Ever since his first outing there in the nineties Jean-Michel Frodon, one of France’s most distinguished film specialists, traveled four more times to Iran, the country whose filmmakers gave us festival favorites like GABBEH, A TASTE OF CHERRY and CLOSE-UP. As your not-so-average tourist, at times, and as officially-summoned authority on cinema, at others, Frodon soaked up the lore and took in the sights, giving talks and trekking it to several major cities around the country. He took note of the strange-bedfellows dynamic that exists between the push for commercial and revolutionary-friendly movies by some and the wishes of others for producing artful, capacious cinema that has a fighting chance of making it into first-tier film festivals and movie theaters abroad.
Frodon also got to meet some alarmingly-eager film fans. In case you did not know Iranian cinephiles are competition-level nerds when it comes to film history and trivia.
During one afternoon between screenings at this year’s Cannes Festival I met with Frodon to discuss these trips and what he thought of NAHID, this year’s official selection entry for Iran in the non-competitive section.
IFD – Tell me about your trip in December and the talk you held at that time. Movie buffs, the public and industry people were there. Who else attended?
JMF- Yes, all of those, and film students, too. [Mohammad] Rasoulof was there. I also saw a number of people involved in the documentary filmmaking industry.
Although documentaries don’t cross borders as well as some feature films, there is a significant tradition of documentary filmmaking in Iran.
Yes. The most creative stuff in Iran today is happening in documentary filmmaking. Feature filmmaking has had a harder time existing.
“If independent cinema stands alone in a corner it’s in danger of extinction”
Let’s go back to the talk. What was the topic?
The importance of independence.
Independence of spirit, of action? Or independent cinema?
I gave a contradictory talk, arguing against the idea of independence. Independence is dangerous, I said. The word ‘independence’ tends to be used to insulate independent Iranian cinema and independent Iranian cinema does not gain anything from beating a retreat in a corner in the name of quality or the filmmaker’s ambitions, as compelling as those may be. On the contrary, I argued that it is more interesting to mix it all up.
Indie filmmakers can be very protective of their art, I suppose.
Well, cinema is a very impure thing, but people should play up those impurities. If independent cinema stands alone in a corner it’s in danger of extinction. There are many more benefits to be derived when filmmakers transgress the line between “commercial” and “independent” projects.
Did you participate in any noteworthy discussions afterwards?
Yes, there was a good debate after my talk. We exchanged a lot. Obviously the people who were there were very attached to the idea of independence while for me it was more interesting to disrupt this type of thinking. The position espoused by certain filmmakers in Iran today that, “we’re artists and we feel contempt towards others” is just wrong and does not do them any favors. Instead, they need to try and understand how this work and make it work for them.
You’re one of the few Western film critics to have traveled to Iran on several occasions. Can you recall your first trip for me?
I’ve traveled to Iran five times altogether. The first time was in 1995. The Locarno film festival had organized an Abbas Kiarostami homage that year as well as a retrospective of films made by Iranian women. I accompanied [then-programmer of the Locarno Film Festival] Marco Müller to Tehran. I was able to watch many Kiarostami films that had not been seen abroad, including all his short films. Farabi Foundation also organized screenings of several films.
Which institutions of Iran’s film establishment did you interact with during those stays ?
The first time I went to Iran I was hosted by Farabi foundation, a then-semi-independent film organization. I tend to say “then” because Farabi enjoyed relative autonomy until recently when it was merged with the Ministry of Culture. They had a stand at this year’s Cannes Festival but it is no longer the “Farabi” stand, it’s now under the ministry’s banner.
I also visited with officials from the Hozeh, which is directly linked to the Islamic movement. It’s the double-hierarchy of power, the way it was established ever since the revolution of 1979. Later on, the House of Cinema became the most important actor amid Iran’s institutions. It became a hub during the Green movement and got shut down as a result under Ahmadinejad. It reopened since.
I understand you’ve gone back to Iran on behalf of several different media organizations. You were part of the jury at the Fajr Festival, too?
I went back a few times as a journalist. In 1998 I was member of the jury at the Fajr Festival, yes. I traveled back to Iran once for Le Monde and also for Les Cahiers du Cinéma. This past December I traveled to Tehran mainly for pleasure, although the trip took on an academic nature after the House of Cinema invited me to participate in a talk.
