“Hello dearest” was the first message I ever sent to Sayna Fardaraghi — that was in February of 2016. Since that day, our friendship has only grown, as has her status of being one of the coolest people I know. A proclaimed, via Twitter bio, ‘Persian princess, art director, and filmmaker’ (all of these things are steadfast truths), Sayna Fardaraghi has become something of a beacon to young film industry hopefuls and committed members of film twitter. Her real-life success, however, is just as tangible and even more impressive than her 28.8k followers. I was lucky enough to interview her about her experiences as a filmmaker, artist, and generally wonderful person.
Film Daze: First of all thank you for agreeing to speak with me in this professional capacity! I wanted to start off by talking about L’Observateur, which sort of exploded on film twitter and became extremely popular (it currently has 1,092 ratings on Letterboxd). What was it like to watch something so special to you become so loved by so many?
Sayna Fardaraghi: It was honestly so surreal to me, because it started off as this tiny 3-week uni project that I did with my friends. I made it because I was just aching to create a film that I really loved and enjoyed doing. I had spent that entire year at university making animations and illustrations, so when I finally had the opportunity to make something that felt natural to me, I made sure to put a hell of a lot of care into it. It was something that made me feel alive and excited again, and now, seeing the same amount of love and joy that I put in be reflected back from the people who have watched, it’s such a heartwarming feeling. I’m so grateful to see people sharing their thoughts on it every day. It means a lot seeing something that’s a significant part of you become a part of other people too, you know?
FD: Is there any particular part of L’Observateur that stands out as your favorite? Why?
SF: I honestly think my favourite bit is the most spontaneous part of the film, which was the crossover to the James Bond scene. I remember when I was originally filming my mum talking on the phone, a thought popped into my head like hey, what if she was speaking to James Bond? Sure, it’s not what I had scripted originally, but it would be weird and kind of funny, so I just decided to go with it. It’s strange but many of the most impromptu things I had shot ended up being put into the final cut. I guess it added to the fun aspect of the film and made things more stimulating for me. The best things definitely come to you when you least expect it, so just go with the flow!
FD: Can you tell me about your process of creation for L’Observateur?
SF: It started off with me taking 40-minute train rides to university every day. I remember I had lost my earphones so I ended up being very in tune with my surroundings — the train and its passengers. After a while, there were quite a lot of people I ended up having familiarity and connection with, even though we had never properly met. It was like we had known each other for ages simply because we had shared the most random moments on this tiny carriage. What added to that feeling was that I could remember the smallest details about them. There was one guy in particular that I’d always see carrying a cup of coffee from my favourite spot, who also wore the absolute brightest coloured beanies every day — switching colours constantly. Every time we’d see each other, we would just exchange a smile and switch trains on the same station together. It made me realise that I’m a highly observant person, so I started asking my friends if they shared similar experiences, and what it is that they noticed in others around them. I knew I wanted to share the beauty of the little things in this world that connect us to other people, so I decided to write a short story about a girl who does the same thing I do (minus the binoculars of course, though I do like to use them from time to time).
FD: You had such a fantastic 2019. What did you learn about film, yourself as a filmmaker, and how you want to create your art?
SF: Thank you so much! It’s crazy because it started off on such a difficult note, and transformed into one of the best years of my life. I started off with little confidence in my work, and being too afraid to pursue film because I felt that I wouldn’t be good enough, or fit in. I come from an art background so I mostly knew how to paint and create graphic designs. Knowing that would influence my film work, making it extremely visual, made me think how on earth would I ever make a ‘proper’ and ‘serious’ film? That style (‘proper’) just isn’t me. After a bit of encouragement and research, I realised that my focus on artistic visuals was what would make me stand out as a creator. I knew I could never change the way I see things, so why not just embrace what I do and start creating? I think a lot of people need to begin thinking in that way. Life’s too short to force yourself into a mold or box, rather, embrace the skills and talent you’ve got!
FD: Do you have a favorite film-related memory from 2019?
SF: I think it was going to London film festival and attending the Honey Boy screening. I was lucky enough to see the director, Alma Har’el, and several cast members discuss the film. It made me very emotional as I could feel the amount of love and passion the cast and crew had for both each other and the film they had created. On top of that, Alma, a female director, being the forefront of it all was so inspiring to me. I can only dream of one day being a part of something surrounded by so many talented people and so much love.
FD: Art is a constant process of growth and change. How do you think you’ve grown as an artist since creating your first film?
