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For some 30 years now, Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat has been using her work to address the big subjects: religion, human rights, questions of gender, identity and the intersection of public life and private life.
Born in Iran, Neshat immigrated to the U.S. when she was 17, but the bulk of her work has been focused on her home country. With such acclaimed photographic series as Women of Allah (1993–97) or Women Without Men — her debut film as a director, which won the Sliver Lion for best director in Venice in 2009 — Neshat has been sharply critical of the current fundamentalist Islamic regime in Tehran, contrasting it with the liberal, pre-Revolution Iran she was raised in.
With Land of Dreams, her second feature film, Neshat turns her lens on her adopted country. The film, starring Sheila Vand, Matt Dillon, Anna Gunn, William Moseley and Isabella Rossellini, sprung from Neshat’s 2019 art project of the same name, in which she photographed 111 Americans across New Mexico and interviewed them about their dreams. The result was a portrait of Trump-era America.
The film version of Land of Dreams, which Neshat co-directed with her Women Without Men collaborator Shoja Azari from a screenplay by late French writer Jean-Claude Carrière (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), is set in the near future and is a combination political satire and sci-fi dystopia. Vand (the girl in A Girl Walks Home at Night) plays Simin, an Iranian-American charged with recording citizens’ dreams for the mysteriously nefarious U.S. Census Bureau. Land of Dreams opened Venice’s Orizzonti Extra sidebar Sept. 2. Beta Cinema is handling international sales.
Neshat spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s Venice premiere about the parallels between her movie and current events in Afghanistan, the power of art to resist tyranny and why she still believes in the American dream.
Your film is set in the future and deals with U.S.-Iranian history, but watching it I couldn’t help think about the current situation in Afghanistan. Do you see parallels?
Definitely. I’m glad you picked up on that. My first film, Woman Without Men, was focused on 1953, the U.S. coup, the CIA-backed coup in Iran. And the way in which the American government has again and again systematically dismantled governments and then abandoned them to total chaos and civil war. That’s how Iran was dismantled. There would have never been the Islamic revolution had it not been for the coup d’etat in 1953. The same thing has happened in Afghanistan. The film is very stylized, and it takes place in the future, but the absurdity of the American government’s policies, both domestic and international, are very real. In the film, I have an Iranian colony in the desert, maintained by the American government, full of ex-revolutionaries. The motto is: The enemy of our enemy is our friend. Which was the same with the Mujaheddin.
This film is based on your art project from 2019, which was the first time you focused on America and American society.
I came to America when I was 17. I’m an American citizen, and I’ve lived here longer than in my home country. But in my art, I basically kept my stories and concepts focused on the Middle East. Until Land of Dreams, I’ve never felt comfortable doing with America what I’ve done with Iran, which is to question things, to question the government and the society. The main character in Land of Dreams, Simin, the photographer who interviews people about their dreams, is me, basically.
That’s what I did for the work in New Mexico in 2019, talking to almost 200 people, from Native Americans to Hispanic immigrants, rich people, poor people, functional and dysfunctional people. Trying to show the diversity that I felt was the fabric of American society. I felt it was important now that America stands at this very important point in history where there is this total shift after Trump, and we are seeing this shift toward bigotry, seeing a rise in racism, in white supremacy, conservatism. That instead of always pointing the finger at the Iranian government, I should turn back and look at America. Absurdly, the two countries are becoming very similar in terms of the political injustice, the way that corruption and the way that the people in power control the citizens. I think people like myself, who are not native to this country but immigrants, have earned the right to question American values, American identity — to question if this country is really a place of democracy, really a land of dreams.
Have you become disillusioned with America?
I have. I feel my biggest problem is how divided this country has become. I have never, since I came here in 1975, I have never experienced this divide between the liberals and the conservatives. The Democrats and the Republicans. Just listening to the media covering Afghanistan. You turn to Fox News, and there is almost no sympathy for the people of Afghanistan. You don’t know anymore what this country stands for. It has become totally individualistic. I just feel very disillusioned, and I take it very personally. I feel as immigrants we are invested in this country and the image it has built up about itself. If you stay silent, you are complicit in what is happening.
The film is very political but, as you say, also very stylized. You have some stunning imagery where you cite your own work but also the work of other artists. Simin takes the dream interviews and turns them into art, translating them into Farsi and performing as the people she interviewed. Why did you make art so central to the story?
The whole film is a tribute to art and the power of art. Simin’s impersonations remind me of Cindy Sherman — what she does and her relationship to the audience with her impersonations. The African-American painter in the film is using images as a protest against racism. The final scene, when Simin lays out the photographs in a circle in the desert, is a tribute to great land artists. For me, it was a way of really reemphasizing how art, how the creative imagination, can be a tool against tyranny. The image at the very end is to me really emotional. If you notice, Simin begins with laying out family portraits, and then eventually it becomes pictures she took of Americans, the pictures actually that I took for my artwork. She is mixing her own history with American history [and] with the history of the people she has encountered. That is the message of the film and for me. And it is an incredibly humanitarian message. That we should forget about whether we are Iranians, whether we are French, are Americans. In the end, we are the same, and we are all victims of political tyranny.
Art has the ability to communicate these things, something higher than any diplomat, any politicians, could do. In the film, art is the savior of Simin. And personally, art has been my savior. As someone who has been in exile, been displaced by making art, I’ve learned to survive.
The title of the film, and your art project, is an obvious reference to the American dream. Do you still believe in the American dream?
The American dream, for foreigners like me, is the idea of coming to this country with a vision of being given a second chance. That truly exists. I wouldn’t be who I am if this country didn’t give me a second chance. My own country wouldn’t give me a chance. At the same time, the idea is highly problematic. I feel that every single American, and I count myself as an American, has to take personal responsibility to do what they can, not just to help themselves or their own community but to bring about positive change for the world. I will do it through my art, through activism. If I can help another artist to get out of Iran or Afghanistan, I will. Their stories need to be told. And art is a powerful tool to raise awareness.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s Sept. 3 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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