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Interview With Mamad Haghighat - Reflections On Modern Iranian Cinema (Part 1)

Updated: Sep 14, 2020



Mamad Haghighat is not an unknown personality in Iranian artistic and cinematic circles. His stellar record as a filmmaker and liaison between Iran and France cinemas is well-documented. It is with utmost pleasure to get a chance to interview him and getting the chance to ask him to reflect on his career as a filmmaker, critic and cultural bridge between two cinematic culture and difficulties that he has faced to further this noble artistic goal. As watching a classic film, I hope the readers will enjoy his impeccable and passionate responses and contributions.


Amir Ganjavie, Phoenix Journal (AG): I want to know about the time when you first entered the world of cinema, which film or filmmaker made you interested in being involved with the cinema of Iran? If it is possible, talk about your first encounter with cinema.


Mamad Haghighat (MH): I was in high school when one of my friends who was also one of my relatives, took me to a movie theatre for the first time. It was a horror film, and I thought that “I will never set my foot inside a movie theatre again”. But I was tempted later and continued going to the movies, and it was always interesting for me to see what is behind the screen. I was really young back then, and they showed these films in an open theatre and I would go behind the big screen to see where these actors are. It was out of curiosity and naughtiness, of course. But this went on until one day I started reading film magazines that were published back then, such as Film-o-Honar, Setare-ye Cinema and etc. At first, I wanted to be an actor, because that was the era of Fardin (Iranian superstar), and everybody loved that kind of movies, like Ganj-e Qarun. When I got a bit older, I thought it would be better if I forget about appearing in front of the camera, and just work behind the camera, as a director, a writer and etc. That is why I started studying. In those high school years, one of our friends had an 8mm camera, and they only used this type of cameras for picnics or wedding receptions back then; but my friends and I decided to make a narrative film with that 8mm camera in Isfahan. We wrote a scenario and made the film. The footage was damaged but we didn’t give up, and this continued until we found other friends and we started an 8mm film club in Isfahan. Time passed until I worked as a director assistant in a TV show in Isfahan which was made by Mr. Akbar Khajouei, and simultaneously, I started making short films on 8 mm, and we started a club with help from our friends. That 8 mm club was expanding, and Zavon Ghookasian also joined our club. Then we started a national short film festival in Isfahan. We also had a CineClub in Isfahan and on Fridays, around 8 or 9 in the morning when stores and businesses were closed, we rented the movie theatre, and screened 35 mm films that we got from Tehran. Some of these foreign films had no subtitles. It went on until I bought a book titled The Liveliest Art: A Panoramic History of the Movies by Arthur Knight, translated into Persian by Najaf Daryabandari. I was tempted by this book and wanted to know everything about the films that were mentioned in the book, like what they are and where I can find them. It was practically impossible to get them in Iran. Like the films of Griffith, Murnau, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and many more. While I was reading those film magazines, I read about a place in France called Cinémathèque Française in which they screened films every day, followed by a discussion about the films that were screened, and you could see all of these films in that place. Therefore, I saved up my money and got in airplane went to France with the address of the Cinémathèque in my pocket in 1977. I didn’t know anyone in France, and I couldn’t speak French or English and I didn’t know the places in Paris, I only had the address for the Cinémathèque. I would go to the Cinémathèque each day but I couldn’t speak or understand French. An employee working at the hotel in which I was staying gave me the address for Alliance Française so I could learn French. From that day on, I went to my language classes in the morning and to the Cinémathèque in the afternoon. I also bought a small notebook in which I wrote things about the films screened at the Cinémathèque. Like what film it was, who was stealing materials or techniques from whom, and which filmmaker was influenced by the other ones and things like that.


