The Future of Iranian Cinema
Three emerging Iranian filmmakers at TIFF ‘17 describe how they’re making their own cinema in their country’s image
Iran has one of the most distinguished national cinemas in the world, from the early silent era to the First New Wave of the sixties to the late-20th-century filmmaking of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi. In addition to creating a new cinematic language, Iranian cinema continues to endure, despite rigorous censorship and artistic persecution. This year at the Academy Awards, filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for his humanist drama The Salesman. Farhadi did not attend, in protest of the Trump administration’s inhumane decree to ban Muslims and refugees from entering the country unless they fit his specific list of requirements.
At TIFF ‘17, three young Iranian filmmakers have crafted films that uniquely illustrate the tension and artistic spirit found in the next generation of Iranian cinema. In Abed Abest’s Simulation, the filmmaker tells the story of a tragic accident with events unfolding in reverse-chronological order. Shot on a soundstage with clean, crystalline cinematography and dream-like intrusions, it’s as much a cinematic poem as it is an allusion to his country’s political climate.
Sadaf Fouroughi’s AVA is a film that was shot in Tehran, but can be found in the Canadian programme at the Festival. Teenager Ava is sent to the gynecologist for an inspection of her hymen when her family believes she has been sexually active. Ava soon realizes that the people she has always had faith in (like her family and her teachers) are more concerned with upholding societal expectations than respecting her privacy.
Lastly, Ali Asgari’s debut feature, Disappearance, follows two young lovers on a cold, dark night in Tehran as they travel to hospital after hospital in search medical help for a crucial, life-saving surgery. Emotionally charged and filmed sensitively to capture his two teenaged protagonist’s anxious glances and shuttered breaths, Disappearance reveals a modern Iranian couple caught in the gap between the system.
We asked these filmmakers to share their feelings about their country’s cinematic heritage, their films at TIFF ‘17, and how to speak in your own voice, despite the pressures imposed by creative censorship. You can watch the final screenings of Simulation (Sept. 17 at 6pm at Scotiabank Theatre), AVA (Sept. 17 at 6:30pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox), and Disappearance (Sept. 17 at 9pm at Scotiabank) during the final weekend of the Festival with some cast and crew in attendance.
Tell us a bit about your background. Did you study cinema, or go to film school?
Abed Abest, Director of Simulation: I grew up in Abadan, a city in the vicinity of the borderline of Iraq in southwest Iran. When the war finished, I was two years old. I grew up in a ruined city with anguished people who were psychologically and mentally-disordered. The rebuilding of these war-stricken cities still continues today. At first, I studied architecture but left this field to attend theatre school in Tehran. Afterwards, I went to cinema school there. I started working in the theatre as an actor. After few years, I performed in a film called Fish & Cat as an actor. As a filmmaker, I’ve made a short film called I Haven't Seen Hosein Since the Day Before Yesterday., and a semi-long film called The Corner. Simulation is my first feature.
Sadaf Fouroughi, Director of AVA: I graduated with a M.A. in Film Studies from the University of Provence (Aix-Marseille), then I continued my Ph.D. in Film Philosophy at the same university. I have also a degree in Film Production from the New York Film Academy.
Ali Asgari, Director of Disappearance: I studied cinema at the University of Rome and took some film studies courses. Before that, I worked for a few years as an assistant director and a production assistant in Iran, then I moved to Italy to study cinema.
What attracted you to cinema? Has that changed since you started making films yourself?
Abed Abest: At the beginning, similar to a multitude of young people, the appearance of film attracted me. [I also appreciate that] no matter what religion, race, or strata of society you are in, a film can make an impact for many different walks of people. It makes it a kind of democracy which attracts my respect. After making this film, one of my main concerns is how to take an audience on the journey to understand a film through their imaginations.
Sadaf Fouroughi: I believe that making films are the best way to explore and understand life. I am very intrigued by storytelling, the moments I am alone with my characters. I am also immersed in the world of my story during the process of filmmaking, writing, or directing. The moments where I’m pondering over the ways I can express myself by choosing a frame, or leading the actors, are the moments I feel very close to myself. I want to dig into my soul to find a language to share my thoughts with an audience.
Ali Asgari: From when I was very young, around 17 or 18, I really liked cinema. I started watching a common Iranian TV show where they would screen one art house film every week. There would always be a Q&A afterwards with a critic. After watching this program for many years, I decided to work in film. I started working backstage as an assistant, an assistant producer, then an assistant director, but only started to make films when I was quite mature, around 26 or 27. My ideas about cinema haven’t changed that much, but there has been a transition from my point-of-view as an audience member to a filmmaker. It used to be more imaginary, now it’s more practical.
