By Amir Ganjavie and Nojan Norouzi.
Rakhshan Bani-E’temad officially represented Iran at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival with her film Tales, which has been harshly criticized in Iran by ultraconservatives who argue the film to be a dark and unrealistic portrayal of the nation. As a result, the film has not yet been permitted to screen in Iran despite the director receiving the best script award for herself and Farid Mostafavi at Venice’s 2014 festival and being well received at Toronto. The demand to see Tales there was such that screenings sold out, with many people unable to attend. Judging by the questions that have been raised for the director after one screening, most of the audience found the movie to be a captivating, energetic, and hopeful piece. The warm reception and applause helped Bani-E’temad to forget the criticism she has encountered in Iran.
The following is a discussion with Bani-E’temad in Toronto after one of her screenings.
Can you provide a description of Tales?
Tales is the narration of the life and situation of characters from my previous movies as well as a few new characters that I introduced.
With a look at its structure, can it be said that this film is made of pieces from your previous films?
No, not at all.
Maybe it’s better to say, “continuing the characters of the previous films”?
Yes. Continuing the situations of characters of the previous films.
Considering the fact that this film is presented to foreign audiences at festivals like Toronto, and they may be unfamiliar with the characters, have you thought this might affect their understanding of the movie?
One of the most important challenges in writing the script was that although some of the characters had the experience and identification of having appeared in my previous films, understanding them should absolutely not require watching the previous films. In fact, whether for an Iranian or non-Iranian audience, understanding Tales does not require them to watch previous movies. Of course, those who are familiar with the characters from before will have a more familiar feeling towards them in these current situations. At the meeting that I had with the Jury of the Venice Festival after receiving the award, with the exception of one or two people, nobody knew that these characters are connected to the previous films and this motivated them to watch the previous movies, too.
More attention has been paid to some plots and more time has been dedicated to them. Do you have a particular interest in their narrations and characters or do you feel like this happened based on the necessity of Tales itself?
The second point, of course. Based on the necessity of the narrative and situations, some of the stories were processed longer and some became shorter. However, when we were writing the script, we aimed at keeping the balance between different stories.
One of the interesting points of the film was your use of digital cameras. Do you think that using digital cameras can help you better to express social matters?
The structure of each film is decisive in our decision to using technical tools. Naturally, according to the visual structure that I had in mind in Tales, these tools should have been used. Also, the documentary-making camera functioned as a character in some cases, such as the situation related to the workers on the bus that the story is being narrated via the documentary camera and naturally, the visual information of video is also saved on the digital camera. Perhaps because of the long experience of working with video cameras, it is easier to use this technology in creating documentaries and more in congruence with the structure of my narrative works. I also made Mainline (2006) with digital cameras and even when making Under the Skin of the City (2001), which dates back fifteen to sixteen years ago. At that time, using digital cameras was uncommon and during the process of getting the license and permits this decision was not congruent with some of the regulations of that time so I had to abandon my decision due to these difficulties.
So do you consider cinema to be a medium for expressing social issues?
Absolutely not. I don’t mean that cinematic expression is not important to me; the topic and theme are undoubtedly important to me but the harder part is that in the processes of creating the characters, writing the script, or filming. I get closer to realism and this path is naturally where the less technical medium shows itself off; achieving realism is a difficult task and is not the same as simplifying cinematic expression.
One of the interesting points of Tales is that the life of most of characters is formed in limited times frames such as conversations on the bus or at home. Did you have a particular reason for limiting the time the characters have?
The basis of writing the script for Tales was that each story should be a cut from a situation and section without interrupting the time. This routine was kept throughout the script except for the first story and also between the part when Abbas is taxi driving and when he goes to the door of his mother’s home. In this case, the initial thought of the script was to set the opening credits with the part that happens before he goes to Tooba’s home but I changed my mind during editing.
We see a lot of players in Tales. Was it difficult to work with so many actors?
The diversity and quantity of actors in this film was a joyful experience. Most of them had also played in my previous films and contributed with great energy. It was interesting for them to play the characters that they first played 27 years ago in current situations set in the present. A lot of rehearsal time has been spent on this work and although the filming time was short, we spent a lot of time rehearsing and all of us went through these processes willingly.
An interesting topic in Tales is that the characters do not surrender to their current position in the world and fight with the hope of achieving what they want, a hope for a better world that can be seen in the final part of the film. Considering that you work within certain political and social circumstances, can we conclude that in your opinion, Iranian filmmaking has a promising future? With regard to this point it is difficult for me to understand why your film has been interpreted as being dark.
