SXSW 2021 Interview: Rayka Zehtabchi and Sam Davis on Creatively Recharging with “Are You Still There?”

At one point in “Are You Still There?”, Safa (Safa Tarifi) can be seen accepting a cool cup of water from a stranger as she sits inside her car in a hot summer day awaiting help for a dead battery, something that everyone on the set of Rayka Zehtabchi and Sam Davis’ drama could relate to as they dealt with sweltering weather in Sun Valley, California.

“We really wanted that heat to also be an element that’s adding to that strain and frustration, so it was natural,” laughs Zehtabchi when asked if the sense of relief on Tarifi was much of an act. “We were all equally frustrated.”

Nothing came easily on “Are You Still There?” including its inspiration, born out of a personal loss that Zehtabchi experienced, and delayed from its initial shoot when the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, eventually baking the anxiety and tension of filming when temperatures rose months later into the fabric of the film. Yet the refreshment that Safa experiences as the water dribbles down her throat can be felt throughout the 15-minute drama from the filmmakers behind the Oscar-winning doc “Period. End of Sentence,” as the young woman finds her grief overwhelm her suddenly and without warning when the need to call AAA becomes a reminder of her late father, whose name is still on the account, and for the first time since his death, she finds herself letting others in, most significantly her mother Roya (Rima Haddad).

From the woman who hands her the water, shown only a short time earlier banging on her window to leave the lot after her car has been stalled for hours, to the patience of those who attempt to help her over the phone, the film shines brightly with the kindness that awaits in the world if Safa’s open to it, but conveys equally brilliantly what an intense internal process she’s going through in dealing with loss when benign rummaging around the car can trigger memories and fleeting sounds become sticky with the weight of the emotions attached to them, whether it’s the cacophony of a busy lot that takes the shape of the thoughts racing through her mind or the pulsing alarm of the keys being left in the ignition to remind she’s stuck in neutral.

“Are You Still There?” may yield such a sensation as narrative, but as a work of art, it’s entirely energizing in how masterfully it places audiences in the driver’s seat and with lovely performances from Tarifi and Haddad, it can’t help but move. Following its recent premiere at SXSW, the film is now available here for all to see for a limited time at the SXSW 2021 Shorts platform, presented by Mailchimp and Oscilloscope — while you’re there, you might want to catch up with Zehtbchi and Davis’ Grand Jury Prize winner “Just Hold On” from last year — and the co-directors spoke about creating a film in this time of isolation bound to make anyone feel less alone and finding a way to heighten the drama with every filmmaking tool at their disposal.

How did this come about?

Rayka Zehtabchi: When I was a student in college. I actually lost my dad to lung cancer in my first year away at USC Film School and the film is really about the moment where my grief boiled to the surface because just to function on a day-to-day basis and get through my classes, I had put it aside. It happened in a really small and insignificant way where my car broke down and I was on the freeway and I had to pull over to the side of the road and my gut reaction was to pull out my phone and dial my dad’s number because he was always the one to take care of our car problems. Immediately, I had to catch myself and all those suppressed feelings boiled to the surface. That’s really what the film is about.

Sam Davis: We’re both big fans of the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, and he has a quote — “We have the wrong impression of life. We think the very big incidents of our lives are consequences of huge dilemmas or major decisions. If we paid attention, we’d realize that the determining incidents in our lives are ordinary things” — and we took that and wanted to tap into a moment that on the surface seemed trivial. Everyone can relate to a car battery dying, but we wanted to tell a story about the underlying circumstances.

Rayka Zehtabchi: If you’re watching closely, you’ll be able to pick up on the little cues about the father, but we wanted it to be incredibly subtle where you really have to tune in and watch carefully to understand, just as we have to do with people on a day to day basis because there’s so much that’s going on underneath all of our experiences.

You find an amazing actress for your lead – how did you find Safa?

Sam Davis: The film obviously is inspired by Rayka’s personal experience and she’s Iranian and speaks Farsi, so when we set out to cast the film, we went out looking for specifically Iranian actresses. We had some good submissions, but we had one random submission from a Lebanese actress who said, “Hey, I don’t speak Farsi, but could I submit anyway?” We kind of rolled our eyes and just said, “Sure. No problem. Just for the experience, just go ahead and submit.” But we weren’t going to consider her. Then we watched her audition and we couldn’t understand anything she said [in Arabic], but Rayka and I were both just moved to tears by how real she was.

We talked a lot about it and I had to convince Rayka [a bit] because it’s difficult to separate yourself from the story, but at the end of the day, there nothing about the story that was specifically Iranian, other than her relationship to it, so we wanted to cast a person who understood it on the most authentic level, and we cast her. We went back and rewrote all the dialogue in Arabic and then we found a really awesome Lebanese producer named Sarah Bazzi and she came onboard to help us keep our pulse on all things Arabic.

Rayka Zehtabchi: And even though I didn’t understand what they were saying [on set] – Sam and I have worked in documentaries and we’ve been in that seat where you’re in a foreign country and we’ve picked up this skill of just being really in tune with the subject on camera who’s speaking, not necessarily listening to what they’re saying, but feeling it and just being really in tune with nonverbal communication in the moment. It didn’t really make a difference that she was speaking in Arabic.

