Shirin Neshat and Sheila Vand Spent Quarantine Going Beyond Reality's Borders in a New Feature Film Anchored Project

Shirin Neshat and Sheila Vand in the former’s Brooklyn studio.
Shirin Neshat and Sheila Vand in the former’s Brooklyn studio.

Last August, Shirin Neshat stood surrounded by portraits madly rotating with the gusts of an unforgiving desert wind. On location in a remote part of New Mexico, the artist suddenly became the subject of her own art: Neshat was circled with faces she had photographed for her latest project, Land of Dreams, encompassing a vast series of photographic portraits and a two-channel video, currently on view at Gladstone Gallery, as well as a feature film—the artist’s third—set to premiere later this year. When the Iranian-American actress Sheila Vand, who plays the lead in the film and the video, saw her director engulfed in a vortex of her images, it felt like “an act of God” in service of art.

The process of making Land of Dreams was a surreal one, befitting a tale about an Iranian stealing dreams from New Mexican locals for research. Neshat drove from New York and shot the film in seven weeks with a small crew, right before the second wave of the pandemic reached the Southwest, all while “getting people to believe in a film which was about America but made from the perspective of an Iranian American director.”

Since her first feature, Women Without Men, winner of the Silver Lion at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, Neshat’s films have reflected and animated her photographs. In Land of Dreams, Vand plays an Iranian named Simin who works for the American government Census Bureau which is collecting people’s dreams. Simin reports her findings to a secret community of Iranians residing in a sterile modernist facility inside a mountain in Navajo Nation.

When I connected from Turkey with Neshat and Vand—respectively in New York and California—we delved into a conversation about the places we live in flesh and memory. For the intergenerational pair of Iranians, homeland represents a place beyond place and time, a once lived-in or heard-of land that exceeds the borders of imagination or bureaucracy.

Osman Can Yerebakan: Let’s start with how you two first met.

Shirin Neshat: I first saw Sheila in the incredible movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. That film blew me away, but also Sheila’s performance within it! When I started to think about Land of Dreams, which always was planned as both a feature and artwork, I immediately thought of her. I wrote to our common friend, director Arian Moayed, to put me in touch. Where did we meet again?

Sheila Vand: The Bowery Hotel.

SN: Right. I remember I was so nervous, because I had only seen her before from a distance, in a play. And to be honest, in a way, I was looking for myself in her—of course, the younger version. For me, this has always been an aspect of my work—that it would be a projection of my experience in this country. It is ultimately fiction, but still, it felt strange to be looking for my alter ego at that restaurant.

SV: It’s easy to say what drew me to Shirin: she’s an icon. When our mutual friend reached out, it was really a no-brainer for me. I was so excited to learn what the project was, but also to get to know her because Shirin is that creative that I am always seeking out, those who aren’t beholden to the Hollywood machine. I was also excited to learn that Jean-Claude Carrière was working on this project, and it was this multigenerational story and that they weren’t shying away from some really bold moves with satire and surrealism.

A still from Land of Dreams.

OCY: I’m wondering what it was like meeting for the first time as two Iranian-Americans of different generations. Did it start as a mentor and apprentice relationship?

SV: Yes. In this business, it’s common to feel that the odds are stacked against you, so I constantly look for guidance. When we met, I immediately felt invited into Shirin’s world, in a way that I haven’t fully been able to even express. As an actor of color, trying always to penetrate an industry that works so hard to dismiss me, I finally felt like I wasn’t trespassing. I was in my own community. I was surrounded by people that felt like family, and that’s the community that Shirin has built over the years. I spent a lot of time asking Shirin these questions about her past. She was 17 when she came to this country. I think there is so much bravery to have made that leap in that moment in history—I get a lot of strength from that.

There’s this feeling in my generation, but probably, also in yours, Shirin, of eternal displacement. There was something very beautiful to meet and feel at home amongst Shirin and this really beautiful team of Iranians she assembles. My Farsi got so much better. I love Persian music, but I was listening to it more because I knew my character did. I’m a bit method in that sense. I think you can’t really help it sometimes when art mimics life, and life starts to mimic art back. I think that is a part of the way that a sacred thing comes through.

