Zia Mandviwalla And The Moments Inbetween
The Director Talks The Human Truths That Guide Her Work
Zia Mandviwalla knows when she’s got it. The FINCH director, acclaimed for her short films, documentary work, and innovative advertisements, prepares heavily before her shoots, particularly with her actors.
She gets them to create shared histories; to improvise; to write the kind of intimate moments that might not end up being literally shown on screen, but inform what the audience sees and feels.
And then, from there, it’s down to a kind of magic. “You just know when something is working, because you can feel the oxygen get sucked out of the room,” Zia says. “You know it’s really working when the guy working the boom mic feels it as well. I’ve had those moments on set. Where everyone in the crew is like, ‘Fuck. That’s really powerful.’”
Such a story is a demonstration of Zia’s approach – careful, human, exhaustive – and the way she balances that with the kind of natural flourishes which only emerge on set. “When we arrive in a moment in a character’s life, we want to wonder, ‘What did they do just before?’ Even if it’s nothing. Even if it’s just, they stared into space for a while, and then they put on that song that they’ve had on repeat for the last week
“Then, when you do that, you start to unearth detail. What is the feeling here? And I think you only get to the heart of that when you get to the human spaces in between the action.”
Zia is fascinated by one of the exercises that acclaimed British director Mike Leigh develops with his actors. He gets them to explore a “resting moment” for their character – to imagine what the character would do when they’re doing absolutely nothing at all. How would they sit? Who are they to themselves and only themselves? “You make it part of the actors’ visceral memories,” Zia says. “Their muscle memories.”
This fascination with humanity – with all the things that make people complex – has been the guiding light of Zia’s career. She grew up in the Middle East, and attended university, where she was guided with an obsession with watching people, a talent that produced her short film, Night Shift, which was selected for the main competition at the Festival de Cannes.
Zia’s approach has served her well across a range of genres and styles, and guided both her documentary and fiction work. Take her acclaimed episodes of the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, and the commercials that she’s made that star both actors and non-actors, including her Beyond Binary campaign for Spark and her recent piece for realestate.co.nz.
In Chef’s Table, Zia applied an empathetic and unblinking eye to the lives of pioneering chefs, and in the spot for realestate.co.nz, she explored a fictional family in the process of a major transition. And in both, she thought deeply about how to make the beautiful complexity of someone’s life pop onscreen.
“For documentaries, I do all these detailed questions before the interview,” Zia says. “And then I will organise the questions so that there’s a very deliberate progression to them. But when I get to the interview, I’ll ask maybe four of those questions.”
The same ethos applies to connecting with a subject in her fictional work. Zia is always looking to move towards big questions about human beings. Questions like, ‘How does this make you feel? Who are you really? What’s underneath there? What’s in your in-between spaces?’
The next step is to translate this cinematically; visually. Zia’s work might be grounded in what she calls “human truths”, but that doesn’t mean that her work is “realistic”, in the way we usually use that word. She has a vibrant, adaptable visual style – just look at the energy of Kids’ Room for BNZ, or the powerful, subtly directed emotion of her film for Pet Refuge, in which a young woman seeks shelter while juggling the pets that she loves so much.
For Zia, this combination of visual style and human subject matter is the heart of storytelling. “We’ve all experienced stories that have stayed with us our whole lives,” Zia says. “Everybody has that story that they say, ‘Oh, remember that one? Remember that piece of film that made you feel something?’ That’s what storytelling can do. It can help us connect.”
For that reason, Zia is excited for what might come next in her career. And whatever it is, she knows, at the end of the day, that it will be a chance to “put something into the world” that can provoke thought. “Ultimately, isn’t that what we all want to do? Impact on the lives of others in a way that is positive and thought-provoking?
“You don’t want the film to be over, and someone to turn to their partner or friend and say, ‘Did you leave the garage door open?’ You want someone to be speechless. You want someone to be unable to move.”