Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.
― Rosa Luxemburg, Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist, and activist
When filmmaker Sarah Saidan was in her last year of Graphic Design at Azad University in Tehran, she took her first course in animation. In an interview via email, she told me that at the time she didn’t know what to expect from the class, but by the end of the semester, she discovered what she wanted to do “forever.” “I saw my drawings move and become alive,” she enthused. “Animation is magic. It contains illustration, film, and music all together. Animation gives you the freedom to tell any story, express any feeling, and experience something new.” Sarah’s short film Beach Flags was chosen for this year’s LUNAFEST film festival and is the only one of the six films that is animated.
One of the benefits of being an animator is that it allows Sarah to make a film by herself and in her own workspace. “I know the production can be exhausting sometimes, but you know it is always worth it in the end,” she noted. Her technique is usually 2D drawn animation. When Sarah was in La Poudrière in Valence, France, where she studied animation, she experimented with stop-motion (see footnote 1), cutout animation (see footnote 2) for two projects. “I absolutely loved doing that; it was so much fun,” she said. “But at the same time, stop motion has its limitations. You have to think about those limitations beforehand, when you are doing your storyboard.” While Sarah is more comfortable with drawn animation, many of her favorite films are cut-out animation, particularly the works of Yuri Norstein.
Sarah doesn’t take on many commissioned assignments, but despite working within a tight budget and timeframe, she happily accepted a TED Ed short film project because the topic – What are Human Rights? – was of great interest to her. “First of all, I have to say that I love what the TED Ed team is doing!” she said. Sarah and her fellow animator friend Amin Haghshenas worked off of a voiceover of the lesson, which was written by Professor Benedetta Berti, who is a TED Fellow and human security and foreign policy consultant, and recorded by the TED Ed team. Within eight weeks, Sarah created the storyboards and graphics, while Amin did the animation and composition for the video. “You can create a short film in a day, and you can make another one in two years, like my film Beach Flags,” Sarah pointed out. “It depends on so many things – the budget, deadline, complexity of the work, writing, and so on – so each project is different and has its own conditions.”
Animation: the ideal platform for Beach Flags
Although the last few years Sarah has been working in France, she has lived most of her life in Iran. In her country, women athletes cannot participate in international games. Furthermore, female swimmers cannot be seen in public in swimsuits. Sarah was preoccupied with this inequity, and she related, “I really needed to talk to these women and hear them.” When she interviewed them, they told her about beach flags, a lifeguard game that is played on the sand and doesn’t require females to wear swimsuits, which then allows them to participate in international games. It was also a game at which Iranian girls have historically excelled and won many prizes.
“I was so happy to hear that, but suddenly I had this ironic feeling – imagining swimmers running on the beach by the sea, but not having the right to go into the water,” Sarah said. “That image really drove me to write a story about it.” Animation was also the perfect vehicle for making Beach Flags into a film; it enabled her to go into places where the camera is not allowed or restricted – the women’s swimming pool and the women’s beach, in this case. “Animation gave me the freedom to tell a story without any obstacles,” Sarah noted.
Beach Flags, which was produced by Sacrebleu Productions in Paris and co-produced with Folimage in Valence, has been officially selected by more than 80 festivals around the world. The short film has amassed numerous prizes along the festival route, including the Amnesty International Prize at the Giffoni International Film Festival in Italy; Grand Prize at the BIAF Animation Festival in Korea; Grand Jury Prize at ANIMA, Córdoba International Animation Festival in Argentina; Grand Prize at the Tindirindis Animation Festival in Lithuania; Jury Prize at the International Festival Séquence Court-Métrage in France; Best Film Award at the International Animé awards in Japan; Best Screenplay at the International Animayo Festival in Spain; and Best of the Show at the Animation Block Party film festival in Brooklyn. Clearly, Beach Flags’ message has resonated around the world.
Inspiring work ahead
At this point in her career, Sarah doesn’t have plans to make a feature-length film, partly because of the financial burden and time investment required to make such a film. Referencing one of her friends who spent nine years working on a feature film, she said, “I don’t know if I want to do that yet! But upon reflection, she added, “I think I need to gain some more trust in myself for such responsibility.”
In the meantime, Sarah is currently “writing something very personal but at the same time very universal.” She tackles another feminist topic but from a different point of view. “It is a challenge. I am very excited about it,” she said. Sarah was also commissioned to produce two videos. Despite not usually taking on commissioned work, she was offered “such amazing and inspiring projects that it was impossible not to accept them.” The two videos are for a project that promotes reading aloud to children in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. “I really hope these videos help. That would be the biggest gift,” she said, referring to the crisis of refugees fleeing Syria in record numbers.
I asked Sarah what advice she would give to girls and young women interested in pursuing filmmaking, and her response reflects the themes in her work: “Believe in yourselves and never let anyone make you feel unworthy. Becoming a filmmaker is not just about learning the techniques of filmmaking; a good filmmaker is someone who knows exactly what they want and what they believe in, and most of all someone who doesn’t surrender to anything less than their expectations of themselves and their team.”
Note: While we wait for Sarah’s next project to come to the screen, you can see the trailer to Beach Flags here, and then see her short film in its entirety at LUNAFEST East Bay’s March 19th screening, 7:30pm, at El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater, 540 Ashbury Avenue, El Cerrito, CA.
Footnotes (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Footnote 1: Stop-motion animation is a technique that physically manipulates an object that appears to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.
Footnote 2: Cutout animation is a technique for producing stop-animations by using flat characters, props and backgrounds cut from materials such as paper, card, stiff fabric, or even photographs.