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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From Pop Films to Exile Cinemas: A Conversation about Iranian Film History with Hamid Naficy

[Editor’s Note: Corrections and amendments were made to this transcript on March 15th, 2015.]

Hamid Naficy’s four volume book, “A Social History of Iranian Cinema”, has come to be recognized as the definitive text on Iranian films since its publication four years ago. The collection was more than three decades in the making and its arrival filled a big void in the study of Iranian cinema. We have referenced the books, as well as Mr. Naficy’s other works several times on our podcast, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with him about his work and Iranian cinema. The conversation below took place on March 7th, during TIFF Cinematheque’s “I For Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by Its Creators” series, where Mr. Naficy was introducing Ovanes Ohanians’s Mr. Haji, Movie Actor (Haji Agha, Actor-e Cinema, 1933) and Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijaan, 1974) which we have already discussed on the podcast.

Hamid Naficy
Hamid Naficy

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Amir: When you started your book, did you think of it as the definitive text that it has become, or did you think it would cover the entire history of Iranian cinema? Tell us a little bit about its evolution.

Hamid: It was very haphazard in a way. It began with an article I wrote on documentary films, which I published in Jump Cut, the radical US leftist film magazine, and then another article on Iranian fiction films for Quarterly Review of Film Studies. It began with those two, but maybe even earlier. It began in 1975 when I was in Iran for a few years between 1973 and 1978, and I was part of the group that created the Free University of Iran – Daneshgaah-e Azad-e Iran. At the time I was working there, I was also teaching a documentary film course at the National Iranian Radio and Television College of Cinema and Television – Madrese-ye Aali-e Cinema va Television. During teaching that year I realized that there was no text on documentary film in Persian, so I began working on that. I produced a two-volume book on the topic, Film-e Mostanad (Documentary Film), which the publishing house of the Free University of Iran published. It contained many pictures, almost all of the ones for the Iranian cinema part of it I had obtained by using physical frame enlargements from the 35mm in our laboratories. They were beautiful. Other publishers wouldn’t publish so many pictures but my university, which had the largest publishing house in the country then did it. It immediately became really popular. It came out during the revolution and by then I’d already left Iran but I heard from everybody who had taken film courses that the book sold out and it was still in use 20 years later. That became the germination of my efforts to do a book in English on Iranian cinema. My contract for this book was for one volume with Duke University Press and I have to hand it to them for rolling with the project. When it became large and I thought it was going to be two volumes or maybe more, they said “well, this is a lifetime’s work and it’s not gonna be repeated easily so we’re going to go with it. We’ll raise funds for it through our own sources and you raise extra funds. We both did. The whole object of it was to have the books be affordable by students, so the idea was that each volume should be less than $30, so all four would be less than $100. They lived up to that and they did a great design.

Amir: Iranian cinema really evolved as you were in the process of writing and you stuck with it. How frustrating was it to leave the project in 2010?

Hamid: The hardest part and perhaps part of the success of the volumes is that I wanted to have this not just be a chronological retelling of the best films made or the greatest directors. I wanted to have some theoretical and methodological approach that was consistent throughout the volumes. One of these, for example, was the importance of cinema as an agent of modernity and modernization. That line runs through all four volumes, and it also helps to then sift through all the developments that relate to this theory. Or the idea of how cinema brought about individuation amongst the spectators through its narrative style. Or the impact on cinema of the Iranian and Islamic traditions, not just oral, but also other traditions like Ta’ziyeh or Rowzeh-khaani or poetic traditions. All of these are incorporated in the films and the film industry in various ways. I wanted to show how Iranian cinema would be distinguished from Mexican or Arabic cinemas which come from different cultural beddings. I also wanted to show that Iranian cinema was from the beginning multicultural and transnational. That’s a line that goes through all of the history and now we have a huge diaspora of Iranians producing a variety of films. Even the Iranian diaspora itself is multicultural. It isn’t just Muslim, for example. In fact, at one point Iranian ethnoreligious minorities probably dominated in the diaspora.  Islam also had a major impact on cinema, the representation of women, the presence of women in cinema. It was all very complicated; and we see these factors related to women and cinema during the Qajar period and then again in the Islamic period. All of this gave continuity to the book. It was an incredible process.

Tina: What has your experience been seeing people outside of Iran in Western countries delve into Iranian cinema as a point of academic study, both compared to how it’s academically treated inside Iran and also to critics in the West and the way that they interpret and process Iranian cinema. These are three different groups of people all going after the same thing with different access levels and different visions.

