AFI Spotlight on SHAYDA Editor Elika Rezaee – American Film Institute

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AFI Spotlight on SHAYDA Editor Elika Rezaee

Following the successful festival run of SHAYDA, we sat down with the film’s editor, AFI Conservatory Alum Elika Rezaee (AFI Class of 2015). Showcased at AFI FEST 2023 and set for a limited theatrical release on March 1, 2024, the film chronicles the story of Shayda, an Iranian immigrant played by Cannes Best Actress winner Zar Amir Ebrahimi, as she and her daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) seek refuge in an Australian women’s shelter after her divorce from her abusive husband.

In her native Iran, Elika studied under Iranian auteurs Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi before continuing her filmmaking education at the AFI Conservatory and striking out on her own as an award-winning writer, director and editor. Throughout her career, she has edited narrative and documentary films that have debuted at top-tier festivals including Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW. This month, leading up to Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which serves as the film’s backdrop, we sat down with Elika to talk about her collaboration with SHAYDA director Noora Niasari, how editing has made her a better all-around filmmaker and her advice for emerging editors looking to make their mark.

AFI: What influenced your decision to become an editor and how did you first hear about AFI?

Elika: I’ve always been surrounded by filmmakers because my dad used to be a sound mixer and sound designer before switching to rental equipment and producing. Initially, I wanted to make films to travel outside of Iran. I wrote, directed and edited the short film THE EYES which got accepted at festivals and then realized that I really wanted to tell stories and create. I worked in Iran for a few more years before I was lucky to win the green card lottery. I discovered AFI through a close friend and applied to both directing and editing programs. The Faculty saw my work and asked, “why are you applying for editing?”, knowing about my experiences writing and directing. I told them that I love editing and that’s how I learned how to direct. I still believe that good directors should know how to edit.

AFI: How does the art of editing lend itself to good directing?

Elika: I realized that fact when I made my first couple of short films. When I was on set, I was supposed to shoot a short film in three to four days. But I got it in a day and a half! It was so natural to me. But I also realize that’s not typical for a lot of people who don’t know editing. When you edit something, then you have an eye for the length of the shots you want. When you’re on set, you see things in a very precise way, you know the cut points and then you’re basically editing it live while you’re shooting it on set. That helps to minimize the production time, and it was like that throughout all of my short films.

AFI: How was the transition to filmmaking in the U.S. and how did you evolve your editing skills during your time at the Conservatory?

Elika: It was challenging. You’re dealing with another language, another culture. At the same time, you’re interacting with high-profile mentors and teachers from Hollywood. I was learning so many things that I didn’t know, including how to communicate and collaborate. As an editor, I learned how to be logical about every cut point that you make. Before I was doing cuts based on instinct. Now I’m very rational about why I’m staying on a character for so long and then cutting to another character or shifting point of views. I now have explanations and more of a framework for everything I do.

AFI: How did you and Noora first connect for SHAYDA?

Elika: Noora and I were introduced through a mutual friend, and we just clicked. After she sent me the script, I gave her very precise notes and transitions and everything that I felt could be helpful. She talked about how personal the film is since it’s based on her mom’s memoir. The other reason I liked the script was because it’s an Iranian girl raised in Australia writing it, which felt very authentic. I said I have to be involved in this project. The other factors were our producers – Cate Blanchett and Coco Francini – and all the other great people involved. After a year, Noora went into pre-production and rehearsals, and I started editing simultaneously and then they flew me to Australia to finish editing the project there.

AFI: What was your process like going from an assembly cut to the final version of the film?

Elika: The first cut of the film was around three hours. We had so many micro-stories for other characters in the woman’s shelter, but after watching the first cut, we decided to make edits to focus on the main character and her child. The second pass leaned more toward the little girl’s character, which was basically Noora in real life. That’s when we realized it had to be the other way around with the focus on Shayda. Those finessing moments came through hours and hours of going through the characters’ psychology and trying to be logical in terms of what characters to minimize and maximize.

AFI: When you have such a talented actress like Zar Amir Ebrahimi and there’s no shortage of amazing takes, how do you make those difficult calls of what footage to select as an editor?

Elika: Not only Zar, but also the little girl was incredible! Sometimes it broke my heart because I wanted to use this girl throughout the whole movie. Sometimes you have to experiment with different cuts. The first couple of scenes, we had so many variations. It was challenging but helpful at the same time because we could compare all these versions and after a couple of days of not looking at a specific scene that we were working on, we would go back, look at it and realize that it was working much better.

AFI: What do you hope audiences take away from SHAYDA?

Elika: I think it resonates with so many women everywhere, not just Iranian women. In the film, we tackle domestic violence and what it’s like to be an immigrant. My hope is that the audience can find an inner peace for themselves by watching it because it’s all about finding peace at the end of the day for Shayda herself. Through her journey, Shayda has to figure out how to deal with the world and how to protect herself and her kid. It’s about resilience and regaining your power as a woman.

AFI: What advice do you have for up-and-coming film editors?

Elika: One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to set your ego aside. Be patient and whatever your director asks of you, just try it because you can’t be sure until you try. When it works, it’s like magic and you learn something new. Be open to changing and cleaning the audio. Sometimes I hear editors say, “I don’t do audio or music myself.” But don’t you want your cut to shine? You have to do some basic things yourself to make it work. Dive in, don’t be scared of anything and listen to your director.

I also say that editors are sometimes like a director’s therapist. On SHAYDA, Noora was recreating a traumatic experience she went through, and she had to relive it every day when she came to the editing room. I believe if you want to overcome darkness, you have to make jokes to release the tension. Little by little, I found a way to make Noora laugh. After a couple of months, she became like a different person and began making jokes herself. That was the moment that was very rewarding because I knew we were having fun with the characters and having fun with the movie.

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