Ariana Delawari x Nicole Disson
Images by Cara Robbins
Video by Costantino Ciminiello and Andrew Wofford
“We exist in a cross-genre hybrid reality.
It's very exciting to create new methods of storytelling.”
— Nicole Disson
Born in California, Ariana Delawari is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, musician and activist of Afghan heritage. Her award-winning documentary, We Came Home, explores the political and cultural landscape of Afghanistan through a decade of personal experience. The film score is Delawari’s first album, Lion of Panjshir, which was mixed by David Lynch and recorded between LA and Kabul with master Afghan elder musicians. Delawari’s most recent works, both entitled Entelechy, are an electronic pop album and a short experimental film about.
LA-based actor, producer and curator Nicole Disson is known for her cross-genre artistic career and ability to cultivate talent. Disson is founder and curator of The Series, a multi-disciplinary live performance event. As a performer, Disson has participated in theatrical productions across the country and is a founding member of the LA Ladies Choir. Disson has produced for renowned artists including ephemeral fine-artist Lita Albuquerque and choreographer Benjamin Millepied and his company, LA Dance Project. She has also produced multiple short films including Sleepover LA, Fruits de Mer, and the forthcoming Entelechy by Ariana Delawari and Being Flat by Quentin Dupieux.
Written and directed by Ariana Delawari, Entelechy is an experimental docu-musical about a woman who is guided by a dream therapist into a shamanic journey through the states of being. The short film was produced by Nicole Disson and features an original soundtrack by Delawari and Butchy Fuego from their eponymous forthcoming album.
WE CAME HOME
Directed and produced by Ariana Delawari, We Came Home tells the story of her family’s reconnection with Afghanistan. Delawari’s father was an anti-Soviet activist who left her childhood home of LA to rebuild his country post-9/11 in the wake of a Taliban resurgence. The award-winning documentary is set over ten years between America and Kabul and scored by Delawari’s album Lion of Panjshir.
A multi-disciplinary production and event that cross-pollinates a social experience with the performing and visual arts. Founded by Nicole Disson, The Series was set at The Standard, Downtown LA from 2010–2012 and is currently held Upstairs at the Ace Hotel. The Series pairs top and emerging talent in the fields of contemporary dance, sound art, music, playwriting, poetry, theater and other performance and art disciplines—most of whom haven’t worked together previously—to collaborate on original pieces.
Multi-talented artists Ariana Delawari and Nicole Disson are interested in changing the landscape of storytelling, starting in Los Angeles. Delawari is a filmmaker and musician, known for award-winning documentary We Came Home, and Disson is a producer, curator and actor whose work spans genres and brings disparate artists together. Since performing together in the LA Ladies Choir, the two have become longtime friends and collaborators. They have just finished a forthcoming short film, Entelechy, directed by Delawari and produced by Disson. A shamanic dreamscape set to Delawari’s accompanying album, the film is inspired by her travels to post-war nations. Delawari and Disson discuss the realization of the Entelechy and their common ground of making art out of life and life out of art.
Nicole Disson: How was your day today? What did you do?
Ariana Delawari: I had some work to do and I was writing. You?
ND: I just watched a short film a friend sent me called “Celluloid Ceilings: Women Directors Speak Out” where female directors in Hollywood discuss discrimination in their careers. The film we just made together had a strong female team, as have both our independent past projects. Do you ever think about this?
AD: I took feminist film theory classes and learned the statistics. The numbers of cinematographers was the worst number—only 2% of the union were women, and that percentage has not changed. I was raised by many strong women, but it was not until I went to Afghanistan in 2002 and met female filmmakers there that I really appreciated my freedom. I sat in class with them, and they put Burkas on before they walked out onto the streets. It was just after the fall of the Taliban, and they were risking their lives to make films.
I try to make an effort to balance genders on set. I’ve always wanted to work with female DPs, so I was really excited that we had Berenice as our DP for Entelechy.
ND: I’m producing a film now with a male director, and it’s a new experience because the past three films I produced were directed by women. My closest collaborators are mostly women, which is empowering. When I moved to LA in 2008, I met many talented, independent, badass women—a great deal through the LA Ladies Choir. I found this incredibly inspiring and felt fortunate.
AD: Did you come to LA with your focus on acting? How did it evolve into curating and producing as well?
“It was just after the fall
of the Taliban, and they were risking
their lives to make films.”
— Ariana Delawari
ND: I was definitely focused on acting. My first couple years after college I acted in equity theaters in the San Francisco Bay area. I have a BFA in acting, and I studied dance, music and musical theatre throughout my younger years. This was the world I lived in.
When I moved to LA, I worked at a brand and entertainment marketing and PR firm in Beverly Hills to support myself while auditioning. Through that, I gained a greater understanding of the business side of the industry. I was still acting in a lot of nonprofit theater and paying dues to keep the theatre company I was a part of in Hollywood afloat, while simultaneously helping to run the Ladies Choir. I was getting asked to promote events at hotels, which essentially meant being paid to show up with my friends. I thought it was crazy! I was working to find money for other people’s productions, paying to act in the theatre and getting paid to bring friends to bars.
I thought maybe if I merged these worlds, I could create an alternative stage for myself and my friends to play on—like a hotel rooftop. This is how The Series was born. I produced over a dozen of these productions, which started on the rooftop of The Standard, DTLA, and have since moved to the rooftop Upstairs at Ace Hotel. During that time, friends and friends of friends would approach me to produce their shows and experimental performance-art pieces. These were people like musician Henry Wolfe, ephemeral fine-artist Lita Albuquerque, and, more recently, L.A. Dance Project. It wasn’t until 2013 that I produced my first film, Sleepover LA, really out of curiosity for how the process of producing a film differs from live production and also to have an opportunity to act on camera.