Hamid: A study of Iranian cinema is always haunted by the specter of the revolution and the hostage crisis; by that I mean the history of study of Iranian cinema in the West. That revolution and the hostage crisis afterwards unfortunately forever marked Iranians as a certain kind of society; a fundamentalist, irrational, uneducated mass of people with their fists in the air shouting stereotypical things like “Death to America” and “Death to Carter”. That partly coloured how the media in the West and academics thought about Iran. On the one hand, these Westerners were affected by it. On the other hand, the critics and festival curators and academics wanted to see and show the opposite. There was an effort through programming and curating film festivals and through academic writing and film criticism to celebrate Iranian cinema more than it perhaps deserved, because the art cinema went against all the expectations of a political Iran. “If it’s so backward, then look at all the films they’re making, look at how clever and well made they are, how enigmatic and poetic they are.” It’s very hard to separate the quality of Iranian films and the reception of them from that political background.  A nation’s political notoriety beings automatic attention abroad to the works of its artists, especially the works of those who critique the state.

Tina: It’s not like there was really much interest before all of these events took place. Film scholars weren’t really talking about Iranian cinema in the 1960s.

Amir: And when every few years or so something would premiere at a festival but it wouldn’t start a current to study these films as part of a national cinema.

Hamid: Yes, Iranian cinema wasn’t considered a national cinema before the revolution, it was just the authorial cinema that outsiders were interested in, like the films of Mehrjui’s or Kimiavi.  But now the quantity of art house cinema after the revolution has increased so much as to constitute a kind of ‘national cinema’.  The other thing was the impetus within the Iranian film culture to want to reach out to the world and not to be locked in within the Islamic Republic’s domain, so filmmakers participated in film festivals. It’s also part of globalization. As the number of film festivals increased, people began to invite these filmmakers and they and their films traveled abroad extensively. Each time that one of the filmmakers was held at the airport or didn’t get a passport, that became the news. There were controversies from Iranians in exile as well. On the one hand, exiles contributed to the popularity of Iranian cinema, because suddenly you had hundreds of thousands of Iranians abroad who clamored to the movies to see Iranian films, so they provided audiences. On the other hand, those Iranians who had left the country during the revolution as exiles and were opposed to the Islamic Republic (some of them in the film business), took an oppositional stance to the postrevolution films. They made these festivals controversial. That also contributed to the recognition of Iranian cinema. I had my own experiences with these people.

Amir: This mixing of politics and cinema is something we are still not rid of. You think of how this year’s win for Taxi at Berlin was received here and in Iran and it’s impossible to find an article that talks about the news of its win and doesn’t mention anything about the filmmaker and his political situation. Perhaps because of these politics, one of the things I always come across with people interested in Iranian cinema is their curiosity about two particular areas of Iranian film history: the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s and the Golden age of the 1990s. Where would you direct them next? What’s the blind spot that compels you the most?

Hamid: That’s a good question. One area which is just beginning to gain interest among scholars is the popular films of the second Pahlavi period, the 1950s-60s. There are two sub-genres, of which the main category would be filmfarsi. That itself could be divided into the jaheli or looti films (“tough guy films”) and the other would be the stewpot films, or abgooshti. These have been less studied and by and large have been disdained by Iranian critics. Almost all the pre-revolution critics and, even more so, post-revolution ones condemned these films because they were considered to be formulaic, badly made and popular with less educated people and lower classes and full of sex and violence. The nomenclature, too, filmfarsi, is somewhat pejorative. But I think gradually people are getting to see what’s special about them. In fact, I think that these two sub-genres are the most “Iranian” of all films.

L to r: NAsser Malek Moti'i, Fardin and BEhrouz Vosoughi, the three biggest stars of Pre-revolutionary Iranian Cinema
L to r: NAsser Malek Moti’i, Fardin and BEhrouz Vosoughi, the three biggest stars of Pre-revolutionary Iranian Cinema

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Tina: Why do you think there is now more of an interest in these films?

Hamid: I think it’s a generational difference. Almost all of the older critics like Hooshang Kavoosi and so forth who were disdainful of this type of film have gone. A new interest in pop culture has come to be. It’s not just intellectual culture and intellectual literature anymore but pop culture, pop music, pop film, pop things in general.

Amir: It’s happening recently here as well. You think of people studying something like “vulgar auteurism” and the growing interest in things that aren’t considered high culture. I find that there’s this public perception, not critical, that these films were all the same in Iran. I know of concerted efforts in Iran to make collections and preserve some of these films. I was able to purchase a few on the so-called “free black market” in Iran recently. I bought Fardin’s films and Froouzan’s. They’re not the same thing at all. There’s this misconception about abgooshti films all being same, but that’s not true. There’s a lot of interesting things going on.

