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Interview With Mohammad Haghighat - Reflections On Modern Iranian Cinema (Part 2)

Updated: Jun 11

This is the second part of the interview with Mr. Haghighat and reflections on cinematic life and career as liaison between Iran and France.

HR: Now a question can be raised here. Mr. As you know, it’s been a few years since we have started a film festival for Iranian films in Toronto, and we have had our ups and downs, naturally. One of the topics that comes up again is the interrelatedness of politics and cinema, politics and art, and it puts them against one another, and makes it difficult to only focus on the cultural aspects of films, and only promoting the Iranian culture. I would like to go back to the question about your criteria for selecting films. Have you had a red line for introducing or recommending Iranian films to festivals which you have never crossed? We know that the cinema of Iran is rooted in our politics and culture, and we cannot ignore them altogether. But at the same time, a president of a film festival, and someone who has long term cultural outlook might say that he is trying to show this pluralism, but he might reach a certain point where he says “I can’t do it anymore”. Has it ever happened to you? Because I have seen Amir Ganjavie in moments when it was extremely difficult for him not to put aside something, or vice versa. Can you explain about this aspect of your job?


MH: Well, when they saw that our festival for Iranian films had become popular, one of the important figures in Iran at the time came to me one day and said: “You come here and you handpick our films, and then you take them with you, it cannot go on like this. You have to put our other films in between the ones you pick” to which I replied: “There’s at least 500 movie theatres in Paris, you can go and rent one, and then show the films you like.” Then he asked me: “What are your criteria?” and I told him: “Look. First, a film must be acceptable by the standards of cinema, the alphabet of cinema, meaning that it must be original and not made up of different pieces. Secondly, a film must have an idea behind it, a thought inserted into the film, and it must paint a picture of Iranian society. And Last but not least, it must not be propaganda. If a film is an Islamic propaganda, then it’s not interesting for me and I will not spend my time and energy on it. I don’t want money. Go ahead and get your own theatre to screen these films.” Of course, some of the films they had in mind were good, but they did not pass my three criteria. What came out of Iranian cinema to Europe, and succeeded, was somewhere between 5 to 10 percent of the films made in Iran, the ones that had the potentials to be seen in the international scene.


AG: Now let us go to the cinema of Iran as it is now. As it was mentioned, we had a Golden Era in in the 90s with films from the likes of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, then we can say, we had a period of decline in which the same directors were still dominating and no new names could be found until we got to the era of filmmakers like Mr. Farhadi and Mr. Panahi. Of course, Mr. Panahi had worked in the previous eras but they rose to prominence in recent years. If we wanted to talk about active filmmakers today, I want to know how your method of working with these filmmakers has changed and how we can summarize this new approach to Iranian films in film festivals.


MH: I must note that fortunately, the cinema of Iran from 1985 to 2005 was not limited to Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami. We had other filmmakers who became famous, won awards, and they were mighty good directors. For example, Bahman Ghobadi has great films, Jafar Panahi is in the same boat. We recommended his film, titled The White Baloon, for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, and his next film, The Circle, was selected for the main competition at the Venice Film Festival where it won the most prestigious award of the festival, and it was a great film. We had lots of great filmmakers, they might not have received attention like others, but, since 1980, there have been around 150 Iranian films purchased and distributed by French distributors and they were released in the theatres. These films were not just Kiarostami’s or Makhmalbaf’s. It means that those 150 films were made by various filmmakers; Bahman Ghobadi, Rafi Pitts, Ebrahim Mokhtari, Hossein Yektahpanah (Friday), Rakhshan Banietemad, Majid Majidi, Mohammad Rasoulof, and etc. But when it comes to our friend Mr. Farhadi, he brought out a different kind of cinema, which was different from all those films you would call art films, auteur films or whatever you might call them. Farhadi comes in and he becomes a sensation, and his scenarios and mise-en-scènes are really close to the structure of good European and American films, and he is one of the best when it comes to good scenarios and dialogues, and he focuses on the details. He offers a complex and engaging mise-en-scène to the audience, which is a combination of good dramatic plays and good TV shows. He has mastered the way to mix these two. Kiarostami’s films are more cinematic, meaning that they are what you would expect from cinema, like in Through the Olive Trees, when compared to film like A Separation. But A Separation is an excellent film, and it rightly won the Berlin award and then won the Oscar, but these are two different kinds of cinema.


HR: Based on your knowledge of Iranians and their opposition to those films made in the past, do you think that in recent years, this worldview has changed, and cinema has gone beyond politics where Iranians living in Paris or other places would come to see different films and enjoy their artistic aspects and even discuss them? Do you think Iranians reached this level of open-mindedness?