You started as an actor too. It’s your background, and you seamlessly transitioned into writing music and then telling stories through filmmaking and directing. What was that progression for you?
AD: When I was growing up, it all intertwined. When I was four years old, I played a little girl who lost her hand from a Soviet-planted toy bomb. The play was about Afghanistan and was called Nanawati. I learned guitar when I was 13 and was also really into drawing, poetry and photographs. I was acting professionally throughout my time at USC’s film school.
Then 9/11 happened, and I started traveling to Afghanistan. My parents moved back to help reconstruct the country. Afghanistan was the heart and soul of what I needed to communicate, and the relationship continued to develop. On one of my trips to Afghanistan, I was invited to visit a refugee camp. I was in the refugee camp with these little girls who reminded me of my cousins and I. It broke my heart, and I wrote a lot of music about it then came back to LA and started a band.
I booked my first show, and David Lynch showed up. My friend Emily (who is now his wife) brought him. David said to Emily, “I want to produce her album.” I didn’t believe it. It was so wild ’cause as an actress I would have died to work with David Lynch, but the second I started making music about Afghanistan, he showed up.
So I made an album in Afghanistan with three elder classical musicians and some American musicians too. The making of the album led to my documentary film We Came Home about my family story and travels to Afghanistan. It wasn’t until we finished the documentary and started taking it to festivals that people really heard the music from the album. I began getting invites to really intense places—post-war nations and endangered environments. I had become an activist. Those experiences were the foundation for my album Entelechy. Then I wanted to write the film to go with the album. I wrote about all of these experiences in places like Uganda, Somalia and Brazil. I saw heavy stuff and mostly traveled alone, which translates in the film. I like to forge new pathways. I’m not someone who waits.
ND: Neither am I. As actors, we don’t pick our parts, but as a producer, director or writer we can create opportunities to experience and value. I am finding a balance between forcing ideas into motion and the virtue of patience—allowing opportunities to come to me.
AD: Yes totally. It’s also about intention. Opportunities have come to me when I wasn’t seeking out someone or putting on a show.
ND: I’m learning this still. The past two years especially I have focused on not being product-driven—still wanting to create something that I’m super proud of, but being more process-influenced and allowing time for development. Lately I have been asking myself what stories I want to spend time creating. I’ve always been so inspired by people that I come across.
AD: You are a connector. You bring together people with different qualities in a way that becomes synergy. That’s an art and probably why we work so well together. I like to go in deep with process. I don’t even want to come out to talk to anyone or try get the right equipment from someone else. We need the balance in both. Especially in a DIY world, we can bring all these different qualities to the table.
ND: I loved working with you on this film because there was a lot of trust and support. The process didn’t feel forced at all. You’ve encouraged me to give myself more time to sit with story.
AD: It took me a long time to sit with the stories I was working on. My heart broke open while I was in a refugee camp in Kabul. I felt like, “Why am I trying to be in other people’s films, when no story means as much to me as this?” But I do miss acting.
ND: Well you just did in the film we made! Not many people can write, direct, compose music, sing and step into the role of the lead actor in a film and be so accessible and emotionally available. We exist in a cross-genre hybrid reality. It’s very exciting to create new methods of storytelling.
“I thought maybe if I merged
these worlds, I could create an alternative
stage for myself and my friends to play on—
like a hotel rooftop.”
— Nicole Disson
A short film co-written and directed by Lily Baldwin and produced by Nicole Disson, Sleepover LA is set at The Standard in Downtown LA and features a score by composer Mark degli Antoni (Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, Soul Coughing). The film tells the story of a tourist who travels to LA and unexpectedly conjures her sister’s last night alive. Sleepover LA premiered at SXSW 2014 and stars Disson and Baldwin.
AD: When I was thinking who should produce this film, I really felt it should be you right away because of your work with The Series and your film Sleepover LA. Entelechy has music and dance elements with a mixture of narrative short filmmaking and documentary filmmaking. It was important that these forms met seamlessly. I knew that your experience in producing live theatre and live dance in a sort of contemporary hybrid way was exactly the right aesthetic needed in a producer.
ND: I think I understood what you wanted before I understood the script even.
I spent the first chapters of my life studying theatre and dance and music and simultaneously finding opportunities that placed me on the other side of the table. When I interned at IMG Artists in the dance division in New York and assisted a composer opening a new musical on Broadway… mentors of mine asked if I ever thought about producing or being an agent. I thought, “Not now. That is not what I see myself doing.” Now I realize these people saw this other part of myself before I did.
I have learned to let go of the desire to please everyone, releasing attachments to certain ideals of success. Today everything is instantaneous. It merits learning how to go back in time, slow down, pause and reflect, read more, light a candle, listen to a record, sit with the sunset… It sounds overly luxurious doesn’t it? Many of us were raised to always be working hard. For me that meant being proactive—typing emails, reaching out, acting fast—versus asking myself what my intentions are. Why am I doing what I am doing?
AD: Yes. I’m thankful I’ve taken the unpaved, weird path that isn’t easy. A lot of people in my life thought I was kind of crazy.
ND: I can relate. For a long time my family and friends from back East were trying to understand what I do. That has become the common thread among the projects I have helped to create. They fall outside the box.
AD: I think it’s also really beautiful that we are just in the beginning of the story of our lives, and it’s not even fully written yet. We don’t even know where this is leading.
ND: The thirties are golden years. My experience is getting richer and I’m excited about that.