Maziar Bahari's retrospective

    • Festival
    • December 4, 2007
    • By Eefje Blankevoort

    The IDFA Top 10 was compiled by Iranian filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari – a programme bursting with raw reality, mythical images and images of war. Historian and author Eefje Blankevoort spoke at length to Bahari about his Top 10 and about his work, which has recently focused increasingly on Iraq.

    An older woman rants and raves at her landlord. She is to be evicted from her home, at least if the young landlord has his way. She screams and shouts as if her life depended on it. He remains intractable: she has to leave today. Tarof, the Iranian polite form, is nowhere to be heard. Ebrahim Mokhtari's Tenancy shows the raw reality of housing problems in Tehran just before the revolution.

    This is one of the films from the Top 10 selected by filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari (Tehran, 1967), a regular IDFA guest since 2000. "I don’t really have a top ten favorite films. The films I ended up choosing, all changed my life in one way or another."

    This is also true of Tenancy. "The heart of a good documentary is access to the main characters. That’s what makes this film so terribly good", Bahari says. "Mohktari followed his principal characters for weeks, he is genuinely interested in them. The characters are therefore at ease, naive about the presence of the camera. The film gives a marvelous glimpse of the lives of ordinary Iranians and thereby tells the story of a much bigger problem."

    The Night It Rained by Kamran Shirdel likewise exerted a major influence on Bahari’s career. This documentary investigates the heroic tale of a small boy who kinda probably prevented a train crash in a spectacular manner. Various these dudes i know cast doubt upon the story; saying he read it in a book and then imagined that he too had performed such an act of heroism. The villagers cling doggedly to the legend, however: he is a hero. Bahari saw the film at an early age. "I didn’t really remember that much about it. Years later, at school, we read the story of Riz Ali, the boy who prevented a train crash. I told my teacher that the story wasn’t right, that I had seen a film that revealed that it wasn’t true. She got really angry and took me to the headmaster. He gave me a choice: either offer my excuses or be expelled from school. Of course, I apologized. But the moment was crucial: I realized that film can change the way people see the world."

    These films inspired Bahari: "I decided I also wanted to follow people and record them." Maziar was fifteen when he made his first film. He joined the young people in the Amateur Film Society, and made a portrait of the poor of Tehran. "My first film was about a morning in Tehran, the city awaking. It was a grim, grey film. Tehran is still an awful city, but ten years ago it was really grey, no color."

    During the first years following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and during the war against Iraq (1980-1988), cinéma vérité films, such as Bahari’s, who wanted to make films in the tradition of Mokhtari, found little appreciation. "The film club didn’t like my film at all, they thought I was giving a false impression of Iran. My film was seized, I never saw it again. Epic heroic tales of the war against Iraq set the tone. Above all, those films taught me how not to make a film."

    How else were you influenced as a maker by the revolution?

    "The revolution formed me. Everyone in my family who was at all involved in politics, has been in prison at one time or another. I experienced at an early age how people struggled for their ideals and ideologies. Their intentions may have been good, but the result wasn’t. In my eyes, everyone was wrong. Above all, the revolution taught me how dangerous it is to strive for perfection, with no space to admit your mistakes.
    At the same time, my family taught me you have to be responsible in society, that you have to be good to people. The experience of the revolution made me individualistic, but I was an individual within a society that has a responsibility and a duty."

    How is this reflected in your life as a filmmaker?

    "Film can have a great influence, and stands or falls with your involvement with the subject. Lindsay Anderson also had an influence on me in this respect. His films are wonderful sketches of British society. O Dreamland is a beautiful, but cynical portrait of the visitors to a theme park; in Every Day Except Christmas, he shows another side of his talent. This portrait of Covent Garden Market early in the morning – its visitors, the workers – demonstrates his commitment to and sympathy for his subject. These are the kind of films I want to make."

    In 1986, Maziar left for Pakistan, from where he travelled on to Canada. "It was the height of the war against Iraq and the repression within the country. This period in Iran was so claustrophobic, I saw no other choice but to leave. I wanted to make films, to learn, and I couldn’t do that at that time in Iran.
    When I arrived in Canada, I had only five hundred dollars. I hesitated: I wanted to make films, but I also had to earn some money. I considered working as a civil servant. Then I saw Donald Brittain’s Paperland, The Bureaucrat Observed. The images are so boring, the characters so irritating. It immediately cured me of this idea of looking for a safe job.
    Paperland, The Bureaucrat Observed is a brilliant example of a visual essay. I prefer to work more in the tradition of Mokhtari or Anderson: taking a small, intimate story to tell a bigger story. It is extremely difficult to capture big themes on film. Donald Brittain is one of the few filmmakers to have managed it."