MH: I must say, and I’m saying this without any kind of exaggeration, our festival for Iranian films in Paris was the place that brought a kind of reconciliation between these groups. After a few years, the same ones who used to shout at one another, they would stay in the same line, and would discuss different things about cinema. There was a kind of newly-found peace among them, and their comments and their opinions softened and a kind of a dialogue was established between them. There were different people like Mr. Farrokh Ghafari who was one of the greatest figures in the history of Iranian cinema and our cinema owes a lot to him. Mr. Farrokh Ghafari used to come and stand in line himself. He saw a lot of films. When he saw The Glass Agency by Hatamikia, he came to us a couple of times and said “What a film!”, but you know that Farrokh Ghafari’s views and opinions were drastically different from those of Mr. Hatamikia. Ghafari praised many new films from Iran. For example, he was left in awe when he saw Once Upon a Time, Cinema. If I wanted to talk briefly about others, for example Majid Majid made a few good films. Now it is true that he makes films to please the government, but he knows how to make good films.


AG: What do you think are the reasons that have made France and their people interested in Iranian films? The interest in Iranian films was less enthusiastic in other countries. Perhaps Italy is similar to France in these aspects but the market for Iranian films, like other foreign films, was significantly better in France. It seems that people in France adapted themselves to artistic forms in cinema or to see films with subtitles. What does exist in the French culture that has led to this interest in foreign films, especially Iranian films?


MH: Honestly, French people have the highest level of cinematic culture than anywhere else. It is the culture of watching films, especially diverse foreign films. You know that Paris is considered to be the capital of world cinema, based on the diversity in the films that are screened in movie theatres. You cannot find any other city in the world where you see this diverse selection of films from different countries. Yes, India might release two thousand films each year, but they are two thousand Indian films. Or around 900 films get released theatrically in the United States, but 880 of them are American films. But here in France, you have films from Uruguay, Peru, Bulgaria, Georgia and many other countries. Now this diversity is really exciting and the love of the French for seeing a variety of cultures and getting to know them through cinema is interesting. It’s not just about Iran. For example, look how the whole Brazilian New Wave was first introduced and became popular in France, and their films were released here and critics started writing about them. The same thing with the cinema of Eastern Europe at that time when the doors to these countries were closed to others and it was extremely difficult to acquire these films and getting them out of those countries, but France screened these films one way or another, and they wrote about them, and the films won awards and so on. Films from many other countries in the world were introduced in France first, but we must not forget that the cinema of Iran started in France and its idea was conceived here in Paris. In August 1900, Mozaffar aldin Shah visited Paris, and he saw what cinema is and he liked it and said: “Photographer, buy all of these things” and they bought the equipment and the process of filming things began, and it continued back in Iran. I don’t want to brag but the first book that was published about the cinema of Iran in a foreign language was my book One Hundred Years of Iranian Cinema (Histoire du cinéma iranien 1900-1999) which was published in French by the Georges Pompidou Cultural Center. What I’m trying to say is that there has always been an interesting connection between France and Iran regarding cinema and films.


HR: In the festival we have had in Toronto to introduce Iranian films, one of the interesting parts of Amir Ganjavie’s early speech was about the theoretic discussions on what is meant by Iranian cinema, and the definition he provided was that Iran’s national cinema is no longer confined to the geographical frame inside the borders of Iran, and it has gone beyond that and has reached the diasporic cinema of Iranians who migrated to other countries for various reasons. Now in our current situation, do you think we can accept this definition that the films you or others send to Cannes or other film festivals are Iranian films even though those who make the films and work on them were not born in Iran but are of Iranian backgrounds? Now I don’t want to call it the cinema of exile, but nevertheless, do you think we can accept this definition of the cinema of Iran and its connection with film festivals?


MH: Cinema, whether in Iran or anywhere else, is the same when the director knows the cinematic elements, its alphabet, and follows them, and the second thing is that the subject you have for your film must be interesting for others, for example for the Japanese or the Brazilian audience. If the combination of these two works, then the film will be successful in the international scene, no matter how local its subject is. Local cinema, if it is made right, will become international. For example, the film- Where is My Firend’s House? the story is not remotely related to people living here. You will never see a kid here who goes all the way to his friend’s village to bring his homework because his friend forgot to bring his homework. But this is an interesting humanistic subject, and although it is a local story, but the film has become an international sensation. Many students in different cities in France related to the film and it was strange, and that is the power of cinema. So, this is about being similar to another culture even though these two cultures are geographically many kilometers apart, have different languages, have different religions, are in different locations and have different backgrounds; but the film has been able to make them so involved with and interested in films like Where is My Friend’s House?, Bashu or The Runner that it is astonishing.


AG: If we look at the recent years and the number of ticket sales, we feel that Iranian cinema is not as popular in France and other countries as it used to be. When we look at the ticket sales of films by Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami at that time, the numbers seem to have been significantly higher. Now we have filmmakers like Farhadi but the numbers have greatly decreased. According to the numbers you provided, this reception has become less warm. What do you think is the reason? Has the French people’s taste in films changed? Have the conditions of distributing films changed?


