By Ali Moosavi.
Atabai is about loneliness and the estrangement with environment that we feel all over the world.”
My very first contribution to Film International was an interview with the Iranian actress-writer-director Niki Karimi in 2014 (issue 12.3). Since then she has appeared in ten movies and three TV series as an actress, written and directed two movies, produced four films, translated some of the works of the British author Hanif Kureishi into Persian and held exhibition of her photographs; obviously not one to stand still!
Her latest movie Atabai, which she directed is her most accomplished and mature to date. It has been met with unprecedented approval of critics in Iran. She also took a major financial risk by making the film in Azeri, a Persian dialect similar to the Turkish language, and using Persian subtitles.
Atabai (Hadi Hejazifar) is a single man from the Northwestern part of Iran, where the Azeri dialect is spoken. While attending university in the capital, Tehran, he fell in love with a fellow student but it was an unrequited love. That setback in love has made him a bitter man and a loner. He travelled to Thailand in search for love but following the suicide of his sister who set herself on fire, has returned to the village of his birthplace. Atabai has laid the blame for his sister’s demise solely on her husband who has now gone into hiding. Atabai has now focused all his attention on his nephew, Aydin (Danial Noroush) and is overly protective of him, much to Aydin’s chagrin. Atabai is a big farm owner in his village and well respected by the townsfolk. A farm which Atabai had gifted to his sister and her husband, has been sold to a man from Tehran and Atabai blames his father for letting this happen. A young girl who works in his farm is in love with Atabai but this is also another unrequited love. Atabai though has a casual but intimate relationship with one of the women in the village. One day he gives a lift to two sisters, one a teenager and the other in her thirties, whose father has bought Atabai’s old farm. Aydin, who is riding with Atabai immediately gets smitten with the younger sister. Atabai though still harbors a bitterness towards city women. This is shown by him turning his rear-view mirror to one side so that the older sister Sima (Sahar Dolatshahi) is out of his sight. Further encounters with Sima reignites the long extinguished flames of love in Atabai. Again Niki Kariki uses the rear-view mirror device by showing Atabai turning the mirror towards himself this time to get a clearer view of Sima. The discovery of something personal about Sima gives Atabai the confidence to declare his love for her. Will this be another setback in love or he will finally taste mutual affection? Meanwhile, Atabai’s best friend Yahya (Javad Ezati) reveals a secret to him that totally changes Atabai’s viewpoint towards the events that brought him back to his birthplace.
Atabai is a highly lyrical film, reminiscent of the works of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Abbas Kiarostami. The casting is perfect and the acting is universally excellent. Both the cinematography by Saman Lotfian and the music by the famed Iranian musician Hossein Alizadeh have enhanced the movie. It is good to see that Niki Karim has moved away from social dramas which formed the fabric of her earlier films and the majority of mainstream dramas in Iran and made a very personal film close to her heart which has a couple of love stories at heart and examines the feeling of being a loner and stranger in one’s homeland.
I spoke to Niki Karimi about the film and her career.
The writing credits for Atabai read: screenplay by Hadi Hejazifar based on a treatment by Niki Karimi. Can you explain how this worked?
After I finished writing and directing Night Shift (2015), I decided to make a film in the Azeri dialect. I came up with the story and treatment for Atabai and then worked with Hejazifar on the script but wrote the final script myself. He provided advice on the culture of that environment and gave some suggestions on other things.
Hejazifar then asked me that since he was mainly known as an actor and wanted to be established in other areas of cinema, give him the sole screenwriter credit. At the time many friends advised me against succumbing to this request, but I was already known as both a director and screenwriter agreed to his request. I think sometimes we commit a mistake by giving unearned opportunities to others. This is particularly true for women artists in Iran who are under greater pressure.
What about selection of the location?
That was entirely my decision and in fact he initially opposed my selection and we had many arguments on this topic.
How was the translation from Persian to Azeri done?
For each scene we would translate that scene into Azeri on the set and rehearse it with the actors first.
Did your association with Hejazifar start with the TV series Forbidden (2018) in which you both starred in?
Yes, during that series I told him that I’m working on a new film which I want to take place in the Northwestern, Azeri speaking region of Iran and he showed interest.
I recall that in our 2014 conversation you said you wanted a change from social dramas and may even make a love story. In Atabi there are various forms of love: teenage love, unrequited love, middle-age love.
I don’t really consider Atabai as a love story. In my view Atabai is about loneliness and the estrangement with environment that we feel all over the world, a kind of existentialism in the form of alienation. This subject has always attracted me, both in cinema and in literature. Like I am here but feel detached from my city and the environment around me, as though no one understands me.
This feeling of detachment and alienation with the environment is also one of Nuri Ceylan’s favourite themes. Were you inspired or influenced by his films when making Atabai?
