Bright Lights Film Journal

Iranian Independent Cinema, Its Challenges and Future: An Interview with Abdolreza Kahani

Abdolreza Kahani

I have made films both in Iran and France, so I know the conditions. In France, when funding is given, there are no strings attached to it. You are free to make whatever you like, and what you make is supported. It is good cinema that is important. The exact reverse of this happens in Iran. – Abdolreza Kahani

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Introduction by Hadi Khanmohammadi Zunuzi

Despite having one of the most diverse bodies of work in the past decade of Iranian cinema, Abdolreza Kahani is also one of the most suppressed filmmakers in Iran. His films have mostly been confiscated or banned from public screenings and are not allowed to be shown in many international festivals since all of his work encroaches on the limits of the Islamic Republic.

Born in 1973 in Neyshabur, Kahani was a child at the time of Iran’s Islamic Revolution; as a teenager he witnessed the hard eight years of his country’s war with Iraq, but from those years he showed an interest in cinema and made his first short film at the age of sixteen. After getting a BA in theater acting, Kahani followed up some documentaries and short films with his first feature film, Dance with the Moon, in 2004, which went unfinished due to production problems. Two years later, he made Adam, the story of a strange rural society, led by the title character, that appears to have conquered death until the arrival of a mysterious woman (in a jeep). The film was admired by critics but was banned for three years by Iran’s Ministry of Culture; according to Iranian authorities, Adam presented a negative image of Iranian society.

Adam

His next feature, the black-and-white Over There (2008), showed Kahani’s interest in experimenting with cinematic techniques in both the narrative and the visuals. This movie was also banned from public screenings, because of its “dark” representation of Iran, but won the best film award at Thessaloniki International Film Festival in 2008. Kahani’s first work to mark him as an important filmmaker was Twenty (2009), which tells the story of a function hall’s staff and its depressed owner who decides to close the hall on short notice. This was the first of Kahani’s works to be shown publicly, and ut garnered acclaim as a powerful social drama, winning international awards such as the Special Prize of the Jury from Karlovy Vary and the Silver Award at the Damascus Film Festival.

Most critics see Kahani’s next film, Nothing (2010), as one of the greatest works in Iranian cinema, but it was again attacked for presenting a negative image of Iranian society. While the authorities prevented its appearance at many international festivals, this did not stop it from winning the Audience Award at the 2010 Yerevan Film Festival in Armenia. With its theatrical absurdism, Nothing was a new experience in Iranian cinema, reflecting a bitter but also comedic aspect of Iranian society. Both gritty and absurd, his next film, Absolutely Tame Is a Horse (2011). is a powerful study of one night in the life of a corrupt Tehran cop.

Nothing

By No Reason (2012), Kahani’s next work, did not receive as much praise as his previous films, but still proved problematic for the director. Due to the political and media frenzy around the film, the director decided to go to France to produce his next film, We Have Got Time (201), a domestic drama about a troubled romantic relationship. Kahani returned to Iran after some changes in the country’s political conditions and made Absolute Rest (2015), which followed the trend of his social dramas.

Having a new government in Iran, however, did not change Kahani’s situation. Although he acceded to the Ministry of Culture’s demands to delete some scenes and dialogue, Absolute Rest was still rejected by Iran’s premier annual cinema event, the Fajr Film Festival. It has been argued that the festival’s decision was intended as a preemptive measure to avoid the problems with the authorities that Kahani’s work always seem to generate.

Absolute Rest

This is a particularly troubling situation for a director of Kahani’s calibre. While the films have a kind of stark simplicity, they explore a complex range of cultural, economic, and psychological issues in characters who struggle through their ordinary moments of life, both sad and happy.

While most contemporary Iranian filmmakers simply avoid any sort of critique of the state, couched or otherwise, Kahani tries to subtly confront his culture while also telling a good story. In the director’s work, the story comes first and the social commentary can be found by those who are looking for it. This delicate dance is one of the things that makes his films so engaging.

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The following is a telephone interview with Kahani following the Fajr Film Festival decision to remove Absolute Rest from the list of official selections. At this writing, he is awaiting approval for a possible commercial release. We first discussed the nature of independent filmmaking in Iran before looking at the specific characteristics of Kahani’s work.

