“I have always tried to think without censoring myself and to reject all kinds of filtering”
Farhad Delaram & Clara Herrmann
As an independent filmmaker, Farhad Delaram had already produced six short films when his Tattoo (2019) was awarded the Crystal Bear for the Best Short Film at the 69th Berlinale in the Generation 14plus section. The following year in February, the month of the 2020 Berlinale, he returned to Berlin to start his residency. Again, Iranian film had a clear presence at the festival, and a range of strong political voices could be discerned – an ideal occasion, to talk with Clara Herrmann about the Iranian film scene and its own approach.
Clara Herrmann: Farhad, your films mostly deal with political topics. What are the circumstances under which you can produce films that are openly critical of the current conditions in Iran?
Farhad Delaram: I do not consider my films to be political; I try to insert my personal view of society into my films. In Iran, whatever topic we choose for a film inevitably becomes political.
Before I answer how we can make regime-critical films, we must bear in mind that the circumstances are different for short and for feature films. For a feature film, censorship happens in the process of getting permits, even before the film is in production. Then, once the film is ready for release, a different group will censor it again. The group doing the final censorship stage will have different opinions than the first, which means that a film can have been given a permit in the first instance and then fail at the screening! In the process of making a short film, we don’t encounter such strict rules. For instance, we are freer to do what we want, and we can get the necessary permits with just a touch of courage and astuteness. Therefore, you can make what you want with a short film and then the censorship follows. Because all the film festivals are governmental, you can find your film practically boycotted, so not many people will see it. The film is nipped in the bud, and the filmmaker is silenced at an early stage. That is because, despite the existence of streaming media, short films are made primarily for film festivals. In addition to that, releasing a film after being boycotted by governmental festivals – for example on a streaming website – can create trouble for the filmmaker, for instance, when making their first feature film.
CH: Could you describe the contemporary cinema scene in Iran? How would you locate yourself in it?
FD: Just like every other period in every other country, contemporary cinema in Iran can be divided into two general types: blockbusters, which are the main part of the industry, and films that are more inclined towards art film. Second-rate comedies have occupied the first type for a long time, while the second has gained increasing success on the international scene for the past twenty years. However, in mine and many others’ opinion, it has also been struggling with a problem for a long time: It follows – and in some cases blindly imitates – successful international filmmaking. For instance, when Abbas Kiarostami was internationally well-known, many Iranian filmmakers tried to imitate him, and none of them became successful. And for the last eleven years – after Asghar Farhadi gained significant recognition in top festivals such as Berlinale and Cannes and promotional platforms like the Golden Globes and Oscars – films in Iran shifted their attention from Kiarostami to Farhadi, to the point that each year a couple of films are made in imitation of his work.
The reason for this insane imitation is, in my opinion, the growth of cyberspace and film festivals. The desire to be successful is increasing everyday among filmmakers – among all artists in general – and this leads them to make films that stand a better chance of winning awards. Of course, the regime’s disregard towards a certain group of filmmakers is also effective, because it provides an enormous chunk of the film budget in Iran, and has a clear-cut definition of insiders and outsiders. This is a very general overview of the cinema in today’s Iran. Although, of course, there are still a few filmmakers who try hard to find their voice and to look at the world from their unique perspective, even in these hard times.
Answering your question about where I stand in contemporary Iranian cinema is truly difficult, because I am still making short films, and despite the success of my last film, Tattoo, I consider myself to be in constant search of my own view in the world of cinema. I have always tried to think without censoring myself and to reject all kinds of filtering. That means I do not want to make films for festivals, just as I do not want to go along with the censorship at home. I could have ended my last film without taking sides, but I refused to do that, so I clearly expressed my viewpoint about the problem. Or else, I could go with the conventional form that is more acceptable in Iran, but I chose a very personal form. I try to find a way to follow my favourite cinema, whilst being aware that this is getting harder day after day.
Tattoo, 2019, trailer
CH: After you studied film at the University of Tehran, before you started to direct, you worked as a scriptwriter for Iranian state television. How did this experience influence your practice?
FD: I always loved storytelling, so I decided to enter the world of cinema by writing stories. After completing screenwriting courses and coming top of my class, my instructor invited me to join his scriptwriting workshop. He believed in encouraging audiences to develop an active mind, so his view was that we should be writing higher quality pieces for national television, neither using themes of poor quality nor loading them with slogans. That sort of a view was valuable for me, and I considered it a way of fighting, although, practically speaking, we didn’t get far. Over forty of my synopses and scripts were rejected. Had I complied with the demands of the TV supervisory councils, however, nothing would be left of my own way of thinking. I learned a lot during this time – beyond only the types of censorship that exist in the system. I became more determined. I tasted humiliation many times, but it taught me not to give up. I also flourished there in terms of screenwriting. For a short period, I worked as a freelance playwright for the radio, where I found I could write what I wanted more easily. But a year after the events of the presidential election in 2008, the clearing began on the radio, and they stopped working with me.
CH: Your short film,Tattoo, is about a young girl who wants to renew her driver’s license and has to undergo psychological approval by the police hospital because of her tattoos. The plot shows the perfidy of the power system: humiliating unadjusted citizens, leaving them helpless in seemingly never-ending spirals of suspicion and false attribution. How did you write the story? How did you work on finding your own language?
FD: First, I must paraphrase Sidney Lumet. Lumet tells us that, before writing a script, we must always ask ourselves why we should make this script. I ask myself this, and if I can find an answer, I start to write.
