‘Refuge’ dir. Mo Gorjestani

A cyber attack on the United States Immigration database puts Sonia at risk of being deported back to Iran. But remaining in the U.S. may come at a greater price than she’s willing to pay.

Writer-Director: Mo Gorjestani
Producer: Malcolm Pullinger
DOP: Mike Gioulakis
Key Cast: Nikohl Boosheri, Camyar Chai

C8: Where did the idea for ‘Refuge’ come from?

MG: The kernel of the idea came from exploring the conflict between Iran and the USA and the trajectory it might take in the future, and how technology might play a role in that. I thought a lot about the treatment of the Japanese during World War II, and wanted to reimagine a scenario like that with a story set in 2020. I wanted to focus on the way that global politics can affect an average person, and I built Sonia’s character and predicament around that notion.

C8: How did you go about casting the film? Were you looking for something in particular?

MG: Sonia was written to be a character that was very strong, a bit rogue and self-determined, but also naive, vulnerable, and a bit scared. This is a tricky combination of characteristics for an actor to pull off, especially to show that range and variation subtly, without any dialogue. I had seen ‘Circumstance’, a film that won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2010, and the co-lead Nikohl Boosheri was really outstanding and played an extremely complex character. We got in touch with her, she read the script and loved it, and the rest was history. Reza was played by Camyar Chai, who I had worked with in my first film and is a very close friend of mine, in addition to being a really incredible actor. I actually learned a lot about the writing process from Camyar, and he really mentored me while I was in school. I basically called him and said I have a role for you, and he said “cool let’s do it.” He didn’t even need to read the script. In general, our casting process speaks to the importance of chemistry and that sometimes it’s good to go with your gut, as opposed to the traditional process of auditions, call backs, etc. Depends on the project. In fact, for the rest of the roles, we did use a traditional casting process, which worked out really well. We also had a lot of friends and family make cameos, which helped make the project that much more special.

C8: How does your work in commercials and music promos compare to narrative filmmaking?

MG: There are many similarities. Any time you work with actors, set up a shot, or execute a script, you are sharpening your filmmaking skills. I think the main difference lies in the fact that narrative filmmaking is really about the vision of the director and writer, while in most commercial work, it’s a balance of the director’s vision and the brand/client at your working with.

C8: Where does ‘Refuge’ sit in your career? What had you done before it and what have you done since?

MG: ‘Refuge’ is my second narrative film. In 2007, I completed ‘Sayeh’ (The Shade) which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It took almost 6 years to get to ‘Refuge’, and I’m hoping the gap between the next film is no where near that long! Right now, my creative partner and I are exploring the idea of adapting ‘Refuge’ into a television series, and also considering making it as a feature. I’m also writing a project titled ‘Somehow These Days Will Be Missed’ — a thriller set in the early 90’s and loosely based on a true story. It’s the story of an American Dream-turned-nightmare told through the lens of an immigrant family, an illicit drug ring, and family betrayal. The project was awarded the KRF Grant from the San Francisco Film Society, the same grant films such as ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ and ‘Fruitvale Station’ received.

C8: You attended Vancouver Film School. How did this prepare you for a career in the industry?

MG: Film school is anything you make it to be, like most art schools. It can be a bullshit experience or it can be a springboard for your career. It’s totally up to you. I had little interest in theory and was more interested in getting my hands on every single piece of equipment available to me, and milking my instructors for as much insight and information as possible. I had a reputation as the last guy to arrive and the last guy to leave. I probably went a bit overboard with that, as I was actually kicked out of the sound campus for sleeping over too many nights. Today, things are different, and it’s much easier to learn how to make films without going to a film program — but at the same time, there’s a lot to be said for being immersed in a discipline for a long period of time and collaborating with like-minded people. That’s really the value of film school to me.

C8: Is there any advice you would give to emerging filmmakers?

MG: Work very hard, be kind, be yourself, and tell stories that matter to you because making projects for any other reason will not be worth the struggle of making a film. There is nothing glamorous about filmmaking.

C8: What are some of your favourite shorts and why?

MG: No matter the length, I love films that transport me emotionally to a place I haven’t visited or a place I am nostalgic for. I also enjoy films that make me say, “how did they think of that?” A few specific shots that come to mind are ‘Oh Willy’, ‘When The Kid Was A Kid’, ‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’, ‘Ten Minutes’, and ‘The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar’.

C8: What is the essence of a good collaboration?

MG: No egos. Having fun. Pushing and supporting each other to reach each person’s full potential while keeping the bigger picture always at the forefront — which is to make the best film possible.