Edinburgh-based filmmaker and film historian Mark Cousins is one of Iranian cinema’s most enthusiastic advocates. He drew attention to Iranians’ cinematic achievements in his 2004 book The Story of Film, and his 2011 documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey. He first traveled to Iran by road from Scotland in 2001. When he visited again in 2005 to make two documentaries, Cinema Iran and On the Road with Kiarostami, he met artist, actor, and director Mania Akbari, who was best known for her performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, and for her own film, 20 Fingers. In 2011, Akbari fled to London after Iranian authorities arrested crew members working on her film Women Do Not Have Breasts. Last year, Cousins and Akbari began exchanging “cine-letters” about life, art, and the human body, which comprise their new film, Life May Be.
How did you become acquainted with Iranian cinema, and with Iran?
I saw Abbas Kiarostami's Where is the Friend's House in the late 1980s, and read about the Iranian films that the Locarno film festival was showing. In the early 1990s, when I was director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I wrote to the Iranian government's film agency, asking if they would send me films. A few months later, a shoebox arrived. It contained videotapes of about 10 films, gems like Mohammad Ali Talebi's The Boot. The films were revelations, paradocumentaries, human, sincere, uncompromised by commerce. I fell in love.
Life May Be draws its title from Forough Farrokhsad’s poem Another Birth. What role has Farrokhsad’s poetry played in your friendship with Mania Akbari?
I first met Mania in Iran, and we went to Forough's grave together. I loved Forough's courage, her sass, her beauty. For me she was like Blondie meets Virginia Woolf. As a non-Iranian, I didn't understand a lot of things about Forough, but Mania's passion for her has helped me understand more. She's the third part of our triangle.
How did you and Mania decide upon a correspondence-by-film, and what cinematic precedents did you draw upon?
It started with a fan letter I wrote to Mania. Then the critic Ehsan Khoshbakht suggested that I turn the letter into a film, which I did. And then Mania replied. Her reply was intense, poetic and sad, and touched on many subjects. It opened out onto a field, so to speak. We explored the field.
There weren't too many precedents. We both like to try to come up with something new. As we wrote to each other, I was reminded of 18th epistolary novels. Back then it probably took a week for a letter to be delivered. Correspondence wasn't instant, like it is with email. Because Mania and I were making films to each other, our process was slow too. We had to be patient and wait for each other's reply. Expectation built. The slowness was old, exciting. So if there were precedents, they were mostly writing rather than filmmaking: the intimacy of Virginia Woolf's writing, for example.
You say in your first letter that in Iran, everything is an ongoing moment. Why is that true of Iran in particular?
Because it is holding its breath. Because its population is so young. Because it is so great and yet so troubled. You can hear the second hand ticking in Iran.
Mania’s story is partly about exile in Dubai, Sweden and London, and you both used footage from around the world. What does your correspondence say about globalization and national identities?
I think it says that identity is international. We are partly formed by the country in which we are brought up, but also not. There is no such thing as foreign. Everywhere is partially home when you are there. People in the rich world travel so much now, and, through Skype and other social media, travel has changed its meaning. It is no longer necessarily physical. There's a new fluidity about travel and nation. I think our cine-letters make the most of that fluidity, and take it as a fact, even if it is a result of a forced exile.
Both of your letters are built around references to art. What insights about Iran did you gain by talking about art with Mania?
I think the main insight I got was in Mania's comparisons between Iranian art, which is mostly non-figurative, and Western styles of painting, which often are portraits of people or bodies. It is liberating and refreshing for Mania to write about and film western art, and there is radicalism in her insistence on the body in art, but for me, who comes from a world of body art, the patterning, mathematics, color and metaphysics of Iranian art is exciting. Of course what we need is both. Mania is brilliant at seeing something it in physical things: bodies, mosques, etc. She looks beyond the fuselage.
You each compose letters focused on your bodies. Why were bodies and nudity so important to your communication?
For perhaps different reasons, Mania and I both use our bodies in our work. At the social level, I have long felt that one of the problems in life is that we hide our bodies. We create taboos around them, prohibited areas of thought and sight. Such prohibitions become toxic.
In a deeper way, we've been taught by Calvinism that bodies are the prison houses of the soul, that they are an impediment to living, the thing which causes us to fail in our quest to be morally ideal. Mania and I both think that they are the opposite. Not the shell, but the thing that makes us part of the world, the thing that plugs us in to the mains.
Also, as psychologists know, our bodies are part of the way we remember. I have tattoos on my arms, the names of filmmakers and others that I admire. I encountered those filmmakers' work in my teens or since, and I loved it so much that it seemed to be branded on my brain, the way people brand a cow. They left a permanent mark.
Also, I'm nearly 50 - Mania is much younger. At this age you start to notice the beginning of joint pain, the realization that I've had this body for 18,000 days. And yet it's a wonder. If I give it a good night's sleep, and don't get drunk, I still wake up feeling 25 years old, full of energy. My body is my joy, my place in the world. That's the big subject of art, and films, I think: me in the world, and the world in me. To talk about and show our naked bodies is, alas, daring.
You mention the Iranian government only once in the film—you refer to Khomeini and Khamenei in your monologue about lies—but for the most part the regime is a silent presence. In what ways did Iran’s politics influence your letters?
Our letters talk about some things and show some things that are taboo in Iran. Mania was particularly daring in this regard. It's important to ignore, or challenge, the government, the authorities. Art should do so, especially when those authorities are wrong, when they are censorious, or mistrustful of the population, or operating like thought police. We didn't talk much about the government in Iran, or in the UK, because we just wanted to say what we wanted to say, oblivious to what the governments would think. There are more political ways to protest against the things that are wrong in Iran and the UK. We were two people enjoying the intimacy of communication. If we had a third person, to make a triangle, it would be Forough, not Khamenei.
Life May Be screens at the Barbican in London on Thursday December 11, and will be followed by a screen talk with Mania Akbari and Mark Cousins.