One day I thought it is strange that they don’t screen anything from the cinema of Iran, and I thought to myself that I must go and see them and tell them that we have great filmmakers in Iran, such as Shahid Sales, Mehrjui, Beyzai, Hatami, Naderi, Taghvai, and others who make great films, but why they do not screen these films? I couldn’t speak French fluently at that time, so I went there with one of my Iranian friends who could speak French, and finally after so many attempts and waiting behind the closed doors for a long time, I managed to get them to schedule a meeting and I went there to meet Ms. Mary Meerson, who used to be Henri Langlois’ wife and after his death she ran the Cinémathèque. Finally, I asked her why they don’t screen Iranian films. She told me “go and find some proof about what these films are, where we can find them, and what they are about.” I went looking here and there, and gathered everything I could about the cinema of Iran in the French press, and copied them and gave them the copies. They gradually became interested, and I started finding some of these films in those years, so they could show them at Cinémathèque. In the years before the revolution, Mr. Farrokh Ghafari had given some films to Henri Langlois. Around the time of the revolution, I tried to encourage them to hold an retrospective event for the cinema of Iran but unfortunately, it did not happen. Then the revolution happened, and we had a Sohrab Shahid Sales retrospective event around that time, which coincided with the Nourouz of the first year after the revolution, and Shahid Sales came to Paris, and Cinémathèque paid for his trip.


Hooman Razavi, Phoenix Journal (HR): When you went to France, how familiar you were with the French New Wave, and how much you were influenced by them? Influenced by the atmosphere of May 68 and those years.


MH: I came to France in 1977 and May 68 happened way before that.


HR: Did that cinematic culture influence you? Did you manage to easily expand your network of connections? You mentioned that woman, but was it easy or difficult?


MH: Naturally, it was difficult without being able to speak French, but I had seen some of the films belonging to the French New Wave in the French Consulate in Isfahan. Although these films were exclusive for students who were learning French and paying tuition fees, but we managed to sneak in and see these films without paying anything, but we could only make a visual connection with those films because we could not understand the language. After I came to France, cinema as a whole was important for me. I mean, my priority was to watch the important films in the history of cinema from 1900 onwards. The French New Wave was a part of that naturally, and it was really fascinating. I tried to get to know various French people who came there night and day to watch films. It was difficult at first, but I got better at it step by step. At that time, the influence of the French cinema on other films and filmmakers were really significant.


HR: Following what you said, how did you get into working with the Cannes Film Festival? It would be great if you could talk about how you were selected as the Festival’s representative to select films from Iran.


MH: Back in Iran, I used to read magazines like Cinema 1353, Film-o-Honar, and similar film magazines, and there were people like Hajir Darioush, Moazzi Moghadam, Reypour and others who used to go to the Cannes Film Festival and write about films. So I was aware that an important film festival exists in France. You couldn’t find anyone who loved cinema and hadn’t heard about Cannes and hadn’t realized how important it is to cinema. In my first year in France, I tried to go to Cannes but it was financially impossible for me until I met the presidents of the Festival of the Three Continents, held in Nantes, who used to come to Cinémathèque quite frequently. One year they thought about starting their own festival, and our friend Alain asked me “Mamad, do you know any good Iranian films to put in the main section of the first edition of our festival?” and I recommended The Crow by Bahram Beyzai. As it was their first edition of the festival, it didn’t matter that a year had passed since the release of the film. It was in 1979 when I first went to a film festival in France, and Mr. Beyzai himself came to France and we went there, and from that year on, I started working with this festival. I recommended the film The Search by Amir Naderi the year after that. Then I met Mr. Pierre Rissient during the time I was going to the Cinémathèque in Paris. Mr. Pierre Rissient was one of the most important figures in the team behind the Cannes Film Festival back then, and he loved the world of cinema, and he was one of the few people who knew it really well. He started talking to me about the Cannes Film Festival. Time passed until I went to the Cannes for the first time in 1981, as a counselor for a film in which I had collaborated, titled In Defence of the People directed by Rafigh Pouya. In the following years, I started going to the Cannes Film Festival each year as a film enthusiast until one day Mr. Pierre Rissient introduced me to Mr. Gilles Jacob, the director of the festival, and told him “This Mamad has introduced the cinema of Iran to France and he also writes about films”. Back then, I had started writing about the festivals I went to, and also wrote pieces on the films I had seen. I had met many people from the French cinema. I must add that after the revolution, I was the first person to hold an Iranian film festival outside of Iran, which was started in the March of 1983 at the Rivoli Beaubourg in Paris, and then in 1985 we moved to the Utopia Cinema. That is how those who were active in the French cinema gradually got to know me and it turned into a two-way connection. First, we recommended the film In the Alleys of Love by Khosrow Sinai to be screened with subtitles, and then I recommended the films of Kiarostami. In October 1991, we went to Gilles Jacob’s office with Mr. Pierre Rissient and Mr. Kiarostami to introduce Mr. Kiarostami and say that he is completing his new film Life, and Nothing More... It was then that Mr. Gilles Jacob gave me an official letter and said to me “you will be our representative. Travel to Tehran during the Fajr Film Festival and select the best films you can find and bring them to us”. Obviously, these were early selections, as there were other people who travelled to other countries, like Japan or South America, as representatives of the Cannes Film Festival to make early selections. But the final selections were decided by Mr. Gilles Jacob himself.


