Introducing Khosrovani, Cohn said that in her work she focuses on life in modern-day Iran, with an emphasis on the female experience. This is very much the case with her latest film, in which she looks back at the dichotomy within her family, with a religious mother and a secular father. Using a wealth of archive footage and fictionalized dialogues between her parents, Khosrovani presents a chronicle of the family against the background of political changes in Iran, with the 1979 Islamic Revolution at its center.
Themes that persist in the director's work
But all these themes were there in Khosrovani's work since her first short documentary Rough Cut from 2008. Cohn started the Filmmaker Talk by showing a clip from this film, in which we see window shop mannequins being mutilated (i.e. a worker uses a saw to remove the breasts) as they become unsuitable for society after the Revolution.
"The grotesque story of mutilated female mannequins was like a metaphor manufactured to minimize female characteristics. This was the core idea to do this film," said Khosrovani.
"When I noticed for the first time in shop windows in Tehran these amputated mannequin bodies, I thought it was a metaphor for veiled bodies of Iranian women. It was bizarre and at the same time artistically very interesting, kind of a Buñuelian image of cutting the breasts."
In her 2014 film Fest of Duty, Khosrovani tells a story that mirrors the one in her latest film. She films two seven-year-old girls who are cousins and best friends, and then comes back eight years later to find them very distanced from each other. One girl's family is secular, and the other's is religious. It transpires that this is the reason they fell apart. The filmmaker was inspired to tell this story as she was curious about a custom that was strange to her.
"It was interesting because this celebration of coming of age in schools for nine-year-old girls was something that we didn't have in my time," Khosrovani recalled. "It was a new invention of the Islamic Republic for the schools. I saw some clips of it and I thought it's interesting how they celebrate the transition into adulthood for religious duties. When you get to the age of nine, you have to fulfill all the religious duties and responsibilities of an adult woman.
"I was thinking it's very early for a little girl, as her body is still not a woman's body. Then I did an interview with girls aged nine and I collected them, but I thought it wasn't not enough to make a film. So with the passing of time, when they became teenagers, I went back to them and did a casting. I chose two girls who are cousins in two different families, very symbolically, like two poles of the Iranian society.
"Somehow in all my films it's about the idea of the relationship between power and an individual, religion and the individual, censorship and self-censorship. This is my main challenge. The same thing happens in Radiograph of a Family."
Torn between two realities
This was cue for Cohn to move the conversation to Khosrovani's new film.
"Your parents really began their life outside of Iran. Your father was training in Europe as a radiologist, and embracing the more Western, secular way of living and realized what the joys are of that," she said. "You made a stylistic jump here and re-created this world of your parents through a very fragile process. And memory is always tricky."
Khosrovani replied: "It's based on my childhood memories. My mother went through the family albums and she ripped out all the images she thought were inappropriate after the Revolution, and that's where the core concept comes from: torn-up pictures, a torn-up family.
"And then some connected ideas came to my mind: my mother's scoliosis, my radiologist father, X-ray as a metaphor of scanning the body, scanning a home, scanning history... It's an assemblage of all these axes that I put into the storytelling in the narrative about dichotomy within a family. I was torn between the two realities, the two poles. I wanted to show that the ideology of Islamic Law was reflected inside our home and affected every corner of our domestic life. So the Revolution took place in our home, as a metaphor."
Revolution as the main turning point
In order to show how this, Khosrovani had a house set built, and used it to depict the passage of time along with ideological changes that came with the Revolution.
"I designed these scenes in order to create a narrative space as a container of the film," she said. "It was very time-consuming to stage everything and choose objects that are meaningful and do something with them—eliminate some of them, replace some of them, take down a new painting from the wall when Islamic Law entered the home, and change the interior of the house.
"The camera acts like a radiology machine: it's scanning inside the home. We have two opposite sides of the home that I dedicated to Father and Mother. Before the Revolution, the camera movement is from Father's side to Mother's. It's Father's gaze. After the Revolution, it's from the opposite side. First it's Father's turn and then Mother's turn, and it's very symmetrical in the structure of the film.
"I put the Revolution in the exact middle of the timeline: it's the main turning point, the point of no return, and there are symmetrical things on both sides, between the first half and the second half. It was a very crafted film. Everything is calculated on paper, so in a way, the narrative is engineered."
Cohn next asked the director how old she was when she understood this division. She was very close to her father and perhaps it was already clear back then that she would pick his secular path.
Khosrovani replied: "I was seven when the Revolution happened, and I wanted to stay that age in the film. I wanted to not grow up and to stay in the better times of before the Revolution, where all my sweet childhood memories are. So this was something that I wanted to be unrealistic in the film: to have this fantasy that Firouzeh remains the same age the whole time.
"It was clear I was very close to my father's values, and my mother didn't impose her religious concern on me. She didn't force me to wear the hijab. She didn't want to instill her beliefs in her daughter."
Cohn found this interesting and a little surprising. She followed by asking Firouzeh about her work on the fictionalized dialogues between her parents.
"I considered many different options for the voiceover in the film," she recalled. "It thought it would have been simpler if it was based on the voiceover of a narrator. But I was the narrator, and I was born in the middle of the film, so it would have been difficult.
"I wanted to have real time and not flashbacks, so the idea of fictionalized dialogues came to my mind. I tried to write the dialogues, to put words in the mouths of my parents. It was a very difficult, very interesting, and very challenging process.
"Some things were based on my memories. Some other situations I invented based on found footage that I had from that time—Super 8 footage from Switzerland or Iran. Sometimes I was writing the dialogues and looking for images, pictures, or archive footage, and sometimes it was vice-versa, I'd find good images and try to write dialogues for them. It was two years of preparations for the film, writing the dialogues and creating the images."
Super 8 has the texture of memories
Cohn asked about finding the archive footage: where did this journey take Khosrovani?
"I had enormous amounts of good material and it was very difficult to select," she replied. "It was a kind of an elimination process. I always had to put aside many good things to minimalize the film, to not have a very talkative film—I wanted the images to talk.
"It was a very long search for official and unofficial footage, both from Swiss and Iranian televisions; some are home videos on Super 8 that I got from my family and friends. Also for the revolution, the demonstrations, I was trying to find something not seen, not really used on television. I was looking for personal footage of the people at the time during 1970s and 1980s, and it was all on Super 8. Super 8 has the texture of memories.
"I loved working with Super 8 images—it was really inspiring to me. Also all the out-of-focus, not very good and clean images. It's really the texture of your memories. It put me in a good space in my head for my writing."
Cohn continued from there: "If you were so inspired by the way this footage could set your imagination free, do you think you will pursue it in the future as well?"
Khosrovani replied: "I really wanted to have this combination of reality and fantasy in this film, and not to be worrying about the genre, about fiction and non-fiction. I think I will follow this way of storytelling in my next films, Inshallah," she chuckled.
"I really enjoyed the work of writing the dialogues. This kind of creates a new reality that is the reality of the film, because there are some things I manipulated in the second half: the absence of Father is more obvious. And at the end of the film, we are suddenly in real time. After this playing with time, with fantasy and with imagination, I think that I can't go back to classic documentaries anymore."