Born in Teheran in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, Shima Niavarani and her family came to Sweden as immigrants, and the outsider perspective has been a part of Shima's creative process ever since. Through determination and a belief in storytelling, she has fashioned her own world of acting and performing through which she questions, explores and negotiates her own social identity, and by extension, the structures that shape all of us.
You have a lot of projects going on. What’s the driving force behind working this hard?
I think the energy of actually doing what you decide to do comes from deciding whether I should do it or not. Is there a purpose behind this? Why am I doing this? What is it for? What am I telling? The source behind everything you see is story. But my own personal driving force has always been redemption. Or taking back what is mine. And I’m doing it through storytelling. That’s my main target, why I’m doing this. I think it’s because of where I come from. I’ve seen so much injustice that I feel like I’m about to burst if I don’t get to tell.
Is it the same story you’re telling, does it come from the same original source?
I think there is an archetype that I identify with, and it is kind of an underdog. Someone who has been beaten on, and then rises up from the ashes. I know my life has changed a lot, so I can’t say that I’m a complete underdog in every situation, but it’s more your whole social identity and the complexity within that, and this archetype is my own story, my own personal story.
Are you afraid of losing that archetype then?
I’m not afraid of losing it. But I’m adapting it to every new situation. When I look through my past, this storyline of the underdog, nobody can really tell how far this underdog can rise. It’s a journey. It’s a moving archetype. It follows social movements, or creates them, and faces challenges.
Is this where you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in everything I meet and see. I think empathy is a great ingredient in storytelling, especially when it comes to acting or singing or writing the story. It’s about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. When you have the sensibility to do that, a lot of inspiration comes to you. So there’s not a person I’m trying to imitate or whose journey I’ve been inspired by, there are so many. It’s more about a story and how I can tap into that.
It seems like you’re describing a very lonely, personal process?
A: It is a solitary journey, especially when you came into a business or into a platform where there was no one before you. If you’re the first one to walk this walk, then it gets lonely. Maybe 10 years later, a whole new generation comes and vocalizes everything you’ve been trying to say which is so cool. But when I started out 15 years ago, there weren’t that many non-European actresses in Sweden, and I was also very uncompromising when it came to how people stereotyped me.
You know the saying ‘ignorance is bliss?’ It’s my strongest weapon. By pretending that the challenges are not there, you fool other people to perceive you the way you perceive yourself. I was scared that I was going to be put in a box, so I pretended that my place was certain, that there was a special need for me. They wanted me to play a thus suburban girl who has a very strict father and is called Jasmine, and I couldn’t identify with those stories.
Like, when you’re talking about strong characters, and strong females, then people misconceive that and think it’s about actually being strong or being a fighter. But being strong is about being allowed to be complex and being vulnerable.
Have you always found a way to work around those preconceived notions of you?
Yes. But when I started out with my own performances and what I had written, there was a wall already. The wall was built to keep people like me from entering. You have to accept the challenge. The things I vocalized then were not that spoken about in the media 15 years ago. But discussions open doors. So you have to initiate the discussion. You know when you see talent shows, and someone tells their story, and all of a sudden people open their hearts for that person? I think the whole industry or business of storytelling is like that. You need to engage people’s hearts.