Looking Back to Tehran: An Interview with Milad Alami on The Charmer

Charmer 01

By Ali Moosavi.

Milad Alami is yet another one of the many Iranian diaspora directors working today. He was born in Tehran, raised in Sweden, and learned his trade in Denmark. The Charmer (2017), his first feature film, and has won a string of awards at major film festivals. The film’s title character is Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili), an Iranian living in Denmark. In daytime he works as a labourer in a removals company. But at night time he stalks the Danish bars in search of a woman who would become his benefactor and sponsor. Esamil is not interested in a long-term relationship as he plans to bring his family to Denmark. He is looking for a temporary marriage which would enable him to obtain a Danish passport. The women he meets, though, are either interested in a one-night stand or something long-term, but not what Esamil has in mind. Time is running out for him as his legal residency period in Demark is coming to an end. One night in a bar, he meets Sarah (Soho Rezanejad), a Danish girl of Iranian origin. Against his will, Esamil falls in love with Sarah. This love can endanger his plans and ruin his future. Sarah’s widowed mother, Leila (the famed Iranian actress, Susan Taslimi), is a former singer and very protective of her daughter.

I sat down with Milad Alami at Dubai International Film Festival, where The Charmer had two screenings.

The exterior scenes of the film are brightly lit and you are using the wide angle lens a lot. Whilst the interior scenes are dimly lit with frequent close-ups, giving a very claustrophobic feeling. Was that one of your intentions?

Charmer 02Yes, we wanted to create a visual language which said something about the main character’s psychological state. I wanted everything in Denmark to be almost claustrophobic and the interiors to be dark. It’s as though you’re in his psyche. But when we get to the end in Iran, I wanted it to be completely bright, as though he has no façade to hide behind.

Was the film based on any real characters or incidents that you were aware of?

It’s completely fiction and not based on my story or any other specific person. But I did a lot of research and I met people who had done things similar to what the main character does. And I’ve known some people in my life who had done similar things. So I kind of knew, psychologically, of what kind of consequences it has on the person and those he meets.

The opening reminded me of the Polish film Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013). Even one of the characters in the movie is called Ida.

Yes, I’ve heard that. I saw it actually after we had finished this film. When the film was completed, I was in Warsaw and someone asked me if I had seen this film and I said no. Ida was really good.

An interesting thing about your crew is that your producer, cinematographer, editor, and production designer are all women. Did this have any effects on the way you approached the story?

I tried to have that diversity in the film. I think it’s good for a film production to have people with different genders and different views. I had this in mind but, first and foremost, I went to people that I wanted to work with. I knew Sophia, Olivia and Sabine (cinematographer, editor, and production designer respectively). I knew they are really good. So, for me it was natural.  I’ve been in film crews that were only men or only white and I tried to have a better balance, because I think it’s important.

How was Susan Taslimi brought into this project?

The Charmer-2I had worked with Susan Taslimi once before. When I wrote that character, I saw Susan Taslimi and Googoosh (a famous Iranian singer). Those two people were in my head. I knew Susan Taslimi lived in Sweden. So, I just contacted her and we talked about the character and she really got it.

Did she do her own singing?

No, she wanted to but in the end, we used a real singer.

Can you tell me about your background and how you got into film making?

I was born in Iran but moved to Sweden when I was six. I went to Danish Film School and started to make films. I wrote a lot when I was younger and thought it would be interesting to try a medium where you tell a story with images. I made my first short film in Iran and then a few short films in Sweden.

From the long-distance phone conversations that Esamil has with people in Iran and him sending money over there, it is obvious that he has a family there. In the end, you show him travelling there and reuniting with his wife and children. These scenes, with Turkey substituting for Iran, obviously added a fair bit to the budget. Did you consider just showing him packing and going to the airport?

I always wanted it to end in Iran. The first version of the script just had him departing for Iran. I wanted to show the contrast. Because for me, this is a story about class and differences between societies. And I wanted the viewer to see his origins. This was my first feature film. It was almost like a dream for me to make a film that is as mixed as I am: Iranian, Danish, and Swedish. The whole film is like a mystery. You think, who is this guy? An asshole or what? And then, slowly you get to know him. I wanted the ending to be super bright, as opposed to the darkness of Denmark. You see his wife and two kids. There is no more mystery about him. That is why I wanted to shoot the ending in Iran.

Esmail needs to have a Danish wife or girlfriend to support him. What is he after from these ladies? Is it money or filling a form agreeing to support him?

Charmer 03Some of these arranged marriages are done with money. For example, you say that I will give you this much money to marry me. Then, after two years, when I receive my nationality papers, we can separate. But this guy doesn’t have the money. So, the only option for him is to try to meet someone who will sympathize with his situation and marry him. This is his plan and most people I talked to said it was almost impossible. Two of the actresses in the film had themselves been approached by men for exactly the same purpose.

But the film is not about his plan or finding the person. It’s more about what happens to you psychologically when you’re so desperate that you are basically prostituting yourself. What happens with your feelings about love and the façade that you hide under.

You left Iran when you were six. How did you do the section of the dialog which is in Farsi?

I’ve been to Iran many times. Each time, I stay for about three months and my language becomes ten times better! But the nuances in the language can be difficult for me because you have to live there. I was lucky to have really good people around me who had grown up in Iran. So, I was able to do it the way I thought was best.

There must have been a lot of non-actors in the film.

Yes, a lot. But that’s much easier because you just tell them to be themselves. For this scene in the party between the older men and Esmail, I just brought them some tea and sweets and they just started to improvise. They improvised for about three hours. Sometimes, I would go to them and say ask him if he has a family in Iran. So I did it like composing music as we went along, rather than tell them exactly what to say.

That is the only scene with which I had a bit of a difficulty. The older men meet Esamil for the first time and the first thing they say to him is not to hurt the lady (Susan Taslimi). They dispense with all the niceties and small talk and get straight to the point. This is very non-Persian like!  Was that improvised?

It was improvised. I understand what you mean. We had some improvisation where they were kinder and talked about a lot of things and joked. But, because it was towards the end of the film, it was important that Esmail could not relax and be himself. That’s why the men were maybe, not realistically, too forward. I agree that it’s not as nuanced as in real life.

What are your future plans?

I’m working on two feature films, one Danish and one Swedish. And I’m going to direct a Danish TV series called Follow the Money about bank fraud, a different kind of corruption.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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