Hamid: There are certain things that give these films a certain narrative and stylistic patterns, which interestingly are derived from Iranian oral tradition. If you look at oral traditions before writing, in order to remember things people developed a culture that included the use of well known phrases, sayings (masal) and the sort of things that we still use in Iran all the time. These masal were used creatively by poets. In fact, the art of poetry had to do with how well they put together these well known phrases differently from other people. So they used the building blocks that everybody knew because everybody had passed on these things to each other orally but they would artfully combine them to create new utterances. During Homeric times, a similar kind of oral culture was in existence, so repetition and rhythmic iteration of existing building blocks and stereotypical characters and icons became an important part of many Iranian arts—music, tilework, handicraft, carpets, poetry, theater, and now cinema. The other important factor in Iranian art and cinema was improvisation and the third factor the presence of audiences who would by their own reaction encourage the poet or the performer to continue along this line or that line. You still see some of this behavior among certain people who go to the movies. Even in the US, if you go with a group of African American audiences to a black film, you will see them talking to the movie a lot more than white audiences, because there’s that oral tradition of speaking back at the preacher, at the poet, a sort of call and response aesthetics. If you go to the church the same kinds of interaction is going on. If you go to a poetry session in Iran right now, when someone is reciting poetry, everyone is going “bah bah, aali gofti” (Wow, you said it beautifully.) They encourage interactivity. If you look at Iranian genre films such as, filmfarsi, a lot of the stories are along these lines. They’re familiar and have come down to Iranians from texts like Shahnama and the characters are typical. They’re not individual. The jahel is a jahel. I cite situations in my book for a film that involves, say, Fardin or Malekmoti’i, one of the character actors of these filmfarsis, and the director says, “well, you know what a luti does. You should act in this film the way that you acted in that film,” so Fardin already knows his role very well and he doesn’t need to be given a script. Not only is the improvisation an oral tradition that is part of the acting and storytelling, but also part of the filmmaking. A number of these filmfarsi filmmakers were not professionals. They were not educated, hadn’t even finished high school in some cases, let alone having gone to film schools. So they would not have a script ready for shooting. They would come and ask Fardin to do Fardin and Malekmoti’i to do Malekmoti’i and they didn’t need to have a dialogue written for them. Everybody was ready to improvise. The camera people would set things up right there and then. That’s why there are mistakes in these films, like entering from this door and exiting from the same one. Things like that don’t make sense logically. It’s because they’re improvised, with the resulting discontinuity. You could say that these are bad filmmakers, but you could also say they’re following a different logic of filmmaking. It’s important to not just focus on the films as texts but also on the production process itself, which often times determines what the text will turn out to be.

Amir: It’s interesting that the form and content of these films engaged with each other in a way that encouraged that type of DIY, artisanal filmmaking to flourish. Maybe the industry was artisanal and the necessary production values were not in place to make better films, but many cultural elements encouraged the filmmakers to be artisanal as well.

Hamid: That’s why I think you have to look at cinema not as an imposition from some other place, especially in a country like Iran where cinema really dates to the very beginning, to see how the cinema gets domesticated. That’s part of the Iranian history, to assimilate other cultures and to absorb new things from other cultures. If I could say that Iranians have one characteristic that stands out – they’re not unique in it, but they’re good at it – it’s that capacity to mix and match, to hybridize, to absorb, to adapt, and adopt. If you believe the history of Iran, even the pre-Islamic history, Dariush is said to have conquered so many countries and yet allowed all those countries to have their own autonomy and cultural forms. In many ways, the central Acaemenid government absorbed features of the conquered societies and cultures. If you look at Persepolis’s architecture and sculpting, for example, some of those iconographies and imageries come from countries that he had conquered. You could also say that Iranians are good copiers and imitators, of course. At the same time, they add something to what they imitate and copy and, I think, that difference is what makes Iranian creativity long-lasting.

Amir: Are you aware of any concrete effort to restore some of these older Iranian films and introduce them to a wider audience, like we saw with the restoration of Mehrjui’s The Cow (Gaav, 1969) by the National Archive?