I heard you also took a trip to the sacred city of Qom.
Yes. I was invited there by the clerics establishment to give a talk. I also traveled to Isfahan and Shiraz. Iran is an important country for cinema but it is sightseeing that allowed me to really discover the country outside of panel discussions and screening rooms.
Any take-aways from these multiple trips, some particularly memorable experiences?
During one of my trips I went on the set of GABBEH, by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. We stayed with nomads in the Shiraz region. What’s extraordinary is, when I go to Iran for one reason there are always other things happening which really enrich the experience.
Each time there were new facets that got added on. For example, when I was a member of the jury at the Fajr Festival I got interviewed by journalists from the Iranian media. The tables were turned, since I’m usually the one doing the interviewing. It was very instructive, the way they were asking the questions. It reflected how they saw a foreigner and how I saw and understood things in their eyes.
Also during the Fajr Festival that year I was asked to hold a conference on cinema. Once I got there I realized that the audience was exclusively made up of clerics, from your average mullah to hojatolleslams. They happened to be extremely knowledgeable. Clearly, this was a cultivated and modern group of people who were aware of the world we live in, albeit with a worldview that is different from mine, obviously. They asked me to reflect on my own worldview through cinema. Being given the opportunity to debate my viewpoint with people I’m not used to doing that with was an unusual experience.
Let’s fast-forward to the present. What were your observations concerning state versus private financing in Iran’s film industry?
State financing barely exists [this is not entirely correct. Films that glorify war and martyrdom in the context of the Iran-Iraq war like Nargess Abyar’s TRACK 143, for example, have received significant funds from Iran’s government, although the funds are funneled through private companies set up by the government –ed]. It’s mostly private financing that is put in place.
Private investors tend to invest in commercial films that will be more popular in Iran. Working conditions for people with original screenplays are harder today than they were at the end of the eighties and nineties.
Iran has a rich tradition of cinephilia. Any memorable encounters with the local movie buffs?
When on a trip to Iran a few years ago I was the editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers du Cinéma. I remember having a conversation with some young Iranians who were quite eager to know why, back in 1965, Jacques Rivette had replaced Eric Rohmer as head of the magazine! One can love cinema without knowing anything about these things, although these cinephiles knew the articles and were aware of what was taking place behind the scenes. Les Cahiers are known the world over even by people who haven’t read it. And yet, here are these young Iranians who actually read translated versions of the magazine and dove head-first into that [the magazine’s] culture.
Censorship is everywhere, it exists in France and the U.S. What is its influence on the newest Iranian cinema?
Censorship is a complicated subject. It exists everywhere, that is true. Iran is one of the most invasive countries and this places substantial limitations on filmmakers. The paradox that’s in full evidence is that some of the most compelling films in Iran’s history have been made under the most confining rules. This does not justify censorship but it proves the talent and the intelligence of the filmmakers who have found the means to make such films.
How do they do it?
They create child characters for their films, for example, going as far as making children-oriented films since you’ll feel less pressure from censors when creating child characters. And yet, this does not mean these films can’t raise important questions, complicated and risqué issues of love, feelings, etc.
And yet, clearly it’s harder to make a movie today in Iran compared to ten or fifteen years ago. Not because producers may not make as much money as before on the films, but because censors may just not allow the film to be made, or seen.
“1992-2002 marked a decade of great presence for Iranian cinema”
How healthy is Iranian cinema’s positioning today, among world cinema?
It has weakened, quite clearly, compared to what its position was like between 1992 and 2002, a decade of great presence for Iranian cinema. Things have been in decline ever since for different reasons, in spite of this extreme event that was A SEPARATION winning a Golden Bear and an Oscar and its enormous success in France. But that was an isolated event. I’m not even sure that that was Iranian cinema.
Are you serious?
Obviously, it was made by an Iranian filmmaker, but it’s not in line with my expectations for what Iranian cinema—that which can be diverse, obviously—is.
What’s behind this decline?
The main reason is the loss of interest from the state. They used to be more interested in cinema in the past. Today, you get the feeling there are no longer implicated.
Ida Panahandeh’s NAHID was shown at the last Cannes Festival and co-won the PROMISING FUTURE prize in the Un Certain Regard section along with Neeraj Ghaywan’s MASAAN. Any thoughts about this film and its director?