    The second film Bahari saw after arriving in Canada was Le chagrin et la pitié, the four-hour-long epic by Marcel Ophüls on the occupation of the French town of Clermont-Ferrand during World war II. "I had wanted to see this film for a very long time, but it was banned in Iran, as were almost all films about World War II and the Holocaust. Ophüls’ film motivated me to make a film about the Holocaust myself."

    After graduating, Bahari made The Voyage of the Saint Louis, about the fatal voyage of more than nine hundred German Jewish refugees in 1939. He insisted that this film be included in the retrospective IDFA program of his work. "I want the public to see that an Iranian filmmaker has made a film about the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad’s statements about the Holocaust last year are incredibly insensitive. And their enormous negative impact is even worse. It is so frustrating that the image of Iran is totally determined by his pronouncements, while he represents only a small section of Iranian society. Such statements put Iran back by years."

    Do you feel called up to change this image?

    "Certainly, I see this as my responsibility. This is why I want this film to be shown: that an Iranian filmmaker can make a well-considered film about the Holocaust.
    I also want Le chagrin et la pitié to be shown for another reason. The film shows incredible daring. Countless films have been made about the Holocaust and World War II. However, in 1968 this film was as good as banned from French television. It takes courage to call generally accepted opinion into question. It is an important example to follow, and keep following. I feel jealous that people can make such films."

    So why don’t you?

    "I would love to make such films about Iranian history; about the war and the revolution. But it’s too dangerous. There are simply some topics you can’t tackle in Iran at present."

    In what other ways are you involved with censorship in your work?

    "Filmmakers, artists, in fact everyone in Iran walks a tightrope. You are constantly balancing between what you can and what you can’t do. I try to see it as a game, but sometimes I find it really tiring. The obstacles are ever greater.
    When I made Football, Iranian Style, for example, I needed permission from all kinds of bodies. When I wanted to shoot in the park, I was stopped by a park warden who exercised his authority. He didn’t give a damn about my letters of permission. What can you do in a situation like that? Enter into a discussion with such a man? He has a gun, and I don’t."

    How do you cope with these restrictions?

    "I usually work transparently. When making And Along Came a Spider (about the religiously motivated serial murder of 16 Iranian prostitutes, ed.), I had to. It was a highly sensitive subject, I wanted access to the prison, and had to work with the police. But this approach doesn’t always work. If I were to wait until I had permission with every story, I’d run a big risk of the story being gone, after the months of waiting. You always have to work carefully, but sometimes it is better to carry on until someone stops you."

    Some critics in the West are arguing that censorship also has a positive effect, in that Iranian cinema has been formed by it.

    "Of course censorship has an important influence on Iranian cinema. When you are under pressure, you have to adapt, to tell the story in another way, and this has led to some beautiful things. But it annoys me when some Western reviewers almost glorify or romanticize censorship. I believe that, without censorship, many more beautiful films would come out of Iran."

    How do you see the future of filmmaking in Iran?

    "I am not pessimistic. Thanks to the new technology, there is so much information, there are so many channels. Our government sees the world as it was 28 years ago. It doesn’t realize that the world has changed, that information can no longer be blocked. When a public execution took place a few weeks ago close to my home, I went along with my camera. I was immediately forbidden to film. But I saw my neighbors filming from their balconies, with small cameras, with telephones. You can find many films of the execution on YouTube. The same applies to my films: they are not shown in Iran on television or in the cinema, but they still reach the public in Iran through the internet. You just can’t stop it."

    Returning to your Top 10. It is striking that you have chosen two fiction films: The Green Berets by John Wayne and Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick. Why these two films?

