An Iranian director has used his Oscars nomination as an opportunity to make “a small change” in the fight for gender equality in Iran by discussing the issue with industry giants such as Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg.
The Red Suitcase is an 18-minute short film up for Best Live Action Short at the 95th Academy Awards and is directed by Cyrus Neshvad.
The film, co-written with French producer Guillaume Levil, follows an Iranian girl, 16, played by Nawelle Ewad, landing at Luxembourg Airport with a red suitcase and swiftly trying to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man waiting for her at the arrivals gate.
Neshvad said he has used his first ever Academy Awards nomination and time in Los Angeles to be “a part” of what he called the revolution of women in Iran.
He said he received an “empathetic” reaction from some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Tom Cruise, who told him: “We should be strong.”
“Being nominated means that we can bring visibility to Iranian women's suffering on a global scale”, Neshvad, who was born in Iran but has lived in Luxembourg since the age of five, told The National.
Neshvad said he was “not a politician”, but the nomination allows him to help.
He told The National that he blames both personal responsibility and the society's structure for the current situation: “We need to have proper rules in place and educate people.”
In an interview with PA agency he said: “I went to the [Oscars] luncheon. I met Tom Cruise. I didn’t say, ‘Mr Tom Cruise, I love you, blah blah blah.’
“I said, ‘Tom Cruise, I have to talk about a serious issue, about the women’s rights in Iran'.
“He said, actually, that he knows what’s going on — and that he cares a lot about this.
“And actually, he took me in his arms and he took me like this and said, ‘We should be strong’.
“(That) he heard about this from me, it will have a small change, perhaps not big. Perhaps one hour later he’ll forget about it, but it was there.”
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He spoke to Spielberg, who is nominated for Best Director for an eighth time this year.
He is a hero of Neshvad, who said he was “very available” to talk to about what is happening in Iran.
The feminist Woman, Life, Freedom movement in Iran, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in police custody last September, is continuing.
It has led to protests over issues affecting women and girls, such as domestic violence, abortion and strict dress code laws.
Neshvad’s film was made two years before Amini’s death but he said “what the world knows today” is something people in Iran have known for a long time, and that the message he wants audiences to derive from The Red Suitcase is one of equality.
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“A woman is allowed to have the free will, a woman should have [equal] rights with men,” he said.
“Because at the end of the day, they are each one wing of this bird.
“If one wing is not working correctly, or is not the same as the other, the bird will not fly very far.”
Neshvad described the Iranian government as “a virus” that continues to grow and become “more and more cruel”.
Neshvad said he was proud of the Iranian people embarking on this revolution and hopes his film “can be a part of this”.
On the moment he learnt of his Academy Award nomination, he said: “I was with my family, my Iranian family … we were sitting there, and then we got the news.
“Actually I felt happiness for what this movie will do, like I will have the opportunity to talk about this.
“So that was the victory for me, not the victory so much to go to America and so on.”
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His film, on the suggestion of co-writer Levil, also highlights women’s issues not just in Iran but around the world by adding into the script many adverts of women using their sexuality to “sell an object” such as shampoo.
Neshvad expressed optimism that the world “has empathy” for Iran.
“In Europe, in America we have good people, with heart and [who] are focused on Iran because they don’t like this injustice,” he said.
“And this makes me very, very happy that we are living in a very beautiful world with good people around us.
“In our diversity … we are unified.”
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The red suitcase itself, which Ewad’s character Ariane clutches tight to her chest for much of the film, symbolises the teenager’s heart, something she is desperate to keep from the older man waiting for her.
“What is important is that we should know that in Iran, it’s the domination of the man,” Neshvad said.
Neshvad told The National “Women and men are two wings of the same bird. If the wings are the same that’s when the bird can fly high and far.”
“So there is the patriarch, man, father, over the daughter who can say nothing”.
“She needs to make a choice to get her freedom, in this case cutting off her family.”
“And what’s the price to pay for all this? Say bye to the family, to the red suitcase, to her money, to her identity and to her country.
“And when she did all this, then she has her freedom.”
Neshvad told The National that future plans include shooting a movie in the summer about a six-year-old boy’s strange friendship with an elderly Russian woman in a refugee camp.