How would you describe the cinema culture and industry in Iran? What are the challenges of making films there?
Abed Abest: I will answer the first part of this question by quoting Mr. Abbas Kiarostami. After an interviewer asked him, “What is your point of view about this regime?", he responded by saying that he is not like this street or that square, he is alive as a tree, which based on different climates will survive and give birth to its fruits. We will bear fruit wherever we will be, under any conditions. This is also the culture of our country, Iran, which exists steadfast and with deep roots.
Referring to making films in Iran, I think the films there are fallen into two groups as follows. The first group, which has the upper hand, adapts themselves completely to the actual conditions. Not only do these films not try to change anything, but they also do their best to maintain the status quo. The second group, which has the lower hand, gradually produces films to evolve their surroundings and Iranian cinema. This cinema is their life, and by revolutionizing cinema, they upgrade themselves.
The most challenging factor in Iranian cinema right now is the presence of hierarchy and power held by Iranian film producers. The next issue is the presence of self-censorship, which is very common in Iran due to the country’s rules and regulations. This is a critical problem faced by every individual engaged in cinema, and it is probably engineered by the authorities.
Sadaf Foroughi: Since I’m not living in Iran, mostly I am an observer even though I shot my film there. I see my colleagues who live there work hard. Despite all the obstacles that exist, some of them are extremely professional and successful. I think Iranian cinema needs to have a close exchange with other countries, as well as more financing to help and support independent filmmakers during the creation and production of their films.
Ali Asgari: In Iran, the people go to the cinema a lot, but it’s not very common to watch art house films and cinema films because there is no culture for that. There are funds from the government for more commercial films and comedies, but independent films are made with private money. Of course challenges are everywhere, but aside from finding more, the challenge is to make films and to obey all the rules they ask you to. There can be a lot of censorship of your script, about the film, and getting permission to shoot.
As a first-time feature director, was it easy for you to get your first film made? What were some of the obstacles you faced in getting your project off the ground?
Abed Abest: It is really hard to find the investors to produce films which are completely different from the conventional films there. It’s also difficult to recruit the right production team and crew. I finally felt like with my film, that I managed to find a sincere, professional team, which could be mobilized for my next film.
Sadaf Fouroughi: The first obstacle was to find a producer, I tried to be positive and patient. Then to get to the permission to shoot in Iran. After that, to find my place as a female director in my on set environment. Last but not least, to find a sales agent.
Ali Asgari: I used the same process as I did in my short films: I tried to find producers who were interested in making films with someone like me. I didn’t ask for money from European countries because I wanted to make this film as fast as possible. I didn’t want to apply for foreign money because we already had a “yes” from our producer and they wanted to put their personal money in the film. As I mentioned before, asking for permission was difficult, as was the shoot because it was a very cold time in February. Most of the people working on the film were first-timers like the lead actress, the producer, and me as a first-time director and co-writer. Even though we hired people who had less experience, we wanted to work with people who had the heart to make a film like this.
How much has your approach to filmmaking been influenced by Iranian cinema, or your own cultural background?
Abed Abest: My approach is influenced by all the events around me, which include watching Iranian films and other films around the world. Moreover, it’s inspired by all the thoughts and the experiences I remember in my mind.
Sadaf Fouroughi: I am very influenced by both. I grew up in Iran, so I learned a lot from maverick Iranian directors such as Sohrab Shahid-Saless, Abbas Kiarostami, Amir Naderi, and Bahram Beyzai. What I have liked and disliked in Iranian cinema has pushed me to create a personal cinematographic aesthetic of my own, which is very much influenced by world cinema.
Ali Asgari: Whoever lives in a country will be influenced by the cinema of their country. The important thing is to try not to imitate the previous filmmakers and to try to find a new way to tell the stories of your country. I try, at the same time, to learn from Iranian films and then I try to forget them. Living in a city like Tehran in the most crowded part, a lot of movement and things happen on the street every day. I come from a very traditional family, so my environment has had a close connection to my work.
Your films all tell a contemporary story, starring young protagonists. Does this feel like a personal film to you?
Abed Abest: The story of Simulation has taken place partly in my real life and some in my mind. The subjective life is more tense and more complicated than real life and every person has access to it. Cinema has allowed me to share these parts of my life with an audience.
