Interview with Mohammad-Ali Talebi

talebi2Mohammad Ali-Talebi visited Cambridge Arts Picturehouse in April with his film BAG OF RICE, which featured as part of “A Story of Children and Film”, a series of screenings curated by Mark Cousins. There follows a transcript of the audience Q&A, hosted by Toby Miller of Bums on Seats (Cambridge 105), which followed BAG OF RICE. 

Mohammad Ali-Talebi: I’ve been making films for children for more than thirty years. BAG OF RICE was probably my fourth or fifth film with children. The actress in the films (Jeyran Abedzadeh) I found in the area south of Tehran; she was four and a half years old. I went and searched for her, I met her family, and then I learned that she had six other siblings, so I changed my story and kind of included all the family in the film.

Toby Miller: She runs through the full range of emotions: she’s kind and delightful, but then she becomes so pushy as to become unpleasant – ‘pester power’, we call it over here. How did you coach her and direct her to be natural and not forced?

MT: I try to become friends with my child actors. And I also play lots of tricks on them, for instance before the shooting I gave her a doll, and then during the shooting I took the doll away and said “It’s lost, I’m sorry,” and then she started crying and then I filmed her. But they really become my friends, and when we are not shooting they are usually riding on my back. In my films, the real fiction is usually behind the camera, not in front of it, because in front of the camera children are just themselves, because we play lots of tricks; what we do with our cameraman, sound engineer behind the camera is even more interesting because we try to find a new way of engaging children in the story. So the story – the fiction – the more cinematic thing is actually happening behind the camera.

Because many incidents in front of the camera are natural and spontaneous, some of them become really comic. For instance, when she is trying the pepper in the supermarket, first she tries it and doesn’t understand that she’s trying pepper, but after a while she starts to react, and we were all laughing behind the camera, but at the same time we were worried that we might destroy the soundtrack of the film.

TM: As you’ve said, the young girl’s childhood will end unnaturally early because of the hard life that she’s in. I felt that she desperately wants to go to school at the beginning, but she’s not going to get any more afternoons like this when everything is an adventure. I found it quite a bittersweet experience. I don’t know how deliberate that was.

MT: Toby’s right, I have directed a trilogy – THE BOOT, BAG OF RICE, and TICK TACK – in which I explore the same theme. I deliberately avoided any sentimentalism and any boyhood approach to the story, that’s what makes them so sweet and so bitter at the same time. I avoided the sense of self-pity in the characters, and I wanted to show their life as it is, the whole spectrum, so you see a whole range there in the film. That’s again why it’s bittersweet. What fascinates me is children’s endless passion for life, but at the same time you see in children and in other people how difficult it is to live in that society, which I believe exists everywhere but is particularly difficult in Iran.

TM: In Mark Cousins’ A STORY OF CHILDREN AND FILM, he mentions that he finds Iranian films very truthful in their depiction of children. Do you think this is the case, and if so why?

MT: There was a Golden Age of cinema in Iran, and particularly children’s’ cinema. Later on, after the revolution, when some of the great filmmakers couldn’t discuss certain adult topics, they returned to the cinema of childhood in order to tell those stories in a metaphoric way. These films then have different layers: the first layer is of course a film about children and for children, whilst on the other layers you have more serious social themes. In each of my films I have tried to discuss one of these themes. BAG OF RICE is about children and a rougher plain, WILLOW AND WIND is a film about the educational system in Iran, and YOU ARE FREE is about young offenders. I pick my subjects from recent issues, and I follow this pattern quite systematically.

“I love Iran, I love the alleys, I love the autumn leaves, the streets, the people. It is beautiful.”

AUDIENCE: Your lovely film very clearly looks in part at human nature and also explores some spiritual wisdom, the idea of sharing a load, of all taking part.

MT: I don’t see that spiritual aspect in my own films, I’m not interested in the religious aspect of the story that much. But I leave it to the audience, so there is a possibility of interpreting it as religious symbolism. Even some friends told me “You have made an overtly religious film, and you wanted to please the government in Iran by making such a film.” I’m only interested in the real lives of people on the street, and this film could be set in any country – the old lady in the film could be someone from the UK. I can’t say that I’m not interested in religion so I’m kind of dealing with that deep down somewhere. Today, the first place I went to was a church in Cambridge, a Catholic church, and people were queuing for the ceremony, and I was seeing the whole thing in long shot, and I started crying, and I couldn’t help it. They were playing music on the organ, it was a complex sequence with sound effects and music and everything, and it made my hair stand on end, so maybe that was a religious feeling that occurred to me at that moment.

AUDIENCE: Does Mr Talebi see an arc or progress from his first films up until the present day – or are they just perceived by him as episodes in the progress of a filmmaker?

