Amir Ganjavie On Challenging Moral Taboos And Censorship In Pendulum
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
By: Patrick Roy
Mostafa Azizi and Amir Ganjavie are two of the most active and well-known figures of Iranian cinema in Canada. Azizi has made several popular and important television shows in Iran and is also a political activist who was once prisoned for a year after being charged insulting the supreme leader of Iran, an ordeal which was extremely harmful to his health, causing him to contract shingles. Ganjavie holds a PhD in cinema from York University, where his doctoral dissertation focused on contemporary American movies and utopianism, and his research studies on different aspects of Iranian cinema have been published in both English and Persian. He has also contributed to several film journals and magazines such as MovieMaker, Mubi, Senses of Cinema, and Film Comment. Pendulum is the first collaboration between Azizi and Ganjavie, who co-wrote and co-directed the film. The film tells the story of an Iranian couple and their disagreements and problems in Canada. It is free of any kind of self-censorship or restrictions and was shot and produced with an Iranian cast in Toronto. It is an honest film in which everyone expressed their opinions without fear of the consequences for the words that flowed out of their mouths. Well received by general public at the 5th edition of Cyrus International Film Festival, Pendulum will soon be screened in Canada and we marked this occasion by interviewing Ganjavie about the film.
Phoenix Journal (PJ): Pendulum is an Iranian film completely free of restraints and self-censorship. Was it easy to make?
Amir Ganjavie (AG): When I first thought about making a film in Canada, I promised myself that I would follow Canadian standards and criteria since it was not going to be distributed and screened in Iran. I have a close connection with my friends who work in the Iranian film business and I invited many of them to Canada for reviewing sessions. There were also people whose opinions and ideas I never liked but I invited them too because they are loved by most Iranians who are interested in cinema. I respect all of their films and their opinions because I believe that there are aspects of their works which are worthy of consideration but which I might not have noticed before. I’m deeply interested in philosophy and have read numerous philosophical texts. I consider John Stuart Mill to be the most outstanding political thinker and something important that I learned from his writings is that you should respect other people’s opinions under any circumstances. You should give them a chance to express themselves even if you don’t agree with them.
The only way to co-exist is to resort to democratic thinking. One can see this in a free, pluralistic society such as Canada. Unfortunately, everything is considered political in Iran today, and everybody is considered to be either black or white in their views, a situation which has become even more extreme in recent years. Labeling people has become increasingly normal in our culture today and when someone succeeds in whatever they are doing we try to destroy their life and reputation, often by accusing them of different things. I personally don’t like this way of thinking because I’m one of those people who believe that good art cannot be created with censorship. Artists must have complete freedom to express themselves. That’s why I tried not to think about the censorship system in Iranian cinema when we started making Pendulum, and I focused on how this story is about an Iranian couple who immigrated to Canada and are living here and, just like other human beings, they enjoy food, sex, and socializing.
(PJ): Most filmmakers begin their careers by making short films before moving on to their debut feature film but you started by making a feature film. What inspired you to do that?
(AG): I’ve been interested in cinema since I was a little boy and I remember having a great collection of films in Kerman, Iran despite the difficulty of acquiring them. Participating in film criticism sessions has also always been a major part of my life. These experiences led me to have a good knowledge of cinema, which I built upon through my PhD studies related to cinema as well as writing for different English-language film journals and magazines. I don’t think that any other Iranian has had as many interviews as I have with directors at the film festivals around the world. I’ve had more than 200 conversations with the best filmmakers in the world and each of them taught me something different. During these interviews, I realized that having an original idea and vision is more important in cinema than having experience with making films. You need to have a vision and an idea to make a unique film, and one cannot achieve this by simply working in the film industry every day. On the other hand, I worked with a professional team to make this film. I told myself that I’m working with a professional team and if there is something that I don’t know then I can always ask the crew members and use their knowledge and expertise. That’s what I did and it worked. I’m pleased that I had the opportunity to work with talented, professional people such as Mostafa Azizi, Keyhan Mortazavi, Nezam Kiaei, and Shahryar Asadi. Special thanks are also due to Hooman Shiraz, who stood by my side like a brother and gave everything to make this film happen.