You have introduced yourself on various occasions as an independent filmmaker. What does it mean to be an independent filmmaker in Iran? Is it merely a matter of financial freedom?

More than having financial independence, having disinterested opinions with regard to any norm or party also makes an independent filmmaker. It means freedom of thought so that you can build what you like. It means investing in a movie from your own thoughts rather than waiting for others to invest and tell you what to think and make. When I say I am an independent filmmaker, I mean that I can put my own thoughts into a movie without the obligations that come with sponsorships.

What are the most important concerns of an independent Iranian filmmaker?

Lack of interest. When you make an indie movie without connections, you don’t get a lot of attention. The government does not help you in the production and release of the movie, and indie movies are not licensed for official television because of the personal and independent views expressed in them. The reason for this is that official television follows a view that more or less reflects the government’s view. I am discussing problems inside Iran, and so there is not a lot of opportunity to win awards in the country unless something becomes important. Similarly, this means that there are also not a lot of opportunities to advertise the movie. All of these factors that lead to lack of attention to the movie come together and add up, which I think are the main constraints that indie filmmakers have to deal with. I think some of these constraints are intentionally imposed so that they will stop working since indie filmmakers present subjects within the mainstream that have no interest for various organizations and ministries; they want indie filmmakers to make movies along these designated lines.

By No Reason

One of the lifelines of any form of cinema is its funding. In some countries, like France, government support ensures that youth, minorities, women, and amateurs can make indie movies. Is there a similar organization in Iran supporting indie filmmakers?

I have made films both in Iran and France, so I know the conditions. In France, when funding is given, there are no strings attached to it. You are free to make whatever you like, and what you make is supported. It is good cinema that is important. The exact reverse of this happens in Iran. For instance, when you take money from an institution (which is not something I have done, but many have), you must make your film in relative compliance to their codes or else there will be problems. Sometimes the funding comes from an individual, but it’s all the same. When I say institutions, I don’t only mean government institutions, since every organization or person imposes his own views on you and expects things. I do not mean that any movie funded in this way is bad, but in places like France no one specifies do’s and don’ts; this is to the point where it’s a crime sometimes to read a script in France. The French are investing in their movie makers, helping them to improve themselves and enabling artists to build up their portfolios, which are then evaluated when funding decisions are being made.

More funding is also designated for areas in which French cinema is weak, which is how they grow. In Iran, it is the subject matter of a proposed film which determines the support given to the filmmaker. This is why there is less passion for making films about diverse subjects in Iran. For instance, if you make movies about the holy war – and I don’t want to talk about the morality of these movies – there is a special budget for these movies. When you make a film about war, there are sponsors, and so filmmakers tend to move to those subjects so that they can make some money and survive. This is how passion dies away, though, and is what I mean by lack of independence. In France, they don’t do that; they help you to get on your feet and choose what you like. For instance, when Mme. X, who goes over the scripts, decides among various scripts, she chooses one on the basis of its merits and qualities rather than its subject matter. I do not know of any sponsor in Iran whose support doesn’t come with strings attached, and if I knew such an entity I would have followed up. In France, I got funding from the mayoral office and they did not even read my script. They first saw the film in the theatres. I could even make a film against the mayor and nothing would have happened because they have at least done their duty to support the filmmaker, and they don’t care what the subject matter is. But in Iran, the duty of helping the filmmaker includes imposing ideas on the filmmaker.

Isn’t this lack of support detrimental to the survival of the filmmaker?

It definitely is. There are these supports all over the world, and it is obvious that cinema is an expensive and risky business. There must be some support, but not like the kind in Iran, where there are movies with bad reputations that reek of the ideas the sponsors put into them. In France, there are movies that attack the government and its corruption, but their budget comes from the very government they attack, which does its duty in distributing funding for art and culture.

Has the new Iranian government brought any change to the way independent filmmakers are supported? Do you feel there is a difference from the previous one?

Unfortunately, I do not feel any differences. I had another interview, and there I said that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Rouhani is only in a smile but not in actions.

How are the Iranian film festivals? Do they support filmmakers? Do you see any differences between the old and new government there?

