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Iran at the Crossroads of Modernity and Virtuality: Mani Haghighi on A Dragon Arrives!

A Dragon 01

By Amir Ganjavie.

The central questions in Western philosophy concern what is truth, reality, and right or wrong. Major sources of debate for Greek philosophers, these notions have become very problematic in our postmodern virtual world. As Jean Baudriallrd argues, it is no longer truth that shapes reality but rather reality which emanates from the virtual.

With a background in philosophy, Mani Haghighi has infused his lateste movie, A Dragon Arrives, with these concepts and their meanings in the postmodern era. The perspective of the film is informed by these concerns, since it’s difficult to know which parts of the narrative are based in the characters’ reality and which are imagined. A Dragon Arrives departs from the trends of Iranian cinema as it’s usually seen at film festivals, since the cinema is very politicized and downplays the harshness of life in Iran. The film does, however, continue the series of new attempts by Iranian directors to expand boundaries and reach new horizons. At the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, I had the chance to interview Haghighi about his innovative film.

When I read your statement about the movie, I realized that you were very interested in the question of truth and virtuality; you argued that we live in a Facebook world, a Twitter world, and that virtuality is becoming a part of our truth. We see this preoccupation quite obviously in the work but don’t you think that you also have a responsibility to question the mechanism that creates this sort of truth in the world?

Yeah, I do raise the question. That is what the film is. The film raises the question of how much can you believe? The film works in this way, beginning with the claim that it is all true and you are virtually watching a documentary or a docudrama or something like this. There’s a caption that tells you that. But then there are these experts who come and claim that this story has actually happened to them. So there is this nail that is hit at the beginning – “This is true.” However, as it moves along it becomes increasingly incredible and we think that it can’t possibly be true. Hopefully you begin to doubt whether the filmmaker is actually honest with you about having said this. By the end, there’s this tension and question asking “Was it really a documentary or was it completely made up? Was it completely true? Was it half true? Was it based on something true but then embellished with all kinds of other things?” And so that in itself makes you wonder “How much can I trust what’s given to me as truth?” That’s the point.

One of the interesting views on your films is that, as we see in Modest Reception (2012), you have a sort of non-traditional, postmodern way of telling a story but you are indeed still interested in this storytelling, contrary to lot of scenes that we’ve seen at the festival where that seems to be a taboo. Many films don’t tell stories anymore. They are just a collection of beautiful shots and not so beautiful shots assembled together. How do you negotiate that sort of non-traditional artsy film?

That’s my truth. I’m extremely bored by art cinema. I don’t like it. I think it’s pretentious. It hasn’t given me anything for the longest time. Of course, I do love the cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I love the cinema of Micheal Haneke, I love the cinema of Bela Tarr. These are all art house films but they are really great films. The other 99% of it just bores me so much because it thinks that it’s enough for the filmmaker that I’m sitting there in the movie theater looking at this film. That’s the end. I came. There’s no sense of responsibility that, “Okay, we have guests here. We have to entertain them.”

Living in Iran is interesting because in Tehran, this has been important to me. There is a huge traffic problem in Tehran. For you to go from A to B, you have to be very dedicated to the idea of going to B because that is going to take a lot of time. It’s a journey and there is going to be a lot of tension as you’re in traffic and surrounded by a lot of pollution. So if you decide to go to B, and B is a movie theater, then it had better be really good because it’s hell just to get there. I think about that when I decide to make a film – “It has to be a film that is worth going through traffic for.” And when people get there they watch the film and they say “Thank God. It was worth waiting.”

There is another experience involved in going to a film festival. When I was younger, I used to live in Toronto and I would go to the Toronto International Film Festival. Back then there was no internet so you had to stand in line to buy tickets. It was in September so the weather was fine and some of the best times that I’ve had in my life were standing in lines for movie tickets at TIFF and getting to know all of these people. There was this huge community of people buying and selling tickets and asking “What did you see? How did you like that?” It was fantastic. It was sometimes more fun than actually watching the film. So that’s another thing. I wanted to make films that would create that kind of a buzz if people were standing in line for it and talking about it. So to answer your question, what I do is use a very straightforward three act structure in all of my films. If there is a problem then you have to solve the problem and we move towards doing that. We either solve it or we don’t but that’s the story and it immediately creates some interest for your audience. At least they know what the film is about, where it’s going, and why they’re watching what they’re watching. And then around that basic through line I can make all kinds of other things which will then make it look postmodern. Really, I think I’m a pretty straightforward classic storyteller.

The film doesn’t belong to the traditional way of Iranian filmmaking. What were your inspirations for the film?

A Dragon 02You’re right. It certainly doesn’t belong to Iranian cinema as it is usually presented at film festivals. Well, Iranian cinema is a lot more diverse than that. It may be the case that A Dragon Arrives also represents a new thing in Iran as such. I think it is. That obviously has something to do with me because I myself come from a different background than most other Iranian film directors. My inspiration for this film comes from a variety of sources. This idea came to me more than fifteen years ago, maybe twenty years ago, when I was sitting in a barbershop waiting for my hair to be cut. I was reading a newspaper and there was a story about a huge snake that was discovered in a graveyard somewhere in the desert. This snake just lived there and the locals had found it. The article said something about genetic mutations and that the snake had grown into this massive thing. So as I was sitting in that barbershop reading this and I asked myself “What was the snake doing in a graveyard?” My imagination just went crazy about how it probably ate the corpses that were buried there. If it moved to eat the corpses then what would happen then? I guessed the ground would shake. So it just went like that. It was like this big story shaped in my mind and it stayed with me for a long, long time but I didn’t know what to do with it. It seemed like a science fiction, some kind of a B movie about some zombie snake, and it took a very long time for that to turn into what you’ve seen. Various different things happened along the way but the most important thing was when I realized that I should not tell this story as a straightforward linear story about three people who go and look for the cause of an earthquake. I thought that there should be two storylines. One is of me trying to find out what happened to these three people. The other is about these three people going to find out what happened in the graveyard. It was when I put these two storylines together that I realized I could make this film.

