When we’re out and walking the sidewalks of the big city or on public transit, we look at people… and sometimes we think we know them, just a little – based on how they dress and what they wear. We look them up and down, we analyze and then we judge. Afterall, we only have that brief moment to conclude if they are good or bad, rich or poor, European or Middle Eastern. It shouldn’t matter but somehow it does. I’m quite sure there’s psychology at play when we can’t look away from someone because their clothes/garments are so different than the rest of us. I myself am perplexed whenever I see a man walking and looking extremely content, as his kilt sways to and fro with every step. I don’t consider myself a judgemental person but I am a curious one.
What if a woman is wearing a hijab? Do we automatically assume that she is proud to express her discipline, her faith and her resistance to expose her body? Some of us will judge and some of us will try to imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes. When we see a woman wearing a hijab or burka, we really don’t know if it’s a personal choice, so we should stop assuming. The choice to wear the hijab and to have the freedom of expression is at the heart of the film, Unmasked.
The story explores gender bias, mandatory hijab and a woman’s freedom. It was written, directed and produced by Iranian born and Award-Winning Canadian filmmaker Mostafa Keshvari. Unmasked has won 28 awards and has garnered critical acclaim along the way. Mostafa is a filmmaker whose goal is to make the world a more conscious place one movie at a time and his film has a global humanitarian message that needs to be told. The film can be seen on Amazon.
Sara Omrad is the lead actress that plays the role of Farash and her portrayal was stellar. I had the great honour to talk to them both about the film and my heart thanked me later.
HNM “What drew you to this story and character?
SARA “When I read the story, it made me cry – it was definitely very touching. What stood out to me the most about the character Farash, is that she is a symbolic representation of all Muslim women but is an uncensored and unfiltered version of Muslim women that doesn’t have a voice in her relationship/life and she needs to be heard. Her character goes through so many changes and obstacles that we as women, all go through – so she’s very relatable. It’s not just a job or religious issue, it’s a women issue/power struggle issue. What attracted me to the role was the evolution of her character… how she evolved and how she was able to face the obstacles in her relationship. Faith and religion are a big influence despite the issues of editing and manipulations to the Koran (Quran) over the years through teachings, rather than coming from God. She is conflicted between her faith, which she fully doesn’t understand and her relationship with her husband, as she’s trying to know herself. It was a self-discovery type of role, as a woman. I was born in Iran and raised in Ukraine but I do come from a mentality where you have to know your place as a woman and the rules for a man and a woman. I personally struggled with that – where I went from a super closed culture to an open environment. My family was trying to put me in a box, while I was soul searching and trying to discover how to be strong and a female – at the same time. I believe a lot of women can relate to that, especially given today’s issues to deal with.”
HNM “This is quite a tragic story. When you wrote it, was there another alternate ending or was the ending always the same?”
MOSTAFA “It was always the same; this was my first feature film and Sara’s as well. We met at Vancouver Film School and when you’re writing, you have certain characters in mind but when I started the casting process, I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role but Sara, so I asked her to read it. I thought, as a woman she might be inspired and after she told me she cried, I knew this was the script. The film was originally 2 hours and forty minutes, so we had to cut it down to 2 hours. It’s a very difficult subject with violence/acid attack and a lot of people don’t believe it happens here… but there was an acid attack in BC just a few months before we shot the film. There are still families coming here and bringing extreme beliefs to Canada that may have been part of their culture or way of life before. When a woman is starting to spread her wings and wanting to fly, the men feel emasculated and it starts conflict. I wanted to show a close up of what a Muslim woman might look like and how they live from behind the vale.”
HNM “Now Sara, since you did mention you came from a controlling family, did you have any apprehension taking on this role?”
SARA “Oh absolutely (laughing), it was a huge risk. It’s very interesting that you ask because at that time I felt like I was living Farash’s character in my own personal life, not in a relationship dynamic but in different sectors, where I wanted to blossom and flex my independence. I was raised to respect men and acting isn’t necessarily the most respected career for a Persian family. As a woman, I had to see what all the stigma and backlash was about. There’re some sexual scenes, there’s kissing and there’s the role that you play. It was almost like a calling – I had to portray this woman to be a voice for other Muslim women. Although there are advocates for mandatory hijab, it doesn’t seem to be noticed very much in comparison to Black Lives Matter, Me Too or LGBTQ movements. Women living in countries that enable the mandatory hijab, don’t have the right to hire a lawyer or even protect themselves. Many people dismiss the issue because it’s not in their country and it doesn’t relate to them.”
MOSTAFA “Sara makes a good point. When we were making the film, Trump had put a ban on Muslims coming into the country, so the idea of how Muslim people were, wasn’t the reality. Many people that see women wearing the hijab think that they want to wear it but in reality, many don’t have a choice and will get beat up by her husband if they refuse. Many women do want to live a free life but their husbands have this sense of ownership and the wife cannot talk about it openly because they have a family and kids – they could lose everything.”
