The real magic of the I for Iran series in Toronto lies in curation: the talent they have recruited to present and contextualize the various films screened is a testament to their commitment to offering the best possible cinematic experience. More so than not, each film is accompanied by a presenter – a variety of filmmakers, writers and scholars – who offer invaluable insight and context. While this has always been the case, the I for Iran series has been particularly rich.
Presenting the opening screening was Roya Akbari, who participated with Abbas Kiarostami on the film Ten and is a filmmaker in her own right. Her poetic short Only Image Remains was the opening film of the series, and featured her own reminiscence as well as interviews with many top Iranian filmmakers. This set the tone for presenters like Shahram Tabe, Hamid Naficy, Amir Soltani and, perhaps most notably, acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi to present an incredible range of films from different eras and styles. Rounding off that list is Tina Hassannia, author of Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema, who is set to present two films as part of the series. She generously set aside some time to speak with Sound On Sight about her involvement with the series, her personal relationship with Iranian cinema, and the two films she is presenting.
The I for Iran series was born at the Fribourg FIlm Festival last year, when its artistic director Thieurry Jobin invited 14 Iranian filmmakers to select their favourite films from their homeland. From that initial list, as many films as possible were tracked down to be screened. When Brad Deane, TIFF programmer, was offered the opportunity to screen the series at the TIFF Lightbox, he did not hesitate. It was no easy feat bringing together the current line-up of films, many of which are unavailable or rarely seen due to difficulties in both distribution and localized censorship. Assembling the wide variety of prints and securing the rights to screen them was no small feat, but that was merely the beginning.
One of the reasons why the TIFF Lightbox has been such a roaring success as a cinematheque, in particular within Canada, is how it reaches out to the local cinematic community in order to enrich the experiences of the screen. While The Quebec Cinematheque is struggling, largely due to increased austerity measures over the course of the past decade (with more bad news in the near future with the announcement that the Régie du cinéma du Québec will be abolished), the TIFF Lightbox thrives. While factors extend far beyond curation and passion, there is no denying the caliber of talent the TIFF Lightbox consistently assembles for each of their series, raising the bar in terms of community involvement.
Tina Hassania is not quite sure how she became immediately involved with the undertaking, but remembers an encounter with Brad Deane during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. At the time she gave him some thoughts on some of the films, as well as recommending he not screen anything on March 20th or 21st due to the Persian New Year. She will be presenting two of her favourite Iranian films Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (March 27, 8:45pm) and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (April 3, 6pm)
Justine: Of the films screened so far at I for Iran, what have been some personal highlights?
Tina: It kinda ranges from films that I’ve read about at length and that I’ve always wanted to see but couldn’t find. Sohrad Shahid Saless’s film A Simple Event (1974) definitely falls into that category, so seeing that was phenomenal. Then there are films that I read about, but I wasn’t necessarily familiar with their production history, or their filmmaker. The Night of the Hunchback (1965) was one that really stuck out for me because it just completely went against everything I expected from a period of time; it’s almost like a heist movie in a way.
J: Before this series, many of films were nearly impossible or impossible to find in a good quality.
T: Definitely, Downpour (1972) is a great example of that. You can easily find it on YouTube, the quality is atrocious, and if you don’t speak Farsi the subtitles are extremely difficult to make out. That movie had been digitally restored, the Martin Scorsese Foundation spent a lot money doing that. But even other examples of films weren’t really [restored], they were just available prints. The Runner (1984) for example, I tweeted about this you know, I’ve seen the version, I think also on YouTube, and it was fine but seeing it on 35mm was just unbelievable. That movie is the kind of movie you absolutely need to see in a big theatre in order to appreciate the vividness and the colours, and the image quality. It’s not a restored print by any means but there is something really transformative of just an older print, blown up.
J: In your piece for To Be Cont’d, you wrote about how western critics in particular can misinterpret the influences that go into producing Iranian cinema. You write, “Iranian filmmakers, however, were heavily influenced by their country’s burgeoning post-modern literature movement.” Would you care to expand on that?