MH: Well, one of the important factors is the distributor, how powerful they are and how they can put the film in fifty or hundred movie theatres. Each film has its own capacity, then the distributor decides whether they should spend one hundred thousand Euros on advertisement and whether the film will return the investment or not. The second thing is how the film will perform in festivals like Venice, Cannes or Berlin. Surely, if the film is successful in festivals, then more critics write about it and the distributors will be inclined to spend money on the film. The distributor of A Separation said that they had spent 500 thousand Euros for the film. Well, magazines and newspapers wrote really positive reviews for the film, it won awards, they kept talking about it on television and radio, and its posters were everywhere, it made people curious. Additionally, they already had a background of Iranian films. In the past 30 or 40 years, they got to know Iranian cinema a lot, and watched the films. They watched Kiarostami’s films, Makhmalbaf’s films and etc. All of this in addition to a film like Farhadi’s, a good film which is made for the general audience, led to success. So why have the sales of Iranian films decreased? It is a general thing. For example, Mexican films did not sell for a period of time, and then they did. They don’t gather attention for a while, and then they do. It’s not just about Iranian films. You should not keep waiting for it and say “Oh my god! The cinema of Iran is done!” It has its ups and downs.


HR: Mr. Haghighat, you have been at the heart of the matter, and you mentioned how the French people have a culture of seeing foreign films. It might be a heavy comparison but if we compare the cinema of Iran with the cinema of Morocco or Algeria or countries near France, what has made Iranian films to be received more warmly by the French audience (we are not talking about European filmgoers for now), as opposed to the cinema of Algeria, Moracco or Egypt? Or perhaps it’s not a good comparison?

MH: The cinema of Iran has shown itself better than the cinema of Arabic countries.


HR: So is it because our cinema is more exotic and fresh?

MH: I think it has got something to do with Iran and the background they already had of Iran that made it interesting for them. All children here study history in high school, and one of the interesting topics for them is Persia, ancient Iran. And Iran is always featured on headlines for different reasons. This leads to a curiosity to go and see a film that is made in Iran.


AG: We know that you are in contact with the filmmakers of the new generation and their films are being sent to you, and you watch them, and still try to help them to enter important film festivals. We wanted to know more about this new generation. Among the filmmakers you have seen recently, who are the most promised figures for the future? And which ones are good enough to write about, to be seen and heard?

MH: One of them is Mostafa Sayari, with his film As I Lay Dying which was an amazing film and it was selected for the Venice Film Festival two years ago, and it received critical acclaim and then it was selected for other festivals. Another one is Mahmoud Ghafari who, unfortunately, cannot make films because he cannot find the funds to make films. Saeed Roostaei, with his film Just 6.5, is also a promising director. The same can be said about Shahram Mokri, and I recently watched a really good film by Ms. Noushin Meraji, titled Son. Morteza Farshbaf is another promising name. Also the Ark Brothers, with their debut feature film Skin which was an important film. Among those who come from Tabriz, we must mention Asghar Yousefnejad with his film House. There are many directors we can count on for the future. But you have to keep looking to find one where you would say “Wow! Now that’s a gem!”


AG: You wrote extensively on the cinema of Iran, now which French-speaking critics have a good knowledge of the cinema of Iran who are not limited to the famous directors and have a broad vision regarding Iranian films as people who write in Le Figaro or other places, for example.

MH: Jean-Michel Frodon, who used to write for Le Monde, and the previous editor-in-chief of Cahier Du Cinema, Jacques Mandelbaum, from Le Monde, are both interested in and follow the cinema of Iran. Mr. Michel Ciment is also one of those critics who is a knowledgeable man, and follows Iranian films. He is the editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Pozitif, and I believe he is extraordinary. He is old and has worked in this field for years but when he finds a good filmmaker, he would stand by him or her, and puts him or her on the cover of their magazine.


HR: We have reached the end of our conversation; I wanted to talk about our current situation, and the Coronavirus and its impact on the cinema of Iran this year. The Cannes Film Festival has also been canceled this year, and I want to know how it will affect Iranian films. I want to know what you think about the future of the cinema of Iran this year, with the Coronavirus and the upcoming festivals that may or may not be held. It would be great if you could talk about this.

MH: What is interesting is that in the time of the Coronavirus, you get to hear how this director is finishing his film, or the other one is starting to shoot his new film, and we know that Mr. Farhadi is going to start the production of his next film titled The Hero which will be a co-production between Iran and France, and it is going to be made in Iran, in Shiraz, and they will start the shooting soon. Other filmmakers are also working on their projects. But as for the Cannes Film Festival and the fact that it is canceled and the impact it might have on cinema. In fact, it will have its effects because more than 50 Iranian films were sent to different sections of the festival, and, naturally, when it is cancelled, hopes turn to despair but I believe it will be a short period and cinema, including Iran’s, will go back to normal very soon. The cinema of Iran must produce and release unique, original films, and not just by one director, but by several filmmakers, so that our cinema can be seen in the international scene like in the past. We need to wait for the Venice Film Festival to see which Iranian films will be accepted. At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the film Namo by Mr. Saeivar was a great film. It was more of an art film. There are also Iranian directors who work outside of Iran. Like Mr. Siamak Etemadi whose film Pari was shown at the Berlin Film Festival this year. It was a good film. Another filmmaker who has worked outside of Iran is Ali Abbasi with his magnificent film The Border, which received the award at the Un Certain Regard at Cannes. And life goes on.

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