“This situation requires the filmmakers to be more creative in handling their mostly simple stories, which sometimes are so simple as to seem very modern and minimalistic.”
With more than a hundred films and documentaries, award-winner Khosrow Sinai is not only an accomplished film director with a career that spans 40 years but also a famous Iranian scholar. His films are unique: full of finesse and artistry. In one of his very rare interviews, the veteran of Iranian cinema tells us about his career, his films, and his projects.
You are one of the most prolific Iranian directors with over a hundred films. Your work shows a sensitivity and a form of aesthetics that are unique in modern Iranian cinema. What is your background, and how did you come to filming?
I was born in a family who were mostly physicians (father, brother, uncles, etc.), so being an artist was not a tradition in my family. But when I was about twelve years old, I started to write poems, and it was the first step which was different from the traditional way of my family. At about the same time I started to learn on a very serious basis to play the accordion, which was very popular at that time; and also to learn painting through private courses (at which I was not very talented). In 1958, I went to Vienna to study architecture and music composition. For four years I studied architecture at the technical university, and at the same time three years of music composition at the academy for music and dramatic arts in Vienna. At the same time I continued to play accordion at the music conservatory there, and brought it to a virtuoso level, and had many concerts with the conservatory’s accordion quintet and also solo concerts. My last solo concert was in the Mozart Hall of the Vienna Concert Hall (on 6 November1965). Returning to Iran in 1967, I gave up playing accordion; because there was not an audience for classical accordion music, and I was too busy with filmmaking to stay in form for playing serious music. In addition to all of this, a booklet of my poetry was published by the “Iran Modern Art Gallery” in 1963, called “The Mud Blisters.” (I did not continue to publish my poetry after that, although occasionally some poems are printed here and there.)
I had given up music composition to follow my architecture studies, but for me the technical university was too conservative and too technical (I am an anti-talent regarding mathematics and technology). At that time, cinema was for me just an entertainment media. But it happened that a friend who studied filmmaking at the academy asked me to play the main part in his student film (during my school years I had played in several theatre pieces). Through that short film I discovered cinema, and was fascinated by behind-the-camera activities. I found that it could be the ideal form Gesamtkunstwerk, and I had the background of literature, music, architecture; and had studied the theories of Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, and others. So I decided to try my luck at the Film Academy, attempted the entry exams, and was chosen as one of 8 out of 120 volunteers. The years at the academy were very successful. I saw films like Intolerance (Griffith), Jeanne D’Arc (Dreyer), The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein), Umberto D. (Zavatini-De Sica), and also experimental films of Stan Brakhage, and had to analyze them. It was during the 1960s, and I saw many films by Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, the French new wave, and also the films of young filmmakers from Eastern European schools (Poland, Czechoslovakia, and later Hungary). But of all of these films, the one which I always bear in mind is The Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. For me just storytelling is not enough; a film should be a balanced work between the dramatic arts and the fine arts; and this was where began my problems with Iranian cinema.
How do you find inspiration for your films?
The only thing I am sure about is that one can’t consciously seek real inspiration. It just comes to you where and when it decides to. You must have just the nature and the talent to catch inspiration when it comes. That is why I believe that those who try hard to be inspired by something are lost. This I have learned by writing poetry and music for my films. When some months later, I read them or listen to them, it is as if they belong to someone else. They become so strange to me. But with filmmaking it is different. I think because the process of filmmaking, as a medium of art, is not so pure; like writing poetry, or making music. Too many people are engaged in it, and can influence your thoughts — for good or bad; a film needs a long time to be ready, and of course all the time your mind is manipulated by the various ideas of your crew; some of them are inspiring, and some are disturbing. That’s why to have the right crew, who know my way of thinking, is very important to me.
