Iranian films that claim to be bold and critical tend to have something in common: a conspicuous lack of audacity in their protests.
This is not about invectives people throw at one another, or loud complaining about what fate has brought them, but fundamental protestations against the ruling system and the inhumane actions that this system tries to normalize and make conventional. There is a kind of false shyness that censorship nurtures, and it is so entrenched that it is only ever shed briefly in the few films that are branded as being “socially aware” in Iran.
But recent films by director Mohammad Rasoulof have this audacity and this candidness, an outspoken character that is perfectly expressed in his latest film There Is No Evil.
Just three days after winning the top award at Berlin International Film Festival, Mohammad Rasoulof was summoned to the Culture and Media Court to start serving a one-year prison sentence. On July 23, 2019, Rasoulof was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court to one year in prison and a two-year ban on leaving the country and on participating in social and political activities because of his film A Man of Integrity. He was charged with “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the regime.”
IranWire talked with Rasoulof about his latest film, which was honored on February 29 at the Berlin International Film Festival’ with its most prestigious award, the Golden Bear.
Rasoulof could not be in Berlin to receive the Golden Bear award because he is banned from leaving Iran.
Mr. Rasoulof, in these days and months where the phrase “good news” has become a forgotten concept for Iranian people, your latest movie being given the very important award of the Golden Bear is a single heartwarming event for many Iranian lovers of arts and culture. Was this the first time that a movie of yours was screened at an international film festival while you have been living under the conditions of “forced absence"?
I doubt that this prize can play such a role. In the last few weeks I have been at medical centers because of my mother’s illness. The obvious mismanagement [of the hospitals] has terrified people. On the other hand, the staff of the hospital that I was dealing with performed their duties with an extraordinary effort. But you can see how deeply people feel alone and helpless. It was not long ago, and we still vividly remember the ruthless massacre of the passengers of the Ukrainian plane and of the November protesters. It is not easy to have such a situation before your eyes. Even the moment that the Golden Bear award was announced I was going back and forth between extremes of joy and sorrow.
And “forced absence” is not new to me. In 2011, I won the best director award at Cannes Film Festival’s “Un Certain Regard” section for my film Goodbye, but I could not participate in the ceremonies because I was banned from traveling outside Iran.
What you describe has dragged most of us into the winter of our lives with no spark of spring on the horizon — the end of a year when people have lost hope in their rulers more than ever. How is being absent because you are banned from leaving different from being there, both in terms of professional interactions at the festivals and on an emotional level?
On the days when festivals such as Cannes or Berlin are held, it is difficult and exhausting for directors. Every day you must go from one interview to another. Some journalists cheer you up while others disappoint you with their stereotypical way of looking at things. Nevertheless, you cannot shun your professional duties.
A significant part of attending a festival concerns the producer. Fortunately, in my last two films I worked with Kaveh Farnam. He is a professional and a discerning producer who manages the presentation of films at the festivals with an admirable patience and attention. Working with him is a joy. In There Is No Evil Farzad Pak joined us as well. He is a master of his work. During the Berlin Festival, these two guided me to concentrate on my role as the director. In this role, a big part of my job was to introduce the film by talking to the media and, thanks to technology, we were able to do this easily using modern communication tools.
And now the conversation continues. There Is No Evil is about saying “no” to an action that violates human dignity, about choosing between compromising and not comprising in a matter of just one moment. In the movie, these concepts are explored through the subject of executions, and the people who participate in them. But you yourself are facing this dilemma when you make movies. Is it fair to say that There Is No Evil is an answer to a question you are asking yourself?
I have never had the dilemma of making something other than what I want and something that I believe in. But I have experienced the dilemma of doubting whether I want to stop working in cinema or to continue doing it. Sometimes I get exhausted and think I should let go of cinema.
I am not an extreme lover of cinema. For me, cinema is an arena to portray the existential experiences of human beings. Nevertheless, after its expressive aspect, I take the entertaining aspect of cinema very seriously. But I have never set out to produce entertainment for the masses. Perhaps I lack the talent for this. The entertainment that I produce with the help of my colleagues is perhaps like a thought game. What is important to me is to experience something new with each film. If I am not expecting a new experience in making a movie I cannot start making it. That is why the process of movie production has such a special interest for me. I don’t like my problems with censorship or pressures over security to be the only distinguishing features of my work.
But, in any case, censorship problems bring in uncertainty — and, of course, excitement — into your productions. I believe this is the fourth movie you have made in secret, despite all your worries that official agencies, law enforcement and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance will stop the production. And this time the movie was two and a half hours long, there were many actors and the locations and the storylines were wide-ranging.
When you are writing, what ideas do you discard and what elements do you keep so that you can arrive at a script that can be produced under these conditions?
The main challenge is when you ask yourself what the problems of censorship and production have to do with your public. When you ask such a question, then, as an independent filmmaker who is responsible for all aspects of the film, from ideas to production to the implementation of those ideas, you search for creative ways to solve the problems or compensate for deficiencies.
In this process, you come face to face with yourself on the three corners of a triangle. Your mind as the writer is in constant communication with your mind as the producer and as the director. Whenever the ideas become impossible to realize, your mind as the producer tells your mind as the writer: “Forget about it. This is not practical!” It is possible that one of the two minds could say, “No, I do want it,” but, at some point, your three minds come to an agreement. This is the way that your technical knowledge and your mastery of production prepares you for realizing your ideas.
Of course, when you are creating an underground work, the fear never completely goes away. Nevertheless, before any of this, you must follow a high ideal with the necessary audacity to create enough energy in yourself to risk it. When the project for There Is No Evil started I had an idea for combining a few short films into an episodic film dealing with restrictions that I face — which, by itself, is not a new idea. The process took close to two and a half years. There are four stories, each of which happens in its own world. In each story the details are different formally but, on the whole, they are about one general idea.
