Interview: Aref Mohammadi on His Career in Writing, Film Distribution and Documentary Cinema

For the Iranian community in Toronto, Aref Mohammadi is a recognizable figure. Through his various ventures such as “New Wave Cultural and Artistic Group” and “Fantasia Pictures,” as well as his film writing, he has contributed to the vibrant cinephile culture among the city’s Iranians. He has organized workshops, celebrations and film screenings. More recently, however, his documentary film, A Survivor From Magadan, has become quite a sensation. The film follows the life of Ata Safavi, an Iranian who spent decades in a Soviet prison camp on nebulous charges. His story of resilience and survival took him from the north of Iran to Russia, Tajikstan and, in the last years of his, Toronto, where Aref Mohammadi met him. In the following conversation, Aref discusses his career across the film world and over the years in Iran, Germany and Canada.

Aref Mohammadi
Aref Mohammadi

Amir Soltani: For readers who might be unfamiliar with your work, where would you say your career in cinema started?

Aref Mohammadi: In elementary school before the revolution, I had an Iraqi teacher who taught us theatre. It was in Karaj, and at a time when teaching theatre to third graders was unheard of. All through my school years, and before I really got into writing, I was an actor. We studied literature and Iranian texts. The first book I read was Samad Behrangi’s Little Black Fish. I went on to study literature in university. Theatre and literature had gotten into my blood by then and when I couldn’t get into film school, I decided to study Persian literature instead. Later, I passed a two-year filmmaking course at the Young Society of Filmmakers in Karaj and started making short films.

AS: Is the Young Society still active in Iran? I know many Iranian filmmakers who got their starts there.

AM: Yes, and it was our only resource for filmmaking then. They would give us the 8mm cameras and laboratory space. I made some short films and then entered theatre in 1986 as an assistant director. I met Mehran Modiri there; he was the composer for a play called Uncle Alexander’s Watch by Hassan Moshkelati. Then came another play called Slowly with a Rose. I learned a lot from these plays, but my real passion was cinema. I found my way into Samuel Khachikian’s office and I would sit there for hours just listening to everyone, hoping that one day Mr. Khachikian would tell me to join him on set, which never happened until he passed away. Later, through a friend, I became the second assistant to a director named Masoud Navayi on his film, The Years of Longing, starring Bijan Emkanian and Fariborz Arabnia. I was just beginning to make connections in the industry when my immigration to Germany happened. It was 1993. I started a TV show there called Film & Cinema where I analyzed films and film history for Persian speakers in Germany. When I moved to Canada about four years later, I started a similar show on Canada’s City TV. The community started knowing my film work through this, as well as written journalism for the Iranian media in Toronto. I covered all festivals like TIFF and Hot Docs.

AS: That’s really valuable work. It’s important to get the city’s Iranians in touch with the cultural events outside of the community itself, to introduce them to non-Iranian works.

AM: I agree. That’s why I started “New Wave Cultural and Artistic Group” in 2004. The idea behind this group was to familiarize Iranians with independent and niche cinemas. I started the first filmmaking workshops for Toronto’s Iranian community and brought educated, talented artists to teach the classes, like Levon Haftvan, Mahmoud Khoshchehreh and others. New Wave mostly operates as a workshop organization and hosts celebrations, of artists like Behrouz Vossoughi (his first one), Jafar Vali, Mahin Oskouyi and Reza Jian. Recently we had workshops by Asghar Farhadi and Mostafa Kherghepoosh. These things take a lot of work and financial muscle, which we don’t have, but I’d love to make these events more consistent. It’s a volunteer effort, really. Luckily, we’ve had really good reception so far. I believe cinema can educate people. It can become a useful tool, provided you choose the right films. That’s very important for me. The films I work with have to be thought provoking. The patrons expect me to show them the right things and not waste their time too. My personal taste usually veers towards films that bring together critics and mass audiences, not necessarily arthouse films. I like filmmakers like Farhadi who connect different audiences.

AS: I’ve said that to Mr. Farhadi in my interview with him, and filmmakers like that in Iran are rare. Rakhshan Bani-etemad is like that.

AM: And Dariush Mehrjui, of course. Parviz Shahbazi is doing that now, well-made films that audiences also enjoy, with Deep Breath or Darband. This was also somewhat prevalent in the Golden Age of Iranian cinema, which I think of as the mid-80s to the late 90s. Because the efforts of filmmakers and institutions like Farabi paid off in bringing some of the dormant filmmakers out of inactivity after the revolution. Suddenly, Nasser Taghvayi was making Captain Khorshid; Massoud Kimiayi’s best post-revolutionary works were Snake’s Fang and Lead. Mehrjui made The Tenants and Hamoun. Bahram Beizayi made Bashu, the Little Stranger. These were veteran voices that restarted their careers and a new “new wave” after the revolution. Then came Bani-Etemad’s The Blue Veiled and then the baton was passed to people like Farhadi and Shahbazi and Panahi. Unfortunately, the long downward spiral began right around the mid-2000s after the end of Khatami’s presidency.

