Reza Mirkarimi’s Today has been selected to represent Iran at the Oscars in 2015, after the film’s recent screening at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF). According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, “in some respects, the plot’s departure as well as the conclusion of Today may remind us the ‘first’ Iranian New Wave, Ebrahim Golestan’s powerful 1965 Brick and Mirror”.
In the interview below, conducted during TIFF, Mirkarimi spoke of his festival experience, the use of minimalism in his latest film, his choices as a film artist, and other topics.
First of all, congratulations on your movie being selected as Iran’s candidate for the Oscars. After So Far, So Close (2005) and A Sugar Cube (2011), this is your third movie that to be considered for an Oscar. Would you like to say something about this? How was the procedure for selecting the movie in Iran?
A team made up of experts, critics, and directors started by selecting ten movies from the past year and then from those they selected Today for Oscar candidacy. It would be hard to hide my sadness about what happened to A Suger Cube but I hope that Today will be a worthwhile candidate from Iranian cinema.
The news about your film being selected for the Oscars was published after the screening of your film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Could you explain a little about the reception to your movie at TIFF?
The difference between TIFF and other festivals that I have participated in is the diversity of the audience’s nationalities. At the questions and answers session, when I first stood in front of people, I was surprised by the diversity of their faces which each belonged to a different nationality; it seemed like you’ve screened your film at the United Nations. They also asked very different questions and for this reason, the movie encountered international criticism. In this form of encounter, when the audience makes a connection to the film, you become sure that you’ve done your job correctly.
I would be pleased if you would say more about the film itself. Why Today? Where did the initial idea come from? Was it a project that you had thought about for a long time?
I think it is necessary to explain the background of my motivation for creating this movie. During the past few years, some kind of disillusionment and political disturbance appeared in the minds of many people in [Iranian] society and an inappropriate approach to this confusion resulted in people going in different directions that were not always quite right. Some people in a direct and artificial way, raised heroes that were not related to the society and it seemed like everyone suddenly jumped from the 60s to the 90s and the coordinates of the society was not in the hands of these heroes. Meaning that the structure within which subject matters were being considered was old and thus the society was rejecting it. In opposition to this position, a great fraction of people went for complaining without providing any solutions and creating anti-heroes from which a minority were successful in their cinematic expression and created thoughtful pieces, while the rest were generally involved in being fashion victims and sloganism. That there is no way to rescue the society, that the atmosphere and general determinism and the societal-political situation and the time that we are living in, does not leave a way for creating heroes and all of us are doomed to be sinful. Because of this determination, even the best of people are, in certain situations, forced to sin and, in other words, we should surrender to the conditions. Truthfully, I did not like either of these two views and I thought that, like many of the ones that I know, there are still some heroes who have not lost their beliefs and we pass by them every day, feel the coolness of their being, but there is no hypocrisy in them. Meanwhile, this exterior behaviour pertains to an interior peacefulness and this interior peacefulness is a result of going through a certain mindful and thoughtful way, meaning that if at a time they believed that everything starts from fixing society and the world, now they have reached a self-fixing and think that even the community can find a better shape by the responsible movements of each one of us. Thus, if I pay my responsibility to the society in an unconditional and selfless way and would not wait for others’ admiration for fulfilling my own responsibilities, I have done my job correctly as a cell of this society. If we consider silence as a reaction to society’s abnormalities, in this case and in this film, it is a protest in disapproval of lack of care and irresponsibility.
The cinematic form of Today is very different from A Sugar Cube, which is composed of so many shots with many characters and a floating camera, whereas Today is a relatively minimalistic film. What is the reason for your interest in this new form? Did this new experience also affect the reception of your film in Iran?
I like to experience new forms in cinema. I try to avoid repeating my previous situations because I think repeating something that I have been successful with indicates weakness. This is part of the searching quest that can take meaning in cinema by a new form and new words and in life in another form. Something that keeps humans alive is life not becoming ordinary. We should try to move away from becoming ordinary; the exact thing that can give life to our tales. Sometimes, to avoid ordinariness, our stories go to unapproachable situations that would never happen in everyday life, like the appearance of beings from other planets on Earth that is a new and unpredictable situation. All of these are to avoid repetition and to break habits. My proposed prescription, at least in these few movies that I have created, is to find the new world in our exact everyday surroundings. Of course, this perspective is not mine; I have learned it from other great beings that those very things and incidents and situations that seem repetitive and meaningless can make our lives meaningful. Under the condition that we receive new signals from them everyday. A filmmaker should take off the ordinary habit from these things and give great meaning to apparently unimportant situations and help to not travel to places far away to find the truth as in old fables, but to reach the unknowing at the heart of simple events.