NAHID boasts a lot of qualities, superior visual framing and a great performance by Sareh Bayat. But the film suffers from the A SEPARATION syndrome.
I remember you qualified A SEPARATION as a “sleek made-for-TV film.”
Yes. There is that aspect of “sleek made-for-TV film” in which the filmmaker apparently feels the obligation to explain everything to the viewer.
Are you referring to NAHID?
No, to A SEPARATION. But there are traces of that in NAHID. The dialogues seem to be there only to explain, to accompany the viewer. The enormous success of A SEPARATION obviously has had a dangerous effect on other Iranian filmmakers.
(photo: Ali Naderzad)
An exhibition in which filmmaker Shirin Neshat’s works of art, now-familiar photographs of humans and religion, feminism and history’s missteps are cobbled together in heterogeneous pièce montées to convey a reality often forgotten nowadays. Exhibit includes, notably, video installations by the artist – Ali Naderzad
Until September 20th.
With her husband in jail Rana (Ghazal Shakeri), a rebellious transsexual, is forced to work as a taxi in order to pay his debts. She avoids telling her family to spare herself from a dishonoring that’s certain. Enter Adineh (Shayesteh Irani). She needs to escape a forced marriage by any means. While her brother seems more understanding her father (played by Homayoun Ershadi) is very hard on her and shows no mercy. Adineh shall marry the man he chose and that’s that. Adineh offers Rana $300 US to take her to Kojoor, in northern Iran. Just as she thought she had accomplished her goals her family catches her up with her.
A social drama that highlights the feminine condition, MIRRORS, like TAXI earlier this year, confronts the viewer to the daily travails of Iranians who alternately fight against, or enforce, society’s traditions.
Director Negar Azarbayjani has directed a compelling film that frames difficult social issues. MIRRORS is a touching film that’s enhanced by the charisma of its two leading actresses – Ali Naderzad
Film is currently playing in limited theaters in France.
Kouros Alaghband is a California-based filmmaker whose short film WIGLUM (15 ‘) is being screened at this year’s Cannes Festival as part of the Short Film Corner showcase. WIGLUM, a surreal parable on our jaded vision of what life may be told from the point of view an office worker on a coffee binge. Film was lensed by cinematographer Alex Vendler (THE WOMAN) and stars the actor Barry del Sherman (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, AMERICAN BEAUTY).
Besides being gifted and exhibiting a genuine passion for cinema Alaghband also speaks its grammar, as evidenced by his short film.
I caught up with the young director in between film screenings.`
ON PICKING THE TITLE: WIGLUM is the lingual embodiment of the mood of that character (played by Barry Del Sherman). It came intuitively.
ON CASTING DEL SHERMAN FOR THE MAIN ROLE: he hasn’t done a short film before, this was his first short. We auditioned fifty actors for the role. He sent us an audition tape from the set of Kelly Reichardt’s NIGHT MOVES.
ON THE GENESIS OF THE PROJECT: I was reading a lot of Samuel Beckett at the time. The contradictions inside Wiglum’s head is something that came out from that.
ON THE CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alex Vandler, who shot THE WOMAN, joined the crew and saw that we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do.
ON THE SHOOTING LOCATIONS: We shot in Oakland and Sonoma, where Wiglum’s house is located.
ON COMING TO CANNES: We met with some producers while here as I want to develop this story. We’re in talks to make WIGLUM into a feature-length film.
ON FINANCING HIS FEATURE-LENGTH FILM: we’re looking for private sources of investment and will possibly mount a new Kickstarter.
ON WIGLUM: We’re not seeing everything so clearly in the end, the film is about that blindness that we have as people. We think we’re seeing everything, and we get defeated because of it. You look at the space you inhabit differently after watching WIGLUM.
I met filmmaker Ida Panahandeh at the Cannes Festival in a year when Iran is opening wide to the international market with a brand-new pavilion at the Village International and a few months after a Jafar Panahi win at the last Berlinale for “Taxi.” 2015 could be a good year for Iranian cinema. This year’s Fajr Festival was split up, so that the international section took place a few weeks after Iranians’ films were shown, although I’m not sure if that particular event is a part of the opening up or not.
