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“We Hope That This Film and Its Female Narrative Will Echo the Voice of Iranian Women”: Editor Elika Rezaee on Shayda

A woman with cropped, curly brown hair sits next to a young girl with straight black hair and bangs. They gaze at each other.Shayda courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Elika Rezaee understood that signing on to edit Shayda, the deeply personal narrative debut from writer-director Noora Niasari, would require the utmost sensitivity. The film mines from Niasari’s lived experiences, following the titular character as she and her daughter Mona temporarily move into an Australian women’s shelter after Shayda’s divorce from her abusive husband. When a court order deems that her ex is entitled to visitation rights with their daughter, Shayda becomes afraid that he will take Mona and return to their native Iran.

Rezaee tells Filmmaker about her first reaction to Niasari’s script, her editing career origins and how she hopes the film amplifies the voices of Iranian women.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job? 

Rezaee: I got introduced to Noora through a friend. After our first conversation over the phone, I think we both had a mutual feeling that we would collaborate on this project. When I read the script, I understood that the story was coming from the director’s lived experience, which really excited me; as I told Noora, films based on a true story always touch the audience’s heart and have more impact. I didn’t have many notes or feedback to give Noora, except for some Farsi dialogues and some transitions, as the script was already polished enough. But we had hours and hours of conversations about the characters and the authenticity of the cultural aspect of the story. As an editor who had worked both inside and outside of Iran and knew both Western and Eastern cultures, I had a good clarity of distinguishing the two and fine-tuning the nuances. Noora and I were both on the same page, and we were always open to each other’s ideas, which led to our collaboration on Shayda.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Rezaee: After finishing the assembly and spending two weeks editing with Noora, we got to know each other fairly well and our way of thinking. This helped me to have a better understanding of the form of the narrative and apply it in my editing style so the focus would be more on the main characters, Shayda and Mona. The goal was to build a realistic dynamic between the characters and make them more believable. I also tried to find the balance between the mother and child characters’ appearance time on the screen.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Rezaee: Noora and I always talked about each character’s psyche, talked about each beat, and analyzed every single move in the editing process. Talking through each step helped us to add more sense of clarity to the story and help the audience to perceive the story beyond their nationality.

After our first rough cut screening, which was three hours long, we got a lot of notes and feedback, which was bitter and sweet. Bitter because we had to cut some of our micro-stories, reshape some of our supporting characters and minimize their appearance, but sweet because some of the notes helped us focus more on Shayda and Mona, the two key characters and helped the flow of the story. The good support from the producer team gave me a vast freedom to apply only the notes that are valid and valuable for the story.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Rezaee: I started editing when I was eighteen; I learned to cut films on actual film and worked on Moviola, alongside many talented editors and directors back in Iran. Then I upgraded from being an AE to an editor at age of 23, and I started cutting more documentaries and feature narrative films. Coming from a family with a history of huge involvement in cinema, especially my dad as a sound designer, I learned a lot about different aspects of art in cinema and, more specifically, in sound. To pursue my dreams, at age 28, I moved to the U.S. to study editing at the American Film Institute, while I started my professional career as an editor in 2014. Coming from the documentary world, it always gives me the opportunity to find a way to resolve some story beats in a shorter amount of time and coming up with better ideas in my editing techniques.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Rezaee: Avid. I found it more convenient to access the bins and footage and navigate through scenes. Also, personally, I like the interface much better compared to many others,

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Rezaee: The parts of the film that had more of an emotional load were more difficult, because they were similar to the director’s memory and past and created a vulnerable atmosphere in the editing room. I tried to pave the path the by providing a happy and fun atmosphere for myself and the director—we both had lots of laughter and cries—but we were in a constant mode of reminding ourselves that story comes first, and being objective is the key.

The protagonists of any story come from society, and knowing that society is very important in the editing process of intercultural works. Details establish many things, and there is always a risk of falling into stereotypes. It is important to know what details work well and where they are not clichés.

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?

Rezaee: After several months of working on this project, with many back and forths, the whole team tried to produce a story that would make the audience smile and empathize with the hardships of the characters’ lives. Now that the film premieres at Sundance, I am waiting to see the reactions of the audience and how the team’s effort will be appreciated. Every movie that is shown on the screen is the product of the work of many people who put their heart and soul into it. In the context of the current events in Iran and the women’s revolution, fighting for freedom, we hope that this film and its female narrative will echo the voice of Iranian women and provide a platform for more of my dear people to be heard.

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