• Ali Moosavi

Betrayal in England and Iran: An Interview with Duet’s writer-director, Navid Danesh

By: Ali Moosavi

Duet is a remarkable feature film debut by the young Iranian writer-director Navid Danesh. In it we have four main characters: Massoud, a successful architect, Sepideh, his wife, Hamed, Sepideh’s former close friend and musician in a duet, and Minoo, Hamed’d wife, who runs a musical academy. Danesh has given us only selected background of the characters’ past so that viewers can complete their own individual pictures. We know that Hamed and Sepideh used to be very close, perhaps lovers. Then Hamed left for France, it seems without informing Sepideh, perhaps to further his career as a musician. Now he has returned to Iran. In the intervening years both him and Sepideh have married. We don’t know the reasons for the marriages but do know that they have both married people who provided them a comfortable lifestyle. When Hamed hears from a mutual friend of him and Sepideh that she is visiting a bookshop to pickup some musical CDs that she ordered, Hamed decides to see her, with a view to offer her an explanation and bring about a reconciliation. This meeting puts in motion a chain of events which causes all four main characters to question the past and try to reconcile it with the present.

The film is composed of a series of duets, not of music but conversations. Between Minoo and Hamed, Sepideh and Hamed, Massoud and Sepideh, Massoud and Minoo. These conversations are probing and inquisitive in nature, designed to find out about the past events and how they relate to the present.

The structure of the piece and the format of the dialogue, which its menacing nature and pauses, reminded me of Harold Pinter, and particularly his play, Betrayal. Both pieces contain a scene in which the husband is “interrogating” his wife to determine her relationship with another man. The main difference is that in Betrayal, the husband is aware of the affair between his wife and his best friend, while in Duet, the husband suspects an affair, which in reality does not exist.

Perhaps unusually for a first feature film by a young director, Danesh has benefited from a very strong cast and crew, mostly veterans of Asghar Farhadi films. For the main roles, he has employed Ali Mosafa (The Past) as Massoud, Hediyeh Tehrani (Fireworks Wednesday) as Minoo, Negar Javaherian (Melbourne) as Sepideh and fellow writer-director Morteza Farshbaf (Avalanche) as Hamed. His crew is no less outstanding; cinematography is by Hossein Jafarian (The Salesman), Production Design by Keyvan Moghaddam (A Separation), Costume Design by Sara Samiee (The Salesman), music by Peyman Yazdanian (A Man of Integrity) and Editing by Hayedeh Safiyari (A Separation)

I talked to Navid Danesh about his feature film debut. Also, for comparison, I’ve put the dialogues from the “interrogation scenes” from both Betrayal (abridged) and Duet at the end of the interview.



Ali Moosavi, Phoenix Journal (PJ): Duet, was first made as a short film. How was the process of going from short to feature film?

Navid Danesh (ND): I took part in a screenwriting workshop in 2007, led by the veteran Iranian writer-director, Nasser Taghvaie. After that I joined a filmmaking workshop taught by Abbas Kiarostami. I made a short film there which Kiarostami liked and I carried on with attending further workshops by Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi and made a few short films, one of which was Duet. In 2013 Duet, though not selected for the Tehran Short Film Festival, was selected in the Cinefondation section of Cannes Film Festival. It had a very successful screening there which led to interest from a French production company in working with me to expand the film to a feature. However, they needed a couple of years to raise the necessary budget and I was also hesitant to take part in a co-production with a foreign company in my first feature film.



(PJ): The Duet feature film was completed in 2014 but not publicly screened till 2020. What happened?

(ND): After writing the script, I started shooting the film with some of the best cast and crew in the Iranian film industry. Though it was a tough shoot, we were all very optimistic about the final product. We were surprised when the completed film was turned down by Fajr Film Festival. And the film’s public screening was delayed year after year. Finally, a couple of years ago we found out that our producer hadn’t obtained the membership of the Producers Union, which was necessary for obtaining a screening permit. The cast and crew’s understanding and patience in this regard was truly laudable. They had channeled into their deepest emotions to portray their roles and were obviously very disappointed not to share with the audiences their reactions to their work. It was akin to a woman who has been six years in labour waiting for the birth of her child. The emotions that we went through waiting for the screening will always stay with us.