OCY: As a young actress, this is already your second major role in which satire is being used for political and social commentary. First you were a vampire in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and now a dream stealer. There is both horror and humor. When you read the script, did you think this is another opportunity for you to be smart in a fun and gory way?

SV: That’s the type of stuff that I love, the things that allow you the chance to get a little poetic in your commentary, to be abstract, to get weird. This movie definitely gave me that opportunity. I also think it’s really tricky doing satire because it’s a fine line. I mostly was trusting Shirin and Jean-Claude to toe that line. I just came in with full conviction and tried to make some bold choices.

I speak to so many Persians around my age who say that they didn’t really connect to other Iranians until they got into making movies and music and art, and that’s what happens to Simin in the movie. She finds this community but is still a lone wolf stuck between the two worlds.

What was interesting as we went through this process of creating Simin was Shirin and I realized how similar the two of us were. We shared certain neuroses. There was this OCD element that got brought into my character. I started to do some little things with the character to show her neuroses, and Shirin would walk on set and say, “I didn’t realize we had a lot in common.” Would you agree, Shirin?

Shirin Neshat Sheila Vand
BTS footage of Sheila in character. Photo by Giulia Theodoli.

SN: Absolutely, I think in many ways Simin is the convergence of your and my character as two Iranian women and artists but from different generations. What we do have in common is our vulnerability, a quality that I think has somehow found its way in our work.

It’s interesting, Sheila, looking back at my own film work, I see a pattern of finding “muses,” or rather other women who become my extension. There are vivid parallels in between their looks too. For example, in the video trilogy Dreamers, the characters of Natalie Portman, Sarah and Roja—and now yourself in Land of Dreams; All of you are petite and always wearing black. That’s how I look and dress, but honestly it all happened unconsciously.

OCY: And very big impressive eyes.

SN: Yes. Exactly. What struck me is that the women who embody me have a similar look—not necessarily me but not that different. And one other connection is that they are all Iranian except Natalie Portman who is Israeli.

SV: I am so honored to be in the category. I was definitely molding my character off of you. For instance, in creating the backstory for Simin, there was a whole narrative about how old she was when she came to the United States. There’s an element of her having lost both of her parents, which was really important to me. I feel like kids in the diaspora often feel like orphans. We’re stateless in this way. I don’t know if Shirin and Jean-Claude meant it, but it felt to me like a really important metaphor for the experience of being an immigrant.

On set in New Mexico, Shirin Neshat prepares a scene and battles the elements. Photo by Giulia Theodoli.

SN: I hope our intentions would resonate on that level when people eventually see the film. It’s the story of the vulnerability and fragility of immigrants in this country. The film speaks about what America has represented historically: a country that has welcomed the displaced, offering them a second chance, a country that has been built by the blood of its immigrants, but how that identity is at risk and being compromised by the rise of white supremacy and racism.

OCY: I wanted to ask you about the surreal element of the film. Iran has a very literate culture. I am wondering if you’re inspired by myths and folklore that you grew up hearing from your family: any Persian tales, any stories that are surreal?

SN: Yes. First of all, for a country that is being ruled by dictatorship year after year, poetry and literature has been people’s savior, and magic realism, surrealism have been particularly popular languages because they transcend rules of censorship. For me, the element of unbelievability in dreams is perfect because I’m not really interested in reality. I’m interested in art that makes references to reality but at the same time has a way of escaping it.

OCY: How about you, Sheila?

SV: Yes, the greatest myth that I grew up with was the myth of Iran as a country. It was like a phantom place for me. I grew up surrounded by this culture. Farsi is my first language despite the fact that I was born in America. My parents very much wanted this tradition to not dissipate. I think one of the greatest fears of a lot of immigrants is that their culture, through generation to generation, is just going to dissolve. There was a lot of effort my parents put in to show me what Iran was and what it looked like and smelled like and felt like. I never got to go there for political reasons. I feel like my character is also searching for a place to come from. She is trying to understand where she belongs. She does find one through social media, and a second through a dream about the Iranian colony that she encounters, both of which are incredibly elusive in the film.

OCY: A mirage in the middle of the desert in New Mexico?

SV: Exactly. It’s intangible. That’s how I feel about my cultural background as well: it’s something that defines me, that I feel I’m supposed to honor and identify with, yet it’s so far away.