Hamid: No, unfortunately I’m not. I’m surprised that Iranian authorities haven’t really thought of what they have in their films not only as cultural treasures but also as a commercial enterprise. During the 1980s, the black market on video was rampant and the government decided to join this black market and created its own video distribution network. Yet, they weren’t running the company like a commercial enterprise, but a government entity. Some of the art cinema films are in distribution abroad but almost none of the silent films or early sounds film, or even the 1960s films new wave or filmfarsi films are being distributed in good versions. Partly that’s because the filmfarsi movies are generally not subtitled, and that’s an obvious necessity; partly because the government disdains these films. On the other hand, if they had looked at them commercially and considered that there would be a lot of people who want to show these films, they could make a lot of money.

Amir: I’m curious about your opinion today’s Iranian cinema. We come across articles decrying the death of Iranian cinema at least once a year from some prominent film critics. With all these previously above ground filmmakers now making underground films and others making films abroad and the increasing commercialization of the domestic productions, do you think these concerns are legitimate?

Hamid: I think the idea of national cinema in general is in crisis, partly because of globalization, partly because of the triumph of Capitalism and partly because of digital technology and the internet that allow people to make underground films with a $500 camera and edit them on their little laptop with really high quality, and then distribute them to millions of people. All of these developments are problematizing the idea of national borders and national cinemas. Filmmakers are not bound by the structures of funding from nation states as much. Look at Kiarostmai who lives inside Iran and makes his films abroad now in foreign languages with non-Iranian actors. His films don’t get shown in Iran very much but he doesn’t leave Iran. Look at Makhmalbaf’s entire family who left Iran and live and make films in exile, or at Ghobadi who left Iran and makes films. The first films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi made outside of Iran, Rhino Season and The Gardener, are unsuccessful films, they are meandering and unfocused. Making films internationally is a complicated issue. Not everyone can do it and Makhmalbaf himself, before doing this experiment of going into exile, made films in neighboring countries in Turkey and Tajikistan and Afghanistan first. I have a thesis in the book that it was only in the Islamic Republic that filmmakers revived the idea of the Persian Empire, as many filmmakers made films in the neighboring countries that have Persianate cultures. Ironically, this did not happen during the Pahlavi era, when the state invoked the Persian cultural heritage as state policy, but happened during the Islamic Republic era, which was hostile to the Persian predecessor to Islam.  During both epochs you observe the cultural resistance of the filmmakers to state policies, some of it perhaps unbeknownst to themselves. None of the filmmakers who made films in the neighboring countries made films in any of the Arab countries. Now that the Makhmalbafs and Ghobadi are in exile, they are not as successful. Their next films might change that, of course.

Amir: When you read about domestic cinema in Iran dying, do you roll your eyes and go “oh, not another one of these”?

Hamid: I think Iranian cinema will evolve. It may not be the same art cinema of the 1980s and 90s and 2000s even. It will be a different cinema that will have more popular films and underground films of various sorts. Underground everything has now become de rigueur: music, publications, fashion, film, parties. I think things will evolve and that’s a good thing. The other thing that defined Iranian cinemas of the 80s to 2000s, at least the art cinema, was that they were mostly bounded by the nation state and by its censorship apparatus, which then forced certain allegorical and textual approaches onto films. Once Iranians became globalized and could make films in different places with different moneys for distribution in different places to different audiences, they were no longer bound to the national rules. Films will be less uniform. There might be more variety and experimentation and more mistakes, but the best will come to the top. I’m certain that it will be a younger generation. The older one, the ones who already made a name for themselves and for Iran, like Kiarostami, Beyzaei, Mehrjui, Panahi, Majidi and Bani-Etemad and others are… I mean, even these filmmakers evolve. Look at Rakhshan’s films. She’s not locked into one style or one type of film, making documentaries and fictional films. She’s constantly evolving. Part of this is because of her daughter. I think the younger generation is keeping the older one straight and on their toes. Another thing that’s interesting about Iranian cinema now is the family structure of the filmmakers. I’m calling it a family mode of production in my books. Almost all of the major filmmakers are making films with their families. The Makhmalbafs work on each other’s films. Bani-Etemad’s husband produces her films and her daughter stars in them. Mehrjui’s wife was the designer on his films; Beizai’s wife acts in his films. Farhadi and his wife work together. This is a new phenomenon that didn’t exist before. New production forms will produce new cinemas and film forms.

Faramarz gharibian in tall shadows of the wind
Faramarz gharibian in tall shadows of the wind

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Amir: Every guest we’ve had on the show says their favourite Iranian film is Close-up, except your colleague Nick Davis, who picked Taste of Cherry. We laughed about the fact that even he picked another film by the same filmmaker. I suspect that wouldn’t be your answer, but asking your “favourite” Iranian film is perhaps too broad a question. What is the film that most compels you to speak about it?