In accord with Today’s minimalist form, the main character of the film is very quiet and explains nothing about his past; characters that although they are being judged, they do not defend themselves. Is it possible to explain your logic in processing these characters?
The theme of silence is in protest to too much talkativeness in our society. In a place that is too noisy and where voice cannot reach voice, remaining silent is the best thing to do. When there is no one to hear, to whom should we speak? For somebody’s words to be heard, someone should be selfless so the other can say his pains. To tell one’s grievances, the other should keep his grievances to himself. One should be sacrificing and become the “Patience Stone.” This sacrifice should start from somewhere; we should let the ones who suffer to speak more. Aside from this discussion, I personally have experienced situations in life like Younes’s and each time that I opened my mouth, everything got worse. Still, I have some pictures in mind, always have in mind, the blind girl on a tall rock, the night comes and in her hand is an off lantern and a sacred Buddhist tablet that the wind is taking away… this is the ending for Ran (the Akira Kurosawa film), as though it is better to say nothing. Or in King Lear, Lear himself asks “How much do you love me?” and Cordelia says “None.” Later, King Lear says that “The word is the cause of all misunderstandings.” This is the subject matter of The Little Prince too.
One of the beauties of your cinema is your unique approach and focus on the space. Without the space, it is impossible to imagine your narrations. We could say that space has priority over being and existence. In Today also, the hospital carries an important weight of the space on its shoulders. The interesting point about your approach to space is your attention to the native space. Intact views of the Iranian native regions can be seen in many of your works. In Today, the hospital has a meaningful native weight and that can only take form in Iran with its own unique culture. Despite that, we can say that the nativity did not affect the universality of the work and it did not cause difficulty for foreign audiences to connect with the film. As a result, in my opinion, your cinema is thinking about forming a new connection between Iranian cinema and becoming international. If possible, explain a little about the role of space in your cinema and its relationship with Iran and becoming international.
Unlike the belief of those who think that Iranian cinema can become international only by including symbols from Western cinema, my reliance has always been on concepts and symbols of our native culture. This does not mean that I have not learned from Western cinema, words and pains are common but diverse human experiences give them a different color and taste. In my opinion, filmmakers and audiences that in different places in the world encounter a film from a country are more looking to find common apprehensions behind the new colorings and this union of the look and diversity of the tone and space is what increases your worth in the eyes of the international audience.
In my opinion, Parviz Parastui, who plays the main character in the film, is trying his best not to remind us of the superstar Parviz Parastui. He struggles with all of his attractiveness and plays the role of a calm, silent, and humble person who is sometimes grumpy and seems to be angry with society and the people around him. My relationship with Parastui’s character was constantly shifting between love and hatred. I would like you to speak a little about the strategy of putting Parastui in this role. Did you request a specific form of acting from him? How important was it for you to know Parastui’s previous roles and that he has played the role of an idealist in some of those films?
I liked his anger. I wanted the man’s apparent attitude to be in contrast to his kind actions. This way a tangible and genuine character would form that is not stereotypical compared to the angel-like characters from similar stories. I thought that he was an idealist who in a period for his ideals, sacrificed his best and desired to construct society so that everything would be in its own place but he still thinks that he has not accomplished his mission yet. Today it seems like Jonah has come out of the whale’s stomach and says that “I will do what I can.” It may not be bad to add this comment; I was writing this story four years ago with another script writer. It was the story of an outlying person in an outlying place who was handling a cow farm alone. That farm was the solitary convent of a person secluded from society who seemed to have a passionate past but now has chosen a solitary corner. The thing that convinced me to set that story aside was its lack of practicality and its distance from society. That made me think about what I should do about the current situation of my society. Should I add to the naggings that happen in society? Or should I go to a corner and sit in seclusion and see what will happen? There should be a way, there is something in the middle and you should not worry about proving your rightfulness and in a world full of slogans, defend yourself and your ideals with words while at the same time not having to set back and act for profit only, rather as much as your car has capacity and you can help other people get to their destinations with less pain. About the background of the actor there are two perspectives. Inside Iran where Parastui’s previous roles have been seen, I liked the confrontation and comparison of this character with the characters that he has previously played become a problem for the audience; and for outside of Iran, as Parastui’s play has been seen thoroughly in a few festivals, his look and type of playing has a good congruence with the role.