Tattoo is my only script (both short and feature) the original idea of which was not the product of my imagination. Once, an acquaintance of mine called me crying. She explained that when she went to renew her license – in Iran your driving license must be renewed every ten years – she got the third-degree. This did not catch my attention at first; it sounded like dozens of bad things that happen in Iranian society every day. Another thing was that having or not having a tattoo was not an issue for me. Then I did some research and realised that this had happened to other people as well. I started to think about how similar this situation was to my own experience of having my scripts censored: if I want them to agree to a simple demand, I should do something in a certain way, I was told. I used to tell my friends that your small yeses will become part of the larger system that makes us all suffer. That is when this idea became a personal concern for me, so I started to write.
It is hard to explain how I find my writing language. First, the subject, character, or story needs to touch me. Then, if it does, the original reality no longer matters to me. I will just look for the most effective way to express the idea. My goal is never to recreate a narrative reality but to create a visual reality. It matters to me that I don’t write for an audience (producers, festivals, the public, or educated audiences). I can answer this question more easily in terms of directing, because I think I have found my cinematic language. According to the people around me, I am not a likable person, and I do not try to seem happy. I do not feel optimistic about the future of my society, but I will not stop trying to change it. This kind of viewpoint is evident in every single mise en scène and frame of my films. When I am writing a script, I am simultaneously portraying it in my mind, and all of these moments pass through the filter of my personality.
CH: The interrogation scene in Tattoo – with four men questioning and intimidating the young woman – is hard to watch. Although you don’t only show men in powerful roles, was it important to you that the main character be a woman?
FD: I’m glad that, from my first screening at Berlinale, everyone had a similar feeling about this scene, because from the practice sessions through to the final editing, my goal was to trigger that reaction. It didn’t matter to me whether or not my character was female. Even the fact that a woman had first given me the idea did not affect me. I went with this based on the film’s dramatic need. As Michelangelo Antonioni says, female characters add more depth and complexity to a film. Now, imagine living in a country where being a woman could be the primary reason to say “no” to the existing situation. That made me think it would be more effective if the film’s final act of saying “no” comes from a woman. I also believe that if a major change is going to come about in our society, it will start with women. As you pointed out, I put in another female character who is opposed to the protagonist, who is in power, and who starts the chain of oppression.
Away from Home, Farhad Delaram, 2017, Trailer
CH: The very symbolic, almost mystical film you produced before Tattoo, Away from Home (2017), is a lot less direct in its criticism, but still more dangerous, as you once explained during a screening. Indeed, the Iranian authorities banned it. Why? You also describe the film as healing. In what way?
FD: Away from Home is about the wounds inflicted on people and relationships in the post-revolution cleansing. This part of history is the red line of the government. The film may not seem to comment clearly on that time, but uses Surrealist symbolism and images, so it will take the well-informed audience there, whether they lived it or only heard or read about it. I was born ten years after the revolution, in September 1988 – the worst month in that tragic era. By the time I was old enough to realise what happened, I knew that the day and month of my birth was as dark as it can get. I was born at a time when many people were being deprived of the right to life because of their beliefs; the lives of their families were ruined forever. Many people do not even know where their loved ones are buried, and, if they are still living in Iran, they do not have the right to mourn them. I felt a kind of guilt that I was born on that date when I was a child. The main idea of the film comes from a dream I had in which my late grandmother’s dog was in her house eating her corpse. When I started writing the screenplay based on this dream, I wanted to tell the survivors of Black September that, although it is difficult, after thirty years they have to leave it behind and return to life. Somehow, this began a healing process for the feelings of guilt I’d held onto.
CH: How does the Surrealist touch of the film refer to Iran’s literature and culture?
FD: When you talk about Iranian cinema with film experts from all over the world, they would most probably only mention realistic and social films. This is because we barely have films that aren’t realistic, and in most of the ones we do have, it’s clear the filmmaker has merely imitated successful international models. In literature, however, we have many prominent Surrealist writers, such as Sadegh Hedayat, Houshang Golshiri, and Gholām-Hossein Sā‘edi. They have always been my favourite authors. Amongst all of them, Sā‘edi – who has an Azeri background – writes in a way reminiscent of the cinematic image. Four of the best films in Iranian film history are either written by him or adapted from one of his stories. I wrote Away from Home in the Azeri language, I am also originally from an Azeri-speaking region. I should add that censorship often leads filmmakers towards symbolism and even Surrealism, so that was another reason. Sometimes as a joke, my friends and I talk about how it seems that we are living in a surreal time. Things that are happening in our country often do not seem to be real, and it feels as if we are in a dream.
CH: You are currently working on your first feature film. What is it about?
FD: Yes. First, I plan to make a short screenplay in Berlin, then I wish to make my first feature film with a script I’m already writing. I have a couple of complete feature-film screenplays, but I prefer to debut with a personal film that is more in line with the current situation in my country. The film tells the story of a young man who, despite a successful career, gives up everything and works with a friend on the night shift in a hospital, and even lives between the hospital and his car. The hospital is full of people who are suffering more than he is, which makes him feel better, until he meets a middle-aged woman in the psychiatric ward one night. He feels they are so much alike, and this takes his life in a new direction.
*1988 in Theran, lives in Berlin
Farhad Delaram graduated from the University of Tehran with a Master’s degree in film. In addition to working as an independent filmmaker, he has a 15-year career as a screenwriter. Farhad has made nine independent short films (working as director, writer, cinematographer, editor, and sound editor). His short film Tattoo was screened at more than 70 international film festivals. It won the Crystal Bear at the 69th Berlinale in the Generation 14plus section, among numerous other awards.
Sillage, Portrait of an Onlooker, 2020, Fiction Short film
Expo Pandemic, 2020, Experimental Short film
Tattoo, 2019, Fiction Short film
Away from Home, 2017, Fiction Short film
Like the Last Day, 2016, Fiction Short film
Garbage Dance, 2015, Documentary Short film
Wax, 2015, Fiction Short filmMore about Farhad Delaram
*1982, lives in Berlin
Cultural Manager, Curator, Editor
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