By Ali Moosavi.
Motamen has dabbled in many genres: noir, comedy, social-drama, romance, thriller. And even Dostoevsky.”
Farzad Motamen is one of several Iranian directors who are well-known and respected in their homeland but remain largely unknown outside of Iran. Motamen is a self-confessed American B-Movie lover and fan of film noir. He is also an authority on Jean-Luc Godard. He has dabbled in many genres: noir, comedy, social-drama, romance, thriller. His White Nights (2003), based on Dostoevsky’s novella, is a genuine cult movie with fervent following, especially among the young. The Long Farewell (2015) is my personal favourite and in my view, one of the best love stories in Iranian Cinema. All Through the Night (2020) is a Godardian film noir with the events taking place at night, and much of it in a café called Alphaville. It was inspired by Murakami’s After Dark and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The Night Watchman (2022) is his 16th film. Motamen also teaches cinema at a number of institutions and universities in Tehran.
I sat down with him and talked about his films and career.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get int film making?
It seemed that I had no other choice! From childhood I fell in love with cinema and wanted to make films. My mother was a film buff and used to take me to the cinemas. I have a photo of her aged 16, sitting in her room and behind her a is a photo of Loretta Young hanging on the wall. I find that quite interesting as Loretta Young was not such a well-known actress in Iran. As a child I used to think that everything I see on the screen actually takes place there right in front of me. I wasn’t told that the film is being projected on the screen. And what I saw on the screen was much more interesting and beautiful that what I was experiencing in real life. The Mediterranean Sea was really blue and the skies were filled with beautiful clouds. I think I was six or seven years old when I watched And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956) and discovered Brigitte Bardot, and I thought wow, she doesn’t look like my sisters or my cousins! Then I discovered other beautiful actresses, like the one who was in Harari! (Howard Hawks, 1962).
Yes, I fell in love with her. This is how I fell in love with cinema. I didn’t know that there is a process called Day for Night where you film night scenes during the day. I noticed that the characters had shadows in the evening scenes. I thought that in US people have shadows in the night! Of course later on, specially after watching Truffaut’s Day for Night / La nuit américaine (1973) I realized how it was done. But I remember that the first night that I arrived in US, I was looked for my shadows on the pavement! When I didn’t see any, I thought I had gone to the wrong country! My parents sent me to US to study mechanical engineering, but without telling them I secretly studied filmmaking. When they eventually found out, we had a quarrel and I lived apart from them for around 20 years. I’m glad that I went my own way and even now I tell my son not to heed my advice and follow his own heart.
You are not well-known outside of Iran. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I don’t think your films have been shown at many film international film festivals and also you have not stuck to a single genre and a specific style. What is your own take on this?
The reality is that I have not spent even one second trying to contact film festivals.
Often the producer or the distributor does this.
Somehow none of my films have had a producer! I found the budget from somewhere, made the film and moved on. On a couple of my early movies there was some activity in trying to get them into film festivals but the reactions from the festivals disappointed me and felt like a joke. My feature film debut, Seven Acts / Haft Parde (2001) was accepted to be shown as the “surprise film” in the Film Noir Festival in Turin, Italy. They were also going to give me a financial award which at the time could have changed my life. I am not well-off and have always lived with financial problems. But from my bad luck my producer was in jail due to unpaid debts and we even didn’t have funds to put subtitles on the film.
On White Nights, we sent the film to the Cannes Film Market and a lady from the Karlovy Vary Film Festival Selection Committee watched the film and wrote me a letter in which she praised the film and complimented us on having successfully updated Dostoevsky’s 19th-century story to the present. But she added that she will not select it for the festival because we were showing characters that were in conflict both with themselves and with the society. She further commented that the film resembles French and Italian movies and they already have such movies and wanted to show films where people are in need of basic things in life.
What about The Long Farewell?
That was shown in many festivals. Also Voices / Sedaha (2009) was considered for the Berlin Film Festival, but a couple of weeks before the festival it was discarded in favour of Farhadi’s About Elly / Darbareye Elly (2009). These events sort of put me off and after that I did not bother attempting to send any of my films to film festivals. For The Long Farewell, I did not have any say in it. Its producer had all the rights and he sent it to a few film festivals where it collected some awards. That was the exception. For All Through the Night its producer considered it an experimental work and did not want to submit it to any festival. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum watched in Tehran and wanted it for Chicago International Film Festival but my producer wasn’t interested.
How is the current state of film making in Iran? Does a proper independent cinema exist, or most film makers are dependent on help from government organizations?
I personally feel that we are in the darkest period of film making in Iran. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Iranian Cinema was more or less dead in 1977. In the early to mid-seventies we were producing 90 to 120 films annually. Of these around 10% were the New Wave films which were worth watching. But our production in 1977 and 1978 was reduced to only four films. I believe the reason was twofold: one is that the Iranian New Wave cinema changed the taste and increased the expectations of the audience and at the same time, the New Wave films were not commercial enough to satisfy the producers.
Unlike the commercial, so called Filmfarsi movies that were family oriented, the New Wave films also were not very family friendly. They had more violence, more sex and very rarely a happy ending. The Iranian Cinema had reached a dead-end.