T: Cinema has become such a huge artform in the country and people are really really obsessed with it. Just look at Hossain Sabzian [protagonist/subject of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up], he really embodies the everyday man’s passion in cinema possibly to a degree that’s unhealthy but that’s not uncommon. The idea that every person, no matter their class, no matter their gender, no matter what, cinema is something is that they can access and identity with.
I would say poetry is an even stronger and much older, more rooted example of that. Now, I’m by no means an expert in Persian poetry [laughs], I would rather not comment or go into specifics about that. I do know that a lot of Iranian filmmakers, because they grew up in such a culture that everything in our language is so poetic, it is a highly idiomatic language, similar to English. People sort of grow up in this culture where poetry is just a part of your everyday speech and people can recite poems, from ancient poets to more contemporary ones, at the drop of a hat; no holding back – they just recite poems all the time. It doesn’t matter who you are, there are people who do it. That’s awesome, and that’s something that I think western critics miss when they look at films by, say, Kiarostami — they make assumptions, they have made assumptions. They had made assumptions that Iranian cinema is neo-realist, not I’m not going to deny that there are neo-realist strains in many Kiarostami films, but I also think that there are other traditions at work.
One of the films that the series screened was Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), and the film is actually dedicated to Sohrab Sepehri, who first of all [is a] painter but he was also a poet, and so the film pays homage to poetry in a way that I think is very interesting — there is a lot of really good writing about this. Alberto Elena wrote about the spiritual connection and especially to sufism and older Persian cultural traditions, predating Islam, in his book on Abbas Kiarostami [The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami] — you might want to check it out, I definitely can’t do it justice.
There is stuff that is written about Kiarostami’s work that delves into that kind of territory, but for the most part it’s pretty rare.I just think that’s kind of dissapointing but also understandable. I mean, it makes sense that most western critics aren’t familiar with Iranian literature to be able to see the connections with the authors, and writers and poets and the filmmakers who come 20-30 years later, so that’s understandable, but it also reveals to me, at least, the fact that film criticism, like any cultural criticism, is really based on what you know and what you bring to the picture. I think sometimes people read into things because of what they understand, not perhaps realizing that other people may not have the same background or education or culture as them. You see that with Kiarostami a lot, I’ve seen a lot of critics ask him questions in interviews, “Have you seen films by Tati?” and he answers “Nooo”.
J: I specifically remember you writing that, I think it similarly ties into what you say about neorealism. In your piece for To Be Cont’d you specifically address the mislabeling of The Cow, which I personally have not seen, which you feel due to the repetitive and poetic nature of prose is more surreal than it is neo-realist. I think you can relate the same kind of discussion towards Kiarostami’s Close-Up, which blurs the line of fiction and nonfiction to create a heightened reality.
T: Kiarostami, in any film of his that is either somewhat documentary-like, is a documentary, or any elements that have been taken from reality, so that is a lot of films — he plays around with that line between fiction and nonfiction and he does it in different ways. By the time he gets to Close-Up he’s mastered it really, there are earlier films where he’s playing around and he’s being very self-reflexive and breaking the fourth wall in certain ways. The documentary he made right before Close-Up, Homework (1989), it’s a number of interviews with children and you watch the movie assuming he’s interviewed the children in the order he shows you, and in the end he’s clearly not done that. He’s edited in such a way to present the best people at the beginning and the worst kids at the end — he’s always highlighting the filmmaking, the fact that he’s making a movie.
J: I think we have a misplaced value in documentary having to be objective and removed from elements of fiction. The recent release of The Jinx for HBO has inspired some really interesting writing on documentaries, in particular coming from filmmaker Robert Greene and Richard Brody from The New Yorker. It’s as if we feel a discomfort with the idea of nonfiction somehow being shaped for our entertainment, even when we embrace it.
T: For sure, I think the films that use this kind of thing best are the ones that acknowledge the presence of the filmmaker and the manipulation that he or she has, and also in a critical way. You know what I mean? With Kiarostami especially in many of his movies, whether they are documentary or fiction, the person who is supposed to be a stand-in for [Kiarostami] is not necessarily a likable character or he has flaws that are very recognizable, and they’re usually recognizable in the way that [shows] how he has a position of power by having a camera in his hands and at his disposal to document whatever is around him. In the Koker trilogy [Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On (a.k.a. Life and Nothing More, 1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994)], the latter two films are a good example of his. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) is a good example of that, Close-Up I think is an example of that too. But Close-up is also extremely critical of both Hossain Sabzian and the middle class families that he lies to.
