By Amir Ganjavie and Leila Pasandideh.
It has been a few weeks since Kianoosh Ayari’s Paternal House (2012) was banned from screening, for the second time. At first banned after its premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival by the Iranian government agency that funded the project, the film went back under Ayari’s control when he received approval to screen the film in select cinemas. Then, after only ten screenings, the film was banned again from distribution, due to pressure from different Iranian agencies.
Though some critics (including prominent Iranian voice, Masooud Farasati) blame the film for representing excessive violence and a dark image of Iranian society, other critiques – such as Saeed Aghighi’s and my own commentary, both in the Shargh Daily Press – argue that the movie analyzes societal violence. Portraying the devastating impact of a young woman’s “honour killing” by her father and brother, the film reflects a bitter and unpleasant image of citizens opposing one another. In this interview, director Kianoosh Ayari speaks about the theme and his reflection on the film’s censorship in Iran only days after its first public screening there. – Amir Ganjavie
Let’s start with the formation of the film.
The formation of the film refers back to 37 or 38 years ago, before Iran’s revolution. The same crime was committed in Ahvaz, where I was born, and I kept it in my mind during all of these 37 years and have written different versions of it. After hesitating some seven or eight times, I finally made up my mind exactly four years ago to make a film inspired by this incident. The story is different from what happened in Ahvaz but represents an equal essence, being about a father who kills his daughter for moral reasons with the assistance of his children, his brother, and his nephews. This film has almost the same elements.
The first part of Paternal House is rather scary with a murder scene that can hardly be forgotten. We have an old house with the same pattern of the houses in horror films and suspicious characters are in search of some facts. However, gradually the dominant motifs of horror and criminal film fade away in favour of a more social structure, which indicates that the origin of the horror genre arises from social effects. We have seen a parallel approach this year in Fish and Cat, a scary movie, in which not even a drop of blood was spilled. Tell us about your genre approach. Should we consider Paternal House to be a horror film?
As a matter of the fact, Paternal House is not a horror film and there is a little gap between them. To commit a murder in the basement of a house [does not make it] a scary film. It is simply the basement of an old aristocratic house in which a father and his son murder and bury his daughter. What is misunderstood is that the spectators are impacted by the horror part of the film, which actually makes the spectator feel bitter. Therefore, the scene is not at all scary but the interlocutors may be haunted by the fear for the fanaticism which is likely to manifest in their own lives. It’s not a horror or a criminal or detective film; a person is buried at the same place where she was murdered and during these 100 minutes, the camera does not leave the same old house. There is no sign of police interference or any other stranger. There is no one but the same members of the family in the whole film. They have grown up and aged in the same house.
For most of the foreign spectators of the Iranian films, children, carpets, and Iranian houses evoke innocence in Iranian cinema. The murderer child, the carpet as the reminder of the crime, and the Iranian house as an institution for concealing the murder seem very unusual to foreign spectators. Were you aware of that? Have you deliberately played with these Iranian motifs?
No. I do not believe in taking advantage of Iranian national symbols such as knitting carpets or the scene of soaking the apples and watermelons in the small pools situated in the middle of the old houses. It is horrible for me to go through it. In my opinion, only a poor film benefits from such elements for attracting spectators because such an idea is basically superficial. No, I don’t ever think of such ideas and these elements do not stand for the meaning you mentioned but are more practical and are in the service of the film’s outline.
Despite being blamed for representing excessively violence, Paternal House does not seem to illustrate immoral violence.
The violence in Paternal House is a sacred violence.
The suspicious sequence in the first ten minutes involves the spectators with both fear and compassion since they are impressed by the victim’s unfair punishment and they feel sympathy for her. As Aristotle said, this makes the film seem tragic and moral and gets the spectators to know better the issues of ignorance and patriarchy. In this respect, the violence at the beginning of the film is not a dark representation of Iranian society. Your approach to the future is also positive and according to you, the patriarchy no longer exists as it did in past times and men are bound to change themselves with the passage of time. Obviously, Shahab Hosseini is no longer able to behave like his father. He has to wipe away the stigma left behind by his father, a stigma which has devalued his paternal house and its protection by the cultural heritage administration. What do you think of the accusations? Do you find your film a dark representation of Iran?
