Intrinsically shaped by multiculturalism, Canadian director Ann Marie Fleming has amassed a body of work grounded in her curiosity to learn about cultures geographically distant from her own, but directly linked through a similar artistic spirit.
Set largely in Iran, Fleming’s debut animated feature Window Horses—which follows the more than 30 short films she’s made in the last three decades—is a delicately crafted and heartwarming ode to borderless connections between people via creativity, and a love letter to Iranian poetry.
The film had its U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival back in February, in the midst of the shameful Muslim travel ban, and First Pond Entertainment is releasing it theatrically in Los Angeles today, only five days after the White House announced that it would roll out new discriminatory measures against those traveling to the U.S. from a set of eight countries that includes Iran. In light of these unjust developments, Window Horses’ value as a gorgeous candy-colored piece of magical animation that aims to unite, as well as a subtle and non-political statement for the respect and appreciation of an ancient civilization, has doubled in importance.
This proudly female-centric production follows Rosie Ming, a Canadian girl of Chinese and Persian descent, who is a self-published young poet who has been invited to a poetry festival in Iran. Eager to be among other poets from around and the world, as well as learn about her father and his homeland, Rosie travels to the Middle Eastern nation. Fleming’s recurrent character and avatar, Stickgirl, becomes Rosie Ming in the film. Rosie is voiced by actress Sandra Oh, who serves as Executive Producer, and Academy Award-nominees Ellen Page and Shohreh Aghdashloo also lend their voice-acting skills to Window Horses.
We spoke with Ann Marie Fleming and Sandra Oh about making an animated feature that is engagingly informative, visually whimsical, and highlights a long misjudged culture.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This is your first animated feature. Why this idea in particular? Why Iran, why Persian culture? What attracted you about it?
Ann Marie Fleming (AF): I’m a person who is of mixed race. I was born in Japan, and my parents are Chinese and Australian, and we came as immigrants to Canada, and I’ve always been interested in these stories of diaspora. Over 20 years ago, I was at an artist residency in Germany with people from all over the world, and I was listening to all of their stories, and I was also introduced to the poetry of Rumi. This is where I got the idea of having this cross-cultural, cross-generational story about a father and child, and I wanted it to happen at a poetry festival. But it wasn’t until I returned to Vancouver many years later that I became involved with the Persian diaspora, and listened to their stories. I learned a lot, because I was really ignorant about this, but also I was surprised at how much it resembled other stories I had heard all over the world.
Being half Chinese myself, I recognized that Chinese and Persian culture have so much in common, including a great reverence for poetry, and for poets who wrote a thousand years ago, so much that school children are still learning them and are still relevant in contemporary society. There is a deep respect for poetry, and these poets that are these great code writers who have been adapted and translated all over the world by every generation. That’s why I wanted to set it in Iran, because it used the Islamic Revolution of 1979 as a focal point, of people splitting up in all of these different directions.
It’s not a political film at all, but it encapsulates a whole bunch of different people’s stories, and they’re very different, and have different opinions. It’s animated partially because it happens in Iran, because it would be impossible for me to have made a live-action film. It would be impossible for me to go there, but also it’s a story about point of view and about the imagination, so animation became a perfect conduit for telling that. Also, my avatar of over 30 years, Stickgirl, is in it, and Sandra Oh is her, Rosie Ming.
MM: Sandra, I know you wanted to get involved beyond just voicing the character. Why was that? What was it about the story that spoke to you?
Sandra Oh (SO): Ann Marie sent me the graphic novel of Window Horses in the Fall of 2014. I just sat and read it all in one go. I was so moved by it, for a lot of reasons, but mostly the heartbeat of a story of a daughter separated from her father, and separated for reasons that she doesn’t really know. A whole part of her identity has been stripped away from her because of fear and because of war, and the reuniting of the father and the daughter really spoke to me. Also, poetry is a big part of my life, and I love the fact that we’re exploring both of Rosie’s cultures through poetry, and that really resonated with me as well.
MM: You’re voicing a character that’s been in Ann Marie’s life for 30 years. Did you feel a responsibility to give this character a voice in a special way?
SO: That’s a good question. I’m very familiar with Stickgirl. I’ve seen almost all of her short films, and I know that Stickgirl as a character is Ann Marie’s voice, but it’s also quite clear that the character of Stickgirl was playing the character of Rosie Ming, so it was really about trying to find the voice that was true to the character of Rosie Ming. Knowing Ann Marie as well, and being Canadian, it wasn’t hard to find Rosie’s voice.
MM: Tell me about using Stickgirl, a character that has been with you for so long, in this project. She is essentially an animated actor who takes on different roles depending on what you are creating. There is a simple but personable aesthetic to her.
