Welcome to the eighth episode of the Hello Cinema Podcast. This month’s guest is Diana Barboza, a fellow Torontonian cinephile whose smart views on issues of race and representation in cinema make her the perfect guest for the topic at hand, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater. The popular comedian’s first directorial effort tells the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Candian journalist imprisoned in Iran after the 2009 presidential elections as adapted from his memoir, Then They Came For Me.
Stewart’s film is problematic on multiple levels, bearing both the marks of a nervous filmmaking debut in its formal approach and a lack of sociopolitical insight into modern day Iran. As a film disappointingly described as “mass market infotainment primarily aimed at North American viewers” by Bahari himself, Rosewater lacks the cultural sensitivity and misses the mark with its inaccurate representation of Iranians. On the other hand, these issues give us plenty to analyze. Join us as we discuss the casting issues, the adaptation, the political misrepresentations and Stewart’s intentions in making the film. This conversation ran longer than our usual episodes, so we have spread the fun. Tune back in next week for part two of this episode.
Introducing…Diana Barboza 0:00-3:11
An unmemorable, hokey experience 9:21-16:34
Issues of racial representation 16:35-22:46 Rosewater‘s simplified politics 22:47-35:49
Aesthetics of representing Iran 35:50-40:01
You can download an .mp3 version of this episode here, or subscribe to our show on iTunes.
Jon Stewart’s Rosewater (imdb)
Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy’s Then They Came For Me (link)
Andrew O’Hehir’s interview with Jon Stewart at Salon (link)
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari
Reza Mirkarimi’s Today (Emrūz) was one of several Iranian films screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and it happened to be the best of the bunch. We discussed the film at length on our TIFF podcast, and I was fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with its director while he was in Toronto. Mirkarimi is one of the most consistent, creative and essential voices working in Iranian cinema today. His unique brand of filmmaking is delicate and humanist even as it discusses challenging topics like women’s issues or religious doubt. His oeuvre, which includes eight feature films, has rarely received the attention it deserves outside of Iran, something I discuss with him during the interview.
In Today, which is Iran’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, veteran actor Parviz Parastuyi plays Younes, a quiet and patient taxi driver who picks up a heavily pregnant, possibly injured woman, Sedigheh (Soheila Golestani), only to spend the rest of the day with her at the hospital as her male guardian (a requirement in Iranian hospitals). As he continuously evades the staff’s questions about his identity, his motivations become increasingly intriguing. Whether Younes’s story can be taken at face value, or as an allegory about modern Iranian society has been a matter of debate in all discourse about the film.
I avoided asking questions about Mirkarimi’s interpretation of his own film and instead focused mostly on the trajectory of his career, his experiences with film festivals, the origin of Younes’s character and his collaboration with one of Iran’s biggest superstars in Parastuyi.
Amir Soltani: I have a very intimate relationship with one of your films. So Far, So Close (Kheili Door, Kheili Nazdik; 2005) is the last film I ever saw in theatres in Iran. It was also the first time in my life that I went to the theatre alone with my father, not knowing the film was about a very challenging father-son dynamic. It’s one of my most memorable film-going experiences.
Reza Mirkarimi: [Laughs] That’s really great. Or, maybe it’s not? That is a strange father-son relationship, so I’m glad and surprised to hear you remember it so fondly.
AS: I want to ask you about the festival itself because I know you haven’t been to Toronto before. How do you compare the atmosphere to other festivals, especially in Europe?
RM: I’d heard a lot about Toronto. I’d been to North American festivals before both in the US and Montreal. But I realize now that everything people said about Toronto was correct. It’s an important festival particularly because of the audiences. I’ve rarely ever seen line-ups this long elsewhere in the world. It’s incredible that with such a massive schedule of films, all the theatres still sell out. More importantly, the public here has the cinematic intelligence to discuss films. I could tell by the questions I was asked after the screening of my film. Unfortunately, when you attend as a filmmaker, you don’t get to watch a lot of films but the experience has been amazing. The Pusan festival in Korea has tried to replicate a similar atmosphere on the Asian festival circuit with a very vast schedule, but the theatres don’t fill up as much. This level of attendance and cinematic understanding is really unique in the world.
AS: I’ve spoken to a lot of non-Iranians about your film since its first screening and both critics and the public have responded very well to it. As a filmmaker whose films have a very strong Iranian identity, what do you think it is that attracts others to Iranian cinema?
