Cross-cultural collision: the films of Zia Mandviwalla
Zia Mandviwalla is one of New Zealand’s best short film makers. Here we highlight three of her shorts that are part of a quartet (along with Clean Linen) linked together around a common theme of exploring cross-cultural collision.
Indian-born and Dubai raised, Zia came to New Zealand as a teenager. Her own experiences with new cultures and people soon became fodder for her films, which have screened at top film festivals around the world.
“In some way shape or form all my films are about me and my life.”
The 2009 Spada New Filmmaker of the Year is interested in telling stories about immigrants struggling in the margins of society. She says she is drawn to “the people you walk past and don’t look twice at.”
As you will see in the following short films, story comes foremost for Zia. Her skill shines in honing in on human emotion and listening for the authentic voice of characters whose culture is not her own.
Zia has collaborated with talented cinematographers on her films (who have lensed the likes of Shopping, The Ground We Won and Lady Macbeth), but she’s not after pretty pictures.
“I like working with DPs who approach pictures in a way that serves the story, and the feeling of the character in that moment.”
If you’re after some thought-provoking shorts, tinged with humour and hope, take a look at these locally made festival favourites.
Night Shift is a powerful short film that was celebrated at festivals around the world, including Show Me Shorts, where it won Best Film in 2013. The film follows a Samoan woman who is a cleaner at Auckland Airport. She is trying to make it through a long double shift, and surviving on what passengers leave behind.
Zia was blown away by how far and wide this critically acclaimed short travelled. She did get a grilling at one festival for telling a story of a Samoan woman when she wasn’t Samoan herself. She had to explain that they weren’t seeking to cast a Samoan woman nor to tell a Samoan story specifically, “but to tell the story of a woman who was struggling to keep it together.”
Smash Palace director Roger Donaldson called this Cannes and Sundance nominated short a “heartbreaking, beautifully realised film” and a “searing comment on modern day life.” No kidding Night Shift is beautiful! The cinematographer on this is Australian Ari Wegner – the eye behind Shihad doco Beautiful Machine and the stunning Lady Macbeth.
Zia wants to take people on a journey with Night Shift, “It’s a story about how easy it is to judge someone based on what they look like, their job, their skin colour and even judge them by their actions without knowing the full nature of their story.”
Eating Sausage was Zia’s first funded short, thanks to the Screen Innovations Production Fund. The project saw her take on writing, directing, editing and producing roles. She tells us: “I had made other short films in my back garden, literally, before this one.”
Eating Sausage focuses on the wife of a recently migrated Korean couple, who seems trapped in suburban Auckland cleaning, cooking and learning English on cassette tape. Befriended by her neighbour and Shortland Street’s Marge herself, Elizabeth McRae ONZM, Park finds freedom in their swimming lessons together. As dinner routine is rocked, her husband’s displeasure turns vindictive.
Zia knows what it’s like to stand behind the lacy curtain and “peer out at a strange and new world and feel alone, separate and isolated.”
Zia remembers having to justify how her film was ‘a New Zealand story’ when she applied for funding.
“I looked at the world around me and wondered how this was not a New Zealand story.”
Amadi is another clash of cultures, this time between a Rwandan refugee, trying desperately to rescue his family, and his unstable Kiwi neighbour who litters the hallways with her possessions.
The pair are played by the powerful and understated Francois Byamana, who Zia cast off the street, and the always brilliant Kiwi veteran Elizabeth Hawthorne, ONZM. Both characters suffer from loneliness and prejudice – a co-worker dubs Amadi ‘Africa’ and Hawthorne’s character is belittled by her own daughter – and soon form an unlikely connection.
Trying to find, establish or hold onto your place in the world is a common theme in Zia’s work. “I think all my characters try to do that in some way or another”, she says.
Zia is currently developing a feature film project, and much in demand for directing TVCs. We hope to see more films from her soon.