No, definitely I don’t. It actually studies a social harm – that of honour killings, which occur not only in Iran but more or less all over the world. For example, in Austria we see high statistics for domestic abuse of women by their husbands. However, when Austrian filmmakers broadcast such problems they are hardly blamed for making a dark movie. I am not interested in making such films since it is without doubt an abuse of facilities and there is no need to attract Iranian spectators by means of such films or to hand it over to the festivals with all the values, counter-values, and any problems whatsoever. I believe that this film has to impress the Iranian spectators and aims to make a better lifestyle for them. The foreign festivals just come after that. That’s it.
The psychological aspect is hardly tangible in Paternal House and it is hardly possible to determine the reason for people’s behaviour. The film ends by encouraging contemplating viewers to ask themselves: Why was this murder committed? This is one of the secrets for which this film is seen as attractive: Unsaid words prevails over the said ones. Can you tell us about the philosophy of your fiction writing and the connection between psychology and your works?
I don’t pay much attention to psychology because I am not interested in the penetration of psychology into film. I don’t want to restrict the existence of the ill-being and harshness in society to purely psychological matters. I prefer not to give the impression that they did such horrible things because of mental problems when actually the reason relates to the beliefs of the characters. A character feels loss because of damage done to his family’s honor and plots this criminal act. My preference is that the psychology pales beside their reasons for murdering.
The passage of time is an interesting subject in Paternal House. The film takes place in different years, such as 1346 and 1382. Is there any reason for choosing these years? Do you intend to show the generation gap?
No, I don’t. I wanted to put each of the five sections of the film in the first place but did not want Iranian spectators who know these years interpret the story of the movie based on the events that happened in these years. I wanted them to only appreciate what was happening the movie itself.
All of the actions in the film are associated with the basement incident and what happened for the family. There is little connection with outside events in the movie. From your perspective, it seems that the patriarchy arises from a family environment and we can find its roots in the hidden domestic traditions rather than it having anything to do with society. Do you say so?
It could be true, but I believe that personal is political, so even if a film has only two characters in one single room, it is a mirror for its own society. Even if there is no window to see outside, it is a reflection of the society, which is visible in every film.
Why is there a woman in the film who stays unmarried and why is she blonde? In horror films, we can recognize the wicked characters because their appearances are different from others.
No, we see that this girl is not wicked but also positive [character], severely criticizing what her father and brother have done and she even curses them to die. Of course, her father admits that they have been taught from a very early age to do what they have done. In fact, he places the blame on his culture and history and says that they imposed these attitudes upon him. The blonde girl is a positive character. It was important for me to recall that she was a part of the chain, the little girl who has grown up now and has a technical role since she makes the family history cohesive.
Paternal House was banned after having been released for only two days. What do you think of this as the director of the film?
I prefer to stay silent about the fragile situations we are in. The only thing I can say is that it’s really pathetic and sad. In ten or eleven public screenings that the movie had, it has been proven well that not only has there been no problems with the film but it has been received very positively. It is unfortunate to deprive it of any chances or opportunities to be screened.
You mean there is no possibility of cutting the first ten-minute sequence of the film that has been labeled as excessively violent?
No, it won’t be changed and there is no need to alter it. This ten public screenings proves that nothing special has happened and that all the gossip was in vain. This is just an excuse and nothing has happened to the spectators. We could have had a clearer interpretation of the interlocutors if they did not interrogate the spectators about whether they had been offended by some scenes. It’s pathetic. The film was sacrificed for some narrow-minded attitudes.
So now, what happens?
The film may go into hibernation.
There is an uncle who persuades his brother to kill his daughter. A character who gets his son to stab the girl with a cutlass in order to make sure that she is really dead but he does not appear anymore after that. Historical cuts show the pasts of each of the other characters. What was the role of this uncle and why did you feel like eliminating him?
No, this was not done deliberately. First of all, the uncle was present in the years ahead. He may be dead while his brother gets old but his son (who buries the cutlass in the ground) is alive and we see him as on old man. The reason why I did not mark the years on the film was that I did not want the spectators to become obsessed with the simulation of the characters.
Finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?
Yes, I am working on a film. I can’t give you more information about it but soon – within two or three months – I will get it started.
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 has recently 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.