs because I was a woman (and would upset all male crews apparently). I could go on, but I'm sure you've heard plenty of similar frustrations.

As the producer of the collective’s Eyes for Everest, you're running a Boosted campaign to raise funds for Nicole's project about a young Kiwi-Aussie optometrist, Shaun Chang, bringing basic eye care to earthquake-struck villages around the foot of Mount Everest, the world of foreign aid there and the lives of sherpas who provide life-saving support to tourists. How did the collective become involved in this project?

This is Nicole's baby but what is great about the collective is that we support each other when we need to. I'm not usually a producer (the reclusive writer in me despises phone calls) but I wanted to help out however I could. I am not able to go to Nepal with Nicole and the crew so opted to help out with the fundraising and outreach to broadcasters. Shaun originally reached out to Nicole as they had attended school together and he wanted a filmmaker to go with the team to record the trek and we all decided that there was enough here for an actual documentary.

As it is all self-funded (Shaun's charity are providing the crew with help once in Nepal), we are currently raising money for the equipment costs and insurance on the Boosted campaign site. Any leftover money will go straight to the charity. So many good friends and family have been supporting us and the response has been incredible. Once the team are back we are hoping to broadcast the doc here in in New Zealand and Australia.

Mojan Javadi’s 10 Cents to Millions project is also intriguing. I love the promo on your site. How’s that going?

Yes, that is the other big project the collective is working on in the moment. 10 Cents to Millions was originally thought up by Eunice Ng and Mojan. It's all about starting with 10c & doubling the money 27 times to reach a total of over $13 million, while fundraising for initiatives that support primary mental health. It's taken off big time and Mojan is making some great progress with the filming.

Pirate City Rollers

Are there more big projects on the go?

We have been doing promotional work for different companies – Pirate City Rollers, Auckland Live and the Auckland Museum – over the past year as a way to gain more experience and practice but I think for me personally, the next big project will be in relation to At the End of the World. Nicole and I have also been working on a feature film script that focuses on a story during the time of the women's movement prior to New Zealand gaining the vote. I think we're both channeling our inner Jane Campion. In fact, Waking Dream was named after a John Keats poem. We're total Campion fangirls.

Now you’ve morphed into Waking Dreams Productions. Is that simply a formal, legal umbrella for the collective’s work, or an indication that you’re going to work like Adelaide’s Closer Collective, where your commercial work will support your personal projects?

At the moment, it is the latter. We use it as an umbrella whilst also undertaking work under our own production companies. For example, Nicole has Huia Films. I am hoping that in the near future though we will expand the collective and the company.


Waking Dream Collective