J: Speaking for myself, I’m always fascinated by the idea of national cinemas because it’s such a tenuous idea in the contemporary era. It seems outdated, but at the same time I feel like we can connect so much with our identity, whether in protest of what we’re seeing or in connection with it. How do you associate your own growth as a person with your relationship with Iranian cinema?
T: That’s a really interesting question because for me, becoming a cinephile and learning about Iranian cinema and rediscovering my own cultural roots all happened at the same time, and they were all extremely connected. So, I started watching movies really obsessively when I went back to school, and at the same time I started watching movies by Kiarostami and I realized, “Hey, this is like a window into a world that I know on some level and that I want to know better”… but that I have, like, a really complicated relationship in terms of my own identity as an Iranian Canadian as someone who was born there [Iran] but who hasn’t been back since I was two-years-old, right?
And I also personally, I’m not really a fan of nationalism. I find it a really problematic construct to begin with. I completely agree with you that the idea of a national cinema is very complicated and its usefulness is also questionable — part of that is because, again, I had problems with identifying as an Iranian or as a Canadian. I do think that, for me, my personal experience watching Iranian film, it was definitely helpful in simple things like me learning the language and talking to my parents on the phone and they would say “wow your Farsi has improved”, and I think maybe it’s from watching all these Iranian movies out of nowhere. It also got me curious about learning about the culture and asking my parents things that I kinda maybe knew something about, but I haven’t experienced it myself or I understand a particular way because of how I was raised; the way that we might do something might be very different or a variation of what might actually be done in Iran.
I’m getting married in a few weeks and even that is a big thing. I’ve seen the way that weddings are presented in Iranian cinema and I’ve read about it, but the way that I’m going to do it for myself is very personalized and very different, I think, than what is traditional even in a contemporary or cosmopolitan Iranian wedding — it is going to be different. Watching Iranian movies deepens my knowledge and my appreciation of this culture that I have this tenuous relationship with, but I also go against of how some critics have talked about Iranian cinema. I’m sure you read the piece that I wrote about on my Tumblr a few years ago [On the Alleged Decline of Iranian Cinema], the fact that Kiarostami is making movies in other countries for example. I see them as being Iranian in a very particular way. I see Farhadi’s cultural influence informing The Past (2013), and I don’t think that just because a filmmaker leaves their country, their homeland and makes movies somewhere else with a different crew or money, it doesn’t really mean anything. As Canadians we are especially understanding of that, right? I don’t know if that answers your questions.
J: It’s a kind of question that doesn’t really have an answer. The way we form identities doesn’t work like, “I watched this and now I’m like that”, it’s just a conglomeration of different experience.
Since the retrospective is on the history of Iranian cinema, although the most recent film is A Separation (2009), and expanding on what we were briefly discussing on the so-called decline of Iranian cinema, you are supportive of some contemporary films. I know you’re a champion of Appropriate Behavior (2014). Would you like to talk about some vibrant filmmakers and films people might want to check out?
T: There is the film Fish & Cat (2013) by Shahram Mokri — I haven’t seen it, but I’ve’ heard really great things about it and I’m excited to see it. He’s definitely someone I’d keep my eye on. Mania Akbari — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) but she’s the main woman in that film and she provided a lot of input, a lot of creative input in terms of what happens in that film and she’s great. She has made a few films and she has a movie coming out with Mark Cousins, and it’s called Life May Be (2014) and it’s travelling the festival circuit now. Those would be two people I’d recommend.