AS: And the big festivals aren’t showing Iranian films anymore. I know Taxi won Berlin this year, but that’s really an anomaly. Even The Paternal House isn’t a match for Kianoush Ayari’s best films. Exciting voices are rare. I like Shahram Mokri a lot, for example, but there are only a handful of filmmakers like him.

AM: Yes, compare Paternal House to Ayari’s own Beyond the Fire, for example, to see the slide.

AS: To be fair, Beyond the Fire is one of the best films ever made. Few films are comparable, but the decline is real. So much has to change in Iranian cinema for it to reverse its fortunes. It’s not just about the talent, because the talent is there but we’re talking about systemic problems. Consider that the most recent numbers suggest there are only 320 theatres in Iran, a country of nearly 80 million people. How is this industry supposed to sustain itself?

AM: Quite a lot of ground up work has to be done before things can improve. The financial support is being given to cheap comedies that don’t add anything to the cultural conversation. Yet, that’s what sells, and unfortunately everybody else struggles. That’s why I think we have to treasure filmmakers like Farhadi who make terrific films that can also sell. That’s what this cinema really needs.

AS: The aforementioned Paternal House has this merit as well, if it had been allowed to be screened in theatres. People actually wanted to see it, and that’s very important in Iran at the moment.

AM: If you look at the history of our cinema, our arthouse and independent cinemas have always depended on the generosity of government subsidies or individual contributions of wealthy cinephiles and institutions. You look at a film like Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols, one of the best films of all time. I’ve written about this before. When it was originally screened in a theatre in Tehran before the revolution, the screen next door was showing Reza Beik Imanverdi’s Righteous Words. The lineup for this film ran kilometers long, and only twenty people watched The Mongols, who later ripped seat covers and demanded their money back. There are some films that just cannot be made without independent support because they don’t sell, so that’s why I emphasize so much on the overlap between commerce and art in films.

Ata safavi on the set of a survivor from magadan
Ata safavi on the set of a survivor from magadan

AS: The infrastructure of the industry has to be shaped so that the whole range of films can be produced within it. You’ve made some efforts in bringing Iranian films and screening them commercially in Toronto, through your new venture Fantasia Pictures. That’s been a successful effort because the films are artistically valuable, but also everything has sold full houses. I want to talk to you about your own filmmaking career now, and your incredible documentary, A Survivor from Magadan. How did you find Doctor Safavi?

AM: I read an interview with him in Shahrvand magazine back in 2010, titled “No
One Grows Old in Magadan.” I later read his autobiographical book of the same name, but at first glance, my impression was that Magadan is an island where everyone is so happy, they stay young. I was shocked when I learned the truth, and then I found out he lived in Toronto. To be honest, my first impetus to make the film was simply to ask him why he never committed suicide. Of the 3,000 prisoners who were there with him, only 200 remained after ten years, and most had committed suicide. One of the texts that has heavily influenced me is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I automatically compared Safavi with Frankl and couldn’t stop connecting aspects of the concept of logotherapy with Safavi’s story. Incidentally, when I spoke with Safavi, I found that he’s a very distant relative of mine. I spent a whole year and built a friendship with him; I got to the bottom of his story. He was accompanying me everywhere during that year. Later, I told him I wanted to make a film about him. I wanted this to be recorded as part of Iranian history and he appreciated it a lot. At the time, I had financing issues for the film and I couldn’t wait for a grant because Safavi’s physical conditions was poor. I wasn’t sure how much time I had so I poured everything into the film and financed it myself. My cinematographer, Yadi Shahbazi helped me a lot. He volunteered himself. I travelled to Iran and Tajikstan and met his old friends and his sister. I really wanted to visit Magadan, which is now in the ruins. I dreamed of taking him there, but it wasn’t possible. It would have been interesting to see him react to that environment after all these years. I had to start using archives instead, and I reconstructed reality with animation. We also substituted some places of the story with locations scouted in Toronto.

AS: Did he get to watch the film?

AM: Unfortunately, no. He was suffering severely from cancer so he couldn’t even sit. He only saw the film’s poster and hung it up on his bedroom wall.

AS: Which part of cinema satisfies you most? Writing books about film, making films, distributing them? You sound equally passionate about getting people to watch films that you like and making films yourself.

AM: What an interesting question! They’re so closely connected for me. In writing critiques, the best part for me is the discovery; getting around to a filmmaker without expectations before everybody else does. I brought Farhadi’s Beautiful City to Toronto when he was still relatively young. I published a piece about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s first film. It feels like you’re unearthing a gem, even if other critics have gotten around just about the same.

