By Ali Moosavi.
Iranian cinema has made its mark on the global film world thanks to film makers such as Kiarostami, Farhadi, Panahi and many other distinguished Iranian film makers who have attracted widespread critical acclaim and won numerous awards and accolades. One branch of filmmaking in which Iranian cinema has not made any impact on the world stage has been animation. All that, however, is now set to change. A young Iranian animation director, Ashkan Rahgozar, has, with blood, sweat and tears, made what is the first Iranian animation full length feature that can stand proudly alongside the works of the great animators. The Last Fiction is based on stories of The Shahnameh, the masterpiece of the great 10th- and 11th-century Persian poet Ferdowsi. It is one of the treasures of the Persian literature; a massive book of a long poem depicting stories of kings and legends, good versus the evil. As Ferdowsi has remarked “I revived the Iranians with such eloquent use of the Persian language”. It competes with another great Persian poet Hafez’s Divan, or book of poems, for the greatest book in the Persian language (both of these books are shown burning, along with other world literature masterpieces, in the opening credit sequence of the Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani’s recent remake of Fahrenheit 451).
The Last Fiction has been shown and won awards at a number of international film festivals including Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Stiges International Fantastic Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and others. A few things stand out in The Last Fiction: the quality of animation, the narrative skill and the participation of the cream of Iranian actors and actresses in an independent project with a very limited budget. It is set to hit the Iranian screens at the start of the Persian New Year in March 2019. I visited Ashkan Rahgozar at his Hoorakhsh Studios to talk about The Last Fiction and other topics. Accompanying us was his brother, and producer, Arman Rahgozar.
How did your interest in animation start?
This goes back to my childhood. I loved drawing and my family encouraged me in this. My mother used to take me to the Caricature House and the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) in Tehran. I used to visit exhibitions and take part in workshops. Later I enrolled at the Sound and Image Art College (part of the Iranian National Broadcasting Organization). At that time, I used to draw cartoons and make animation drawings. The college did not have an animation department, so I joined the Graphics department. There were other students my age who were also interested in animation. I was not satisfied with just drawing and felt as though these drawings needed to be moving. I was also a dedicated watcher of animations because my father loved them. One of our family entertainments was watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. My father used to show cartoons on an 8mm projector and later on VHS tapes. You can say that animation is in my blood!
By “cartoons” do you mean just Tom and Jerry or Walt Disney animated features?
Everything. We used to watch Walt Disney animations from the renaissance period of Disney, as well as Tom and Jerry. This love of animations was therefore embedded in me. In college I found others who also loved to do animation and we started working together. Initially we made some short 3D animations. These were quite basic but were the start of our journey. From there we became more and more dedicated. Around 2005 me and my brother Arman started an animation studio in our bedroom and seriously started to make animations.
By “making animations”, do you mean by hand drawing or using computers?
First we made 3D animations by computer. Then we moved to working on paper. We received a commission from Television for a short 2D animation and used paper drawings. From 2008 we started to use digital tablets for drawings. At our studio for 2D animations we use tablets and no longer use pen and paper.
It seems that art of 2D animation with pen and paper is dying. Perhaps Miyazaki is the last great master to be working this way.
As it happens, Miyazaki’s next project will be by digital animation. The Wind Rises is the last project in which he has used hand drawings. It’s a pity that this is a dying art. I love the old style Disney animation; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, etc. We still do 2D animation but can get the same feeling of hand-drawn animation by using computers. In effect, all the individual frames are drawn and painted, but by computer.
How many people worked on The Last Fiction and how many drawings were used?
Well, as you’ve seen, the film is 100 minutes long. It took about nine years. The crew grew and shrunk all the time. We started with 14-15 people. Then it grew to 30 and 40. Then it shrunk back to around 20. In the last four years of production, it grew to one hundred and in its last year we had 130 people working on it. There was a large turnover in this project, but we can say that some one thousand people worked on it. This includes all aspects of it: from music to technical aspects. With regards to the number of drawings, the last time that I asked my lab, we had done around 400,000 master drawings, on which other drawings are added and later are painted. Each layer is done by a different crew.