Sam Davis: And this is her first role. A few people have [said] after seeing the film they thought they had seen her in something or [asked] what she’s from? Everyone’s shocked to learn this is her first thing, so we’re really excited for her.

When she’s interacting with people outside the car, but you may not be able to actually connect a call for the purposes of filming, what’s it like facilitating the performance in that way?

Rayka Zehtabchi: She actually was on the phone. We talked about that quite a bit and we had Rima Haddad, who plays her mom Roya, on set with her, but in another car, just parked off somewhere else in the parking lot. Our producer Sarah was in the car with Rima and then Sam and I were in the car with Safa and we just had this back-and-forth where you actually hear Rima’s real conversation with Safa in the scene and in that way, it gave the opportunity to play off of one another and have this comfortability where it doesn’t feel like it has to be so rigid and scripted, so we were able to get some more authentic performances. Then anything we had to redo soundwise, we were able to redo in ADR, but that was really an effective approach and it was also really helpful because of the language barrier of us not being able to speak Arabic, but Safa, Rima and our producer Sarah being able to.

Sam Davis: Yeah, we had to ask Rima, the mother to come for an entire half-day and just act off-camera from her car in the parking lot, which is a lot of time to give up, just to sit in a car on set, but she was totally for it and that helped a lot.

Did you actually shoot this over the course of a day?

Rayka Zehtabchi: We had two shoot days and we had a pickup day, so a total of three shoot days. We like to take our time. [laughs] We like to explore and I think that comes a little bit from our doc background too. We appreciate working with nonactors or actors who aren’t super experienced, so it’s really a process to work with them and discover new things, and we like to give ourselves some time for that.

Sam Davis: It’s a subtle film, but there’s quite a bit of detail there — that first shot alone where she pulls in and we linger on the hood, there’s a lot of coordination in the background movement. Even the sign-twirler outside her window is someone we had come and just be there in the far background. We just liked the idea of the location playing a character and being filled with life around her.

Rayka Zehtabchi: Again, it might not seem like a lot, but if you’re really tuned in to all those nuances, you’ll really understand that there’s another world right outside her windshield.

Was it tricky to figure out how to shoot in and around a car? Because the shot selection makes it so emotionally dynamic.

Rayka Zehtabchi: It can also be limiting and frustrating and I think we leaned into that. After a certain amount of time, you’re like, “How many more angles can we find in here without straying away from what’s really important in the frame?”

Sam Davis: Yeah, the location itself was probably more challenging than shooting in the car. Rayka’s right, you’re limited to what angles you can get [in a car], but shooting in a car in terms of lighting is actually not that difficult because naturally, you have a contained little room that is shaded for your actor, so you can work off of that. The location itself, however, provided a lot of challenges. It was an open-for-business strip mall parking lot in a busy area, so we had to work around a lot of the regular goings on of the strip mall.

You really are able to weaponize the sound in the film, when you start out with the bombastic music at the start that she’s listening to and it ends in silence. What was it like to work with?

Sam Davis: We always knew there wouldn’t be music in the film, except for that song that plays in her speakers [at the beginning], so the sound design is our music. It contributes a lot to the rhythm of the edit and the ambiances you hear in those quiet moments are thoughtfully curated. Stuff like a police chopper or some loud music passing by, things like that just create an overall, overwhelming sensory experience.

Rayka Zehtabchi: Shooting most of the film in a car, we were always thinking of ways where you can expand the world even more, sound design definitely being one of them. The stress that you feel at the beginning of the film when you realize that she is stranded in this place, the soundscape very much plays a character in that situation [where] it feels like a pressure cooker inside this vehicle and all of these things are about to boil to the surface [for Safa].

Sam Davis: Yeah, we wanted the location to be threatening to some degree and for her to feel out of her comfort zone, so the sound design definitely fills out the world outside the car that you feel and you don’t see.

Was this actually shot during the pandemic?

Rayka Zehtabchi: The first go-around was just as the pandemic was starting and we actually cancelled the shoot. Then four or five months into the pandemic, the field permitting offices in Los Angeles started opening up and allowing some productions to resume. We were able to get approval just because of the nature of our project being a small team and also primarily being shot outside in a parking lot. It was in the middle of the summer in the valley, so it was very hot and it was the first set that we were really back on to and a little shell-shocked to be wearing masks in the heat, but we got through it.

Is it exciting to get this out into the world?

Sam Davis: For sure. And to do it at South By, it was our first goal with the project. We had a film last year at South By, “Just Hold On,” and obviously, the festival was cancelled and that was disappointing, but we had hoped that we could come back this year and we’d be able to go in person. Obviously, that didn’t work out, but because South By spent the entire year trying to build out a whole platform for networking unlike last year where they were cancelled at the last second and did their best to get their films online, it’s been really cool to share the film.

Rayka Zehtabchi: We’re also just so excited because we spent a few years now after “Period. End of Sentence” just working on documentaries and our first love was narrative filmmaking, so it’s lovely and refreshing to be able to tap back into that and see it be recognized and have the opportunity to share it with people.

“Are You Still There?” is now on the festival circuit, available here and playing virtually as part of the Silver Linings shorts program at the Seattle Film Festival beginning April 8th.