Art and Experience: Screen spoke to the Iranian director and lead actress of the Iranian film playing in the debut competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

Soheila Golestani is known to Iranian audiences for her roles on screen. But after starring in films such asBuffalo, We Have a Guest and Today – that won the Fipresci Award for Best Film at last year’s Black Nights Film Festival as well as being elected as Iran’s 2015 Oscar contender – the well regarded actress decided to shift her focus to film-making with the human drama Two.

Loosely based on the short story Maid’s Shoes by American author Bernard Malamud, Golestani spent over two years developing and financing the movie that revolves around an unexpected companionship between one man and his housekeeper.

At this year’s Black Nights Film Festival, where the film is world premiering in the Tridens First Feature Film Competition, Golestani openly discussed the hardships in making an independent film both as a first-time director – and as a woman – in Iran.

Screen spoke with Golestani and the film’s leading actress Mahtab Nasirpour (I Am Taraneh, I Am Fifteen Years Old/ Cancel).

Soheila – you are an experienced actress within Iran. How did that help you in your transition to directing?  

My experience has allowed me to have better relationships with actors. I don’t have to give as many notes as maybe some directors since together we speak a common language. I could be more precise without having to say a lot.

Mahtab – your role is extremely emotional at times and then very understated at other times. How did you manage the balance? Did it help that Soheila [Golestani] was also an actress?  

Soheila’s script was very strong. For the most part, she [Golestani] let me go through this role and find the key moments on my own. But there are points the director and actors must always discuss. I trusted her since she knows acting so well.

Soheila – what inspired you to tell this story of two people dealing with significant changes in their lives?  

I wrote the screenplay three years ago after reading the well known short story The Maid’s Shoes by the Jewish American author Bernard Malamud. My version is not a precise adaptation but I was inspired to create a movie about people like them. They are simple people that we see everyday – the people we walk by and don’t give any notice of.

I also wanted to create a story about two people who are obliged to live together. They are not in love but they end up helping each other. I have seen a lot of people like this, and they are some of the saddest people.

Your shooting style is very natural, with long takes and often a static camera. What was the reasoning for this approach? 

Soheila – It was important to me that this film did not look like the usual films we see. I wanted to recreate a normal life – to show what everyday people eat, how they walk. I brought in pictures for reference so the DP and camera men understood what I was looking for.  While it may not look like it, we took a lot of takes per scene to ensure we got each and every detail correct.

Mahtab – Soheila wanted us to be very natural, especially as the camera was close to us when filming – we couldn’t hide emotions. Soheila was also sensitive about details like which side of our face should be on camera, or if we should we be looking up or down.

Often times the action takes place off screen with the camera acting as an observant eye – was this a conscious choice?  

I wanted the spectator to be able to imagine, so they could create these connections themselves. I also wanted the apartment – where Bahman (Parviz Parastui – a leading Iranian actor who is also the film’s producer) lives and Pari (Nasirpour) works to feel like a character in itself. It gets more empty as the film progresses, and that adds to their sadness, like a metaphor.

Will the film get a theatrical release in Iran?  

The film is expected to be released in Iran towards the end of the month (this is what they told me – I am asking Jean if there is a distributor listed on file).  I hope many people both in Iran and around the world will see the film. I grew up around similar types of people and circumstances, and I wanted to shed light on these people that don’t normally get a spotlight. I think viewers will easily be able to connect with their emotions.

How difficult – as a first-time director – was this for you to make?  

It was incredibly challenging. Like any other country, there is a large gap between commercial and arthouse films. If you want to experience cinema as a first time director – you want to give it all your heart. But there are business executives who want you to make a comedy. I had to be very independent in my thinking and decision-making in saying no – I wanted to make the film I wanted to make: a film that speaks to cinema audiences in Iran as well as festival goers all over the world.

How did you source the financing?  

Getting a loan from the Iranian government is hard. We had to look to independent investors. I tried and tried for two years. I put a focus on someone who is determined to make a first feature in Iran, as well as someone who speaks for a new generation.

What were the challenges as a woman making a film in Iran?  

Soheila – There are all kinds of rules – like we must wear hijabs when working. We followed all of these.. If I could have had more women on set, I would have. But the few females we have working as DOPs and other such technical roles are all incredibly busy. We would have had to wait for months for them to become available. So we had to work primarily with men.

Mahtab – Soheila was fiercely strong on set. She had to let several men go from their roles since they were not respecting her ideas and vision. She was not afraid to stand up for herself. I am proud to say there are more women like Soheila making films in Iran today.  It is a slow process, but we are getting there.