MT: You’re right, you can see that arc in my films, but sometimes when I have more freedom, in terms of censorship of course, I can make better films, so there are bigger jumps in my filmography. There are other periods in which the censor is more tight and filmmaking is more difficult, and then I try to cope with the new situation and it affects my film. Because I want to keep making films in Iran. Because I love Iran, I love the alleys, I love the autumn leaves, the streets, the people. It is beautiful.

AUDIENCE: I’d like to ask the story of the background of the old lady [Masoumeh Khanoom, played by Masoumeh Eskandari] who helps the young girl. 

MT: I was looking for the lady for this film, and I kept questioning my friends and colleagues, searching for the right person. Finally I found this lady among my friends, the mother of one of my filmmaker friends. She was 75, she was really short, and she was grumpy. But she was lovely. The recording mike was in her bag in the long shot scenes, and I was directing her asking her to go from here to there, and she didn’t know that we could hear her, and she was grumpy and was cursing us, and we were recording: “Oh this is so cold, these creatures are keeping me standing here for ages.” After the filming was over she was approaching us saying “Oh you’re so kind, thank you so much, this was a very pleasant experience.”

AUDIENCE: The most poignant scenes are between women, in domestic affairs, shopping, cooking, looking after children. Were you very conscious about wanting to give voice to the female experience in Iran, in the film?

MT: You’re right, in this film, in THE BOOT, and another film of mine called THE WALL. In the early 1990’s I made a series for Iranian national TV called Primrose Flower, which was about a young teenage girl and her suffering after the war. I was paying more attention to children and women because during the war and under the recent sanctions, they are the first to get affected by the social and political situation.

AUDIENCE: In your portrayal of women in this film, I was able to feel very much what it was like to be a woman and a child, a female in Iran. These women have very little say, they have to ask their husbands for money, they have to beg for things. This little child still really can’t play, it’s a very harsh society from our point of view, and I thought the way you depicted these women and their dignity was very moving.

MT: I agree with you, and the term “dignity” really applies here, and I have many friends on Facebook so every time I put a picture of one of my films on my Facebook wall my friends comment and use the same term that you just used, “dignity”. There are these kind, gentle souls in my films who help each other all the time, and I’m surprised, because I’m not a dignified person myself. When I was a kid, I was a really rough kid. I was a naughty boy, but on Facebook people call me a man with dignity. I’m reaching the end of my rope and humanism is my answer to everything now. When I was younger, when I was a student, I was more interested in the leftist ideologies, but now I am retired, I am retired to humanism. I just love people. Sometimes I even feel that I am ready to sacrifice myself for the love of other people. Because people change, and it happens that you enter certain periods in history where people are not kind to each other any more, like now in Iran. Because of the sanctions life is more difficult, and because of that people’s reactions, people’s emotions are different. Now it happens that there are scenes of extreme violence on the streets in Iran, and nobody reacts to that. I remember I saw a scene on TV from the 2011 riots in London where someone was injured and someone else was trying to steal his mobile phone from his backpack, so it will happen everywhere. But the bottom line for me is humanism, and I’m interested in human beings.

AUDIENCE: Could you speak a bit about the experience as a filmmaker showing your films in Iran compared to coming over to Britain and showing them?

MT: I’m really amazed by such enthusiastic reaction to my films here, it’s been the case with my film in any other country that I’ve been to. Iran is not an exception, but probably in Iran people are more interested in films with stars and good stories, more Hollywood-Iranian style films.

I’m a shy and silent filmmaker, I never give any manifesto, I never participate in demonstrations, and I never engage in political activities. I was almost forgotten till I came here. I was asking myself: you have made all these films, and nobody is seeing you anywhere, nobody knows about you. And suddenly Mark Cousins came into the picture. And yesterday I saw in The Guardian the critic, Peter Bradshaw, has given five stars to my film. So I’m not totally forgotten, no hurries, they are going to see my films, I was telling this to myself for 57 years.

AUDIENCE: What’s happened with the little girl now, do you follow up your young actresses?

MT: She’s grown up now, she’s 20-something, she’s still living with that overcrowded family, and she’s living a very difficult life. She’s jobless – it’s a big problem in Iran, being jobless. She found me again on Facebook and now she’s calling me on the phone, asking me what can I do. Recently she asked me to help her financially so she could do sculpting and then sell her artwork. I’m not good myself financially speaking, and I’m sure soon I will be able to help her. It’s so sad that many of the children in my films now, if you get in touch with them, are suffering from the same problem.

BAG OF RICE screens on Thursday 14 August at 7pm, at Saffron Screen, our favourite not-for-profit community cinema based at Saffron Walden County High School, Saffron Walden, Essex , CB11 4UH.

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