It depends on who organizes the film festival. The Fajr Film Festival is government sponsored, and it is natural that they support and award in such a way as to ignore and corner the independent filmmakers so that eventually they will die out, as happens every year. There are no free and private film festivals in Iran.

Kahani on set

Are you suggesting there are no ways of showing an independent movie in the Fajr Film Festival?

Yes, there is. You did not get my point. There is support in name, by which I mean only films which reflect the sponsor’s point of view are supported. As soon as there is a bit of personal views or a criticism, they would deem the movie unfit and will not support it, meaning that the film will die out by itself.

How necessary is it to participate in foreign film festivals to continue working?

They too have their own constraints sometimes, and unfortunately they follow these policies that end up surprising the world when they announce their selections. They have their own agendas, after all, and I do not want to say that it is bad here and great there. I mean it is bad here, but it is slightly better. You must have seen where they give their attention to films which are not necessarily good but their subject matter reflects something that makes the festival stand out. Even in Cannes sometimes films are selected without merit, and not all of their films are from Kiarostami, Haneke, or the Dardenne brothers. There are bad films with the stamp of Berlin or Cannes festivals. These films get in because they present a subject matter that agrees with some of the implicit policies to which these organizations have been conforming. These movements are destructive to serious filmmaking, and serious films are only alive at the box office when released and distributed so that people go, pay, and actually watch them. Despite the ever deteriorating situation for independent filmmakers in foreign film festivals, these festivals can still provide some escape for Iranian independent filmmakers to get out there. They provide a glimpse of hope so that maybe an Iranian filmmaker will be selected and make a name so that in return the films can be shown more and produce some return on the investment.

Considering how much your own movies have sold in Iran, do you think independent cinema can rely on people for support?

Actually, that is the only thing I believe in; I do not believe in anything else and think that you misunderstood my point earlier when I was saying that in the end, the film must appear on the screens and people must pay for it and return the investment. This is how it should be everywhere, and film festivals must facilitate this. In fact, getting the approval of the festivals and the public screenings of films are only there to complement the public support.

You traveled to France for your last work. Does this global reach help Iranian independent cinema?

I must say, I made a film called Absolute Rest in Iran after my trip to France, where I made one called We Have Time (see trailer below). This was a great experience for me to work in France since the previous government did not give me a license to work in Iran during its last year in power. I thought I must do something, and so I moved to France, where I wanted to make one film by myself and stand on my own feet. At the same time, I wanted to experience another culture, another cinema, and to work with new people. I believe cinema is not a local effort; a lot can be done locally, but cinema is a type of art form that must have global reach regardless of where you make it. It is better to make films in your own place of birth, but because of the nature of the business, it is better if you can cross boundaries and have new experiences. Cinema is an international art form.

Do you think rising new digital technologies are financially helpful to indie filmmakers?

Yes they are, since before these innovations we had to use government-provided equipment because getting it from outside the country would be much more expensive. The amount of this government-provided equipment was limited, and so not everyone got access, meaning that fewer films were produced. Now there are twice as many films made every year, and if they get rid of the constraints still in place and open up the working conditions and licenses, then I think there would be around 300 films produced every year. I do not know how this would work out in the release and distribution stages, though, since there are cheaper movies in the private sector. There are now more cameramen available, and newer filmmakers are also more audacious, with the number of filmmakers under 30 having increased dramatically. However, I should add that because it is now so much easier to get equipment, the quality and the thought put into new films is somewhat diminishing, to the point where it now seems that there are lower standards. Nonetheless, new digital technologies have created a wave of excitement, and considering the high-quality pictures that these technologies can produce, I think it is better overall.

Do you consider yourself an auteur? Do you pursue certain specific themes?

I try to avoid some issues. I do not say this film was my best, or was better than this or that film, and whether or not I am an “auteur” is not something for me to say. Those who can come up and ascribe these labels are outside the process of filmmaking. Serious critics and moviegoers may find traces of something in a few movies someone makes, and ascribe that label to the filmmaker, but if I were to decide myself, I would definitely say that I am not an auteur. No auteur thinks about whether or not they are one since they are busy doing what they do. None of the movements in film theory were started for the sake of starting a movement. Artists did not come together and say let’s create cubism. Art just happens, and those who specialize in studying it find trends and investigate their details. I try to avoid these labels, although I have heard them talking about them with regard to my films. I don’t take them too seriously.