(PJ): For your first feature film you worked with the A-List and Who’s Who of Iranian Cinema. That was quite an achievement.

(ND): Initially I wanted to use the same cast and crew as the short film. However, a number of them were busy on other projects and I decided to start with a clean slate as regards cast and crew. Hediyeh Tehrani had not been in a film for four years but for Minoo’s role I could not envisage any other actress who could be as suited to that role. She read and liked the script. For the other roles, I arranged meetings with actors and actresses who I thought would be suitable for the main roles. These meetings also enabled them to become familiar with me and my way of film making and to see if they wished to work with me. It also gave me the opportunity to become familiar with the actors’ personalities and find a common link between them and the characters they were portraying.



(PJ): The form and structure of the dialogue in Duet, which are fill of menace and pauses and resemble an interrogation in some scenes, reminded me of Pinter’s plays and in particular Betrayal. Are you familiar with his works?

(ND): Unfortunately, I’ve not had the chance to ready any of Pinter’s plays. However, after your comments, I will make a note “Read Harold Pinter.” Your point about interrogation is correct and accurate. In addition to the dialogue, the set design and lighting were also designed to reinforce this idea.



(PJ): In both Betrayal and Duet, the interrogator is careful not to act rash and look undignified by asking very direct questions, which may seem insulting to his wife and adversely affect their relationship.

(ND): Yes, this is the core of the film and the main question it asks is what do we do with the past? Each of the characters deals with past in a different way and this difference in attitudes causes the drama and tension. However, all four main characters share one trait and that is their introvert nature. They are very careful in their behaviour, not engaging in verbal or physical confrontation. They shy away from baring their soul and highly emotional expressions. Even when in a state of high tension, they respect their spouses and refrain from any rash behaviour. For this reason, they pause frequently in their conversations in order to weigh up and contemplate what they are about to say. They want to both maintain their self respect and, at the same time, are careful not to say something offensive which would be difficult to recant.

(PJ): How was your experience of directing these experienced and famous actors?

(ND): This was my first experience of feature film making and I tried to follow exactly what I had in my mind. Right at the beginning I noticed that these actors were not comfortable with my method of directing. I remember vividly that one day one of the experienced actors pointed out to me that it seemed for me the camera is more important than the actors and I try to coordinate the actors and their acting with the mise-en-scene and the camera placement and movement, and this made the actors uncomfortable. My reply was that the camera in this film is not there just to record the images of the actors and their actions, but rather in each scene it enters into a distinctive connection with the actor, befitting the emotional content of the scene. It resembles a tango between the actor and the camera. A very close and continuous connection which is necessary to transfer the emotions flowing in the scene and the semantics of the film to the audience. Though in the beginning we had some difficulties, as we progressed and everybody got used to this methodology, the filming became much easier and faster.



(PJ): How did you find the editing process with Hayedeh Safiyari?

(ND): She started the editing process as we were shooting and I joined her after completion of the principle photography. In the first few days I was very disappointed with what we had filmed. The reality is that the editing suite can become a torture chamber for the director. In this room one sees all the weaknesses and shortcomings in one’s work and this can be a very painful and depressing process. Hayedeh Safiyari with her professionalism, tolerance and kindness made that room a safe haven for me. We progressed carefully and studiously, trying out different options, and in the end achieved a satisfactory outcome. The experience of working with her is one of my most enjoyable and memorable experiences in my working life.

In this scene from Betrayal, Robert and Emma are vacationing in Venice. Robert has gone to American Express to cash some travellers cheques and has noticed a letter from Jerry to Emma there. However, he has deliberately not picked it up in order to draw the “betrayal confession” from Emma’s tongue.