I remember when I first met Ceylan at the Anatolia International Film Festival and chatted about his early films – I was actually in the jury of Thessaloniki Film Festival some twenty years ago where we gave an award to Ceylan’s Distant/Uzak (2002) – I told him about my jury duty at the Thessaloniki Film Festival and that this theme of loneliness and estrangement interests me too. He replied that it’s interesting that all those who share these feelings about their environment really connect with his films. Apart from Ceylan, I’m also influenced by works of Paul Auster and others who have written books or made movies on this theme, Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997) being another example. I think “being influenced“ is perhaps not the correct expression. I think we all have something in common with artists and all those who have the same outlook on life.
It seems to me that in a couple of scenes in this film you pay a homage to Kiarostami. One being a scene where Atabai is lying on his bed and through the window behind him we can see a hill and a lonely tree atop of it, much like those depicted in Kiarostami’s films. Was this deliberate or accidental?
One evening we arrived at that village, which was really beautiful. At that time I didn’t notice that hill. I just saw a religious shrine next to it. I was sitting on that hill and someone brought me a cup of tea, and as I looked around, I noticed the solitary tree. I then told our art director that since Atabai is a builder, he would have thought about this and I asked if the tree could be made visible in the frame.
Casting is also one of the strong points of this film. How was that process?
I was very worried about casting of Aydin, as it’s difficult to cast these young roles. However, as soon as Danial Noroush walked into my office, I knew he was right for the part. Other parts were more difficult to cast and drove me to tears. A couple of female actors which looked suitable in the auditions, appeared completely unsuitable when we started the actual filming and we had to find last minute replacements for them.
The framing of the shots is quite exquisite. How much did your love and experience with photography help you?
A lot. The contrast between Atabai’s detachment and the turmoil within him and the beautiful scenery was the framework for this story. He was blind to this beauty until he fell in love again.
Atabai is looking for love in someone whom both he and her know that cannot bear fruit as they have cultural and class differences. Atabai has only gained the confidence to confide his love to her because he has found an ailment in her.”
After I watch a Ceylan film, I feel as though I’ve just finished reading a classic novel or say a play by Chekhov. I had the same feeling after watching Atabai.
As you know, I’m an avid reader. I love Chekhov and other writers whose work have that spell over the reader when describing people who are stranded in small towns and villages and the associated human issues. Kiarostami used to say that a good film is one which gives one a good feeling, not necessarily to make the audience happier but more humane. The same feeling could be experienced when watching an opera, even if it has a tragic story. This is what I was hoping to achieve with Atabai. That’s why it took me 3-4 years to write the script as I was trying to achieve in the audience a poetic humane feeling generated by an internal feeling of sadness.
In therapy, people who carry a baggage with them and character complexes cannot be treated overnight. Even the love that we see between Atabai and Sima is doomed and both of them know it. Atabai is looking for love in someone whom both he and her know that cannot bear fruit as they have cultural and class differences. Atabai has only gained the confidence to confide his love to her because he has found an ailment in her.
The music in the film (by Hossein Alizadeh) really matched the mood and enhanced the scenes.
In the pre-production stage, I was looking at Azeri-speaking musicians and his name popped up. He came to my office a few times and we had discussions. He really loved the screenplay and I think this made him emotional about composing the music. He used to come to the set when filming and walk around the village and really absorb the environment. I told him that for me film music is like a nightmare and always worries me. For this reason, I have used the bare minimum music in my previous films, but I wanted to have music in this film. He used to look at the rushes and I think he composed one of his best pieces for this film.
Was the narration by the Atabai character always in the script or something that was added on later?
One midnight when returning from the editing suite, I told the editor that the film needs narration, because we are getting close to Atabai and need to know what he’s thinking. But not the type of narration used in say Raymond Chandler adaptations, it has to come from Atabai’s subconscious. I think I wrote the narration in a couple of days.
The narration has the tone of a confession imbued with bits of magic realism.
Yes, I was influenced by the writings of Sadegh Hedayat and Sylvia Plath.
How was the film received in the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran?
It was very warmly received by the critics and was nominated in several categories, though we did not win any awards.
I think this was your first film with cinematographer Saman Lotfian.
I was on the plane flying to our location and I was reading a copy of your translation of Woody Allen’s memoirs. One of the things that he says is that if a filmmaker feels that any members of the cast and crew is not suitable for the film, he or she should dispense with their services. After two weeks of filming, I noticed that my cinematographer wasn’t totally focused on the film and his mind was on some family issues. I wanted someone for whom the film really mattered. Also, when I saw the rushes, they were below my expectations. I wanted warm colours and he as giving me cold ones. One night I walked alone in the location till 5 am. Then I came to the office and decided to change my cinematographer. I also changed one of the actresses after watching the rushes.
What are your plans for its exhibition outside Iran?
We are in negotiations with exhibitors in the UK and USA.
What are you working on now?
I am producing a film for a London-based Iranian director, who had told a mutual friend that he wants to make a film in Iran. We had discussions and it took him two years to write his screenplay. We are now in the pre-production stage.
I’m also working on an exhibition of my photographs and last year I played in the war movie The Group of Girls. I’m also working on the screenplay for my next movie.
In our conversation in 2014 I asked you about the state of the independent cinema in Iran and you described it as “very stranded and without shelter”. How do you assess it now?
Very stranded and without shelter!
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).