In 2013, Keywan Karimi, a young iranian filmmaker, making a documentary on the history of graffiti in Tehran, Writing on the City (see review). His film is censored in the country; the director is sentenced in 2015 to six years in prison and two hundred and twenty-three lashes for “propaganda against the operation of the system of government” and “insult against the sacred principles”. In 2016, his sentence is reduced to one year. During the time of its appeal, the filmmaker turns the Drum, his first fiction feature film; the film is presented at the critics ‘ week of Venice. He is in prison in November 2016 and will be released five months later. Keywan Karimi is currently in France to present his films in the context of an artistic residency. Meeting with a filmmaker, political radical commitment.
Your filmography boasts a strong social concern, in a political sense. According to you, the role of the artist to be political ?
Before starting my film career, I wrote poems and short stories. At the age of fifteen years I attended writing workshops and I was able to publish my first short stories in literary magazines. My father would have loved me to become a journalist, but as we were the kurds, it was impossible for me. Finally, at the age of eighteen years, I entered the university of Tehran as a student in the sociology of the media. The five years of studies at the heart of the faculty of social sciences have exerted an influence more or less considerable about my outlook on sociological and political, particularly because the university of Tehran has been, especially prior to 2001, a very active, attracting movements of the student, the currents of thought, and the editors of journals, well, radical. I am very happy to have had such an academic background, because I realize now that it had influenced me sustainably. It is for this reason that I have become, perhaps in spite of myself, a filmmaker, left with a vision of political-social radical. Until now I’ve made sixteen movies. The first lasted only one hundred seconds, a short film in which played a child. My second short film was about some workers of the kurdish fruit and vegetable market. Then I shot a film on the victims of an earthquake in their temporary shelters. My point of view has become more socialist ; of the poor and the marginalized became more and more of my work. In my recent films, this vision has set ever, and I consider myself today a filmmaker’s radical left with a work policy. And since I am convinced that any work of art must be political, I fear not, especially not that one myself as well.
There is in Writing on the City, a willingness to face the history of contemporary of your country. What is it that has driven you in the accomplishment of this work of the historian ?
Writing on the City is a film about the possibility of reading the history of a city (Tehran) through its walls. In other words : when you start to look at the walls of a city, you can read the history of social policy of the city in question. It is as if the were the skin of someone : its tasks, its scars, its particular signs show us which person you are dealing with. Is it that she has had accidents, is what she fought, of which body she was operated, at what place she was burned, etc, I tried, as a researcher, sociologist, or historian, not to censor the story. This is why I had trouble with the authorities. I was asked to delete ten minutes of the film, something impossible, and to which I objected : these ten minutes do not belong to me only to me, they are part of the history of the country. Is it that history will forgive such negligence ? That was the question that I am asked. To tell the truth, I decided to establish dialectical relations and not time – contrary to what some believe is critical – between the historical events of Iran : the constitutional revolution of iran (1905-1911), until the revolution of 1979 and the revolution of 1979 up to the green movement of 2009. It is for me to grasp each historical event as a piece of the puzzle of what makes up today’s iranian society. The most important thing is that I don’t consider the 1979 revolution as an islamic revolution but as a revolution marxist depending on the model trotskyist. At the origin of this revolution are true revolutionaries and not the people who had only just occupy the streets of the cities. In short, a revolution in the marxist becomes an islamic revolution. For my part, I applied myself to show this transformation : we see in the film the marxist slogans inscribed on the walls of the city that fade gradually and are replaced by religious slogans. And many other changes that will take place : the Iran-Iraq war, after the war, the economic and political reforms, civil society, the consumer society, new values, etc
In addition to historical function, there is in the film an educational dimension censée remind the people of the tools it has to tell and write the history of Iran. How does one talk to the iranians when his work is censored in the country ?
The Internet, social networks and the new tools of the digital can’t they have a role to play in the dissemination of your films ?
