“For years I’ve taken pictures of pigeons in Shiraz”, director Kamran Heidari says of the genesis of his feature-length contender Ali Aqa. “I’ve always liked their way of life. I’ve always been interested in making a documentary about pigeons, but other projects made it impossible. But then I found some free time and finally began to research pigeon-lovers.”
One of these became the eponymous subject of Ali Aqa. The filmmaker was attracted to the cantankerous seventy-year-old “because Ali had this mad, intense love for his pigeons. I became especially interested in how he dedicated his whole life to his pigeons, despite all the life problems he has.”
Persuading his recalcitrant subject to participate in the film was an arduous process. “It took me four months to finally gain his trust; after going to his home for that long, he finally got used to me being around and agreed to being filmed. His family didn’t trust me either at first, but after four months I managed to gain their trust as well. Eventually, Ali even showed some enthusiasm for documentary-making.”
“I gradually got him acclimatised to the film-making equipment and the whole process. Our cameras and sound-recording devices were small, so that helped him to get used to the idea, and after a while he acted as he actually is, in front of the camera.” That the main character is at ease being filmed is palpable throughout the film, with the camera at times circling Ali almost like his beloved flock of pigeons. This familiarity also gives rise to a crucial scene in the film, when director Heidari steps out of the role of observer to intervene directly in an intense incident involving Ali and his family. An intervention that is filmed, and was clearly not appreciated at the time by the film’s protagonist. “Yes, this had an impact on the production of the film,” the director recalls. “Ali told us not to meddle with his personal life ever again, and even banned us from visiting his home for a while. But after some discussion with him, everything got back to normal and we resumed shooting.”
A situation that to a Western viewer may seem quite shocking was perhaps less so to the family themselves, the director suggests. “What the film showed was quite normal to them, because they have witnessed all of it before in their real lives,” he says. Having intervened in a family quarrel, Heidari reciprocated by allowing the family to influence the filmmaking process. “They made a few suggestions for the editing of the movie, which I followed,” he reveals.
For Heidari’s next project, he intends to return to the theme of music, the director says. “I am very much interested in the music of Southern Iran; I have made a few documentaries about music already. The music of Southern Iran is influenced by African music, and I hope I can show these similarities in my next documentary.”