HR: I don’t know if it’s true or not but at that time, before the revolution, the embassy of Iran in France or Fereydoun Hoveyda himself seemed to be a film enthusiast. Didn’t they do anything to promote the culture and cinema of Iran? I mean if you were alone when you first went there and started introducing these films to the French audience?


MH: As far as I know, he didn’t do anything for the cinema of Iran. Only Mr. Pierre-Henri Deleau would go to Tehran, because he knew Mr. Hajir Darioush, the president of the Tehran Film Festival before the revolution. He once selected Mehrjui’s The Postman and then Farmanara’s Prince Ehtejab for the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, which he himself managed. That is why Mr. Pierre-Henri Deleau was the representative of the Tehran Film Festival outside of Iran, and he found films he deemed interesting, and sent them to Hajir Darioush to put them in the lineup for the Tehran Film Festival.


AG: I believe this process was controlled by governments for years, meaning that governments selected and sent films to festivals like Cannes. After a period, the filmmakers could send their own films. As we mentioned, you played a significant role in this transition, from those early years up until recent years. I would like to know more about this process, and the difficulties one could face. The films you were trying to select, and your criteria for selecting films. I would appreciate it if you could talk more about these things.


MH: Cannes was similar to what the Oscars is today; governments would select one film, and they would send that film to the festival for yearly selections. For example, the Soviet Union would send one film that they considered to be good, Japan would do the same thing. That is until 1976 when Mr. Gilles Jacob presumably came and said “no, we won’t accept this. We won’t be forced to only see the films that governments send them to us. We will have our own selection committee, and we will decide for ourselves. Of course, governments can suggest a number of films but we will make the final decision”. Therefore, Mr. Gilles Jacob started this tradition at the Cannes. From that moment on, a selection committee, consisted of experts on cinema was formed; with the exception of the films in the Directors’ fortnight which were selected by Pierre-Henri Deleau, and the International Critics' Week. Now as for Iranian films, in the early years after the revolution, those who made the decisions at the festivals were not interested to accept films from Iran, and that had something to do with their politicized views and the negative image of Iran, and those anti-Iran footages that were shown in Western countries, and it had a negative effect on the cinema of Iran as well. Until 1985, about five or six years after the revolution, 90 percent of films made in Iran were propaganda that were made to glorify the policies of the Islamic Republic, of course, one could find one or two films among them that were aesthetically and visually acceptable. This went on until the release of The Runner by Amir Naderi. Although the film was financed and produced by the ‘Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adult’, which was a cultural organization that belonged to the government, but Naderi was an independent filmmaker, and he made The Runner which turned to be a timeless gem. This film was first sent to the Venice Film Festival where it was shown in once or twice in a non-competitive section of the festival. Then Mr. Ashtiani brought the film to Paris, I watched it and enthusiastically recommended the film to the Festival of Three Continents in Nantes, and they put the film in the main section of the festival where it won the main award in the 1985 edition of the festival. After that year, the cinema of Iran started to presents itself in the international scene, because many representatives from European countries had come to the festival and had seen the film and the award it received. We sold the film to the Utopia Company and it received critical acclaim from French critics when it was released in the theatres. This went on until the year 1990 when the cinema of Iran gradually rose to fame. In the years from 1980 to 1990, I started selling some of these Iranian films to French distributors, and France became the first country to buy, distribute and screen Iranian films after the Islamic revolution.