Of course. In Iran the number of users of the Internet and social networks such as Telegram, WhatsApp or Instagram is increasing every day. At the same time, like all other countries, Iran take advantage of new technologies to give a fuller picture of herself. For example, we can speak of citizen reporters during the recent riots : ordinary people train to shoot scenes of the event with their cell phones. The use of these new applications is very common among iranians. They create blogs, videos, even radio whose voice is different from that which is officially dominant. In regards to the film, it is necessary to admit that the Westerners do not know iranian cinema as a few names : Kiarostami, Farhadi, Panahi, etc, And they do not know, unfortunately, not independent cinema, documentaries or shorts unless a fact, often political, attracts their attention to this kind of cinema. This is because the western media are always behind a few famous names, the names of educated, covered and supported by these same cultural organizations. This, however, were not always of good filmmakers. For example, we have a great director such as Sohrab Shahid Saless , that nobody knows in the west. Now compare it with Farhadi, which won many international awards, while his films are pretty easy. We are surprised that a director like him has so much success, that he receive as much support. If one is interested in independent cinema, you can find a lot of filmmakers, young and old, who strive to escape the censorship and trying to tell what is really going on. It is especially necessary to add that the documentary and the short film are not part of the exchanges existing in the process of achieving the long-feature films : the shooting permits and visas of operation are limited. In the short film you are free to express yourself except if you decided to present your film at a festival. You can even turn your movie on the inside of your house with sex scenes or kissing, and then send it to the Cannes film festival ! This is the abundant use of these new means of filmmaking. There are good movies, good amateurs whose accomplishments include quite a few striking images, and that is better than the productions of the iranian television. In truth, contrary to european television channels (such as Arte), which produce good documentaries and good short films, iranian television does not produce that bad movies are subject to censorship. Independent films will not have a chance to be aired on tv. Film festivals iranians or foreigners are the only places to exhibit this kind of movies. Each year, almost two thousand films are produced inside the country, but you don’t know in France or in Europe. The european festivals like Berlin, Cannes or Venice only select films that conform to the official policy of the State of iran. Why this year The Pork from Mani Haghighi is in the international competition of the Berlin film Festival ? Why last year The customer ofAsghar Farhadi, has won the Oscar for best foreign film ? The answer seems obvious. How many filmmakers deserving to live in Iran while their films are not included on the lists of the festivals western because they do not correspond to the policies of the festivals in question ? What we know iranian cinema is determined by the media. If not, why does one speak not of filmmakers such as Nasser Taghvai, Fereydun Goleh, Shahid Saless, etc yet it cannot be overlooked. However, it is unfortunately the case, and even in Iran today one does not know very well. One ends up doubting the sincerity of the western media. In short, the knowledge that we have in iranian cinema is a superficial knowledge, routine, produced and protected by the newspapers and the media.
In your first full-length fiction film, the Drum, the representation of the real is very codified and even symbolist. Was this in response to the form of the documentary ?
Drum is a film adaptation of the eponymous novel of’Alimorad Fadâyinyâ, a novel avant-garde writing there are roughly fifty years old. I’ve adapted to the current situation of Iran. There is a historical context and clues that are hidden which each spectator of iran can recognize. The only thing I have to add is that the main subject of this film is not fear, but rather a species of awe, a kind of concern without a name. The film’s not about a fear whose cause would be identifiable, but rather a concern anonymous and hidden, as we are told in the title of a famous collection of stories of the writer and the iranian Gholam-Hossein Sa edi. The main character of my film is not afraid of a particular thing, but it has fallen prey to this concern of which he knows neither the cause nor the source, and that will disturb his mental order, to the point of losing consciousness of time. If somewhere in the movie, one loses the frame of the events and to see images, sad confused, it is above all the result of a logic that is the concern. A literature novel complex does not entail that a film adaptation complex. It was a very difficult task to adapt such a novel. I have tried to remain faithful to the Persian literature in the modernist and avant-garde to which the novel Fadâyiniyâ belongs to.
You have used a lot of Black and White over your filmography, and even if it has not the same meaning of a film to another, what is it that interests you in this process ?