AF: I have to say that, originally, it just made sense to me, because that was my way into the story, and my way of telling it. It’s been afterwards, retrofitting it, that I see what I did. What I did was I created a person who is always an outsider, always an observer, and so simple and gestural that you really don’t judge her, and you can put yourself in her shoes. You can be Rosie, and you can understand her through this film, and understand what she sees. I’ve had a couple of other people ask me this as I’ve traveled around festivals, and they’ve given me their own answers. Somebody said, it’s because she’s still forming, which I thought was really beautiful, so I like that the question is there. Obviously, it’s stylistically an interesting choice, and I think that, from people I have heard from after they’ve seen the film, you just accept it after all. She is really a more fully drawn character than anybody else who appears, even though she’s the most gestural visually.
MM: What sort of research did you have to do into Iranian culture? What were some influences in terms of the art or animation made there that you came in contact with?
AF: Of course, everybody is familiar with Persepolis. It was one of the reasons it was hard to make this film, because people said, “Oh, there’s already been an animated film made about a young woman in Iran.“ Of course, that’s a beautiful autobiography by Marjane Satrapi, it’s her life, and this is fictional, and it’s about somebody from outside the culture. For research, besides listening and listening to stories from people close to me, I treated it like a documentary. I did that kind of deep research, because I was going into another culture, especially a culture that is as political as Iran in the Diaspora, and a culture as deep. When I say political, I just mean that everything is political about Iran. It’s very hard to show any images that don’t come with some sort of history.
I had my heart in my throat for most of the time that I was writing it, when I was presenting it, when I was making it, and then finally to show it. Working with so many Iranian artists and musicians, I had lots of consultations with people, with poets, steering me, and guiding me in the way that so many of the characters we meet are guiding Rosie on her journey to try and find her father. Everybody has been really generous, and I think I can say that the people who have seen it have had a very warm response to it, as they should because it’s a very warm gesture to that culture.
MM: What is your role as a director of animation? What does a typical day directing an animated film entail?
AF: It’s like any director. I’m the writer and director and producer, so besides the day-to-day management, which is not always fun, it’s having conversations. I think of animators as really slow actors. We talk about character in the same way, we talk about the scene in the same way, we talk about how things can happen, and even with the poetry and the historical sections, where the animators had much free reign and were able to go off in any style that they chose, we still had these same kinds of conversations that I would have with Sandra.
MM: Sandra, what do you find rewarding or challenging in voice acting for animation?
SO: The challenge is that you use only your voice, but it’s actually a very creative process, of trying to convey character and emotion solely vocally. I really enjoy doing animation a lot. To have an animated character that goes through such a full story as Rosie does, with singing and humor and pathos, it was very rewarding. It’s also very fun to do. You plant your feet, you speak into the mic, but you can wear whatever you want, and you can gesture as big as you want. My facial expressions are probably pretty crazy, but it all serves to focus your voice to just channel through to the mic.
MM: Tell me about your role as an executive producer on the project.
SO: I felt really connected to this story, and I just wanted to help Ann Marie out. At the very beginning, we started off with an IndieGoGo campaign. So it’s been a lot of talking to the press, raising a lot of awareness in social media, so that was one of my primary duties. Also, bringing on a lot of the cast members, including a lot of beautiful Iranian-American talent, and also Canadian talent as well.
MM: How have members of the Iranian diaspora reacted to the film?
AF: So far, so good. I think that a lot of people come to it with a little bit of, “Oh no, how is our culture being portrayed this time?” Because there’s so many negative portrayals out there. This sounds so cheesy, but it’s mainly smiles and tears, honestly. I’ve had so many Iranians, older and younger, say, “Thank you, thank you for portraying our culture in this way. “ I just did it with a lot of care. Iran is not a background for this story. The culture is so much a part of this story.
MM: The film is coming to the U.S. at an extremely challenging time in its history, especially for those seen as “Other.” The Muslim ban and other alienating policies continue to divide families and jeopardize the well-being of many. What’s the significance of a film like Window Horses being released here at this particular time?
AF: One of the reasons I made it was because I thought it was very valid at the time. Years and years ago, I thought we needed some positive voices. In 2009, when the Iranian elections happened, Canada cut off all diplomatic relations with Iran. I was encouraged to change the location, and rewrite the story to something that was more about Chinese culture, and I really felt more and more that it had to be Iran.
The worse things got, the more I thought, “I have to make this film.” I thought, “I’m just going to put my money behind this,” and I started a crowdfunding campaign. I reached out to Sandra, who’s been so generous and wonderful through this whole project. I had no idea it was going to touch her personally the way it did. Who knew she was a huge poetry fan? Suddenly, Iran is in the news again this year, and the last administration had all those talks about removing sanctions, and people started becoming interested in Iran in a different way, like, “Oh, what about Iran?” I have not been, but everyone who visits has been overwhelmed by that culture and the hospitality. I don’t know anyone who has visited and hasn’t had a magical experience.
Who knew that an executive order would ban people from getting visas? For many years, I’ve been making a project that is being presented in the United States at this point, which I think is the most important time it could have happened. We need a lot of voices. Part of the message behind my film is that we have to listen to the voices of others, and that’s how we can really understand. We can’t learn if we don’t listen. MM
Window Horses opens today, September 29, 2017, at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles, courtesy of First Pond Entertainment. Images courtesy of First Pond Entertainment.