(PJ): How difficult was it to secure the budget for the film?
(AG): I provided the majority of the budget for Pendulum myself. Because of my love for cinema, I decided to use my own savings from the past few years to make this film. Also, the great thing that we did with this film was to save money anywhere we could. Although the film looks great, we made it with a budget that might make you laugh if I tell you. Whenever I tell people our budget they look at me puzzled and surprised and they praise the quality of our work.
(PJ): What is your current situation when it comes to financing films?
(AG): It has become a whole lot easier to make my next film since many people have expressed interest in financing various projects. The only problem with making films outside of Iran is that people do not have experience with financing films. You have to understand that the film market there, is completely different. It has its own complications and you shouldn’t compare it with investing in houses or having a job like working in an exchange office. Let me give you an example. Although the economy has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, it hasn’t had much of an effect on the film industry. It’s true that most people do not go to the cinema to see films now but more people are staying home with a lot of free time on their hands so they resort to watching films. That’s why the market for films on streaming platforms is rising, and the business is booming!
Winning or losing is totally different here and it has different meanings. Entering the world of filmmaking would be a completely different experience the likes of which cannot be found elsewhere. When you enter the film market, you have the opportunity to go to luxurious parties and meetings that would otherwise be impossible to access. The world of cinema is the world of glamour and glitter and it’s all about being seen. Mohammad Rasoulof’s film was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival tonight. The film’s investor was in Berlin and he was bursting with joy. For one night, the world of cinema will be talking about Iran. Overall, we are living in a good era for cinema and the success of the South Korean film Parasite at the Academy Awards is turning more heads toward non-American films so the success rate of these films has increased significantly. We’ve also seen Yalda winning an award at the Sundance Film Festival. Films like that and There Is No Evil winning awards at these festivals can be a great sign for Iranian cinema in the world. With the launch of the Disney Plus streaming platform there is now fierce competition between Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. All of these platforms are looking for new, original content and they’re buying many films every week.
(PJ): You co-wrote and co-directed Pendulum with Mostafa Azizi. How did you manage to do it?
(AG): Mostafa Azizi has had several years of experience in cinema and he has made several important television shows in Iran. He is also a renowned political activist who was once sent to Evin Prison for insulting the supreme leader of Iran. Working with him was really pleasant and he taught me many things about cinema. His political views made it possible for us to show the complexities of all the characters in the film. When I missed something or needed help, he was there to support me. Naturally, working as a team has its challenges, especially when a film has two directors. We had our disagreements but we always tried to talk it over and resolve the issues. One of Mostafa’s greatest traits is his willingness to talk. We tried to talk about these challenges and reach a middle ground. Sometimes we had big disagreements and would not talk to each other for a couple of days but we always tried to be reasonable. When the time came to shoot the film, we had resolved all of our differences and these challenges had no effect on the process of shooting the film.
(PJ): Almost all of the main roles in the film are played by Iranian actors. It must be difficult to find Iranian actors in Canada. What was the casting process like?
(AG): One of the biggest problems that you face when making an Iranian film in Canada is that you cannot find good professional actors. We needed good actors for our film because it was important for us that they could express their emotions perfectly. I’m glad that we managed to find professionals with great potential and then we also dedicated a lot of time to rehearing and preparing them for the film. We used the experiences of our friends and they rehearsed with our cast. We particularly tried to find actors who were similar to their roles because that made it easier for them to understand their characters. This process helped us to shoot the film faster and better. After all, I’m really satisfied with our cast, and the result is terrific.
(PJ): What lessons did you learn from making this film?
(AG): We learned that if we work as a team, believe in ourselves, and have a goal in our minds then the chances of succeeding are really high, even with all of the problems that we faced along the way. I think one of the things that made this film possible was having self-confidence and knowing that we could do a big project such as making a feature film. We have to approach filmmaking with a positive attitude.
(PJ): Are you working on your next project?
(AG): Yes, I just finished writing a screenplay and I’m currently working on a new idea. Both projects will be developed this year.