I’m glad that you have such a realistic interpretation of Tales because unfortunately for some, displaying any bitterness on the screen will be interpreted as exaggerating the darkness. It is true that social problems are expressed but the characters do not have a predetermined destiny and their positions are not doomed to absolute impasse. Basically, I don’t believe in closed endings because I feel that hope is the element that keeps a person together to fight and resist and create change. However, I cannot simply inject my positive views into my stories but just expressing that people resist means hope and an open ending. I believe that the current hopeful situation of people is absolutely not the same as the previous circumstance of a few years ago. Once the prospect of a better situation is built it changes the energy in the working environment. I believe that Tales has an open ending and this can especially be seen in the final stories. I’m very hopeful for Iranian youth generation and their impact on the society.
Considering this positive hope for the future, can we hope that Rakhshan Bani-E’temad will return to her early style of storytelling cinema?
This time I have told seven stories together! I like storytelling cinema but my aim is more to tell plausible stories without sacrificing contemplation and reflection upon the situation for the sake of storytelling.
I have been asked at TIFF whether the movie has been censored in Iran….
This film was created in 2011 and it got its permit less than a year ago; fortunately, not a single frame has been cut from the film.
I would like to know how you deal with women’s issues in your movies as a female filmmaker. Some male or female filmmakers say that their gender does not affect their works, and that their films are above gender issues, but I believe that to a large extent, factors such as gender, race, education, and knowledge either willingly or unwillingly influence the work of artists. If I want to make a movie, part of my masculine identity would unconsciously influence it. With this approach, to what extent do you think your perspective as a woman, has intentionally or unintentionally affected your works?
Gender is part of a director’s thoughts and worldviews. Naturally, I understand women’s issues better but I have also dealt with men’s issues in my films. Sociocultural circumstances influence people’s destinies, whether male or female, and since women have far more limited platforms through which to present their problems, I tend to address women’s issues. However, we cannot definitively rule that only women can make films about women’s issues, or vice versa. A clear example that I have mentioned many times is Reza Mirkarimi’s As Simple as That (2008). Seriously, if I wanted to picture a housewife’s everyday life, I could never make it that well. He is a male filmmaker but has successfully portrayed and elaborated upon all the angles of the solitary moments of a housewife.
The reason I raised this question is that in the opinion of Teresa de Lauretis, a scholar interested in women’s cinema, female filmmakers can pay better attention to the other, and aspects of his life, and better understand the suffering of those who have been rejected by society. I have seen consideration, sympathy, and compassion towards the other in your movies which I adore and respect. Your careful attention to the other means that whenever you talk about men you see them as victims of social-political circumstances rather than as being inherently evil.
I don’t have a defined and known structure for this type of tendency and gender. Women naturally – and not just because of maternal feelings – have a concerned view of problems, places, and people in different situations. This concern and attention results in closer attention to some details. From this perspective, with your interpretation, my view can be seen as a view which has its roots in the feminine cinema.
Continuing the previous question, one of the interesting things about Iranian cinema is the strong presence of women. Even in American cinema, with all of its organizations, the percentage of women’s participation is far lower. How has this positive thing happened in Iran? Dr. Hamid Nafici claims somewhere that the Islamization of cinema has resulted in women being more comfortable working in it.
In fact, one of the major reasons was that before the revolution [of Iran], cinema and television were totally separated. Before the revolution, women were widely accepted in fields such as film directing, cinematography, sound, montage, and photography. After the revolution, a group of these cinematic women brought their culture of working in television to the cinema. It wasn’t unusual to have female filmmakers in television and in fact there were many such filmmakers and directors. Our arrival in cinema brought television culture and views to cinema and adapting to this view and accepting women backstage in cinema, while also creating the atmosphere to which Dr. Nafisi has referred, created the basis for accepting women’s presence in cinema as natural.
You are connected with a lot of young filmmakers and collaborate with them. Is there a specific person whose work you are really fond of these days?
There are a lot of talented young filmmakers and I hope that in coming to the professional cinema, they will not fall into the typical clichés since many are forced to change their approach once they enter the professional cinema. In the works of young filmmakers with limited facilities, I see a pleasant freshness in the ideas and cinematic structure, a characteristic that makes one hopeful. I hope they will not be intimidated by the professional cinema.
What is your opinion on young filmmakers’ participation in festivals? Overall, how was your experience at TIFF?
I have just arrived in Toronto and considering that I myself have a film in this festival, I cannot watch a lot of other films. Also, interviews and meetings would not allow me to watch films of others. I have screened my films at TIFF several times and it is a very accredited festival at which one of the nice characteristics is the large number of films screened here and that it has interested audiences that widely welcome this festival. Given that Canadian viewers are from a diverse range of cultures, hearing their reaction to a film is a valuable experience.
In the end, do you have any specific plans for the future?
Very much; let’s see how much I have.
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.