Your style seems to pay specific attention to the classes of people who suffer from poverty, and your characters usually do not come from the richer classes. What makes you interested in these characters?

I don’t try to make a film about a specific class; I look for a story. The stories deal with certain classes, and if the story mesmerizes me, then I stick to it and look at what class of people the story is about. If I have chosen the middle classes most of the time, it is because of my own upbringing. I do not have a designated way of finding a class of people. What attracts me is what you see in the films I make.

Although your movies are mostly about social and cultural issues, I am specifically attracted to your metaphorical style of storytelling. We may disagree over exactly what you are symbolizing, but I think it is impossible to say that your work does not stand for a specific political or social issue. What is the source of this style? Do you see yourself as a symbolic filmmaker? Do you think this way of structuring your movies makes it easier to deal with the complications of the issues you come across with?

No, no. Definitely not! As a rule, I try to avoid symbols and metaphors unless they somehow force themselves into the work. Some of my stories are such that they just begged for a symbol or a metaphor here and there, such as Hich [Nothing, 2010], which has many symbols in it, while Horse [Absolutely Tame Is a Horse, 2011] has fewer and Twenty [2009] has more. I do not like symbols, though; I like real life. Whatever is there, that is what I like. This is what I see, and if there are symbols in my films, it is because they are there in real life. Sometimes, we lead our lives by just living them, and other times we say so-and-so are like or reminiscent of so-and-so. However, this type of symbolism sits calmly within the film and just flows so well with the story that you don’t come out and say the film is “symbolic.” These films are not full of symbols; those movies look like theatre. That sort of symbolism is not my style. Whatever symbols are part of the life flow of the story, I can agree with them in my stories.

On the set of Absolutely Tame Is a Horse

An absurdist approach dominates your style, and your works are sometimes reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. The grotesque approach is also seen in there. Can you talk a bit about these approaches? Who inspired you to do this?

No, I was not under anyone’s influence. Absurdism, grotesquism, and other styles are just like auteurism. I do not make a conscious decision to make an absurdist film, and the stories I like happen to take the form of one style or another. Those who watch the films label them this way. These labels do not add any value to the film by themselves, no matter how fancy the label is. This is true not only of my films, but for any film. People should not applaud these labels, they should applaud the film, if of course the film meets the requirements of a good film.

Your mise-en-scène is sometimes limited, like theatre, such as in Bikhod & Bi Jahat [By No Reason, 2012]. The space is limited, and as in theatre, there is a sort of vortex vision. This makes me wonder – why did you not use theatre as your medium?

The story begged for a film there. That film, the movements of the camera, the relative positions of the actors in front of the camera, and the persistent sameness of each position, and the theatre-like emphasis of the story on the characters begged for it to be a film. No perception other than that of the characters was supposed to be there. Camera, sound, music, script, plot, and all of the other cinematic efforts were supposed to be invisible, meaning that only these characters would show themselves. Whatever the people do in the scene, that’s the only thing we are communicating with. I am not picky about camera lenses; I just follow the characters. I agree that the film is a bit like theatre, but if a film is like theatre, that should not be a disadvantage.

Your works feature few close-ups, and you usually show characters in a wide shot. This is most obvious in Hich and Absolutely Tame Is a Horse. What is the rationale behind this?

When we take close-ups, there should be something important there. But when there are these very narrow shots, I think we ask what is happening here that could not have happened in a medium shot? What are we supposed to look for in a close-up of the actor’s face? In real life too, when we focus on someone’s face is when we are noticing something specific, like a drop of a tear. Usually in real life we just view the person in his or her entirety. When we see close-ups, we engage with the emotions, but my films are not supposed to engage with the emotions. They may have emotional scenes, but there is no aim to provoke the audience, make them tear up or feel other emotions.

Is there anything you want to add?

I have a few projects for the future, including a film that I am going to work on outside of Iran, in France. In Iran, I do not know what will come up after Absolute Rest, though I want to try producing in Iran and am following up on that. But as we speak, I am not very sure about the future; I am just working away on the current projects.

NOTE: All photos from the collection of Abdolreza Kahani; used with his permission.