Congratulations on receiving the Cinefondation’s prize for Best Student Film at the Cannes Film Festival. How does it feel to receive such an award?
It feels great. I really wasn’t expecting it as I had only just moved to the US two years ago and it was the first experimental film I was doing here in English with an international cast and crew. I didn’t think it would turn out to be a good film or well received, so I was really lucky and that made me doubly happy. I wasn’t expecting to participate in the festivals either.
It also felt great because in this section, the Cinefondation’s philosophy is to support emerging filmmakers about to graduate and support them through this transition in becoming professional filmmakers. So, it’s really great to get this support from them. I also think that among the different festivals and competitions, the prize and opportunities that come out of it is unique.
The jury was also overseen by Jane Campion. Did you have the opportunity to speak with her about your work and have that exchange with her?
Yes, we talked about my work and she’s interested in reading my next script. She was really supportive and will advise me about the making and production of my feature film.
I read somewhere that the short you submitted to the Cannes Film Festival, ‘Needle’, is the second part to a trilogy, is that right?
I had two short films When The Kid Was A Kid (2011, Iran) and Needle (2013, USA). I have the script for the third short called, Homo, where the main characters are also children. As I was in the process of applying to an artist’s residency last year and presenting my work to them, I started to think of the films as a trilogy as they were different variations of a common theme: childhood, parenthood and the coming of age. The forming of identity, especially gender identity in children, is the most interesting for me and reflected in the films. I’m going to make the 3rd one soon and will present them together as a trilogy.
I watched the visual study of children having their ears pierced on your website, which was pretty powerful. What was your interest behind the ear piercing?
The story has some autobiographical content to it but not entirely. My dad was a pharmacist in Iran and he did ear-piercing for some relatives and friends with needles, so that stemmed from there, and as my mother was sensitive to cleanliness, I wasn’t allowed to pierce my ears until I was 20 years old. When I realised the process, I found the scene of people holding piercing guns to be a violent one. I was traumatised by it, even at that age.
When I came to the US, I started my research for the script by going through YouTube videos. I generally do that a lot. I think what parents shoot of their children in different situations to be a very interesting study, especially with the accessibility they have to cameras and cell phones. I watched videos of parents recording their child in a really critical moment like the ears being pierced. I could hear the parents behind the camera and a man and woman holding piercing guns on either side of the child and asking them questions at the same time as recording it on camera. I liked the visual reflection as a metaphorical image of both violence and the coming of age in this moment where we can see that the child is obviously scared but trying to handle the situation. The clip you saw was actually one of my first assignments for a production studio class; I worked on the story from there and made the film.
It’s also interesting that you work with children and stories around the family, which is quite typical of the Iranian cinema. Why have you chosen those subject matters to work with and do you feel any difference in your approach to them?
I was not part of Kanoon but I was a student of Kiarostami, who is a very well known filmmaker from that generation. He’s done a lot of great works with children and working with non-actors and children were one of the most of the important things we discussed in our workshops, so I’m inspired by that. I love kanoon and children in the Iranian cinema as I was raised with that too and it was an important part of my cinematic memory. My work, however, is different in terms of my approach to gender identity, which is a very interesting subject and pretty much absent in Iranian cinema. Also, after the Revolution, there were new rules and restrictions placed on the cinema and what could be shown on screen. So, children were used in film to some extent to respond to that. They could be viewed as little adults.
But my films don’t focus on that at all as it’s more about the point of view and the point of feeling of the child being the main character. For example, When The Kid Was A Kid, is based on a young boy cross-dressing and wearing make-up – this is a theme that’s explored in my writing and film. I show notions of growth and coming of age, as those are my main concerns. One of the things I try to explore is the notion of “sideways growth,” a term I borrow from Kathryn Bond Stockton, who talks about queer childhood. This focuses on moments children experience and grow into horizontally instead of vertically (or puberty). They have a deeper understanding of adulthood before physically becoming one. It’s very psychological, so in that lies the distinction between my work and the traditional film making in Iran. But at the same time, the way in which I work with actors and the visual style is very much inspired by Kiarostami’s cinema.
Also the fact that ‘Needle’ was a foreign film and that is quite unusual. Is this your first foreign film you’ve worked on?
Yes, it was even though I had worked on a few things previously. It was also confusing for me because when I first arrived here and consulting with my advisers, I was meant to go back to Iran and make the film there as it was based on language and its cultural context. There were practical concerns such as my visa and what the consequences could have been had I returned, so these things influenced my decision. There were also suggestions made to work with minorities or Iranian-Americans but the story was not directly about immigrants, even though I was open to it.