RM: I used to think that my stories wouldn’t become popular outside of Iran because they are full of Iranian signifiers. I thought there was an inverse ratio between their foreign success and their Iranian identity. but the reality is different. I think the most “Iranian” film I’ve ever made is A Cube of Sugar. There are certain ethnic, regional codes that even Iranians might not understand, but I took that film around the world and it was astonishing the way people related to it. The entirety of a film is what needs to be understood, the spirit of it, not every single detail. You might even miss a line of dialogue or not discover a detail, but if the structure of the film is appealing and the themes can be felt, if it speaks of basic human relationships and needs, these will be understood all around the world. That’s been my experience. For a film like A Cube of Sugar which is very dialogue-heavy, the reception of the non-Iranian audience was unbelievable for me. I was shocked that people who didn’t understand the customs and traditions that gave birth to the film were discussing it at length. Today has been similar. This was its first international screening but the reactions during the screening, in the Q&A and the comments and reviews I’ve received since have all indicated a strong audience connection to the film.
AS: What was the origin and inspiration for Today’s story?
RM: I like heroes who don’t share their secrets with others a lot, even in other filmmaker’s films, like some of Mifune’s role in Kurosawa’s films, the type of person who didn’t share his every thought with others but was a man of action. I’ve done this in my own film previously. The protagonist of A Cube of Sugar hides her emotions and makes the audience doubt her intentions which is the basis for the dramatic tension of the film. Today takes the concept of that type of protagonist to the extreme. In some of my previous films, the heroic act of the hero is simply doubt. In Today, Parastuyi’s character has not doubts. He’s lived a long life and seen ups and downs and knows exactly what he wants, but he’s anonymous and is intent on keeping himself that way. He’s taciturn, and in today’s Iranian society where image is very important and everyone wants to be seen, this is unique. This man loves anonymity. Society’s perception and acceptance is unimportant to him. That is something rare in Iran these days. I also thought he should be a taxi driver, because that would make him more accessible. He’s not special in any way. He’s a hero anyone can become.
AS: You answered some of my other questions already! I wanted to ask you about the extremity of this character’s reticence, because that seems to be a recurring theme in many of your films. But in a way, he’s also the exact opposite of those characters. For example, in As Simple As That or A Cube of Sugar, others make decisions for a central figure who seems not just quiet, but also unable to be assertive.
RM: Those characters have an internal challenge. The story of those films is the struggle they have with themselves, but in Today, Younes doesn’t have any problems within himself. He’s an introvert only insofar as he doesn’t share his problems with those around him. Unlike the films you mentioned, here the protagonist’s problem is external, it’s in his interactions with the rest of the community.
AS: He’s a powerful character too, despite his silence.
RM: Yes, he’s active and reactive. He does everything without talking about it, which I find very rare in our society today, where everything is trumpeted.
AS: Is there a real life basis for Younes?
RM: Not exactly. I can’t give you an exact address.
AS: I get the sense that some of these protagonists are close to yourself in their personality and calmness. Or is it that you’re attracted to them because they’re completely different?
RM: Interesting. I guess all my protagonists have something of me in them but Younes is who I aspire to be. I think I and a lot of people in my generation have had similar experiences to his, but the main impetus for writing this character isn’t so much inspiration from another character but from an idea; the idea that I’m tired of today’s whiny cultural discourse. I want to see people do things instead of talking about it.
AS: I want to ask you a question about the first scene of the film. What was the evolutionary process of that scene? Did the story always start there or was it added after the fact? It appears as though it’s separate from the rest of the film, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how crucial it is in shaping our opinion of Younes. It immediately stops us from thinking of him as a saintly figure.
RM: It was in the screenplay but we didn’t film it. When we screened the film at the Fajr Film Festival, it wasn’t there. I later decided that a prologue like that is necessary to explain the character better, so I reverted back to my original decision and filmed that scene from the script after the fact.
AS: Can you tell me a bit about your process? There’s always a nice balance between the incredibly structured nature of your films and a sense of fluidity that makes me curious to know your working method. Do you like to go straight by the script?
RM: In my last three films, I was very specific about the script. These are ironically the films that look the most improvised. I think it’s a skill that I’m still working to fully learn: to try to predict everything in the script, but in execution perform it so that it looks fluid and natural without disrupting the structure. I want the films to appear as though they’re improvised and unplanned, like reality is. Structure is needed for a film, but it needs to be hidden, so that the director’s presence isn’t always felt. The audience shouldn’t feel the filmmaker is imposing himself on the film. Finding that balance is a bit difficult. As I said, my last three films feel a lot more fluid than the previous ones but their writing process was a lot more rigorous. I only made the smallest differences on set. Despite what you might think, much of So Far, So Close was shaped during production on set.
