When Simran Jehani first came to USC, people asked her a question she was all too familiar with — “what are you?”
Telling them she was Zoroastrian caused some confusion — so Jehani, a senior majoring in communication, realized she needed to do something to increase representation of her religious background in popular media.
That’s how Jehani came up with the idea for her short film, “The Skimmer,” about a Zoroastrian girl who navigates high school and tries to figure out her identity after her mom’s divorce. Jehani was born and raised in India, and said her culture is in many ways patriarchal. As a result, her film explores the lives of the two women independent of male influences.
“I have watched so many movies that I haven’t seen people like me in,” Jehani said. “I haven’t seen people who look like me. I haven’t seen movies with storylines that I have experienced.”
Filming, which began on Oct. 5, took place in in five different locations in Los Angeles, including the Saban Center and a salon owned by a Persian woman. The project is scheduled for release in early January.
As one of 250,000 people in the world who practice Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, Jehani believes it is her responsibility to share her culture with the wider public. The prophet Zoroaster founded Zoroastrianism 3,500 years ago in modern-day Iran, and the religion today centers around the cosmic and moral dualism of good and evil.
“This is how we have been taught to live our lives and how we are trying to figure out our own place in this world,” Jehani said.
Through “The Skimmer,” Jehani also aims to showcase the similarities between her culture and others that may be more familiar to American audiences. In particular, she wanted to challenge popular conceptions about women of color — especially those with religious or cultural backgrounds — to showcase the diversity of women’s experiences.
“I am very into ‘slice of life’ [stories] and like to show how people are and how they exist,” Jehani said. “I’m hoping we can normalize how women of color are portrayed on screen as mothers and daughters and not as [stereotypes.] We want to show that they exist and they exist in normal ways too.”
One of her goals for the film was to represent people of color, both in front of and behind the camera. According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s study of 1,100 popular films, females represented only 31.8 percent of all speaking roles and non-white actors represented less than 30 percent.
Most of the cast and crew of “The Skimmer” comprises women and people of color (including the lead actors as well as Jehani herself). However, bringing the group together was not easy. Jehani and her producers — USC alumnus Hampus Wahlin, sophomore Aslan Dalgic and senior Ilana Spiegel — have been working on the project for four months and are still finalizing its crew members.
“There has not been a lot of opportunity to create stories and narratives like this,” Wahlin said. “Therefore, not many people seek out the opportunity to be a part of it because they don’t think they will be there.”
By reaching out to friends and encouraging them to spread the word, Jehani and Wahlin were able to cast everyone they needed for the film. Wahlin said that although the process was difficult, the final product will be worthwhile.
“It is not just emotionally strong, like a good story, but it also just feels like it is something that has to be told,” Wahlin said.
Jehani and Wahlin also plan on submitting “The Skimmer” to film festivals, focusing on smaller venues that will allow them to target more specialized audiences. Jehani also plans to participate in film festivals in India, where she hopes to encourage those who relate to the film to join the entertainment and film industry.
“The interesting, fun thing about short films is finding a audience,” Wahlin said. “When you have a final product, it’s really you seeking out people who will really push this film forward [and] make sure that the movie gets out there.”