HNM “This question is for both of you. When this film was at multiple festivals, did any of you receive any backlash from anyone in the audience that might be Muslim?”
SARA “I’ve been told by a couple people that watched the film that it wasn’t portrayed accurately but instead in a way that made Muslim women look bad. When religion is enforced, it goes against Gods teachings and faith but people don’t question if it’s actually what the Koran said or is it something manmade that’s been passed down from generation to generation. People will blindly follow religion and anything outside that box will make them lash out. Mostafa portrayed the story very well. In a lot of the scenes, the husband Saeed doesn’t even know what the Koran says – and it’s beautifully pinpointed in the film because a lot of the men will insist that a woman should be obedient, she should be this and that… but they don’t even know what they’re following or what they’re talking about. So, to get back to your question… yes, I’ve had a little backlash but not as aggressively as I thought I would.”
MOSTAFA “With that film, we won 28 awards Internationally and it went to Lebanon. One of the lead actors, Hani Mefti (Saeed) who is Syrian, had flown there for the screening but they had censored it and took it out of the festival. It won an award in Israel, but for the more fanatical Muslims… they don’t like the idea of it. You’re showing the interpretation of the religion but not the religion itself. For people that are liberal and open-minded, it was a great film, well received and we got a lot of great feedback. For the traditional Muslims on the fanatic side, it might be sacred, because it’s showing a truth that they don’t want to face. It’s also taking the liberty from men that like their women like that and you shouldn’t try to change it.”
Mostafa continued to express that he felt the hijab was gender biased. He explained that the fanatical Muslim men insist their wives wear a hijab to prevent other men from looking/lusting at them, but yet – the men are allowed to wear whatever they want… even if it attracts other women. The same rule applies to singing. Women are not permitted to sing in Islam because it might excite other men, but the husbands can sing. He realizes it’s a double standard and completely gender biased.
HNM “Did you have to do much preparation for this role?”
SARA “Yes, actually I did and it was a lot of fun. I took the method acting approach – I decided that I would live and become the character. I completely delved into the before and after, her history and I dressed as Farash – in a full traditional garment and a scarf. I’d go into a Vancouver mall to see how it feels… which turned out to be quite different than I had imagined. When I see a woman wearing a hijab, traditional garment or burka, I don’t feel like anyone is being disrespectful to them; it’s the 21st Century, there’s equality and it’s North America. When I wore that outfit… I felt isolated, I felt people were avoiding me – and I actually felt bad about myself because I was wearing it. Discovering how she would feel in different situations really helped me get into the character more. When you’re in the character, you feel completely different and I felt afraid to talk, I didn’t know how to be expressive or assertive. I felt like the outfit took a lot of my strengths away; I felt a little dimmed down and that this was my new status… and I needed to be tamed. We also spent a lot of time together before shooting with our onscreen daughter and husband. I remember after we had just met; the cinematographer walked in and asked how long we all knew each other because we were all so connected chemistry-wise… we just clicked.”
HNM “One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Farash was taking acting classes. Was that scene a lot of fun for you?”
SARA “Oh yes, it was a lot of fun and it was different. When you’re acting, you can be a chair, an animal or something else… but with her, I had to be more reserved, tamer and I had to slowly tap into those fears. It was very interesting to play that and connect to different people.”
HNM “When you wrote that scene, was it inspired by your own experience?”
MOSTAFA “When I was in film school, I had some friends, as well as my sister that were studying acting. I remember watching a Middle Eastern woman in the acting class and another actor was asking if it was okay to touch her or come closer. She was fine with it, but it made me think of a Muslim woman and what it might be like to go against your faith. I had also taken some acting too, to become a better director and I realized – there are so many emotional blocks as a Muslim or Middle Eastern woman. Expressing yourself in public or in a scene like that goes against your faith and is very difficult. It makes it challenging to become a good actor. The main theme in the movie and in all religions is to ‘know yourself’. If you’re a Muslim woman, you feel trapped in your circumstance and family, so how can you know yourself.”
HNM “Has playing the role of Farash in this film, impacted your personal life?”
SARA “Yes, it definitely empowered me. I was always a bit of a feminist, because of my background – but this film pushed me to go on a path and become an advocate for future projects that I want to work on. When I look at new projects now, I want to play empowered women, females that are driven, confident and successful but I also want to show all the obstacles we have to face to succeed. Playing Farash has definitely empowered me and pushed me to be my true self all the time and I feel good about it.”
HNM “How many locations did you shoot in and how long did it take?”
MOSTAFA “Most of the locations were at the house and the acting studio. I wanted to show the two different worlds and how her environment had changed her. When she was home, she was a different person in contrast to who she was in the acting class. The film was shot over 21 days. Being the writer, director or producer was a lot of hats to wear and I was never sure if we would finish it or not because it was an independent film. The acting was so powerful, the crew loved it and wanted to see what was next. They were all so interested in the story.”
This film really answered some questions for me and I think everyone should watch it to have a better understanding of one another.