Friday Review

Against the grain



Recently, Vikalp, Bengaluru, screened Iranian filmmaker Shahin Parhami’s documentary, Amin (2010) . Parhami’s film travels with Amin, a musician-cum-student, as he sets out to do his bit to preserve the musical tradition of the Qashqai nomads in Iran. So, by following a musician’s journey, an entire tradition is captured on celluloid. But Parhami does not stop there. He employs the apparatus of the camera in such a manner that we are not just looking with Amin but at him sometimes. He cleverly inverts the idea of the subject and object. Such a use of the camera is, of course, not new to Iranian cinema which has had a plethora of examples of filmmakers and films that have been fascinated with the camera’s relationship with its subject. Parhami’s film, therefore, occupies a safe spot in this trajectory.

Shahin Parhami falls into the category of the diaspora filmmaker as he lives and works in Canada. His active interest in Iranian subjects takes him to Iran periodically. However, Parhami's relationship with his home country is fraught with tension for he had to flee Iran at the age of 17.

In this interview, he talks about Amin, the perception of Iranian cinema in the world today and what it takes to be a diaspora filmmaker. Excerpts:

How did the documentary on Amin happen?

I met Amin in 2001 through one of my friends but did not think of making this film then. But I remember being impressed by Amin's passion for Qashqai music.

Around eight years later, when Amin contacted me, he was at the university in Kiev in Ukraine. I asked him what he was working on and he told me that he was concerned about preserving the music and the tradition of the Qashqai community. That summer, I was going to Iran and that is when we began working on the film. It was shot over three years.

Each filmmaker has his method. What is yours?

The idea is to tell a story as uniquely as possible. Though I was trained as a conventional filmmaker, I believe in breaking the rules and creating a new approach. I begin with a few questions in my mind. But you never know what is going to happen in a documentary.

For instance, when we began shooting, I realised that Amin was quite dramatic as a person. He is very passionate about his art and even his family is very interested in his music. But then, Amin was acting as the hero of the community. I wanted to break this. So, I used odd takes and some rehearsal shots of Amin. In these shots, he is seen rehearsing in front of the camera and making mistakes too. I showed them to him later and he actually liked them. He felt that these odd takes showed him off to be more of a perfectionist. I also experimented with the form itself. I shot the first 20 minutes of the film as if it was a fictional film.

When and why did you move to Canada?

I was 17 when I left Iran. It was in 1988 after the revolution and during the war between Iran and Iraq. I escaped and went to Turkey as a refugee. I spent two years there crossing the mountain and living in camps and prison. Then, I entered Canada as a refugee. Later, I joined a film school here. I wanted to go back to Iran and did so in 1998 but I could not stay there and had to come back to Canada. It was a huge challenge to live as a young refugee. I had to learn a new language on top of that.

How did a career in film happen?

In my teen years, I was into music and wanted to be a rockstar. I developed a special interest in music and poetry too. When I went to Canada, a friend of mine who was graduating as a cinematographer there suggested I do a course in film studies and that is how I came into this field.

The perception of Iranian cinema today is dominated by what the world sees at film festivals across the world. Films from Iran are known for their distinct themes, poetic style and their depiction of the idea of nationhood…

This is the result of the politics of the post-revolution period. But that is not the only kind of cinema in Iran. The history of commercial cinema, for instance, began a long time ago in India with the first talkie being made in Bombay. During the early 60s, there was a new wave of intellectual artists in Iran and not many people know about it. It was only post-revolution that the attention was on Iran. The focus was then on Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi.It was the western media’s choice to focus on a couple of films of theirs. Iranian cinema, throughout the 80s, was a recipient of many prestigious awards too. But the truth is that it was very hard for us diaspora filmmakers during that time. It meant that everyone was supposed to make films that resembled Kiarostami’s. Iranian cinema has so much more to it. There are a lot of new voices that are trying to change the image of Iranian cinema today. But you don’t hear their voices.

What is Iranian cinema’s predicament today?

In the last few years, there has been a decline in production. It all began with the regime under the previous President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One cannot make films in Iran anymore. Kiarostami actually makes a lot of his films in Italy, France and Japan. Most filmmakers make their films outside the country. Policies change all the time. Apart from censorship from the government, there is a lot of self-censorship as well. One might get permission if the script is approved. Then you have to make the film and present it again in front of them. They may or may not approve it even after that. I’ve never bothered to get permission for my films.

What are you working on currently?

I’m presently trying to tell the story of Shahrzaad, the first female filmmaker in Iran. She was an actress during the pre-revolution era. She could be compared to the likes of Helen. She had made two films which were banned after the revolution. She also made a documentary on the Hijab and that was when she was arrested. Thereafter, she left Iran and took asylum in Germany. But then she got homesick and came back to Iran soon after. When she came back, she was homeless and ever since she has been living on streets, forests and the desert for over 20 years now.

It is a very challenging film to make because as I was filming her, I realised that Shahrzaad suffers from schizophrenia.

What do women filmmakers in Iran have to go through today?

There are more challenges for women filmmakers in comparison to men. But that has not stopped them from making films. There are many women directors and they are active.

Overall, things are changing because more than 60 percent of the students at universities are women. There is a thriving underground arts scene in Iran where a lot of fantastic things are happening too.

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2022 8:14:07 am |