HM: Now that you mentioned, I wanted to ask you about the period from 1980 to 1990 in which you tried really hard to introduce the Cinema of Iran to the world, and this connection happened but there were not many other people like you. I mean people like you who were interested in art, and could work in parallel with you. It was mostly collaborations.


MH: No. In those years, Iran’s government sent films to the Cannes, but when they wanted to see the films, they would call me to be present in those sessions. I would say what I thought of the film, and the officials would discuss the film with the selection committee to see whether they would accept or reject the films, but the films that were sent by the government would usually get rejected by the committee.


AG: Since you had an important role in introducing filmmakers such as Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and Ghobadi, I would appreciate it if you could talk about how you were introduced to these filmmakers, how you recommended their films to festivals, how you collaborated with them, and if you could talk about your memories from festivals and the French cinema.


MH: Actually, I had seen Kiarostami’s works earlier, and I knew about them, and they were extraordinarily good. I followed his works from his early films like The Bread and Alley, until one day Mr. Ashtiani, as the representative for the cinema of Iran, brought us two films to Paris: Where Is My Friend's House? and Bahram Beyzai’s Maybe Some Other Time. Ashtiani himself had been one of the best film distributors in Iran for years. He had contributed to the Tehran Film Festival before the revolution, and he knew many giant French companies, and because he saw my passion for this job, he told me that “You go and see these films, I don’t have time, I must visit the production of Cat and Mouse which I’m producing in Czech”. I showed these two films to Mr. Jalladeau. Earlier, the Ballad of Tara by Bahram Beyzai had been selected to be screened out of the main competition at the Festival of Three Continents, and the same thing had happened with his The Crow, therefore, he knew Beyzai better, and they were really eager to put Mr. Beyzai’s film in the main competition, but the problem was that his film was too lengthy, and it couldn’t attract the attention of film distributors. In fact, Mr. Beyzai was in Paris at the time, and we had a meeting with the president of the festival and Mr. Beyzai. The president and I told Beyzai that it would be better to cut the film shorter but he did not accept it, and said; “No, I will not cut even one frame from the film. “You accept it as it is if you want, and if not, then don’t”. But he added later that “If the film is put in the main competition of the festival and then the distributors say that the film is too long, then I will do it”. Of course, I had insisted that Where is My Friend’s House? should be put in the main competition, instead of Maybe Some Other Time, but they put that film out of the competition, and it was screened in the last days of the festival, and that is why Where is My Friend’s House? did not receive the attention it deserved. Unfortunately, Beyzai’s film did not get pick up by the distributors because of its length. Kiarostami found his opportunity at the Locarno Film Festival the year after that, and won several awards, and it was bought by Mr. Marshal to be released in France. Since I had held several editions of the Iranian Film Festival at the Utopia cinema near the Sorbonne University, the film enthusiasts knew that location. So we only screened Mr. Kiarostami’s film at our cinema, which was on screen for five and six months, and French critics began to write several articles on Where is My Friend’s House? The film was released in France in March 1990, and it was the first time it was being released in the world. I had become the media manager for the film The Runner after it was released, and I did the same thing for Where is My Friend’s House?, and I would encourage the critics to go and see the film, and I continued doing that.


HR: What about Makhmalbaf?