This is a strange mental challenge. In your earlier films you worked with actors whose names are familiar — from Ali Naserian to Shahab Hosseini and from Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee to Mohammad Shirvani. In these years that you have been banned from filmmaking, how do you choose and guide your actors? How would it be different if you were making movies under normal conditions?
It is clear that the abilities of actors does not necessary correlate with their fame. What motivates a producer to seek famous actors? In the mainstream cinema, when you want to screen your movie broadly, you need known figures, but I always know beforehand that at this time my films will not be screened in Iran. And the domestic fame of actors does not help screening at an international level.
Iranian cinema and theater is full of gifted actors who have not made much of a name for themselves. As it happens, they are less famous because they have a more powerful identity and are not willing to accept just any role. They are seeking more refined roles and the process of producing certain movies offers an environment for new artistic experiences. For instance, in the first episode of There Is No Evil, where we wanted all dialogues and situations to be trivial, this was accomplished by the workshop-style efforts of the three principal actors. Ehsan Mir Hosseini, who was also my assistant in the same episode, Shaghaiegh Shourian and Maneli Rasouli spent a long time in the city, driving, shopping and socializing with each other until they succeeded in recreating relationships within the family that expressed the triviality that we had in mind.
When I thought of the scene of hair-coloring, Ehsan trained to color hair. Their zeal for creativity based on a general plan, the details of which were found through workshop-style work, made everybody enthusiastic. As a result, each episode had an abundance of different details based on what the story needed.
How did the sequencing of the episodes take shape? For example, the first and the third episode feature two individuals who have been sentenced to death, while episodes two and four portray two people who have the will to say “no.” Or perhaps it was creating the atmosphere that was important for you and that is why you moved from the day of the execution of the first one to the frenetic situation of the second prisoner and then to the beautiful nature of the third episode, and from there to the arid but vast nature of the fourth one. Didn’t you, for example, think about ending the film with the grisly but the cold-blooded finale of the first episode?
The prerequisite for telling the stories was to create an atmosphere that portrayed a believable picture of tyranny. In the first episode I wanted to express the banality of evil in a simple cinematic language. The second step was to contrast “no” against “yes.” This contrast, which was the story’s motif, took me toward a tranquil narrative that gets intertwined with emotion and love.
After that I wanted to show that by saying “no” you are driven to the margins and lose a lot of things, but achieve a certain serenity by standing up to tyranny. At the same time, we must know that perhaps we must continue to say “no” to tyranny every day.
These were the priorities in the meaning of the movie but, for an underground film, sometimes production priorities acquire an unusual importance. When the triangle of the writer-director-producer becomes active in my mind, I automatically think about locations where it is easier to work. Naturally, the pressure is less outside of Tehran. So to cinematically express the idea that you are driven to the margins after you say “no,” the idea of leaving the city was the most effective choice. How the characters choose their way of lives in response to this unwanted exile was what made choosing locations more difficult.
All these concepts were dominated by a main Idea. I wanted to use any means to portray the difficulties of saying “no” in the light of its beauty. In other words, the film’s images portray the beauty of saying “no” to tyranny. The locations were chosen with necessary patience and care by a group of my colleagues and me. With the help of the executive producer (Farzad Pak), assistant directors (Samrand Maroofi, Meysam Moini, Ehsan Mir Hosseini, Bardia Yadgari and Ashkan Najafi), director of photography (Ashkan Ashkani, who was always present) and the set designer (Saeed Asadi), we chose locations by numerous travels across the country.
About the finale, I am confident about the order of the sequences. The main reason is that I did not want the film to end with somebody who has said “yes” to tyranny.
In your film you do not avoid dialogue that expresses the essence of the discourse. For instance, in the third episode Anahita Eghbalnejad says: “Your power is in saying ‘no.’”
American cinema is filled with this kind of dialogue, but some Iranian critics say that these types of dialogues are meant to explicitly criticize the situation in Iran and are in the movie so that westerners can admire them. Of course, they have the right to criticize any dialogue from a cinematic point of view. But they are not aware that, in practice, they are taking the side of the Ministry of Culture and are pouring gas onto fire.
The dominance of a certain kind of aesthetic value in our general culture has historical roots. For hundreds of years the relation between power and the people in Iran has followed the pattern of “the shepherd and the flock” and still does. I believe that a tyranny that has its roots in history creates its own aesthetic rules. One of the strange rules of this kind of aesthetics is the praise for veiled words and taking shelter in metaphors. In our classic literature, veiled words are considered a kind of powerful eloquence and poetry. Wasn’t the culture of rendi [“roguishness” and “slyness”] a product of fear of a tyrannical and vengeful ruling power?
In films like Iron Island  or The White Meadows , I myself have used the language of metaphors to express my feelings and my thoughts. But, after a few years, I suddenly thought that this kind of artistic expression is a result of fearing tyranny. I know that Iranian culture has become used to this kind of artistic expression. Some people still tell me that they think The White Meadows is my best film. But I believe that time will do away with this kind of veiled expression.
Your film does not insist on an illogical opposition that official institutions accuse successful Iranian films of portraying. You portray the man in the first episode as somebody who loves his family and you have arranged indoor scenes in a way that permits women’s hijab. Why are the officials who oversee cinema in Iran still unhappy with you?
If you think that hijab is the issue for the far-flung censorship apparatus in Iran, you are downplaying the issue of censorship. Mainstream Iranian cinema is full of comedies filled with sexual and vulgar jokes. The apparatus of censorship in Iran wants to get rid of any thought that makes the audience aware of their situation. They are the promoters of ignorance and the enemies of thinking.