You’ve said that it took you nine years to complete the project. Any investor would want a return on their investment within a limited period. How did you manage to spend so much time on this project?
Well because we did not have any set investor! No one was prepared to invest in this project; specially since animation in Iran has traditionally been sponsored only by governmental institutions. There have been one or two privately financed animated works which were of a very poor quality and unfit for public screening. The fact that our project was an animation, and its storyline, did not interest any investors. Therefore, we had to self-finance the pre-production from the income of the commissioned works that we were doing. Later on, we obtained around $30,000 from a friend, which later we had to return to him. Then my brother sold his house. After that we sold our car and a piece of land that we owned. We progressed like this. At the same time, we did not want to sacrifice quality for the sake of money. As we were not very professional, we used trial and error. If we were not satisfied with any work, we would throw it away and start again.
Around 2016, we had made a lot of progress and managed to find an official investor who put up the bulk of the budget. That was when the crew increased to 130 and we managed to complete the film.
What projects had you done prior to The Last Fiction?
This is our first full length feature. Before that, we had done numerous commercials and music videos. I also worked on four independent shorts and produced another five. These were completely independent and experimental. I also produced a TV series.
How did you decide to tackle such a monumental work and a national treasure as The Shahnameh for your first work?
We got soaked in its atmosphere! Of course, The Shahnameh is a hugely important work. If we don’t consider the Quran, there is competition between The Shahnameh and The Collected Poems of Hafiz (The Divan) as the most important work in the Persian literature. Unfortunately, no worthwhile cinematic work has been done based on The Shahnameh. This was a concern to all of us as to why such an important book for the Iranians, a book which has unified us for centuries and is part of our national identity, has been neglected in this regard. There have been a few attempts; all devoid of quality, and one or two TV series which were not worthy of screening. Russians did something based on it and the Centre for Documentary and Experimental Film also had a go. But they’ve all been below par. We still haven’t paid our debt to Ferdowsi.
I think that due to the importance that The Shahnameh has in our culture and literature and the amazing atmosphere its stories create with legends, fantasy and adventures, every film maker would be tempted to at least consider using it as a source. I was also among those who loved to have a go, but I wanted to create something that would do justice to this great book. Perhaps this is a patriotic feeling that I have inherited from my father.
Making a film based on The Shahnameh must have been a great challenge to you. It is such a rich source of material that could provide hundreds of hours’ worth of film stories.
Exactly! But we only used a tiny bit of it.
Well, as was done with The Lord of the Rings, you could make many more parts.
We have utilised it in other ways. We have produced a number of graphic novels based on the stories of The Shahnameh. This process is quicker and cheaper than film making! I have used the same free adaptation of The Shahnameh that I used in The Last Fiction.
How was the title The Last Fiction selected?
Well the story of good versus evil is a never-ending story. We have a narrator named Scheherazade, who is a daughter of the legendary King Jamshid. In fact, Jamshid’s daughters in Shahnameh had different names but we used the name Scheherazade to have a connection with the story-teller in One Thousand and One Nights. This is the last story which has no ending. This cycle of good versus evil, which somehow attract each other, never ends.
But why The Last Fiction as opposed to, say, The Last Story?!
Well, we felt it was more cinematic!
Like Pulp Fiction?!
Yes! When I started, I was 22. There was nobody around us to guide us. So, we were somewhat influenced by Hollywood movies such as Pulp Fiction or Stranger than Fiction.
How did you manage to assemble a cast of the A-list and cream of the Iranian cinema?
