Five Questions with Jasmin Mozaffari

By Andrya Duff

Debut feature, Firecrackers, earned 4 nominations for the upcoming Canadian Screen Awards including a Best Direction nod for Toronto-based award-winning director, Jasmin Mozaffari. Jasmin will be in St. John’s for the Newfoundland and Labrador premiere screening of Firecrackers immediately followed by a Q+A with the audience. I had the chance to chat (over email) with Jasmin before her inaugural trip to the province. This outspoken filmmaker did not disappoint! Below is only a snippet from the subversive new director. Join us 7pm Friday, March 15th at The Rooms for a more in-depth discussion with this “vital new voice”.

Why did you go back to the story of Firecrackers? What felt unfinished or unexamined in the short film that you needed to share in the feature?

I never originally thought I would turn the short version of Firecrackers into a feature until years later. When I made the short in 2012, I felt there was a need to see more unapologetic female characters on screen, especially ones who were unashamed of their sexual desires. However, in 15 minutes, you can only go so far in exploring themes. In 2016 when I began writing the feature, I knew I wanted to continue to focus on unapologetic teenage female characters, but I also wanted to explore the idea of freedom under patriarchal oppression. This was before the #metoo era, but during the 2016 presidential election, and it was so apparent to me that a large part of society still had a deep-seated issue with women seeking power. Obviously, this topic is a huge one to explore, but I knew it could be done if it was grounded in realistic characters and situations based on truth. I also wanted to look at the ways in which outdated patriarchal ideals hold not only females back, but men as well. 

Your approach to the rehearsal process for this film was a year long and based in improv. Had you used this same structure for the short version? how did you come to this way of working and what did this more theatrical approach add to the material, the story and/or character insights for the feature?

The short film version of Firecrackers was made in my last year of film school. I was very new to directing and didn't take very many risks. In the years between making that short and making the feature, I directed other short films and experimented with rehearsal techniques using a lot of improvisation to build characters. I was influenced by watching other filmmakers and reading books on directing actors. By the time I went to cast Firecrackers in 2016, I had developed my own method of rehearsal. All of the auditions and rehearsals were improvised. I knew that this film lived and died on authenticity, so the actors I cast had to be brave enough to make their own choices in the moment. I was also aware that I was putting the leads in scenes that were emotionally heavy and technically difficult, and thus I wanted to have that time to build trust between the actors and also trust between them and me. By allowing the actors to improvise in the rehearsal period, they were able to build their characters emotional histories themselves. When it came to shooting and working with the script, the actors felt comfortable enough to ad-lib as they saw fit. Because none of the performers in this film had done a feature film before (some no film at all), this process was key to getting naturalistic performances. 

About filmmaking you have been quoted as saying "it is a passion...a risk...that it needs to be your whole world, you can't do anything else, it's the sacrifice that comes with being a filmmaker". Have we gone too far in romanticizing the expected struggle of creators? How can filmmakers be better supported so that the sacrifice isn't as severe? 

I certainly hope nobody romanticizes the struggle of being a creator. The struggle is absolutely real and it takes a big toll on people financially and emotionally. However, I'm realistic about the situation. It's a privileged place to be in if you are choosing to pursue art as your career. In creating your early pieces as a filmmaker, i.e. your shorts, your first feature, I think everyone needs to be prepared to make big sacrifices. We are lucky in Canada that we have a grant system and a Telefilm Talent to Watch Program. There are not many other places in the world where the government will help fund your art in this way. What I think Canada needs more of is mentorship. We do not have a good system that fosters mentorship between emerging directors and established directors. The advice veteran directors could offer to young directors is invaluable in helping them navigate the early stages of their career. I also think there needs to be programs that help filmmakers - especially underrepresented and female filmmakers - transition into becoming a working director either through television or commercials. These are the avenues through which directors can make an honest living, yet there are embarrassingly few females on commercial rosters or directing television (although it's improving). So much of this industry is based on your connections, so there needs to be more initiatives to assist emerging filmmakers in acquiring the skills needed to transition into being a working director if that's the path you want to pursue. 

Firecrackers has played at 17 different festivals across Canada and Europe and has received high praise everywhere. What do you believe resonates about this story with people from such varied backgrounds?

The film is very divisive and people either tend to love it or hate it. This is, of course, a typical reaction to films that take risks - you won't please everyone. However, women of all ages tend to really connect with this story. A lot of them come up to me in tears, often not sure why they feel the way they do after the film ends. Sometimes they thank me for making it. I think it resonates because women know what it's like to be belittled, trapped, used, and violated. Even if the story isn't exactly their experience, I think a lot of women relate to the struggle of Lou and Chantal on a fundamental level. Many of us women have just tried our best to push our way through misogynistic behaviour and patriarchal attitudes. In a lot of situations, we're so used to just having to accept it and get on with our lives. This is why I made the film - to validate our experiences, even the dark and ugly ones. I think it can be cathartic to see female characters literally fighting back in the face of misogyny. 

Firecrackers really took off in a way that can never be planned or predicted. How are you and your Prowler Film co-founder Caitlin Grabham adjusting to this shift in your careers? Will you be taking some time to absorb it all before heading into another project or does this fuel the inspiration to dive back in?

It's interesting because even with success, not a whole lot has changed. Caitlin and I are still struggling financially. We're still trying to fight for paid gigs. Some new doors have opened for sure and we're incredibly thankful for that. At this point in our careers, we can't really sit back and absorb anything, we have to keep moving forward with new projects. It takes so many years to make even one film, so you can't really waste time. We've started developing new feature and television ideas, and I'm also trying to break into directing television. People are also sending me scripts to direct now, so that's also a consideration. I think for Caitlin and I and our original content, we will always try to approach stories from an intersectional lens and try to create content that pushes the boundaries and takes risks. 

Screening and Q+A with Jasmin Mozaffari is part of our Scene and Heard series