You are like directors such as Shahram Mokri, who is very interested in genres, but we know there are some problems with censorship that do not let filmmakers show, for example, images or scenes which are very prevalent in genre movies. You could not have sex. You could not have violence. So how do you balance these in your work? Is it a real problem?

It hasn’t been for me. I’m not saying that there’s no censorship problem in Iran because obviously there is. I’ve been one of the luckier ones. Also I’ve got to correct you because I don’t think I’m interested in genre; I’m interested in mixing genres. That’s a different thing. It’s not like I enjoy making a police detective story and then make that. I’m interested in taking elements from that genre and mixing it up with some Western shards and mixing that up with science fiction and making that. That is not really a genre anymore; that’s just a mishmash.

That’s the reality of genre hybridity.

Yeah, this is really a hybrid thing. My problem with censorship hasn’t been about this. My problem with censorship mostly has to do with the fact that my films, all of them, apparently seem to be allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic. I don’t think they are. Or that’s how they’re perceived. My main problem is to go to the censorship board and explain to them that this is not this thing that you think it is about. I have to prove to them that you can see the film in a different way and it would mean a different thing. I have to prove to them that their paranoia about me slyly saying something about something is mistaken. I’ve usually been successful.

What is interesting is that, contrary to most Iranian movies and the censorship guidelines, the good characters wear cravats and the bad guys wear beards. Do you have any comment on this?

These are just accidents. The actor who plays the bad guy, the guy with the beard, came into costume tests with his beard. In the previous play that he was acting in, he had to have this beard and he couldn’t shave since he still had two or three more nights with the play. He asked “Could you just keep the beard for now? I will shave it two days later.” But then when we did the test with the costumes it just looked so weird with the beard and the suit, hat, and glasses. My main thing was the glasses since he couldn’t see very well. They had to be real glasses. We looked at the photographs and thought “This looks really odd.” That’s what was good about it. The cravat is obviously so that you see a detective who’s supposed to look like an old film noir detective with the hat and the raincoat.

Given the censorship issue and the fact that you could not show women without scarves, was it difficult to shoot scenes at that time of Iran’s history? Is that why you decided to shoot mostly in the desert area?

It’s not like I set the film in the desert because of that but it really helps that you have only three guys in the desert. It makes the film doable since historical dramas usually suffer from really bad costume design. However, when you have only three or four characters then you can really concentrate on them and make it work, which is what our costume designer did. Both the set designer and the costume designer joined this project years before I even started writing it or did any pre-production. They worked with me and talked about what they wanted to have so I did a lot of things in the film for them. They would ask “Could we set it in the winter so that the character could wear this floral coat?” and I said “sure” So we looked for events in the winter of 1965. That’s how we came up with the assassination of the prime minister, for example. We realized that “oh, this is good.” He was assassinated in the winter so we wanted to set the film in the winter and it was because of the coat that we referred to the assassination.

I was seduced by your use of music – this kind of game that you play with history, with viewers, this is a kind of seduction. Can you elaborate on the role of music for you?

Thank you. Music is very important to me when I’m writing write my scripts. It’s not the case that I necessarily listen to music while I’m writing but I’m thinking about what kind of music the film would have as I’m writing it. That’s one of the main things that helps me to understand what the rhythm is going to be and how the visuals are going to work. From the very beginning, for reasons that are unclear to me, it’s just some subconscious thing in my head, I was sure that the music for this film would make some references to house music, rave music, dance music, things like that. And I wrote the film thinking this would be like that. Then I went to Kristoff, the composer who I’ve worked with twice before, and he had the idea that we should use local colour and local instruments. I was really against that because this isn’t a historical film; it was pretending to be a historical film but, in fact, it wasn’t. We came to this compromise where we’d make rave music using Southern Iranian instruments. You should realize that these two kinds of traditions in music sound a lot alike, as we show in the film. That’s how it worked. But it took a very long time. The composer didn’t even know what to do for three or four months as he was just testing things and I had to project what he’d done. Then finally, I played him some Nine Inch Nails and asked him to use that. And he was like, “Okay, I understand what you want.”

Can you tell me more about the choice of voices for the movie, such as the old guy who narrates it as well as the choice of the voice of Ali Mostafa?

Obviously, the voice of the detective is his own but we had to choose two other voice actors. One was for the narrator of the novel at the beginning, which goes back to a very old memory of mine. The person we used to announce was the announcer for films at the children’s film festival when I was a child before the revolution. You’d go into the movie theater and this guy would announce the film, saying “Ladies and gentlemen, Iran presents…” and the film would begin. This was just this incredibly moving voice that I always associated with cinema so we went and found the guy. He’s now 85 years old but his voice is still really deep and wonderful. So that’s how we got him just because I loved that voice when I was a kid. And with Ali, the guy who reads the memoirs on the walls, I read them myself first but it wasn’t working because I couldn’t distance myself from the voice. I kept thinking, “Ah, you haven’t read it properly and you have to change it.” I was involved in it. So I thought that I should have someone else and Ali is a very good friend of mine who was just sitting there. I asked him to read it and he did it very well.

Arash Modaresi contributed to this interview.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

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