AS: It’s unbelievable to think that the first hour of A Cube of Sugar, with all its regional-flavoured slapstick comedy was meticulously written before hand.
RM: Every line of dialogue for that part was written as you see it! I mean, a screenplay is always being re-written during production in the sense that actors and crew add their interpretation to what I have imagined on paper. The particular inflection of a line might change the feel of the script, but nothing was added or removed.
AS: As a filmmaker, how much freedom do you give to your actors for reinterpretation?
RM: I give that freedom to everyone not just the actors. My first pact with everyone is that I demand as many suggestions from them as possible. I always say, “if I reject your first 999 suggestions, don’t stop! Your 1000th one might be the best.” One special idea from someone on set might elevate the film. Filmmaking is a group effort. This can be very dangerous, but if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’re confident in the structure of your work, you can integrate suggestions that are from the same fabric as your film and make things work. Actors are included in this too. For example, in Today, Ms. Moghadami changed a lot of mise-en-scène simply because of the confident, strong way she walks. The settings we’d worked on included a lot of her bending down to help patients in the hospital, which were removed during filming because of her interpretation of the character.
AS: I feel like that type of flexibility is a trademark feature of your work. There is a strong coherence across your films that identifies them as the works of the same director, but they’re not rigid.
RM: I make a conscious effort not to repeat my experiences. I like challenging myself with new models and forms, but I also allow the story to dictate my approach. Maintaining a general approach to form is not mutually exclusive with showing flexibility to the magnitude of the story or its themes. Understanding this fact and keeping this balance is what allows the storyteller to remain invisible. Even if a film is heavily plotted or stylized, it won’t look artificial. In other words, I don’t engineer the film so much as the story engineers its form. I like to give breathing room to the story and understand it and make the film only as big as that. In the case of Today, when Younes, who is quiet and observant, clashes with a society that is quick to make judgments and announce them loudly, I overlap my gaze with that of the main character. Consequently, I don’t ask many questions. I only observe, as he does. If anything happens in the narrative that Younes is slow to react to, I react to it slowly as well. If a pan of the camera is necessitated by Younes’s direction of looking, the camera delivers a very slow pan. Stylistic decisions are dictated by the story so they don’t stand out more than they should. I really believe the storyteller shouldn’t talk to the audience more than necessary, which in cinematic terms means synchronizing style with narrative.
AS: I like that simplicity you talk about in Today’s stylistic choices. I think all of your films can be called As Simple As That, actually. Can you tell me about working with Parviz Parastuyi? You’ve worked with big stars before, but he’s different.
RM: I always wanted to work with him. Most of his performances have been very outspoken and energetic and I wanted to show a different side of him. I specifically wanted to focus on his eyes because I think he has a very deep gaze that tells stories on its own. We spoke about this before hand and he wanted the texture of his gaze to tell the story of his character. The way he looks at everyone around him makes the audience think he’s not in the same space as everyone else, then he proves his alertness in other ways. It was a good experience for both of us. We learnt to fill the void of dialogue with his eyes.
AS: There’s a pivotal scene in the film, where the most important line of dialogue is spoken by him to Sedigheh. (“I’ve always wanted to be behind this door.”) It almost justifies his behaviour over the entire film. The delivery is very subtle. It’s not treated as a one-liner. How did you create the mood?
RM: That sentence had multiple layers of meaning for me. One is to put the pregnant woman at ease, to make her feel comfortable. He assures her that he isn’t only there because of her. He is removing the burden off her. His choices don’t cost others anything and that line emphasizes the selflessness of his character to a large extent. That’s why I wanted him to say that in a nonchalant way.
AS: In many of your films, there is a religious character that allows you to look at the role of clergy in Iran in a way that other directors haven’t really done. Are you interested in reintroducing those themes in your films in the future?
RM: Yes, but Younes is the embodiment of everything I know about religion. His character is a crystallization of the virtues of religion. It eliminated the need for any explicit discussion about religion.
AS: It’s almost as if, from Under the Moonlight to Today, you’ve become increasingly subtle about the way you study religion, until it has fully become your interpretation of spirituality.