Sadaf Fouroughi: AVA is a very personal story, it is a love letter to my adolescence. I also believe it has a very universal message since women around the world are still facing gender discrimination and difficulties finding their place in the society.
Ali Asgari: It was a personal story that happened to a friend of my co-writer. As a young filmmaker, it was very important for me to tell the story of the younger generation of Iran, which is changing every day.
Do you see your films as Iranian, or carrying a more universal tone? Do you relate to the films and filmmakers that are being made there?
Abed Abest: For me, films are similar to human beings. The human being is beyond any nationality, religion, race, etc. I believe that dividing films across nationalities is meaningless. We can have just films, which can make connections with different walks of people from all over the world. When I think about the best films ever made, some of them have been made by Iranians and some from other countries.
Sadaf Fouroughi: The film has a universal tone, which relates to the problems women face from around the world. AVA examine our possibilities in a world where taboos and cultural limitations are so overwhelming that our desires and hopes have lost their colours.
Ali Asgari: I see an Iranian touch in the film and I cannot escape it. At the same time, it can be relate to a lot of international countries in the Middle East and Southern Europe, maybe even South America.
How do you see Iranian cinema being received abroad? What do you make of the large presence of Iranian films made by first-time filmmakers this year at festivals around the world?
Abed Abest: I think that film festivals around the world have different approaches. I am of the opinion that the significant factor in evaluating a film should be the story’s honesty and transparency of the concept of the film. Some producers make a film to meet the taste of their sponsors. I think cinema should not be used as instrument for benefitting any one group, otherwise the importance of the art form will be downgraded to the level of mediocre media. The fact that an eminent festival like TIFF is looking for films by emerging Iranian directors should encourage our filmmakers to work harder.
Sadaf Fouroughi: We live in a world where we need to tell and share our stories to feel closer to other people from various cultural contexts and different countries. Each nation has their own manner of living, but we are all human beings who share common feelings, fears, doubts, happiness, etc. I think good films help us to understand each other better. The first feature is always the most personal film for a filmmaker. I believe in TIFF as an important platform.
Ali Asgari: In Iran, we have many interesting stories that are waiting to be told, and the young generation of filmmakers are doing it very well. It’s difficult as a filmmaker because as long as there are so many films coming out, there is tight competition, but I enjoy this competition.
How do you see the current political climate impacting your cinema and filmmaking practice? Does it impact what kinds of stories you want to tell going forward?
Abed Abest: The prevailing atmosphere has really ameliorated Iranian cinema in recent years. The State has created a group called “Art and Experience” that’s specifically for avant-garde film. However, more mainstream filmmakers (who get support from state funding) seem to be against all of those who are different from them, whereas, the majority of the films which are evaluated worthy to be shown in international festivals are produced by independent filmmakers.
Sadaf Fouroughi: Actually, I am not interested in politics at all. I am immersed by the world I have in my mind and I carry it everywhere I go. This world is the world of stories and drama. Of course, my films are influenced by the place I was born and the way I was brought up, as well as my day-to-day life.
Ali Asgari: In my case, I try not to be political and focus more on the social dramas. I think that this is normal because when you’re talking about matters like this and you're telling social stories, it becomes political as well.
Are you excited about coming to TIFF? What do you hope international audiences will take away from your films this year?
Abed Abest: At TIFF, we’ll encounter a vast spectrum of audiences who will compare our film with the other paramount works in Toronto. I think this will assist me in understanding the best aspects of my film, either negative or positive. I expect audiences to interpret and visualize the film, as per their own understanding. I am in fond of a play by Bertolt Brecht, which is called Man Equals Man.
Sadaf Fouroughi: As a writer/director, I would prefer if each audience has a different interpretation of what they see in the film. But I do deeply hope they like AVA. It’s very important for to see if I am successful in my attempt to connect with audiences through my story and the mise-en-scene. This is a big opportunity for me and I am very delighted. It is my first step toward the professional world. And what a wonderful start to be at such an important and prestigious festival! I am so grateful.
Ali Tsagari: I am so excited because this is my first time traveling to Canada. I’ve never had any of my short films at TIFF so it is great to have a feature film there. I hear this is a very big festival with a lot of great audiences, so this is very interesting and very exciting for me. I’m looking forward to meeting as much people as possible and am interested in the reaction of the people that are watching the film. I know that in Toronto, there are many Iranians from different generations, so watching the film with them and then speaking with them afterwards will be the most interesting thing that will happen.