Japan Cuts 2017 Interview: Sahel Rosa on Breaking Taboos in WEST NORTH WEST

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
Japan Cuts 2017 Interview: Sahel Rosa on Breaking Taboos in WEST NORTH WEST
West North West’s bold, intimate study of three ladies brought together by attraction, yet isolated by race, religion and sexuality, features knockout performances by its leads.  Model, actress and television personality, Sahel Rosa spoke with me candidly about the challenges of growing up as an Iranian in Japan, and taking on the taboo of portraying a Muslima entranced by another woman.
The Lady Miz Diva:  Having spoken with your costar, Ms. Kan Hanae, she mentioned you, Ms. Yamauchi Yuka and herself getting together in cafés for long talks to create your characters amongst yourselves.  What was your most challenging aspect in creating Naima?
Sahel Rosa:  Actually, on my end, I did not know who was going to be playing Kei until being on set. {Laughs.} The director {Nakamura Takuro} and I had talked a lot about Naima’s character, herself, but it wasn’t until we were actually shooting and to see Hanae turn around at the café crying; that was when I really realised who was playing Kei.  And so, when she turned around and cried, I reacted to what exactly happened on set.  
So, basically, the director and I talked a lot, and the director and also Hanae talked a lot about her character, so the director became sort of a pipeline between our characters.  But as the filming went on, in between, we would start talking a lot.
The director really emphasised the distance between the two actresses and the characters to sort of reflect what actually happens in the movie.  And so, at the beginning, he wouldn’t even let us sit very close to each other.  As the filming progressed, we ask a got to sit closer and closer, and we were talking more and more.  The shooting and the actual film narrative were both running parallel to each other.
LMD:  Do you mind if I ask if you are actually a Muslima?
SR:  Yes!
LMD:  The reason I ask is because in my talk with Ms. Kan, she mentioned that you helped her very much to understand what Naima was going through, and she learned many things she didn’t know about the Muslim faith while making this film.  I had never seen a film that deals with anyone Muslim living in Japan.  Was part of your motivation to take this role to shed some light that Muslims are indeed there?
SR:  I actually had very complicated and conflicted feelings about accepting this role of Naima, mainly because of the idea of homosexuality being taboo in the Muslim faith.  And so, my mother actually warned me that this could eventually lead to something that could be a very serious issue for me.  So, that was something I really had to think about.
But in Japan, there really are a lot of people who are Muslim who are studying; female students at universities.  Oftentimes, they have high hopes about what it’s like to be living in the US, or living in Japan; they often come here and then they don’t actually want to go back to their home countries, and they want to stay.  There are many people who are just like Naima, so I really wanted to express that kind of character, but as I said, this idea also incorporating the fact that there’s a homosexual element to it was something that I really had to think about.
LMD:  The chemistry between Naima and Kei is so palpable throughout the film.  What did you make of Naima when you read her?
SR:  The biggest similarity I have between myself and Naima is that neither of us had experienced romance before, so we didn’t know what it meant to love.  But simply put, she also really loved books, and I actually loved books, as well, so that was something I did have in common with Naima.  So, we would read about romances.
But, the other thing was, that we both were really simply thinking about our future, and how to open up the doors to where things might be closed off for us.  So, she comes across the visa issues, and that’s something that I can relate to; when I first came to Japan with my mother, I also had similar issues, so I could really empathise with the character.  
But as I got to know Kei, and as I got to know Naima, I really started to realise that the gender really didn’t matter, and this is what it means to love somebody, and also how much energy it takes to love somebody.  And I realised I really started to fall in love with Kei as a character, and I started to feel very much like Naima.
So, this is something I’m going to share with you for this purpose only, but for the six months that we were shooting, I actually started to resent Ai’s character.  Even though I love Yuka, herself, as an actress, I really wanted to resent; and there was a part of me that really did go beyond the boundaries of gender.  
So, actually, after two years after shooting, I finally was able to exchange contact information with Yuka.  That’s how long it took for me to actually open up to her.  
And then, as a woman, in the Middle East, it is still very rare that people have the opportunity to be in love, or have romantic relationships with people that they just want to, and sometimes it is already told by their parents, and so, I do think that possibly there are many people who are like Naima and are unable to say or express their feelings.  Even if possibly they might have feelings for a woman, they probably can’t tell their friends and family or anyone around them, and they are just holding it inside them.
LMD: There is a very intense scene at the film’s climax were Naima cries her heart out under a tree.  Why is she crying?
SR:  That moment is the moment that she realised that she loves Kei.  And it was that moment that she realised that she can’t say it, and just is so sad when she realises that she just has to accept that.  
Actually, as the story progresses, Naima actually changes the color of her hijab, and the colors are her actually getting colored by Kei, as a presence.  So, even things like naming the bird; she starts doing it because Kei was saying it, and as the story progresses she is very much getting colored by Kei’s character.  And even the eating granola part; there’s an earlier scene where Kei’s eating it and so then Naima starts eating it later by herself. {Laughs.
Naima was starting to realise that she’s starting to do these things because of the influence of Kei, so that is why it was so emotional.
LMD: Naima seems to be pretty well adapted to her life as an outsider in Japan, yet in my research for this interview, it seems that wasn’t your own story.  What made her relatable to you? 
SR:  Naima might seem to you as if she is quite within the society, but to me, actually I think she’s rather disappearing.  She’s not showing herself within that society.  So, there are scenes where she actually can’t really make friends.  There is the scene where she can’t eat dumplings, that doesn’t get quite understood by the people around her.  While it looks like she’s smoothly transitioned in, there is a feeling that actually maybe she is just disappearing within it.  
I realised personally when I first moved here, and I really tried to be understood by people, and was going toward people; I was often rejected at the beginning.  So, eventually, what I learned was that I had to wait for people to come to me and understand me, and approach me.  
I think in a similar way, Naima was waiting for a helping hand to reach out to her, and that helping hand to Naima was Kei.  For me, it took over 20 years to really have people understand, so I definitely went through Naima’s struggles.
LMD:  In those 20 years of waiting to be accepted, what kept you motivated to succeed and become a successful actress, author and television personality?  How did you stay strong during all that time?
SR:  I think the answer is that I personally died once.  I died once when I was in middle school, when I tried to commit suicide {due to bullying}, but then I was kept alive.  Then I also realised that a lot is due to my adoptive mother: She is the one who kept me alive.  I realised that I am alive because of these people who helped me see tomorrow.  And so, throughout this time, it was for my mother – I really wanted to give back to my mother who helped me to stay alive.
LMD:  What would you like WEST NORTH WEST to say to audiences?
SR:  With West North West, I just want people to purely feel and see and have the movie speak to them.  You see in the movie that there are three different kinds of people loving each other very differently.  There is the very strong Ai, there is a quiet Naima, and there is also the way Kei loves, as well.  I think it’s okay whether to empathise with all of them, or maybe you don’t empathise with any of them, or maybe you’d empathise with some of them, and it doesn’t matter because there is really no one answer of how to love, in the same way that in romance there is no real answer.  
I really want people to feel whatever they want to feel and actually just engage with the film, themselves.  And as you see in the film, to kind of go beyond nationality, go beyond languages, go beyond gender, and really just feel things between heart-to-heart, and go beyond discrimination.  
Maybe even seeing people with hijabs, like myself, I hope people will just go to see beyond that; especially in a world like today, where things are going awry, I think this is such an important thing, to just go beyond discriminating.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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Iranian ActressJapan Cuts 2017Kan HanaeLGBTQNakamura TakuroSahel RosaWest North WestYamauchi Yuka

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