After the revolution, in the 80’s cinema was given some help for its revival. But the help was mainly given to those filmmakers close to the government. This was also reflected in the selection process and awards bestowed at the Fajr Film Festival. Of course they couldn’t ignore filmmakers of the caliber of Kiarostami or Beyzaie, but the awards were reserved for certain chosen few. The real Iranian Cinema could be found in the “Guests Section” rather than the main competition of the festival.
Government though was obliged to provide financial assistance to all those films which had received film making permit. All these however disappeared in late nineties, just as I was starting to make films. My generation of filmmakers suffered greatly. My analysis of what happened is that government stopped subsidizing films and instead established an arm for producing the type of films which they termed “distinguished”, i.e. religious films, historical films about the war with Iraq, etc. Huge budgets were spent on films which had very little audience. The Guests Section was discarded from the Fajr Festival and priority for acceptance in the main competition section was given to the so called “distinguished” films. Then the official “youth support” policy for cinema, which sounds a worthy cause, actually resulted in a production glut which exceeded the exhibition capacity and many films remained unseen. Within the last 15 years some 700 new directors have emerged in Iranian cinema. Seven film production companies merged together and the producers have become businessmen; when you took a script to them they asked you to provide the funds too, in order for them to produce your film!
A result of this is disenchantment, disillusionment, and in many cases enforced retirement of independent filmmakers, specially those from my generation. A few of us have still clung on. For me, filmmaking is my only source of income and I have to make films, in any way possible, in order to survive. My films are generally ultra-low budget, hence my love and appreciation of B movies!
What B-Movies influenced you and how?
We are somewhat limited in the Iranian cinema due to extensive censorship and interference in our work by governmental organizations. Our output is more or less limited to what you can see in the film festivals and popular comedies for home audiences. We don’t have the “B-movie experience” in Iran. My films have not been inspired by any specific B-movie, but I have learned from them. They taught me one does not necessarily have to deal with an important subject in movies. Sometimes the most banal and cliched stories can make interesting films. One aspect of B-movies which interested me was the way those filmmakers who didn’t make it to mainstream cinema managed to create exciting and memorable moments in low-budget movies. However twice in my movies I came close to creating B-movie atmosphere. The Ransomer (2004) had a story similar to Red Rock West (John Dahl, 1993) but my budget was so low that I decided to make a B-grade version of that film. My latest film Night Wanderer is a color tribute to exploitation films and B-movies. My last film, All Through the Night (2020) was inspired by key films that had roots in populist films and B-movies, such as Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965). Apart from these, I also like some of the classic B-movies such as Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948) and cult B-movies such as Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) and Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975). These movies have shaped my outlook into cinema.
The film noir genre has always been popular with film lovers in Iran. Yet, most of our filmmakers have either avoided this genre or have not been successful when attempting to make a film noir. What do you think is the reason for this?
In Iranian cinema there has always been a tendency not to work in established genres. When the commercial cinema in Iran, known as FilmFarsi, was established, it was a mishmash of melodrama, musical, comedy and action. Even Samuel Khachikian who started making noirs like Anxiety (1962), The Strike (1964), Delirium (1965), was discouraged in continuing in this genre and resorted to melodramas such as Farewell to Tehran (1966) and Hengameh (1968).
I fancied working in a genre, but at the same time I was aware of these precedents. When the commercial comedy Poopak (2010) was offered to me, it was totally different to the type of films that I was making, but I was at a situation where I felt I had to make a commercially successful movie, because none of my films up to then had done much at the box office and I had no personal funds to make my type of film. So I made everything possible to make the film a success. I put away my personal preferences when making it, re-wrote the script with others and aimed to make a film for the masses. If any scene didn’t make me laugh, I threw it away.
After the commercial success of Poopak, you must have many offers to make similar comedies.
I had many offers to make comedies with the main character of Poopak. That was the start of a very dark period in my life. I turned down all such offers, stayed at home and gradually lost my eyesight. You can see this portrayed in Al Through the Night where the character who is a fil director (Amir Jafari) is losing his sight.
How bad did your eyesight become?
I made three films in almost blindness, including The Long Farewell, after which I had an operation which restored my sight.
Reminds me of Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending.
The casting of The Long Farewell was exceptionally good.
Initially another director was attached to that film but he departed due to differences with the producer. When I joined the projector, the lead actor was already selected. But this actor left the movie to act in a TV series. I offered the lead role to two other well-known actors but one was travelling to US and the other was appearing in a play. We had a crisis on our hand and even considered abandoning the project until someone mentioned the name of Saeed Aghakhani, who at that time was mainly known for TV comedies. He cam on board but had little confidence in his own abilities as a dramatic actor. I do believe though that comedians are the best and most flexible actors. And of course he received the Best Actor award at Fajr Film Festival.
Why do you think White Nights became a cult movie?
For a long time I couldn’t work out why. Recently I watched a documentary called When We Talk About Love which is about the impact that White Nights has had on those born in the 80’s. I remember one day both me and the film’s screenwriter were staring to a photo of the film’s two principles on the wall. I told him: “are you thinking what I’m thinking?” and he said what are you thinking and I replied that the film will sink at the box office and he said, yes I was thinking the same!
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 Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).