As I said, Drum is an adaptation of the novel of Fadâyiniyâ written fifty years ago. But the film is not about the Iran of the past five decades : everywhere there are elements relating to the modern life of the iranian society. In addition to the representation of the atmosphere of the city, I personally like the black and white. It is a matter of aesthetics. More specifically, I wanted to make a film that has some characteristics of film noir but also of the expressionist cinema. However, the Drum is neither the one nor the other. As for the theme narrative of the film, I tried to add something more. Moreover, it is a world specific aesthetic, a world in which every element has its own meaning. I add this in passing that my next film will be this time in color, but with a totally different color. On the subject of’Adventure of a married couple and Drum, it was also a tribute to silent film. Moreover, we see every year a lot of films shot in black and white, a lot of artists are interested in it. Rather, it is a matter of taste ; I think of Béla Tarr or Jim Jarmusch. It is a way of asking her gaze on the cinema and things. This is not to say that the world is represented there must be dark or bitter. Stranger than Paradise by Jarmusch is a film that is gay, but turned when even in black and white.
You shoot Tehran surveyed by ghosts, the streets are in ruins, and gnawed by a curse that are vice and corruption. The city eventually will engulf itself gave way under the weight of all that dirt. Is this your vision of Iran today, ready to sink under the weight of corruption ?
From a certain point of view, this is not really a good thing that a filmmaker talks about his work. His explanations relating to a particular sequence could be useless in the eyes of the viewer, and even they could confuse him. My film also relates well to the past than the future. The film’s main character (the Lawyer) could be considered as representative of the law. The philosophical point of view, it is a state of exception. I don’t want to cite references in terms of design, but we can treat the subject from the point of view Agambenien (the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben) : how a political system he says the state of exception and suspend the law ? I believe that this allows for better control of the corporation, the subjects, and the streets and show violent. It is an excuse for him. The question that will arise is the following : how the sovereign suspends the law ? Be aware that when I talk about politics, I distinguish between government policy and the state of the popular political. In this sense, I am a political artist, that is to say, popular. I’m for the people, I am the voice of the marginalized. Ebrahim Hatamikia pretends to be a filmmaker political, but his definition of politics is different from mine. The last sequence of the Drum is a metaphor, where those who wanted to kill the Lawyer (and suspend the law) drown in the crapper. Taking into account other elements that are metaphors of the film, say that it is both the history of the past three decades and the future of the country. This is the function of the film. Its elements seem to be significant enough. There are eighty-eight drawings, symbolic figures for the iranian year 1388, according to the iranian solar calendar, and the equivalent of 2009, refers to the uprising of post-election in Iran). The scene of the murder of the woman refers to the murder of Parvaneh Forouhar, one of the victims of serial murders perpetrated on the intellectuals iranians during the years 1988 and 1998. Even the architecture of Tehran plays an important role, Tehran as I see it and as I wanted to represent it. It is therefore necessary to interpret each of these elements in order to better understand the meaning of the movie. Four-twenty-eight plans seem to be four-twenty – eight paintings or photographs carefully selected. Same thing for the dialogues in which I uses a particular employment of the current language. There is a style. It is a film without precedent in the history of iranian cinema – I’m not talking about world cinema, that I do not know well, but in iranian cinema. The form and style of Drum are unique in the history of the iranian cinema. This is not the iranian society which gives up at the end of the film, but some of the characters that you need to know who they are. The iranian society is divided into three : those who drown, those who become murderers, and those who are in the insane asylums. Those who drown in the filth are those who have wanted to destroy the law, kill the inhabitants or make them crazy. I really can’t say what plans the future, no one is able to do, but we can think about it, think about it. Such is my case and that of my film. What happens there could have a place elsewhere : in Paris, in Romania, Shanghai, etc
Can you qualify your movie hermétiste ?
Admittedly, I shot this film to open the possibility of interpretation. I insist on a reading of dialectic that every viewer will be able to perform. The filmmaker guard, of course, his own. Drum is a film world. The reason why I switched from documentary to fiction is the following : in the documentary you have a fixed frame, the half-tone film depends on the filming locations, the subject, etc, In the fiction, on the contrary, you’ll create your own world in one hundred percent. If you have something to false or true in your head, you’re going to achieve it. And now, if the filmmaker is committed and he believes that he is engaged, he realizes what he has lived through ! Me, I’ve done it in my film. Yes, I believe in the possibility of interpretation of the film by each viewer according to his own subjectivity.