Watching your movie reminded me of the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher for whom ethics where the most important aspect of life. In Levinas’s view, the greatest violence occurs when we judge other people. He explains the importance of self-control and bearing the pain and suffering in confronting others. He believes us to be hostages of the other and their servant. For him, fatherhood has great value and importance. All of these philosophical thoughts can be observed in your film Today. In fact, a particular philosophical-ethical perspective can be observed in this work, a perspective that gives a particular sense of coherence to the character and loads him with a universal and humane message despite his mysteriousness. A philosophical-ethical characteristic that makes it hard for the audience – who live in the ethically relative situation of the present day – to tolerate the character. Is it possible to tell us about the role of ethics in your cinema? Do you consider your cinema to be ethical and, if yes, in what form? In what ethical tradition of cinema do you put yourself?
In Levinas’s view, ethics are the foundation of many things, even faith. He says “Until we are ‘I,’ we are reduced to our solitary, but once we worry about the other and love the other, we become infinite and limitless and move forward to ‘him.’ While we worry about the other, respect him, and feel responsible for him, ethics will be alive in us and as long as the ‘other’ is alive in us, we can say that ‘ethical I’ is alive in us.” This summary of the “meaning of being” and “the concept of religion” in prevailing and unconditional love and kindness can also be found in Ibn Arabi’s works.
I agree that today’s life, because of its individualistic foundations, instead of compassion, considers self-welfare and legal obedience to be a better alternative and does not wish to get into the trouble of solving a problem that it doesn’t see. But Younes’s nurture has not been this way. I think the law or whatever we call it “to do or not to do” is the minimum expectation of humanity to bring a minimum order to society; humanity has a minimum and a maximum. In your responsibilities, you can only be faithful to the primary responsibilities and easily ignore the other problems, this is the misfortune that has happened to all of us, a society with people who apparently respect the law but don’t care about each other, but Younes opens his arms to the troubles and founds his house below the volcano of suspicion to buy the honour of a human being, even a being that will be alive for only a few hours.
This matter is a little complicated and I believe we cannot expect more from an ethical manual that wants to make our decisions for us. As a result, instead of telling repetitive and known ethical sermons, I’m trying to understand the unknown capacities of human beings and I reserve the right for my hero in complex and difficult situations to act above the law based on his conscience.
You made a good point. In fact you are not looking to dictate your own ethical declaration with this movie as this film has an open ending. We cannot be sure of the child’s destiny. Clearly, breaking the law would bring troubles to the taxi driver. This film can be considered as a question about ethics without dictating any declarations and is a possibly ideal scenario to imagine a peculiar ethical-humane situation.
I don’t have a clear and elaborate prescription to give to the audience. I can just talk about my personal experience and not anything more, for this reason I always use the phrase “spiritual experience” and I try to share this spiritual or societal experience and I would rather to say that I see this way; that’s it.
In the narrative of movie nothing is without thoughtfulness since all the elements are in a way connected to the general narration. I would like to know more about the process of creating the script in your works.
We should always manage two parts; one is the plot of the story and the other is creating the details to make the plot seem real, which creates the space. A good movie can always be created by balancing these two. If the balance is not set, meaning that the details and the space for creating credibility and attraction become more important than the plot itself, a film will lose its balance. On the other hand, if showing the details and peculiarities of everyday life becomes less than what they should be, the film will not become believable the way it should be.
To wrap up, what are the chances of the film winning an Oscar? Your film has been created completely independently. It has not yet found a foreign distributor and this could have a negative impact on your chances for Oscar nomination. What is your opinion as an independent filmmaker? What do you think independent filmmakers such as yourself should do to confront this situation?
When you put your film in the center of criticism and judgement, you should then accept the results easily. We should try not to repeat ourselves in case of becoming successful, and if we are not successful, we should try twice as hard.
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.