By Ali Moosavi.
Pendulum is the first film made by Amir Ganjavie, an Iranian diaspora film critic (and a Film International contributor), based in Toronto. Ganjavie is engaged in a wide variety of cinematic activities. He has pioneered the Iranian Film Festival in Toronto, an annual festival showcasing the cream of Iranian cinema, organized acting/directing workshops in Canada given by well-known Iranian artists, and has produced Free Like Air, the latest film by the award winning Iranian director, Abdolreza Kahani, in Canada.
There are a number of unusual aspects to Pendulum. Ganjavie has taken the brave decision to dispense the usual time-honored practice of starting with a few short films and has thrown himself straight into the deep end by debuting with a feature film. He has also co-written and co-directed the film (with Mostafa Azizi). The various challenges which faced Ganjavie in this venture are discussed in an interview with him at the end of this article.
Pendulum looks at the relationship between an Iranian immigrant couple in Canada. When we first meet them, Amirali (Naeim Jebeli) has an executive position in a utility company and his wife, Shabnam (Heila Imany) is a locally based model. They seem to be living the dream immigrant life: both working, living in a nice house and with a busy social life. However, events conspire against them and their enviable lifestyle. First of all, Amirali, in an admirable, but highly unusual act for an immigrant in his position, refuses to sanction an electrical energy project due to his environmental and moral concerns. In doing so, he loses his job but his pride refrains him from telling his wife. At the same time, Shabnam is worried that at 25, she may be nearing the end of her modelling career without any significant achievements. She becomes excited by the news that a marketing consultant for a major brand looking for a model to use in their advertisements, is interested in talking to her about this venture. But, she also finds out that she is pregnant and thus could lose this opportunity. The decision whether to keep the child becomes the subject of often heated discussions between the couple, going to and fro like the pendulum of the title; and also, the central theme used by the script writers to explore many dimensions in the relationship between couples, specially immigrant ones.
Amirali does not have the patriarchal standing that he would have back in Iran and is in no position to force Shabnam to keep the child. Having lost his job, which essentially has made Shabnam the breadwinner of the family, has eroded his influence even more. One puzzling aspect of the script is that Amirali’s firing, such a pivotal event, is tossed aside and does not feature in the arguments regarding the abortion issue. It only crops up at the end of the film and puts a question mark as to why it wasn’t more delved upon. Also, the reasons for the firing could have been simple economic ones which would be easier to accept than the moral stand that Amirali takes. Most new immigrant expectant fathers in his position are likely to have compromised on the energy issue and kept their job. I believe that these attributes given to Amirali have made his part more challenging for Naeim Jebeli and less easy for audience to empathise with him.
Also, Shabnam’s reasoning for the abortion is not all that convincing. In exchange for getting a modelling assignment, not only is she willing to abort her unborn baby, but also to jeopardize her marriage. The more we see how deeply the couple love each other, the more Shabnam’s desire for an abortion becomes complicated. One of the challenges that every screenwriter faces is how to make a convincing argument, one that challenges our preconceptions, within the relatively short time of the movie. This is a luxury that book authors have and screenwriters have to work hard at it.
Visually the film is very impressive and belies its limited budget and inexperience of its directors. Each shot has been carefully framed. The beautiful photography, by Shahriar Assadi, who has Bahman’s Ghobadi’s Tutles Can Fly (2004) among his credits, is one of Pendulum’s major assets. The whiteness of the snow both accentuates the cold detachment creeping into the couple’s relationship and also provides a warning that when the snow melts, all the ugliness hidden beneath its beauty appears.
Considering the relatively small pool of Iranian diaspora actors in Canada, the co-directors must be congratulated for obtaining performances that do not include any obvious weaknesses. A particular mention must go to Golshad Moradi who plays one of Shabnam’s close friends. She is completely at ease in front of the camera and delivers her dialogue in a very natural fashion. Technical and production values are quite impressive. The one technical aspect that I did not find in line with the others is the music which is overbearing in some parts and generally not in sync with the mood of the film.
Pendulum is a promising piece of work by all the cast and crew. It is an obvious labour of love, made despite many obstacles and challenges.
Most new filmmakers usually start by making a few short films before graduating to feature films; to gain some experience and be in a better position to raise budget for a feature film. You, however, have bucked this trend and started with a feature film. What was the thinking behind this decision?
I had a professional team when making this film, and I used their knowledge and experience which was very helpful. Filmmaking is team work. Some people think that there’s one director who knows and does everything, he creates a world and the film only belongs to him. But I believe that almost everything in a film is done by a group of people, and only then can one have a satisfactory outcome. I believe that once in a while, you have to be bold and go with your gut feelings. It’s the same thing about life. You succeed and achieve whatever you set your mind to, only if you believe in yourself. I told myself that I’m working with a professional team, and if there’s something that I don’t know, I can always ask them, and use their knowledge and expert opinion, and we did it, and it worked.