Hamid: I think Close-up is a very unique film that can be talked about a lot but I also think that Kimiai’s Gheysar (1969) is an important film cinematically and culturally. I also think that Mr. Haji, Film Actor is a very unique film and you see some of Eisenstein and Vertov’s city symphony films in it in the way it celebrates Tehran as a modern city. All the experimentation that he engages in is great. Bahman Farmanara’s The Tall Shadows of the Wind (Saaye-haaye Boland-e Baad, 1979) is another one. Mehrjui’s The Cow I think is a very powerful film. Every time I show it in my class, the students are overtaken with the power of that simple story. No one thinks you can make a film about someone who becomes a cow, but he does it in such a powerful, convincing way, with such attention to the psychology; partly because Gholamhossein Saedi was a psychiatrist who wrote the original story on which this is based and worked with Mehrjui to adapt it, and Entezami who acted in the film as such a seasoned actor. Bani-Etemad’s The May Lady (Banu-ye Ordibehesht, 1999) is a very good film, cinematically and socially. Here is a woman who’s single, a filmmaker, a professional and wants to maintain a love relationship with a guy to whom she’s not married, all of which are no-no’s. I think she does a great job. There are so many. I don’t have a single favourite really.

Tina: It’s probably impossible for you.

Hamid: Yeah, this is very hard. Also, Shirdel’s The Night It Rained (Aan Shab Ke Barun Umad, 1967) is a prophetic film for its time .

Amir: That would probably be my answer. I’ve always loved that film but seeing it on the big screen for the first time was remarkable. The mostly non-Iranian crowd responded to it really well, too. It’s such a riveting experience, so funny and detailed and layered.

Hamid: We showed it at Berkeley last year and I was interviewing Shirdel on stage. It was really fun. That’s part of the transnationalization of Iranian directors. Shirdel was exposed in Rome to Italian films and neorealism and to the new wave of French cinema. Self-reflexivity came to Iranian cinema very early, before revolution with Shirdel and Kimiavi—two European-trained filmmakers. It wasn’t by Kiarostami or others after the revolution. Also, Farrokhzad’s film (The House Is Black), and not to forget, Ebrahim Golestan’s Mudbrick and Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, 1965). It’s a great film, especially the way it shows the fear and anxiety of that period; all those dark and tall buildings in the dead of the night. It’s a really great film.  So are Shahid Saless’s Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijan, 1975), Kimiavi’s The Mongols (Mogholha, 1973), Naderi’s The Runner (Davandeh, 1985), and Beyzai’s Bashu the Little Stranger (Bashu, Gharibeh Kuchak,1985).

Episode #11: Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Roya Akbari

Welcome to the eleventh episode of the Hello Cinema podcast. As regular listeners of the show are aware, TIFF Cinematheque is hosting “I For Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by its Creators”. Fifteen feature films and three shorts from Iran will be screened as part of a series that was initiated by Thierry Jobin, the artistic director of Fribourg International Film Festival. On today’s show, we’re honoured to host documentary filmmaker Roya Akbari, whose film Only Image Remains (2014) is opening the retrospective.

Roya Akbari in Only Image Remains Roya Akbari in Only Image Remains

Akbari started her career in cinema with a short but memorable voice performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (Dah, 2002), alongside her sister, Mania. Her first work as a director was a short documentary called Dancing Mania, about a film her sister was directing about dance in Iran. Her latest, Only Image Remains, is the most recent entry in a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective that includes films as old as Haji Agha, The Movie Actor (1933). In this film, which Akbari directed on the occasion of Fribourg festival’s Iranian retrospective, she discusses this national cinema with filmmakers such as Bahram Beizaei, Amir Naderi and Rafi Pitts.

We asked her about her motivations for making this film, the history of Iranian cinema, the cultural significance of producing Iranian works in diaspora, the difficulties of making films as a woman, and TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective series. Akbari will introduce her film, as well as The Night It Rained (An Shab Ke Barun Umad, Kamran Shirdel, 1967) and P Like Pelican (P Mesl-e Pelikaan, Parviz Kimiavi, 1972). For a complete schedule of events at the retrospective, click here.

You can download an .mp3 version of this episode here, or subscribe to our show on iTunes.

Works Cited
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari

Interview: Reza Mirkarimi, Director of Iran’s Oscar Submission, Today

Reza Mirkarimi
Reza Mirkarimi

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.

A Cube of Sugar
A Cube of Sugar

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.

Soheila Golestani in Today
Soheila Golestani in Today

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.

Parviz Parastuyi in Today
Parviz Parastuyi in Today

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.