From documentary to fiction, the Iranian director Massoud Bakhshi takes a critical look at the nature and complexity of human beings. From working conditions in Iran to his latest feature film, Yalda, selected for the 2020 Berlinale, the film maker portrays his country as a major player in the 7th art.
You were a film critic before going behind the camera. How did you become a film maker?
I started studying engineering to satisfy my parents, while at the same time studying photography. At 18, I started writing film reviews. Then I enrolled at the Nuova Universitá del Cinema e della Televisione in Rome. As a teacher I had Silvano Agosti, himself a director, who kept saying that theory is useless if you want to make real cinema! Moreover, I have never seen cinema as a profession, rather as a passion.
I was 25 when I made my first documentary, A Short Report, in 1998. The film was noticed by Suzette Glenadel in Tehran, which allowed it to be screened in Paris the year it was released as part of a retrospective on Iran at the Cinéma du réel festival. On this occasion, I met many directors who encouraged me to continue my projects. Two months later, I made my second documentary film Identification of a Woman, which was selected to compete at the International Documentary Filmfestival in Amsterdam.
You waited more than 10 years before filming in Iran – in this case for A Respectable Family. Did you encounter any difficulties?
It wasn't easy! Especially since it was a co-production with France and there is no agreement for film co-productions between two countries, which makes contracts and the search for financing very difficult.
In Iran, the work of a director is the same as everywhere else, but it is more difficult to obtain filming authorisations, especially for first films: you have to prove that you are a qualified director, and explain your experiences as an assistant director and awards received at festivals. I had to juggle the production part, which took place in Iran, and the post-production part, which took place in France.
Iranian cinema has a strong presence at festivals. How do you interpret its rise on the international scene?
The richness of Iranian cinema lies in classical literature and the essential place of poetry. And by banning American films after the 1979 Revolution, Iran finally gave domestic cinema a chance to emerge and seduce. Like the Venice Film Festival, the Berlinale or the Cannes Film Festival, which have been outshone by the new Iranian cinema of Mohsen Makhmalbaf or Abbas Kiarostami.
There are now many private film schools in Iran. And the country, especially its youth, is proud of its cinema. Nor should we forget that Iran is one of the most productive countries, with more than 100 fiction films per year.
Until A Respectable Family, your first fiction film, you were loyal to the documentary genre. Is the approach very different?
Director Abbas Kiarostami said: “There is no difference between short and feature film, documentary and fiction. We only have two types of film: good or bad.” I agree with him! There's only one language in cinema, and you just have to be able to speak to the audience. I thought it was easier to tell the story of A Respectable Family through fiction, which nevertheless incorporates many archival images. I don't make a fundamental difference between documentary and fiction. Every time I make a documentary I try to see it as fiction, and vice versa.
How do you choose the stories you tell in your films?
I think it's more a case of the subjects choosing the film makers! If you give two film makers the same subject, they will make two different films, each with their own vision of things. Social realism is very present in Iranian cinema: the majority of Iranian film makers tell you their own story, they become their own subject.
How was the idea for your latest film Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness born?
I started working on the film when A Respectable Family was released in 2012. I had been particularly struck by interviews with women convicted of killing their husbands: they were considered criminals while also, deep down, being victims. I was so touched that I wanted to tell the story. I opted for a “huis clos” format - a show in a television studio - even if the unity of time and place made it harder to maintain the emotion. It took me almost eight years to make this film: I rewrote the screenplay six times, and with my French producers Jacques Bidou and Marianne Dumoulin, it also took time to get the necessary funding.
During these eight years, in May 2016, you participated in La Fabrique Cinéma programme at the Institut français in Cannes. Was this programme an important step?
On this occasion, I was able to meet co-producers, which was vital for my project. I wanted to come to France because it is a country that supports foreign cinema. Culture, literature and art are highly respected and appreciated there. For me, it is the only country that still resists the powerful Hollywood machine and its global hegemony.
After 10 documentaries, one short film and two fiction films, have you found your style as a film maker?
My work is very diverse, each story is constructed differently with its own style. I think you have to have a strong vision and imagination to make an original film. What I find most interesting is knowing the nature of human beings. A human being is a person with desires, complexes, dreams and weaknesses. Through my films, I try to deepen my view of humankind. For me, every film is a new discovery.
Yalda benefited from the support of La Fabrique Cinema in 2016.
This programme promotes the emergence of young creation from Southern countries on the international market. Find out more about La Fabrique Cinéma programme
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