Danish-Iranian Director Roja Pakari on Life With Cancer and Her Love Story for Her Son (EXCLUSIVE)

When her son was just two months old, Roja Pakari fell ill. After several medical tests, she was eventually diagnosed with incurable bone marrow cancer. Extended stays in hospital for treatment meant she slowly became a stranger to her little boy, who thought the hospital was her home.

Co-directed with fellow Danish filmmaker Emilie Adelina Monies, “The Son and the Moon” is Pakari’s love letter to her son, which she will be premiering at CPH:DOX, one of Europe’s leading documentary film festivals, on March 18. Variety is debuting the poster below.

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Mixing her own footage with archives of her native Iran shot with a camcorder, the film chronicles the six years since the birth of her son and the diagnosis of her illness: how she survived coma, her desire – in her own words – “not only to survive but to live” despite cancer, and how she reclaimed her place as a mother and a wife after coming out of hospital.

“I really hope this film will be the small book that everyone reads, like Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ a book that allows you to feel you are not alone in the way you grieve, or the trauma you experience in your life,” Pakari tells Variety.

The film follows her journey through grief and shows how she learns to live in the present moment to see her son grow. Asked how that is possible when you suffer from an incurable disease, she says: “To live in the now – I don’t always do it – it’s super important to take in the grief when it’s there. I felt it was unfair: why did it happen to me? I was so angry.

“It was very important to be able to not be strong, to be able to ask for help, and let people see me being vulnerable – I had never done that before. Afterwards, I asked myself: ‘What am I most afraid of? I’m afraid of dying. What if I only have four years to live?’ Just that thought was so scary, so I’d just leave it here. Then I’d go back to it, and eventually I said to myself: ‘If I have four years left, how do I want to live them?’ I exercised my brain by saying: ‘In that case, how do I want to be with my son, my husband, my friends and family?’”

Pakari addresses her son, Oskar, directly in the film, which she narrates mainly in Danish but also in her native Farsi in the opening and closing sequences. She documents her Iranian heritage through archive footage shot on her regular trips back to Iran. Pakari left Iran as a small child when her politically engaged parents had to flee after the Islamic Revolution.

Teaching her son about the country she comes from is an underlying theme of the film.

“As an immigrant child, what is your identity?,” she explains. “I had phases where I didn’t want to be Iranian – and when I did embrace it, I wasn’t a typical Iranian because I’m from the south and I’m darker than other Iranians. So who can I compare myself with? When we went back to Iran, I realized I just need to be around my own family, it makes you…,” she pauses, looking for her words. “Your feet just land in a different way.”

Referring to her first trips back to Iran with her younger brother, who was born in Denmark, she says she saw him flourish there. “I thought: it makes sense. When you go back to your roots, even though you’re not born there, it feels like: I belong here as well [as in Denmark], this is also me.

“That’s why I imagine that when Oskar gets older, he will have the same feeling: Going to Iran and thinking ‘This is also me, this is my mum.’ And that is why it’s so important for me to teach him [the language and the culture].”

What would she like the audience to take away from her film?

“It’s not a cancer film, it’s a love story,” she says. “I made this for my son, not to show the world what happens when you have cancer. It really is a love story.”

On future projects, Pakari says that when she started “The Son and the Moon,” she was so ill she thought it would be her first and last project. “But now, I’m better, and I’m hungry,” she smiles, adding that she has been thinking about it a lot, but hasn’t set her mind on what kind of film it will be yet.

“The Son and the Moon” is produced by Sara Stockmann’s Sonntag Pictures. It was funded with support from New Danish Screen and the Danish Film Institute in collaboration with TV2 Denmark.

CPH:DOX runs in and around Copenhagen from March 13 through March 24.

The Son and the Moon
“The Son and the Moon”

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