How difficult was it to raise the budget for your film?
Securing the budget for this film was not easy. That is the case when it’s your first film. I remember reading that the first film by Coen Brothers was made possible with help from their family. I relied on myself and my family to secure the budget. Also, I have been doing various cinema-related projects here in Canada, and I got to know people who supported me in different ways. There were many people who kindly agreed to work on this project as volunteers and that’s how we got to make the film with our limited budget. I had a conversation with Yorgos Lanthimos once, and he said that sometimes you think if you have money, you can do great things but there’s a love, a passion, in volunteer work that money can’t buy, and I really believe in this.
You have shared the writing and directing of the film (with Mostafa Azizi). How did this work out in practice?
Mostafa Azizi has had years of experience in the world of cinema, and he’s a freethinker. Working with him was pleasant and rewarding. It helped me learn many things about cinema. Wherever I lacked knowledge or needed help, he was always there for me and encouraged me to carry on. Working as a team in an artistic project can also have its challenges, especially when, in this case, there are two directors. There were moments when we had our disagreements about different scenes or details but we always tried to talk it out, and compromise. The good thing about Mostafa is his willingness to talk and sort out the problems. And we always tried to talk and make the decisions together. Of course, we had our disagreements, some of which were more serious. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk to each other for a day or two, but we always tried to be sensible and talk things out. This was mostly in pre-production, and by the time we started shooting, these disagreements were few and far in between.
Almost all the main speaking parts are played by Iranian actors. There can’t be that many Iranian actors in Canada. How was the casting process?
One of the biggest problems you face when you’re making an Iranian film in Canada is that you can’t find good professional actors and actresses, and this made our job really difficult. We needed a good cast for our film, because it was important for them to be able to show and express their emotions deeply. We had a long period of preparation for our actors and actresses, and we used the help of a few experienced friends who rehearsed with them. In fact, we tried to choose those actors who were had some similarities to the characters in the film, as we thought this will help them have a better understanding of their roles. This preparation stage helped us to move things along faster when shooting the film.
What were your major challenges during the shoot?
Securing money and finding the right actors were the major challenges. Another problem was the cold weather in Canada. There were snowy days during which the temperature went as low as minus 30 degrees. We had to shoot some of the scenes in open areas, and this cold weather made our job really difficult. Actors had to act in that weather and our equipment and heating devices were limited and we couldn’t really provide heat and make the place warm enough.
What were the major lessons learned from making this film?
We learned that if you work as a team, believe in your work and have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, then the chances of success are really high, even with all the odds stacked against you. I think one of the best things that making this film gave us was self-confidence. The fact that we can do a big project, such as making a feature film, if we try our best and not give up. We have to approach filmmaking with a positive attitude.
In your other role as a critic, you have interviewed many well-known film makers. Did you get any tips from them on film making?
I have talked to many great directors and I always asked them their opinion on different things. Those opinions have affected my approach to filmmaking and screenwriting. The most important thing I learned from them is the importance of teamwork in filmmaking. I learned a lot from Fatih Akin about the importance of ‘face’ in cinema. I remember that he told me that “face is a landscape with which you can convey many ideas”, and this was important for me when it came to casting. We wanted actors and actresses who could convey a range of emotions through their facial gestures. I wanted them to go beyond simple acting, and be immersed in their roles.
Was it a creative decision to film in the peak of winter snow or a scheduling one?
We wanted to shoot the film during summer, and we had planned some scenes in which the main protagonists would go to a summer camp. But we had everything ready at winter time. The cinematographer that we wanted, had come to Toronto, the budget was ready, the actors and actresses had rehearsed their roles, and the crew were available. So, we decided that it’s time to start the shooting. We knew that we would face the extreme cold weather in winter, but we thought that if we don’t do it now, we may never do it. All of these reasons pushed us to start the production and, as a result, we were able to shoot some amazing scenes which can only be experienced during winter.
What your plans for distribution of the film and its participation at film festivals?
We have submitted the film to different film festivals, and we’re waiting for the results. We have tried to send it to major film festivals first, because there are about 10000 festivals around the world but most of them are not credible and important. Due to this high number of festivals, nowadays it’s easy to have your film accepted at these small film festivals, and you can tell everybody that your film has been screened at many festivals. But this is not an achievement for your film. We can decide on the distribution strategy, after the feedback we get from the festivals, especially the reviews from the critics. We also have definite plans to screen this film for the Iranian community here, because the film itself was made for them, and it can be pretty interesting for Iranian expats here.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a new screenplay. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I would like to shoot the film this year. This screenplay is also influenced by my experiences as an immigrant in Canada, and on some real stories that I have heard from the Iranian diaspora. I feel it’s more radical, and also more Canadian, compared to Pendulum.
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 The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).