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Chelsea Film Festival's only female feature director 'celebrates empowerment' in 'Maki'   

The sixth annual Chelsea Film Festival fest begins Thursday. 

"Maki" director Naghmeh Shirkhan, pictured, is the sole

"Maki" director Naghmeh Shirkhan, pictured, is the sole female director of a feature film screening at the Chelsea Film Festival. The fest runs Thursday through Oct. 21.  Photo Credit: Naghmeh Shirkhan

There’s only one feature film on the Chelsea Film Festival lineup from the mind of a female director and it just so happens to celebrate empowerment.

“I wanted to tell a story about lack of power and somebody who’s coming of age in a new world,” says Naghmeh Shirkhan, the filmmaker behind the NYC-set “Maki.”

Her 90-minute feature portrays a glimpse into the life of a Japanese immigrant who finds unsettling work in Manhattan’s nightclub scene. It makes its debut at AMC Loews 34th Street Friday and is one of 19 features, shorts and documentaries screening during the sixth annual festival.

Of the selected projects, “Maki” is the sole long-form feature written and directed by a woman.

“Features are a different beast,” Shirkhan says, offering her own insight into why she sees fewer women’s names than men’s tacked to long-form projects.

“I wish there were more. I wonder what that says for the future for women filmmakers like myself, where at this time of the #MeToo movement, we still have so few out there telling these stories,” she adds.

Shirkhan spent four years working on and pitching her project before securing a deal with Dreamlab Films. When she finally locked in enough funding to shoot “Maki,” she packed production on the streets of Manhattan into 18 days.

“You watch a 90-minute film and it flows for you. You don’t realize how difficult it is to do that format,” she says.

Ahead of the film’s premiere, Shirkhan discussed the project and what it means to be a standout on the lineup.

There’s a theme of displacement and starting anew in your feature. Why is this an idea you’ve grasped onto?

I was born in Iran and we came here right before the revolution and stayed and that’s been a theme in my life — the feeling of trying to figure out how you fit in. You come from a different culture, you’re closed off from that culture because of the difficult political situation. I was literally stateless. I was stateless for a long time until I got my citizenship and that took decades. That feeling of not knowing where to fit in is a big theme in my life.

What interested you in the Japanese diaspora?

It started with a vision of a cabin and a young woman having a baby and slowly revealing that this baby was going to be sold and taken away from her. It was a story about lack of power. When I went to my producer from my first film (“The Neighbor”) and told him about it, he said he had just finished working on a project in Japan. He encouraged me to think about setting it in the Japanese diaspora and that sent me traveling back and forth to Tokyo over the course of four years.

As the only female director of a feature film on this lineup, why do you think there aren’t more women in the field?

I think it may have to do with the higher bar set for women in all fields. Women have to work longer and harder to prove themselves. Without the proper support, it’s a nearly impossible feat to make a feature or to be a partner at a prestigious law firm, or a surgeon for that matter. It’s just that in independent filmmaking, there’s the added dilemma that the compensation may not be worth the effort if you’re not all in and very passionate about what you’re doing and able to support yourself in some other way. So, it excludes a lot of people from venturing in and staying for the long haul … having said that, I’m so proud that “Maki,” a film that celebrates female empowerment, has gotten into the Chelsea Film Festival. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

What do you foresee as a way to change that?

In Europe, there are a lot of funds that will help filmmakers with long format fiction. There are more. In America, there are no funds for that. There’s nothing that’s like here take this money and go work for fictional features. People have to rely on their own finances and it’s a very expensive endeavor.

IF YOU GO: The Chelsea Film Festival runs Thursday through Oct. 21. Day passes start at $46.75 and are available for purchase at chelseafilm.org

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