Swiss-Iranian film director Talkhon Hamzavi has been nominated for an Oscar for her coming-of-age social drama about a young Afghan immigrant in a Swiss asylum centre. However, she rejects all comparisons with her own experience.
Everyone is nervous: producer Stefan Eichenberger, the film crew, and tutors from Zurich University of the Arts – who all arrived in Los Angeles at the beginning of the week. Hamzavi, on the other hand, exudes strength and calm.
“You can’t be nervous all day,” she tells swissinfo.ch on the phone from LA, where she is taking part in various networking events for three weeks and trying to convince Academy members to vote for “Parvaneh”, the film with which she completed her Master’s in film at Zurich University of the Arts in 2012.
Parvaneh – “butterfly” in Farsi – was chosen from 141 works and faces four rivalsexternal link for the Best Short Film Oscar (for live action as opposed to animation) at the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday night.
In 24 minutes, Tali, as everyone calls her, tells the story of Parvaneh, a young Afghan immigrant, who lives in a transit centre for asylum seekers in the Swiss mountains. Hearing of her father’s illness, she travels for the first time to Zurich in order to send some money home.
The trip to Zurich results in various encounters and clashes: between the mountains of central Switzerland and the hectic metropolis, between the young veiled girl – played by Nissa Kashani from canton Vaud, who like Hamzavi is of Iranian origin – and the young punk girl who comes to her aid, and between the generations and cultures.
Born in Tehran in 1979, Hamzavi came to Switzerland at the age of seven and grew up in canton Aargau. Despite being a so-called secondo – the child of immigrants – she rejects all parallels between her own life and that of Parvaneh, even if Eichenberger believes “she definitely knows what it’s like to land in a completely unknown world”.
In order to place some distance between herself and Parvaneh, Hamzavi made her protagonist Afghan and not Iranian.
But if cinema has always been her passion, she wasn’t able to launch into it straight away.
“My parents, both painters, know how precarious a career as an artist can be. They wanted me to do an apprenticeship first,” she said.
Having got a diploma as a medical assistant in Baden, canton Aargau, she worked in this sector for two years. But eventually she followed her artistic calling and took an art course in Aarau, before gaining a vocational diploma in Zurich and entering the University of the Arts at the age of 25.
Parvanehexternal link, a young Afghan immigrant, lives in a transit centre for asylum seekers in the Swiss mountains. Hearing of her father’s illness, she travels to Zurich for the first time in order to send her family some money. This is the starting point of various encounters. The film was written and directed by Talkhon Hamzavi and produced by Stefan Eichenberger. The cinematographer was Stefan Dux. The world première was in June 2012. The film won the Silver Medal for Best Foreign Film at the 40th Student Academy Awards in 2013. It also picked up the First Steps Awardexternal link for Best Short Film under 25 minutes.end of infobox
Changing careers is not exceptional among aspiring film directors. “Half of our students arrive with a vocational diploma and come from various backgrounds – from IT to business,” explains Bernhard Lehner, a film editor who is director of the Zurich University of the Arts’ bachelor film degree and Hamzavi’s tutor.
His former student is not the only one to have different cultural roots. “We have quite a lot of young people in that sense. Maybe this strained relationship stimulates them when it comes to telling stories on film,” he said.
Nevertheless, Lehner says Hamzavi soon stood out from the crowd. “She always got top marks for her work – this is only the case with two or three people a year. She is a noticeably quiet person, very shy, reserved. She had already found a very strong theme for her bachelor’s graduation film.”
The 16-minute film “Taub” (Deaf, 2010) tells the story of a couple who are drifting apart and who try to avoid their problems with alcohol and sleeping pills – with an unexpected outcome.
“Tali is very precise and really delves into her subjects,” Lehner said. “She builds these stories on realistic themes. It’s striking that, being so reserved and modest, she is carving out such a beautiful path. She doesn’t theorise – she knows what she wants and listens very closely to her team.”
Eichenberger agrees. Like many members of the crew, he studied with Hamzavi. “She is very intuitive, she doesn’t spend ages thinking about things. You have to learn to trust her, because she doesn’t explain why she wants to do things in a certain way.”
‘Already a success’
It wasn’t an easy shoot, he remembers. “We filmed in a real centre for asylum seekers in Morschach, canton Schwyz, with real residents, and also in the city of Zurich. The whole thing took ten days.”
Susan Müller, the head of casting for the film, looks back on a “very happy” experience looking for actors.
“Tali had a very precise idea of the actors she wanted. By chance, I knew Nissa Kashani, who had studied at Lausanne’s University for Theatre Studies and whom I had met a year previously as part of a scheme to find talented young actors. I knew she spoke a bit of German. I suggested [Kashani and Cheryl Graf, who played the punk] to Tali, who said yes very quickly after meeting them,” she said.
Bernhard Lehner says that whatever the result on Sunday, “it’s already a success”. “Champagne corks will definitely be flying!” he said.
Back in California, the Parvaneh delegation are getting ready for a long night on Sunday.
An Oscar would be the first for Switzerland since 1991 (see box), but Hamzavi – confirming what her colleagues say about her – remains modest.
“I’m in the middle of writing my first feature film. That takes time – I can’t say any more.”
[Postscript: Parvaneh did not win the Oscar]
Switzerland and Oscars
Switzerland’s previous Oscar nomination was for Auf der Strecke (“On the Line”), in the same category, in 2009.
The most recent Swiss actor or director to actually wave around the golden statuette was Xavier Koller for his immigrant drama “Journey of Hope”, named Best Foreign Language Film in 1991.
Markus Gross, professor of computer graphics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and director of Disney Research Zurich, won a “technical Oscar” in 2013 for developing software that could calculate smoke and explosions in films quickly and recreate them realistically.
Producer Arthur Cohnexternal link is by far Switzerland’s most prolific Oscar collector. He amassed six statuettes between 1961 and 1999, three for Best Foreign Language Film and three for Best Documentary.end of infobox
(Adapted from French by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch