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IDA Member Spotlight: Elahe Esmaili

By Anisa Hosseinnezhad

A relatively happy woman in a white jacket, wearing red glasses, brown skin, and short hair, trying to look happier by using her hand to hold her black hair behind her ears.

Headshot of Elahe Esmaili.

Elahe is an award-winning filmmaker. Her films include The Doll (Critics Choice Nominee, IDA Nominee, Student Academy Awards, Best International Short Hot Docs 2021), Can I Hug You? (Sheffield Doc/Fest 2023, SIMA Awards Best Short 2024), and A Move (Visions du Réel 2024 Best Youth Jury Short) which spanned over 50 festivals and competitions, reflects her prowess in storytelling and women's rights advocacy. Elahe's projects are supported by IDA, One World Media; awarded on forums such as Dok Leipzig Short-n-sweet; and broadcasted/streamed via platforms such as NPO, VPRO, DW, VG, etc.


IDA: Please tell us a little about yourself, your profession, or your passion.

I am a writer and director. I started in engineering. I have come a long way from engineering to art. It was a road with lots of obstacles but I made it!

I'm an alumna of almost all the big doc festivals, yet my mom still tells me: “You gotta quit filmmaking and just go back to your decent, respectful job of engineering!!” But here I am, passionate about filmmaking from head to toe, embracing the challenges, and excited to tell more stories.

IDA: When and how did you first start making non-fiction films?

I studied film at the Tehran University of Art in Iran. I made my first short documentary, ​​The Doll (2021), at Tehran University as my thesis film. It was well received in the festival circuit and awarded as the Best International Short at HotDocs and was nominated for the 2021 David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award at the International Documentary Awards and the Critics Choice.

I carried on making short documentaries as well as short fiction films since, all of which premiered at big festivals and won awards, such as Visions du Reel, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Dok Leipzig, FullFrame, DC/Dox, SIMA, etc. I am in the development of my debut feature now.

IDA: Your film Can I Hug You? (2023) was part of our Awards Campaign Access Initiative (ACAI) program. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little about the film? How and when did you start thinking about the project? 

Can I Hug You? is still on its journey in the festivals and awards, and we still receive so many great responses and hugs from all over the world. I think the strength of the film is in its ability to take the audiences on an extremely emotional journey and so many people from different backgrounds resonate with the characters. 

I’m proud of the film and grateful to my partner who told me his story in the first place and allowed this film to happen. He wanted to share his story and go on this journey with his family and I did my best to support him as a partner, and as a filmmaker. The film became a part of his healing process, which was so rewarding for me.

IDA: Tell us a little about being part of the ACAI program.

It was a great opportunity to be a part of the IDA ACAI program, it was a great platform for the film to reach more people and get seen. The support we received from the IDA team was irreplaceable as we couldn’t get proper exposure for the film without it. 

We made this film for impact and to share it so that people in similar situations wouldn’t feel lonely, and for the film to have a wide reach was our goal from the get-go, however, we are independent filmmakers, like when I say independent I mean it!! And it was impossible for us to run a campaign for award season without any financial support. I’m still in debt for the production of that film haha!

So the IDA backing the film was like a friend’s hand holding us through a dark path warmly, and even though it was short, it was very effective.

IDA: Congratulations on A Move (2024), and your win at the Visions du Réel International Film Festival. Tell us a little about the film. 

A Move is another personal story. This time I’m the character, it happens in my hometown which is one of the most religious cities in Iran, and I follow my journey of challenging my family to accept me not wearing hijab in our family gatherings. It premiered at VdR and we’re grateful to have won the Youth Jury award for best international short there.

IDA: What is next for you? Are you working on anything you can share with us?

Yes, I am working on my debut feature which I’m really excited about, it’s in development and is another women's rights story, coming from my heart.