As my work is character driven, it’s really important for me to find the right actor. When I came across Florence Winner, I knew she was the right person for the role, and I was able to choose the other characters around her such as her parents. But this is still the question I have for my next projects.
Is this something you think you will evolve into?
Yes, I quite like that idea and I’m looking into it for the next short and feature. I will make these films in the US as there are a group of colleagues I can work and form a team with here. Asides from that, the concepts are based on similar themes I’ve talked about. It may be that I work with a culturally mixed group of people and families coming from different ethnicities, not out of the normal or stereotypical cultural background but more from an unusual cultural mix… almost sort of coming from nowhere.
… And that also shows the universal language of film making. Your film could be about Chinese children or a South American family, yet the viewer would still be able to relate to the story…
I was really encouraged after watching the last few movies by Abbas Kiarostami, even though it may have been criticised by some. I liked the idea of making a movie in Italy and Japan. He talked a lot afterwards about how he loved the process of making a film where he didn’t know the language of his actors and just to be dealing with that. I don’t want to focus or stress on our cultural differences but on the commonalities we have as humans.
How has studying film influenced your ability to make the camera work and to portray the stories?
I had three really different educational experiences in terms of film.The first was my undergraduate course in Iran at the Art University of Tehran.That gave me really basic and technical knowledge on writing and directing with basic theoretical classes about film theory and history as well as psychology and sociology. There is a lot I could criticise about the educational system in Iran, especially as a filmmaker as there were no real facilities for that. But I did get basic training, which was very important for me. I feel that technical skills are generally limited, especially being in a time where cinema is evolving every day in terms of equipment and technology (which can be mastered by reading the manual). It was also the first place I found a community I could work with. Initially, I wanted to become a writer or film theorist / critic but I changed my ideas during the second year as I got to know a group of students. This was always the most important factor in film schools, more so than the training and education, it was about forming groups and knowing people.
I also took Abbas Kiarostami’s workshop during my second year which was really important. It was more of an art school where you could make the works and then have critique sessions where people could openly give their opinions that were not exclusive to theory or directing / editing but more intellectual discussions around concepts and style. So, I found the theory classes at university to be good for gaining some knowledge but I also loved the critique system which gave you the understanding of the practice of film making and how to discover yourself in that.
That experience helped me realise that I should apply to an art school for my MFA as they would offer both the critical and theoretical as well as giving you access to a variety of art & film courses. There were many I applied to including Goldsmiths and the American Film Institute but ended up getting a scholarship to attend the Institute of Fine Arts in Chicago (IFAC), which was a great experience. My classes took me from queer theory and Marxism to theories on art historians but at the same time I had a lot of freedom to do the work that I wanted.
Is that what prompted you to leave Iran and move to Chicago?
Yes, it was one of the reasons. As far as I know, we don’t have high quality post-graduate programs for artists and filmmakers. Unfortunately, you can’t get this kind of education in Iran. It was also personal in the sense that I needed to leave and get my own individual experience before going back and re-joining the community of filmmakers there. The experience of not being in your own country for a few years can be very productive.
Is that one of the opportunities that opened up for you through your experience of studying under Abbas Kiarostami?
It really did as everyone was advising me to study here but to go straight back after I graduated. The film community in Iran is very strong and also very small. For the most part it’s the safety of joining that and finding your place there amongst other Iranian filmmakers. I talked to Kiarostami before I left for the States, he told me he liked When the Kid Was A Kid and was afraid if I left I would never come back. I never realised what he meant but after he watched Needle, he told me I should stay here and make more films. To get that support from him was really important for me. I’d like to work here for at least the next 2 projects and although the experience is filled with the fear of the unknown, I quite like the idea of not being attached to this culture, being a voyeur and discovering new things all the time.
What are your next projects?
I’m planning to make my short in the Fall as I will be moving to Houston to do a 1-year programme at Core Residency which is part of the Glassell School of Art and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. I’m also going to focus on my feature film and have the draft by this winter, so I can start re-writing and reaching out to investors, supporters and producers next year. The feature is with young teenage characters, again dealing with gender identity and gender ambiguity. The main part of the story is the relationship between siblings who analyse their families by doing performances through role-plays and re-making family scenes in the absence of their parents.
Interview by Nina Mahdavi.
All images and video courtesy of the artist.
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