With filmmaking it starts with an idea, which is commissioned to me, or I have been attracted to it through an event. If it is a commissioned film with a deadline for completion, I have to decide soon. But if it is a film where I am free, I let the idea mature, and then I start to write it for a film. My documentary The Lost Requiem (above) about Polish refugees who were brought from Siberia to Iran during WWII, needed thirteen years of research (of course meanwhile I made many other films, but it was always in my mind). During those years I lived with the story, and those Polish people who had remained in Iran. For my narrative film Bride of Fire, I had eight years of research (going to prisons and interviewing those who had killed their sisters or cousins to save their so-called honour). It was very important, because through those interviews I found that most of them were not natural born killers, but they had grown up with false, dangerous beliefs, which were traditional in their tribes. When the idea is there, and the research is done, I start to write; and here is where inspiration must come. What is funny is that for years, when I wrote on cheap yellowish paper, with a simple pencil or pen, I got the best inspiration. And of course there is always background music, which puts me in the right mood for writing down the film; which in that stage I mostly see in sequences, sometimes in single shots; and if necessary, just during writing, I decide the music which may be needed. Of course the last decisions are made during the editing of the film, and in adding the soundtrack on it. Last but not least, one should open the mind to new inspirations (if they come) until the last moment possible.
A film director entertains a particular relation with his films, but which is your favourite?
I have made many films (perhaps too many!). Those which I have made on commission, or which have been made for a general public (some of them successful, some less so) could not always exceed the restrictions which have existed culturally, socially, and politically, during all the years that I have made films in Iran. That’s why among more than a hundred films which I’ve made, I would call only a few my own. To overcome this handicap, I used to call my crew, when I am free from so-called “professional films” and make a film of my own choice and using my own budget. These films refresh my mind, and prepare me to start a professional project. So of those films which I have produced myself (mostly experimental documentaries), the three dearest to me are: Ars poetica (1968; 12 mins.); Gizella (1993, 23 mins.), and Songs of Silence (2004, 15 mins.) And of my documentaries: The Lost Requiem (1983, 93 mins.) and Impressions of a City, Tehran Today (1977, 88 mins.). Of my feature films, three have been most known and popular: Viva . . . ! (1980, 105 mins.), In the Alleys of Love (1991, 78 mins.) and Bride of Fire (2000, 114 mins., above).
How do you select your actors?
First of all it depends on the film which I am going to make. I believe that for some kinds of films, non-actors are much more believable, and I have a lot of experience working with them, through the many short films I have made. In such films I choose them according to their physical characteristics, and of course their talent. In such films I have to take care over my shot break-downs and dialogues. Clearly they can’t deliver a long text in front of the camera, except when you describe to them the content which is needed, and let them improvise their own text (the same is true of child actors), and of course in such a case I avoid long and complicated camera movements. But in a film which needs professional actors, it is completely different. First they should fit the part which they have to play. I have nothing against stars and famous actors, but the key for me is that they should fit the part (and this is one of my great problems with commercial producers). Just because of this, I can claim to have introduced several new actors to the Iranian audience, some of whom have become very popular. With these actors, depending on complications of characters and texts, we need time to practise, and in such a case, the camera movements are an inseparable part of my dramatic structure. For me the camera movements are a part of the dramatic explanation, and that’s why I prefer camera movements which are obvious, but are not seen as a technical issue. They should be so interwoven into the mise-en-scène, and the actor’s movements that mostly are not realized but create an inner tension, especially in closed and restricted spaces (as in a small room).
Your films have been very well received and have received awards in foreign film festivals, but how would you explain the fact that few of them have been distributed in Europe?
Maybe my success began too soon. I won my first prize at the film academy in Vienna in 1967, and then for my documentary film Beyond the Noise at the festival of films for children and young adults in Tehran (1968). In those days Iranian cinema was not so well known internationally, and those films were not introduced to the international audience. I was busy making numerous short and documentary films, and missed the chance of making my first long feature film, thinking that I had enough time in front of me. So in spite of having at least four scenarios ready for long feature films, before the revolution, I didn’t come to an agreement with commercial producers, and missed the chance of becoming famous like others of my generation (unfortunately only long feature films are the real milestones for success and fame).
So I decided to produce my first feature film, with my own crew and the little money that we had gathered by making short films. The location of ninety percent of the story was in my own house. By co-incidence, it was around the time of the success of the Iranian revolution, and although my film was called Viva . . . !, people were at a loss as to who was being celebrated. In a revolutionary situation, most of the ordinary people are usually attracted by the manipulated mass movement, and will shout “Viva . . . !” — or indeed, “Down with . . . !” — without knowing who they are referring to and realizing “Viva” who? This has been happening in many Eastern, African, and South American countries for decades; and this is what happened beforeWWII in Italy and Germany. The individuality of man is mostly lost and dissolved into the revolutionary excitement, of masses. The film won a prize at Karlovy Vary in 1980, and was shown with great success in the Amphitheatre of the Vienna Technical University; and was chosen along with Kurosawa’s Kagemusha Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby as one of the films of the week, by two Austrian newspapers. But coming back to Iran, soon it was forbidden from being shown, and it is still forbidden today.