Panahandeh looked modest in appearance and wore barely any make-up, leading me to wonder if she’s usually like this or is it a “I’m being watched so I’m keeping it on the down low” kind of thing. She is probably a low profile-type individual, preferring all the attention were directed at her work as a filmmaker, likely.
The Nahid of the title is played reliably well by Sareh Bayat, one of Iran’s actresses better-known internationally ever since appearing in Asghar Farhadi’s film A SEPARATION (2011). The number of women actresses who can carry an entire film is is in the low single digits: Leila Hatami, Baran Kosari and Bayat. Her Nahid gets angered, frustrated and anguished at the various indignities that her situation as a divorcee serves her up, NAHID providing yet another peek into Iran’s social attitudes towards women, marriage and family.
The woman struck a deal. She can keep her boy, as long as she remains celibate. But here’s the kicker: there’s a man she has a liaison with, that which threatens to ruin the fragile equilibrium of her life. “Sigheh,” or the arranged marriage which Nahid and her love interest (played by Pejman Bazeghi) chooses as an option to circumvent her agreement with her ex-husband is not, as could be inferred, the central theme of the film. This is something that Panahandeh emphasized during our conversation together. “The core of the film’s narrative is that it is a drama, about love.”
The filmmaker added, “although it is legal under Islamic law, sigheh is very strongly frowned upon in Iranian society.”
I asked the filmmaker about the financials of making the film and territories sold. Besides noting that French rights had been sold already, Panahandeh knew next to nothing about the business end of her film and deferred questions to the film’s producer who hasn’t responded to several email inquiries, so it’s a wash. In the U.S and France, where I interview filmmakers regularly, if asked a filmmaker on a small-budget film would immediately come up with funding sources and sales when asked. Is that simply a matter of Iranian reserve, or an heightened sense of division of labor?
The most memorable part of the interview came up when I asked Panahandeh about working with her contributors, co-screenwriter Arsalan Amiri, soundtrack composter Majid Pousti and director of photography Morteza Gheidi. Panahandeh gushed over the strengths of her collaborators’ work, saying this was the best possible team she could’ve assembled together for the film.
She had three possible actresses in mind for the role of Nahid, one of whom was Bayat. She wouldn’t tell me who the other ones were. Rakhshan Banietemad gave a strong show of confidence in favor of Bayat, which possibly helped the filmmaker in her making a final decision.
The film, which has gotten its exhibition permit, will be screened in Iran this summer, although it hasn’t been specified exactly when. “The Eid-e fetr period, after Ramadan, is the best time for a film to screen in Iran.”
When she came on stage for the premiere of the film a few days ago, I was struck by Panahandeh’s self-confidence. She spoke English nearly fluently and thanked her crew, fest’s Thierry Frémaux and Christian Jeune as well as her parents. She told me during our interview together that she was used to speaking in public and had been to many film festivals before.
Panahandeh already has a decade of filmmaking behind her, a number of prizes and awards and some festival mileage. One thing that did surprise the filmmaker, however, was seeing Cannes audiences crying after the screening of her film. She told me, “Iranians don’t show emotions in public so that was quite amazing to watch.” – Ali Naderzad
This is Panahandeh’s first sortie unto the world stage, with a 105 minute-long film about love, separation and “sigheh,” a curious practice that exists in Iran which allows for a temporary marriage between two people, for a variety of reasons.
Although this is frowned upon among good society, the practice is deployed (by applying for a license) whenever needed by couples in need.
Sareh Bayat plays the lead role of Nahid, a single mother whose son grows rebellious after his junkie father flies the coop. She spends the length of the film negotiating with the various parties, from family to in-laws over job, money and most importantly, the custody of her son.
The agreement she struck with her former husband is that she retain custody of their son, as long as she doesn’t take a new husband. It seems like a raw deal but that’s the agreement she made with her ex-husband. All would be well, were it not for the fact that she’s met someone (played by the charismatic Pejman Bazeghi) their mutual attraction for one another threatening to disrupt the fragile balancing act she’s attempted to maintain.
Panahandeh, Bayat and Bazeghi as well as Navid Mohammad Zadeh were present at this morning’s screening inside the Debussy theater, before a full house. The film got an ovation afterwards. Look for my interview with Ida Panahandeh on Monday – Ali Naderzad