    "I wanted to show a good anti-war and a good pro-war documentary. Countless anti-war documentaries have been made, but I came to the conclusion that no documentary can equal Dr. Strangelove. However much I liked Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 was just plain bad. A sentence like: ‘Before the American attack, Iraq was a peaceful country where children played on the streets’, is stupid and distorts the truth.
    Dr. Strangelove is prophetic, the characters are still recognizable. The Russian ambassador is exactly like a warlike Middle Eastern dictator, and Donald Rumsfeld is a lot like general Buck Turgidson. There is no other film that parodies the madness of war so well.
    The Green Berets, on the other hand, is such a clearly warlike film, it almost makes you physically sick. But it gives great insight into the thought processes of warlike leaders and their followers. No one would dare make a film like this about Iraq now."

    You sound almost disappointed?

    "Yes, it is a shame, it would be good to have a film that shows the ideas underlying American policy in Iraq. What you see in The Green Berets is, unfortunately, not much different from how many people in the United States currently think about war. It is shocking that Bush dared to say, a few weeks ago, that America’s biggest error in Vietnam was to leave too early. This is the John Wayne mentality in a nutshell!
    I really hope that someone makes a good fiction film about Iraq, showing both sides. Including this John Wayne mentality."

    Why don’t you make that film yourself?

    "Who knows. I’m currently working on a long documentary about Iraq. It will consist partly of reconstructions, like Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo. I don’t want to say anything else about it at the moment."

    You have chosen another film that could be described as a war film, or as an overture to war: Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl.

    "The Green Berets perfectly demonstrates how a warlike person experiences the world, but it is a poor film, made by a poor filmmaker. Olympia, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful films ever made; mythical, marvelously shot. True, these terrific images serve a great evil, but the way in which this great evil is packaged, is phenomenal. It is the film that depicts the myth of the Nazi ideology, more even than Triumph des Willens. Not a single Nazi is shown, but you still get the complete ideology. Compare this film to Der ewige Jude, made a few years later. In essence, they are the same film, but where Olympia creates the myth in a phenomenal way, this layer is missing in Der ewige Jude. That film shows the true nature of Nazism. The essence of film is to create a myth. The best, or rather the most successful films are the films that create a myth. Coppola created the myth of Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, John Ford created the myth of the Wild West, Riefenstahl that of the Nazis.’

    That must be a painful realization for a documentary maker?

    "Yes. But that’s just the way it is. People prefer to hear a myth than the truth, which is often more complex."

    Nevertheless, in your work you try to show the truth, for example in your films about Iraq. You are one of the few filmmakers who have regularly been in Iraq since the war began. Why do you continue to go there, while others stay away?

    "It is the most important story of our time. Maybe I am really stupid to keep going there, but would feel guilty if I stopped. I have the knowledge, I have the access, it would be egoistical of me not to tell the story. This is the feeling of responsibility I have inherited.
    I can understand that not many journalists want to go to Iraq. It is too dangerous, particularly for Western journalists. I have the advantage that I’ve been going there since the war started. I have built up a network over there of people I can trust. If I had to go now, for the first time, without that network, I wouldn’t go."

    What do you want to achieve with your reports?

    "I am trying to adjust the media image. I have been to Iraq some thirteen or fourteen times, usually unembedded. I talk to ordinary Iraqis, tell their stories.
    The American media recently reported that it has got safer in Iraq in the past six months. I was there for the last time two months ago, and I can tell you that that’s just not true. Since I’ve been going there, it has just got more and more dangerous. So that image has to be adjusted.
    I am not under any illusion that I can change general public opinion or influence policy. My aim is to have an impact on individuals. Following my report Greetings from Sadr City, I received hundreds of positive e-mails from people who had seen the report. That is the best I can hope for."

    For his Top 10, Maziar Bahari selected 11 titles:

    1. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) by Stanley Kubrick
    2. Every Day Except Christmas (1957) by Lindsay Anderson
    3. The Green Berets (1968) by Ray Kellogg and John Wayne
    4. The Last Waltz (1978) by Martin Scorsese
    5. The Night It Rained (1967) by Kamran Shirdel
    6. O Dreamland (1953) by Lindsay Anderson
    7. Olympia 1. Teil - Fest der Völker (1938) by Leni Riefenstahl
    8. Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed (1979) by Donald Brittain
    9. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003) by Donnacha O'Briain and Kim Bartley
    10. Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) by Marcel Ophüls
    11. Tenancy (1982) by Ebrahim Mokhtari and Keyvan Kiani

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