This was a dream project for us. We had some targets but didn’t know how to achieve them. In 2014 I did a press interview in which I gave my wish list of actors and actresses for my film, even though we didn’t have any funding! I said this is my ideal cast and I want them. They published the interview under the banner “I Want Nothing But the Best”! Later, when we had a financial backer, we still did not have anywhere near the level of funding to be able to afford such talent. A year later, we met with (producer-director) Tina Pakravan. She has experience in casting and is known in our industry as someone who gets things done. We told her that we only have so much money. She watched a rough cut of our film and liked it very much. She assured us that the actors will support this work. We therefore signed a contract with her for very little money and she delivered on her word. We received an amazing support from these top talents. They came for miniscule fees and brought with them an incredible amount of energy. We were really surprised and humbled by them; from Parviz Parastui (Today, The Lizard) to Leila Hatami (A Separation, Leila) and Baran Kosari (Tales, Cold Sweat). Shahram Nazeri (renowned Iranian classical singer) participated for no fee.
Did you supervise the voice acting yourself?
Yes we did. Initially we looked for dubbing coordinator. We have a long history and experience of dubbing films in Iran and have many dubbing professionals. But we don’t have any experience in voice acting. When I had discussions with dubbing people, their proposed work methods did not match what I had in mind. I mean, I felt that it was dubbing and not voice acting. We therefore took a risk and used neither dubbing professionals nor dubbing techniques. Just as in a normal film, we discussed the roles with the actors and we had rehearsal sessions. Then they would go in the recording studio and act out the voices. For instances, in sword fight scenes, we would give them a wooden sword and they would act out the scenes and we would only record their voices. In effect, it was real movie acting. I think this is the first time in Iranian Cinema that this “voice acting” has taken place.
In which film festivals has the film been shown?
During production, nobody in Iran took us seriously. A very beneficial thing that happened for us was the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. In 2013, The Last Fiction was shown in its Creative Focus section. Here, MIFA Pictures selects six projects which are in the production stage. We had 20 minutes to pitch our project for producers and sales agents, letting them know our needs for completing the project. Our pitch was successful and from then on, Annecy became our moral supporter. In 2016, while we were still in the production stage, Annecy took four films, including ours, to Cannes Film Festival under the banner “Annecy Goes to Cannes”. There, we had another 20 minutes pitch to film distributors. We kept Annecy informed of progress on the film and they asked us to have our world premiere at Annecy, which we did in 2018. Then it went to Stiges International Fantastic Film Festival, where it was nominated for Best Animation, and it has continued its journey to another 16 film festivals so far, collecting awards in a few of them.
Any plans for foreign distribution?
We have made a deal with an agency who are working to exhibit the film in a few territories, concurrent with its public premiere in Iran in March 2019.
Have you faced any problems regarding screening of the film in Iran?
No, we have a screening permit. We had a few problems regarding the songs in the film and had to arrange duets (according to Iranian laws, solo female singing is not allowed, unless done for an exclusively female audience). No other problems.
Since you finished the film, has there been any change in how the official film institutions in Iran have treated you?
It’s interesting. Annecy selected us for MIFA Pictures along with two projects from France and one each from USA, Japan and South Africa. Nobody in Iran told us well done! Then, in Cannes we were selected along with films from Germany-Columbia, France, Poland and Loving Vincent. Again no one in Iran bat an eye. Our world premiere at Annecy was the first for an Iranian film. Again, total indifference at home. We decided to try for festivals at home. We sent the film to the Children and Young Adults Film Festival in Isfahan. It was selected for both the Iranian and International sections. It picked up the Best Director and Best Script in the International section and the Jury Special Award in the Iranian section. After that, we were taken seriously by the official institutions. They promised that they would help us with marketing, showing teasers on TV and so on, near the film’s opening.
The Shahnameh is a very rich source for film stories. Are you planning to do more films based on it?
For the time being, we’ve limited our usage of The Shahnameh to producing graphic novels; seven so far with three more in production. But my next film is a comedy-drama and not based on The Shahnameh. A Shahnameh scholar once told me that this book will get you hooked on it and he was right. Whatever I do, the shadow of The Shahnameh will hang over it. In my new film I have a character who narrates one of the stories from The Shahnameh.
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) and is based in the United Arab Emirates.