Robert

There was a letter there for you. They asked me if you were any relation and I said yes. So they asked me if I wanted to take it. I mean, they gave it to me. But I said no, I would leave it. Did you get it?

Emma

Yes

Robert

I suppose you popped in when you were out shopping yesterday evening?

Emma

That’s right

Robert

Oh well, I’m glad you got it. (Pause)

To be honest, I was amazed that they suggested I take it. It could never happen in England. But these Italians… so free and easy. I mean, just because my name is Downs and your name is Downs……..we could be…..total strangers. (Pause)

That’s what stopped me from taking it, by the way, and bringing to you, the thought that I could very easily be a total stranger.

Emma

(Pause) It was from Jerry.

Robert

Yes, I recognized the handwriting. (Pause) How is he?

Emma

Okay.

Robert

Good. And Judith?

Emma

Fine.

Robert

(Pause) What about the kids?

Emma

I don’t think he mentioned them.

Robert

They’re probably all right, then. If they were ill or something he’d have probably mentioned it. (Pause) Any other news?

Emma

No.

Silence.

Robert

Are you looking forward to Torcello? (Pause)

How many times we have been to Torcello? Twice. I remember how you loved it, the first time I took you there….. That was about ten years ago, wasn’t it? About…..six months after we were married. Yes. Do you remember? I wonder if you’ll like it as much tomorrow.

(Pause) What do you think of Jerry as a letter writer?

She laughs shortly.

You’re trembling. Are you cold?

Emma

No.

Robert

He used to write to me at one time. Long letters about Ford Madox Ford. I used to write to him too, come to think of it. Long letters about….oh, W.B. Yeats, I suppose. That was the time when we were both editors of poetry magazines. Him at Cambridge, ne at Oxford. Did you know that? We were bright young men. And close friends. Well, we still are close friends. All that was long before I met you. Long before he met you. I’ve been trying to remember when I introduced him to you. I simply can’t remember. I take it I did introduce him to you? Yes. But when? Can you remember?

Emma

No.

Robert

You can’t?

Emma

No.

Robert

How odd. (Pause) He wasn’t best man at our wedding, was he?

Emma

You know he was.

Robert

Ah yes. Well, that’s probably when I introduced him to you. (Pause) Was there any message for me, in his letter?

Emma

No message.

Robert

No message. Not even his love?

Emma

(Silence) We’re lovers.

In Duet, the “interrogation” takes place when Sepideh, who has become aware that the night before Masoud had been to the bookshop where she met Hamed and had been asking about them from a mutual friend of theirs, goes to see Masoud in his workplace. She tells Masoud that she did not tell him about meeting Hamed by accident last night. She adds that he was with his wife and they had a brief chat.

Masoud

So this is why you were upset last night?

Sepideh

I was upset?

Masoud

Weren’t you?

Sepideh

No, I wasn’t upset…Don’t know, maybe a bit tense! I’d not seen those guys after leaving Uni, wasn’t keen to see them

Masoud

Why?

Sepideh

Don’t know. Didn’t like them much. Didn’t want to hang around with them after Uni.

Masoud

So why did you go there to place your order?

Sepideh

I had told you why (Pause) What’s the matter Masoud?

(Long silence…Both are deep in thought)

Masoud

How was your relationship?

Sepideh

(Pause) Didn’t I tell you before?

Masoud

Yes, you did. You said you were acquainted. What does “acquainted” mean?

Sepideh

It means we knew each other. We were friends, classmates. Like you and Maedeh and Samira. But you guys are in touch now, you see each other…

Masoud

How did you become acquainted?

Sepideh

(Pause) How do people become acquainted in University?

Masoud

(Pause) Did he love you?

Sepideh

(Pause) Probably.

Masoud

(Pause) What about you?

Sepideh

What are you saying?

Masoud

(Pause) Did you love him? (Pause) Why did you breakup?

Sepideh

(Pause) Why are you doing this?

Masoud

What am I doing? I’m asking questions. I want to know. Don’t I have the right to know?

Sepideh

Do you realize what you’re saying? Do you know what you’re doing?

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