I was among the first to preview these two new works, Sara and Roja (both 2016), which complete a trilogy, titled “Dreamers.” The first of the series was Neshat’s 2013 video Illusions and Mirrors, a short commissioned by Dior and starring Natalie Portman (factors that eclipsed critical review of the artwork at the time). Perhaps as a result of the response, neither of the female leads in Sara or Roja—young women she met through the Iranian community in New York—had ever acted before.
Shot sumptuously in black and white, the new videos have a hallucinatory atmosphere that’s easy to feel but hard to define; the physical and emotional landscapes are recognizable yet impossible to place. Neshat explains that after working on a full-length, narrative feature film, it was challenging to return to video installations. “What I missed was the ritualistic, and allegorical nature of those old video installations, which is nearly impossible to replicate in conventional cinema,” Neshat explains, referring to her earlier works. “Since I was working with Natalie Portman, I decided I had to make something that was cinematic, and required a performance even if without the use of language,” she says of Illusions and Mirrors. “At the end, the piece became very psychological as the character stood in between the states of madness and sanity. In my past video installations people were devoid of any character, they were approached more less sculpturally.”
“With Natalie, her professionalism and experience as an actress was tremendous. I almost didn’t have to explain anything, she was so quick to understand what I was looking for,” Neshat recalls. “As it was a great pleasure for me to work with someone as Natalie’s caliber, I think for Natalie, who works on big Hollywood productions, it was a fun experiment to work on an experimental, abstract video piece.”
It was a leap of faith to work with non-actors in the new films, but it paid off. Both women give sublime performances. “I had this intuition that there was something very special about them,” Neshat says. Sara is like a female imagining of Dante, wandering lost and wide-eyed through a dark forest; while Roja (physically resembling the artist herself) is both strong and sentimental. “The advantage of working with people who have never acted before is that they take the role very seriously and give it their hundred percent,” Neshat explains.