According to the author, “The Hysterical Girls of St. Bernadette’s” is “a book about complicated relationships, about trauma, and about what it takes for girls to be believed.”
FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Filmmaker Sheherzad Raza Preisler
Living the sort of multi-faceted, all-over-the-place lifestyle of an actor, musician or creative brings you, more often than not, into working environments with people you meet for the first time on a set, only to realize through a random conversation that you are connected in the most amazing of ways. Such is the case with this week’s guest, Sheherzad Raza Preisler.
Sheherzad is a native New Yorker who attended undergrad at Columbia University, where she majored in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies and followed the premedical track. After an identity crisis, Sheherzad fell in love with all things filmmaking and is now an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. Much of Sheherzad’s work deals with growing up Muslim in post-9/11 America.
As with my previous guests Khaula and Shezi, Sheherzad was connected to Saleem Gondal’s short film “Post-Term,” which is now available on Focus Features and JetBlue. She was the script supervisor on set, and during a meal break, we learned that she’s the cousin of my bandmate from Ravi Shavi, Rafay Rashid.
it was kind of ingrained in my DNA and willed by my mom in a way that I was going to become a storyteller.
(Sheherzad’s interview has been edited for length and clarity)
Shahjehan: What do you have going on this year that you’re excited about?
Sheherzad: I actually just submitted my short film “Saint Marks” to a bunch of film festivals, including Tribeca. It’s about three high school girls who play hooky in search of the original Four LoKo. I actually co-wrote and co-directed that with one of my best friends from my graduate program named Katrina Montgomery. So now … we want to expand it into a TV show. We’re going to be working on writing additional episodes, doing treatments, and then hopefully finding funding. … We’re waiting to see if we get into festivals because … that can sometimes help launch into fundraising stuff.
I’m also starting a production company with my friend Katrina once we graduate. It’s gonna be called Bodega Cat Productions. We decided that we’re gonna wait to officially do everything until after school is done because we’re just so busy back-to-back with projects.
I guess the third big project of the year is my thesis film. Even though I write and direct and do basically anything that could be needed to do on film sets, I’m in the screenwriting track at my MFA program at Brooklyn College. I wrote a feature film for my thesis called “Emo,” and it’s loosely based off when I grew up in middle school in Worcester, Massachusetts … and kind of the shock of being around so many Islamophobic people. … I actually was born in Chicago and I grew up with the same kids and I didn’t really experience that much racism because I had been with these kids since I was like five. Then 9/11 happened a few years later, we moved to Worcester, Mass., and then I had never experienced that level of Islamophobia or hatred towards me and my family. However, “Emo” is a coming-of-age dramedy that heavily leans into … the comedic aspects of it. I’m not making light of Islamophobia with the project, but it is about how as I was dealing with Islamophobia, I kind of found myself drifting away from my Pakistani Muslim identity and more into the emo subculture. I am currently on my second draft of that script and I’m going to be applying to film labs and looking for funding starting in the fall.
Shahjehan: Can you tell me a little more about your background? Like, when did you know this is the sort of thing you wanted to do?
Sheherzad: So my name is Sheherzad, and my mom actually named me after the titular character from 1,001 Arabian Nights, the feminist Princess Sheher, who saves other women from being killed by telling stories. So it was kind of ingrained in my DNA and willed by my mom in a way that I was going to become a storyteller. In addition to that, I’ve been huge into like, reciting poetry, especially in Urdu and Farsi, with my mom. So I’ve kind of always been in this oral tradition that a lot of South Asian families partake in.
However, like any other good South Asian Muslim, I was actually premed in undergrad. I also did Middle Eastern/South Asian studies, but I always really loved writing [and telling] stories. And then instead of becoming a doctor, I found my way into science journalism: I worked on a docuseries for PBS under Ken Burns. And then from there I was like, “This is awesome, but I’d like to be more in charge of the creative and I want to look into making fictional work.” Then I ended up in grad school.
Shahjehan: What’s the first time you can remember, whether it was on a set or as you finished a script, where you felt like, “Holy shit, I’m really doing this”?
Sheherzad: Honestly, it was as I was writing the first draft of my thesis this fall, because that was … the first time that I was like, “Holy shit. I can just bang out pages once I do an outline.” And I’ve seen huge strides and improvements in my own creativity since I’ve been in graduate school. I was like, “Wow, I can actually fricking do this.” Like I can actually write films, make them. And in terms of directing, it was definitely when I co-directed “Saint Marks” last March. I was like, “Holy shit, … we can actually lead the charge with a group of people and make it a positive on-set experience for everyone.”
Shahjehan: What have been some of the more challenging aspects of doing what you do?
Sheherzad: First and foremost we do unfortunately live in a capitalist society. So money is a huge issue. But I do know that there’s a lot of really awesome grants out there, like the ISF [(Islamic Scholarship Fund)] grant, and people are looking to pour more money into diverse voices, which I think is really awesome.
I think another thing that is really difficult for me is just being a woman of color—[well] even if you’re a man of color—you’re just treated and perceived differently by folks in the industry, or you have to prove yourself in a different way than your white contemporaries have to. … They don’t even necessarily have to. I think things are getting better and there are more and more spaces being made for folks like you and me, but I still sometimes find myself in spaces where I’m like, “Oh, I have to like prove myself” or I have to kind of show that I’m “down with the whites,” or you or I have to assimilate or something.
At the same time, [I feel like] we should just take advantage of the fact that we are marginalized and take advantage of our identities to help stories like ours get told. I also know that that can also come with being fetishized by production companies and stuff like that. So that is something that I’m trying to kind of keep my eye out [for].
Shahjehan: Finally, who are some Muslim or Muslim-ish creatives that inspire you?
Sheherzad: Angbeen Saleem is one of my biggest fellow Muslim inspirations. We actually collaborate constantly in different capacities. Most recently, she was the first AD [(assistant director)] and the editor and one of the talent in a music video that I shot.
I would also say my mom is one of my biggest inspirations, because she is a physician. However back in Pakistan, she was a visual artist until someone stole her work and claimed it as theirs. And then she was like, “Okay, I’m out. Um, I’m gonna become a doctor.” She is very heavy into poetry. She’s been teaching me poetry since I was two or three, like basically since I could speak. And she’s an amazing speech writer and public speaker in general. She just makes really amazing work in addition to being a badass doctor who saves lives. And she gives talks all the time at [places] like Lahore Literary Festival. …
I think something that’s really unique to our generation that I see my mom also doing is that we all wear many hats. … We all do all sorts of different things to make money and get by. And there isn’t that kind of pressure to be hyper-specialized in the same way as it was for older folks. I see that with my mom, although she only really, I think, identifies as a doctor. [Well] now she’s a writer [since] she did write a nonfictional memoir about cancer.I think that she will always be one of my greatest inspirations and shows me that you can be a Renaissance woman of even the most difficult stuff, like being a physician and a poetry scholar.