You have a very strong relationship with the literature, since the two films of fiction are adapted from literature to pre-existing : your short film The adventure of a maried couple, is adapted from a novel by Italo Calvino, Drum is the adaptation of the eponymous novel by the author of iran Alimorad Fadâyinyâ and you can read also the poems of Shirku Bikas in your documentary Broken Border. What place do you give the literature to your cinema ?
As I said at the beginning, I started with the literature before I turn to the cinema. I’ve always loved the literature. I do not consider myself a filmmaker, but rather as a researcher, an admirer of the literature. I read a lot. In Iran, I have no friendship with the filmmakers, then I’m the friend of many writers. I don’t like the cinema, I find them empty, ignorant and arrogant. In the movie industry, men and women read nothing, know nothing. I think the more reason that the literature is the first front of the resistance. Literature is not like the cinema. The cinema is an art that is questionable, a art behind which is always the money. This financial dependence makes it doubtful. But the literature, it is the author face to face with himself, only. Take these two authors iranians : Sadegh Hedayat has worked his or her story, The owl is blind, in solitude and Mahmood Massoodi who currently lives in Paris published his books at the author’s expense. It’s a shame that in Europe we do not know much of the Persian literature modern. Everyone is talking about the film without knowing that it seems impossible to separate the cinema of iran in the Persian literature. Kiarostami did not serve in the Persian literature in his films ? Of course that if. When we speak of Persian literature, we are dealing with a literary history long and rich. What universe complicated as these works of epic or mystical ! Ferdowsi, Rumi, etc, This is the cradle of iranian culture. And this is certainly not the iranian cinema, which is an art so young ! It surprises me that in France I know, but what we do not know, for example, Sadegh Hedayat ! There is something wrong behind this interest in iranian cinema in the west, so that one knows almost nothing of the modern literature of Iran. For my part, I read a lot of books and watch some movies. If a week passes without me reading a book, it makes me sick ! My source of inspiration has always been literature. It makes me want to establish a relationship of friendship with literary men, the philosophers, the sociologists. When I write a scenario, I will not send it to the filmmakers. I don’t have this link. When I was in prison, no iranian filmmaker not supported me. Not even a word.
Your detention has she changed something in your approach to your job as a filmmaker ?
I do not consider my detention as a problem traumatic. It I was not so strange. Here in Paris it can be stopped by the police because of theft, abuse of alcohol or I don’t know what else. For me, it was a new experience. I had good friends. I have gained some knowledge in relation to the prison. It is as if I had lived the film of Jacques Audiard, A prophet ! If he had not made this film, I could do it ! During my detention, I’ve had strange relationships with others. In addition, since I was a filmmaker and, therefore, a political prisoner, I had a certain amount of authority. Yes, unfortunately this was the case. Because even in prisons, this kind of apartheid exists : the ordinary prisoner are not on the same level as the political prisoners. Whatever it was, it was not so difficult for me to be in prison. However, whether one year or ten years imprisonment, the prison exerts an influence on you. When you step out of the prison, you are no longer the same person. During my detention, I found myself constantly in metamorphosis, I became more and more alone, I’ve lost my friends. After being released, with a few old buddies, nobody came to see me again. The prison is so influential. One day I will definitely do a film, but not immediately.
The city is at the heart of your two feature films, more than a simple décor, the notion of City is a strong theme in your concerns as a filmmaker.
I have a sociological approach to the city, reports that establishes each citizen with the environment in which he lives. I am in particular drawn on the notion of a right of citizenship or the process of politicization of the city. In other words : how the city does it become political or politicized ? I am referring to some theorists of the city : David Harvey, Walter Benjamin, etc, It still exists in my films a character flâneur, he is a lawyer (in Drum), or it is the ghost wandering in the city (in Writing on the City). It is, moreover, my own relationship to the city.
Drum is a reflection of the events that I’ve seen and experienced. I have experienced what the characters in my films live. What are the autobiographical elements of my short and feature-length films. To me, the film looks at the life of the filmmaker. If life is tormented, the film will be just as ; if life is calm, the movies, too, will also be.
Interview by Aurélien Milhaud
The double edition DVD of Drum and Writing on the City is available from Blaq out.
In completely of this interview, check out our critique of Writing on the City.