AS: I know the feeling. Everyone’s talking about Arabian Nights this year and I’ve been following Miguel Gomes since Entretanto, which I think is his first short film, and I’ve been tooting his horn since then.

AM: That’s the best part, when everyone finally comes around to a filmmaker you like. That, and interviewing my favourite filmmakers and talking to them about what I like their film and getting to hear them about their process. In filmmaking, I’ve only directed documentaries so far, and the exciting part for me has been seeing the reaction of the audience. I sit in the theatre every time it’s being screened at a new festival, and I’m anxious every time. Just the technical aspect of a film being screened without problem makes me nervous enough.

AS: And you always worry that the festival experience, which might not be ideal, leaves a bad impression on the audience that can never be changed.

AM: There are so many different angles to it. The mere act of judging a film is not easy at all. I swing back and forth in my opinions of some films and I’m a professional critic. Of course, there are masterpieces that you fall in love with on the first try. Often when I change my opinion on a film, it’s because of high expectations. A favourite director whose film lets me down initially before I warm to it.

AS: Can you tell our readers about the upcoming Biennale where your film is being exhibited?

AM: Professor Atabaki, from the Centre for Iranian Studies in the Netherlands called me and said he was interested in watching Magadan after coming across clips of it on youtube. They told me they’d selected the film for a screening at the biennale for Iranian studies. The event changes location for every edition; this time it’s in Vienna. They also asked me to enter the film into the national archive of Soviet documents, which is an incredible achievement.

Aref mohammadi and ata safavi on the set of the film
Aref mohammadi and ata safavi on the set of the film

AS: It’s a very powerful film. It’s impossible for me to imagine a viewer can be unaffected by it. It’s truly a universal, transcendent experience.

AM: The thing that was important for me as the maker of this film was to convey the message the political ideology of this person is in the end irrelevant. This isn’t a political film; it’s a story of perseverance and humanity. One thing that makes me proud about the film is that I’ve had complete strangers email me after watching it and tell me how it changed their lives and their outlook. One woman, who had seen the film completely by coincidence told me in an email that nothing had brought as much positivity to her life as this film, because her difficulties paled in comparison to Safavi’s story. Ideologies have an expiry date; they don’t last. Humanity remains forever.

AS: I want to talk to you about Toronto before we wrap up. I’m proud to live in this great city, and I think especially for the Iranian community, it has become a really fertile intellectual ground. Few cities outside of Iran contribute as much to Iranian culture at the moment. As someone who’s travelled around the world and is active in promoting Iranian culture, how do you see the city and its future? I feel like Toronto will, if it hasn’t already, overtake California as the cultural centre for Iranian diaspora.

AM: Well, a lot of Iranians who come here from Europe or the States, say the community here is completely different. The reception for cultural and artistic events is very warm. One reason for it is that Iranians in places like California have a more distant relationship with Iran. They haven’t lived in Iran since the revolution and the circumstances under which they left the country also contributes to that. Many of them left against their will, so that contributes to the detachment they sometimes want to maintain with that culture.

AS: As opposed to Toronto’s Iranian community which is definitely established, but also continuously growing. There’s a lot of back and forth with modern Iran and its contemporary culture. We’re more “up to date,” so to speak. And a more representative population too, in terms of religion, ethnicity and educational and financial background. Iranians of all social strata can be found in Toronto, for better and for worse, to be honest. And there are even opportunities for Iranians here that don’t exist in Iran. Think, for example, of Shahrokh Moshkinghalam’s works that cannot be performed in Iran, but we have the privilege of seeing them here live. In terms of access, vibrancy and activity, in both creating and promoting culture, Toronto’s very unique.

AM: Or even screening a film like Reza Dormishian’s I’m Not Angry, which we just did here. That film is still banned. Moshkinghalam, and biannual Tirgan festival where he performs in Toronto, is a good example. It is quite literally unique, in terms of its wide scope and the number of patrons it attracts. If the support is there, the potential is never ending. Unfortunately, the Iranian community is not as supportive of art and culture as it should be. As in our film industry, our immigrant community hasn’t yet found the right balance between art and commerce. We have a lot of talented artists and even more successful business-minded people, but they really have to come together. Iranians are, historically speaking, artistically inclined. It’s in our blood to be multi-hyphenates. In my art workshops, more than 70% of the participants are engineers and doctors and businesspeople, who are also talented and interested in a variety of arts. But the financial support has to be there too, as well as concrete and organized plans to create and support culture. It’s a two-way relationship. Both groups need the support of the other and they can mutually thrive. The groundwork is there in Toronto. Concerts, galleries, film screenings, plays, all across the range, from commercial to sophisticated works of art, all sell out here. It just needs to be concentrated.

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