It’s kinda cool that there are filmmakers who are, in the case of Desiree [Akhavan] she identifies as Iranian-American but she grew up in the States, so she is like me in a sense; she has a very westernized perspective but one that is informed by values that her parents raised her with. She has to deal with a lot of B.S. because she’s Iranian, even if she’s not living in the country, right? And that movie [Appropriate Behavior] just absolutely displays that absolutely beautifully; there is that interview with the boss who asks her about the “situation in Iran,” I’m pretty sure he probably says “Eye-ran,” and that’s great. I think one of the great things about these emerging voices is that there is a spectrum, so you still have people who are still living in the country, who are very much Iranian, who are learning ways to tell original stories in ways that are not just influenced by Kiarostami, but who are designing their own path. Then you see people who are living in the diaspora who are also making their own movies. It’s an exciting time to be an Iranian filmmaker, even more so if you are an Iranian female.
J: There seems to be a boom, more so than in a lot of other countries. It’s really cool.
With Amir Soltani, you host the Hello Cinema podcast. How do you feel like your podcast has opened you up to new ideas or new people who shed new light on Iranian cinema?
T: Roya Akbari is probably another name I should have mentioned earlier — she had a short film that opened this retrospective and we have her on the show basically as a sort of introduction to the TIFF series. It’s just fascinating having someone like that on the show because she’s really lived Iranian cinema. The short film she made, she got to interview like every filmmaker you can think of from Iran — it’s kinda amazing. It’s called The Image Remains. I think it’s great that we’ve had a variety of hosts on the show, someone like her, or Hamid Naficy, I’m sure you know who he is… both of them are like walking encyclopedias on Iranian cinema.
Then it’s also really great to bring on people we know who are cinephiles, who are critics, who have dabbled in the Iranian cinema but have a completely different perspective. Like we’ve brought on my fiancée Calum Marsh, we’ve brought on Corey Atad, we’ve brought on Diana Barboza. They are coming to us with having watched a small handful of Iranian films and it’s great because, on the one hand, it kinda makes me realize two things. One: just how universal some of these films are — I might watch a movie and appreciate the film on so many levels, especially social. Then Corey will watch it and appreciate it on a whole other level because he can maybe guess at some of the social stuff, but there are more formal or aesthetic considerations that he gravitates towards.Then, on the flip side, some of the things that just don’t translate as well when you’re watching a movie from another country, right? Things that you missed. Sometimes to the point where you might not even enjoy or appreciate a film. That’s why I’m really I got to contribute to this series because I think that cultural context is sometimes extremely necessary to appreciate a film, and that sometimes you miss things from the dialogue in western film criticism. And it’s not just western film criticism, but film criticism around the world, and I’m so glad I read it after. It forces you to think back and reflect on the film.
It’s not like either of us can’t watch a movie and appreciate it without reading it; this is true for any movie. You watch a film and you’re not quite sure what you feel about it, so you read some reviews, and you read some very compelling arguments and it helps you deepen your understanding of that film in whatever way. I think cultural context, cultural education about a movie, is an example of that.
J: Do you think that, in looking at the greater context of Iranian cinema, your perception of Farhadi changed?
T: I think that Farhadi is a really interesting example because he’s a very singular filmmaker, in a way that description can only really be given to people like Kiarostami. He has a very singular vision of what he wants to do and he makes his mark in every single film. He has a really strong screenwriting background and a really strong theatre background, and he is so good at telling a story and layering complexity to the point that it sorta speaks to itself. I don’t think you can really say that there is any other filmmaker in Iran that is making films quite like that, so to me I guess looking at Farhadi’s work and then looking at other movies coming out at the same time, it’s just interesting because the filmmakers that are about social issues and offering social critiques and trying to work with censors to bury their critique in there somewhere and some are pretty successful — some of the films are better than others, but I feel like Farhadi is in the higher echelons when it comes to both saying something that is extremely damning in a way, and just making an incredibly engaging and visually arresting film, right?
J: Not just in Iran, there is no one really in the world making films like him.
T: Exactly. I try to argue against the auteur theory as much as I can because I find it problematic, but in certain cases it totally makes sense sometimes to talk about a filmmaker in that way, and I think with Farhadi especially, because no-one has really written about him in that way; no-one has really talked about his process and what he does and how his films all sorta relate to one another. I’m happy that’s the route that I chose. I think I could have probably gone a few different paths, where I talked about filmmakers who are kinda like him in Iran, but I really thought it made more sense to talk about him as a singular artist and instead weave in things that he brings up that are present in Iranian society.