SF: I think I’ve definitely evolved with my style a lot; I’ve become more playful and much more me. As I said, I come from a stronger art background so everything I do has an artistic influence on it. I used to be serious with the stuff I made because that’s what I thought I had to do to be considered a good filmmaker; however, it wasn’t enjoyable and didn’t capture my essence at all. Now I make things more playful, filled with colour and weird bits here and there, with a hint of nostalgia. Add some paprika on top of that for seasoning.
FD: Since becoming an official film student (yay!) have you noticed any changes in your approach to your art?
SF: Sort of yes. It’s refreshing because I finally have access to proper equipment which I didn’t before. I remember when making L’Observateur, I just used a classroom as a studio space for the birthday scene, so now having access to a good kit is so nice. I also have a better understanding of lenses and different setups since I do cinematography, which has been helpful. Plus, I’m now more knowledgeable about how achievable some of my ideas are. At the end of the day though, all of these are just tools for filmmaking, and you seriously don’t need state-of-the-art equipment to make something wonderful. I cannot stress enough that it’s not the tools that matter, but the hands that bear them, and the vision that you have.
FD: I know you’re working on a few different projects right now. Can you tell me about those?
SF: Sure! I’ve just wrapped filming on a limited web series with a few friends. I was the cinematographer for that, which was super exciting for me. I’m also working on some experimental university projects, as well as a music video for Aiko. Fingers crossed that I’ll be making a 16mm short film during the summer, and another more supernatural (with sweet aesthetics) short film too! I definitely have a lot going on, but I love it because I grow better and learn more with every project I do.
FD: I know you love Wes Anderson but I would love to hear about what specifically draws you to his body of work? Are there other films or filmmakers who have sparked your creative process?
SF: Honestly, it’s the artistic approach to his filmmaking that captured my eye the most. The importance of art direction made me think that hey, people actually really love films that are unconventional and aesthetically driven, maybe I don’t need to try and stick to something so serious, but embrace the visuals that come naturally to me. Of course, alongside him, I love editorial filmmakers. My biggest hope is to be one someday. My favourite people in that field are Nadia Lee Cohen, Bardia Zeinalli, and Amber Grace Johnson. They’re so aesthetically driven, and make very exciting things, which I adore.
FD: On that subject, is there one writer, director, or cinematographer that you dream of collaborating with? What would you want that collaboration to look like?
SF: Gosh there’s so many, probably all of the filmmakers I listed above, but also Greta Gerwig, Alma Har’el, and Natasha Braier. They’re such a talented bunch of ladies who are absolutely killing it in the industry. I would love to learn from them, and maybe make something with them that is heavy on nostalgia, and focused on really connecting with the audience.
FD: How has being a woman in the industry influenced your work and your opportunities? What have your personal experiences looked like?
SF: Not gonna lie, when being on set and in film workshops, it is really apparent how male-dominated these spaces are, and it can feel quite alienating. It’s really important to have representation behind the camera — just as much as it is to have it in front of the camera, so seeing these spaces exist in such a male-dominated way is frustrating. If anything, it has taught me to work harder in what I do and make sure that when I’m in control of my own projects, I should create opportunities and open spaces for women in the field. Working together, and growing together, shout out to freethework!*
(*Note: freethework is an independent talent discovery service, created by Alma Har’el, that focuses on providing opportunities for underrepresented creators within all facets of filmmaking, as well as promoting intelligent discovery to fight discrimination within the industry’s hiring practices.)
FD: 2019 was quite a dynamic year for cinema. Could you tell me about your favorite film from 2019?
SF: Choosing one is so challenging. It is a very tough pick between The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Honey Boy, Marriage Story, and Parasite. I think I felt most inspired by The Last Black Man In San Francisco. It was so beautiful and caring in every aspect, not to mention so impressive, as it was the debut feature for director Joe Talbot. The opening monologue especially connected me to the film; every tiny aspect mattered and linked together, moving me completely. I can only dream of making something so personal and touching for an audience.
FD: And finally, if you could use one word to define yourself as an artist what would it be?
SF: Probably ‘nostalgic.’ Everything I do, in some way, focuses on memories or moments in life that we all experience. Something I love the most is making a room full of strangers feel connected to each other just from one small, shared element — whether that is a childhood memory, or a universal experience or action. I remember getting feedback from one of my classmates on my recent project. He told me that my work reminded him of home, which was back in China. It meant a lot to me, and I want to ensure that all of my work achieves that, and emotionally resonates with my audience members.