What do you think about modern Iranian cinema?
After the revolutionary authorities came to power, they tried to have the pre-revolution filmmakers forgotten, and build up their post-revolution filmmakers, who enjoyed all kinds of support (among them Makhmalbaf and Majidi). Among filmmakers of my generation, only Kiarostami managed to have his films shown extensively outside Iran; and his great success meant that the authorities could not prevent him from building up his fame further. But this was also a warning for the authorities. Other filmmakers of my generation had to struggle each time for at least three or four years to get the opportunity to make a feature film, and if the films were not in the line which the authorities wished, they were bought by governmental institutions, and landed in the Archives, and were rarely sent out of Iran to be distributed. At least, there was no support for such films to be introduced.
It is regrettable that in relation to Iran, everything became too political, and foreign festivals and distributors didn’t choose Iranian films because of their artistic qualities, but much more because of their exotic approach to Iranian society. I am sorry to say that some foreign festivals and distributors worked hand in hand with the Iranian governmental institutions, which preferred to introduce films from filmmakers whom they supported. Few of the younger generation of filmmakers managed to have their critical films (like Panahi’s The Circle) introduced at foreign festivals. During all these years my generation became older and older, so we were no longer interesting for festivals and distributors to be discovered unless we could make really exceptional and interesting films, which under the circumstances, for us, is rarely possible.
Last but not least, filmmaking is a show business, and to be successful in it you have to be a good showman, and also a good businessman, and I strongly believe that I lack both these characteristics. I don’t mean it is a positive point, but it is my nature, and I haven’t been able to change it over the years. I know that I have lost many opportunities to be successful during my career, but the only thing I never lost was my independence, for which I eagerly pay until today.
What is your relationship with Iranian filmmakers?
When I started to make films in Iran in 1967, Iranian cinema was mainly based on commercial films which were mostly inspired or copied from commercial American or Indian films. So those young filmmakers who returned from America or Europe with new ideas could rarely find a chance to make feature films in the commercial film industry and had to start making documentaries and short films in the Ministry of Culture and Arts, Iranian TV, and similar organisations; which was an excellent training for them to find their styles of expression in their short and documentary films. At the same time, several of them were invited to teach at different institutions, where they could train a new generation of filmmakers, bringing to them new ideas from modern cinema, mostly from Europe and America, of which, for example, Italian new realism was one of the most popular. That is why I believe that to find the roots of modern Iranian cinema, you have to search among the short and documentary films which were made during the 1960s and 1970s. After the Iranian revolution, commercial filmmaking was banned, and the new generation of post-revolution filmmakers, influenced by ideas and experiences of those young short and documentary filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, got the opportunity to make long feature films which became the so-called “Modern Iranian Cinema.”
I think that the main problem of modern Iranian cinema is its dependence on individual talents which appear from time to time. It means that there is not a real professional system which can support the filmmakers, if they want to make technically more complicated films (for example, historical films). Unlike many young talented and creative film director and actors, we have just a few real professional stage designers, make-up specialists, special effects specialists, laboratories, and so on, and that is why as you see, most of the successful modern Iranian films are low-budget films with children, non-actors, and filmed in real places. Of course, this situation requires the filmmakers to be more creative in handling their mostly simple stories, which sometimes are so simple as to seem very modern and minimalistic. From one point of view, it is not bad at all: technical and social limitations push the filmmakers into seeking new types of expression. On the other hand, it limits most of them to similar stories and forms. This is the modern Iranian cinema, which is known nowadays as a cinema with a human face.
With regard to my relationship with other Iranian filmmakers, I can say it is based on mutual respect; each of us in my generation has been active about forty years, and has his enthusiasts and opponents. Some are more successful in Iran and some outside of Iran, but we know that all of us had to go through difficult situations, and had to overcome hard times to continue to be active as a filmmaker. Maybe that’s the reason for our mutual respect.