MH: When I went to Tehran in 1990, I saw a few good films including Close-up by Kiarostami, and I met Mr. Kiarostami and got to know him better. I was so captivated by the film that I was genuinely surprised, and when the film ended, I cried in the bathroom for some time. All I wanted to do was to bring the film to France and show it to distributers so it could be put on the screens. Actually, one of the great French film critics named Mr. Serge Daney, who was the editor-in-chief at Cahiers du cinéma, was with us in our trip to Tehran, and he was also crazy about the film, crazy about this film and Homework, and we had plans to bring both of these films to France, whatever it would take. And it happened. Three films by Kiarostami were sold together: Homework, The Traveler and Close-up, and a prestigious art film company named Films du Paradoxe bought these three films. Around that time, there was a retrospective event for the films of Kiarostami outside of Iran at the Dunkirk Festival, and we collaborated with the festival. Those three films by Kiarostami were screened at Utopia, and all of a sudden, everybody in France loved Kiarostomi, and the news reached the Cannes Film Festival, and the path to Cannes was made possible. We watched Kiarostami’s next film And Life Goes On, which was initially titled Life and Nothing More, in Tehran and I called Gilles Jacob immediately to tell him about the film. This was the first time that a film by Mr. Kiarostami was placed in the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival as it was selected for the Un Certain Regard and it was shown in the opening day of the festival in 1992. All of a sudden, it received critical acclaim and it won the main award, alongside with another award named The Rossellini Award at Cannes. Now film festivals around the world turned their eyes towards the cinema of Iran. Makhmalbaf had a role in Close-up . Makhmalbaf was beginning to rise at the time and I had already screened two of his films at our festival in Paris; Boycott and The Peddler. These two films showed that he is a talented filmmaker even though several groups who were against the Islamic republic, such as Mujahedins, Fedai Guerrillas or fans of the Shah, stood in front of our movie theatre, saying that “he is a Hezbollahi director, and you receive money from the embassy to show these films” and I said: “No, that’s not true” because I knew that we didn’t do such a thing. They wanted to start a riot in front of our movie theatre and they kept saying “Why do you work with Hezbollah?” and the funny thing was that they even called us from the embassy of Iran in France and said: “Where did you get these films? Who gave you the right to do it? Why are you trying to discredit Iran?” .They weren’t aware that they made these films in Iran, and they had already released the film in Iran, and it had competed at the film festival in Tehran and their own Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had allowed them to do all of this. The person who had called us from the embassy didn’t know what is what. So we were attacked by both sides. But I personally believed that these films were really good, and believed that if a director used to follow a certain ideology, he can change and we can’t keep saying that because he was different before, he does not have the right to make progress and change. That was the reason for our struggles with Mojahedin and fans of Shah during our festival in Paris. A couple of years later, they had gotten used to it. They saw the films, and they even congratulate us for screening those films. By that time, I became familiar with Makhmalbaf’s films until one of those years when I travelled to Tehran as a representative of the Cannes Film Festival. I met him and got to know him better later at the Locarno Film festival, where he also told me that he is going to make a film about film buffs. It was an interesting topic, and I told him that I would like to see the film as soon as it is finished. When the film was finished, I really liked it, and I had a few suggestions like to cut certain parts of it. I provided the subtitle for the film and sent it to the Cannes’ selection committee, and it was accepted for the Un Certain Regard section. He also had another film at that time, titled Time of Love, and I liked that one as well. Makhmalbaf had sent me its tape and told me to watch it. I watched the film, and I suggested a few changes in its subtitle to make the story more understandable and relatable to the western audience, and we gave it to the committee at Cannes, and as it happened, they accepted both films that year. It was in 1995, marking the 100th anniversary of the history of cinema. I need to mention that I had recommended Once Upon a Time, Cinema to Cannes, which was a magnificent film, but because its references and allusions were only to the history of Iranian Cinema and the social history of Iran, it did not make sense to the foreigners who did not know this cinema, its past, and the cultural and political background of Iran. The only way was to keep postponing the film for the selection committee, explain the references and why this and that happened.


AG: If you want to use your knowledge and experience to reach a conclusion on which elements made Iranian films to be interesting and appealing to festivals such as Cannes, what you think these reasons are? As you mentioned, there were all these references in Makhmalbaf’s films foreigners could not relate to. What elements could be found in other films such as the ones by Kiarostami and Amir Naderi that made them appealing to prestigious film festivals around the world?


MH: In the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, all media outlets in the West talked positively about Iran for about nine months. But after that period, their opinions about Ayatollah Khomeini and his policies gradually changed and this change in opinion was evident in television, radio and newspapers. I witnessed how the images of Iran reflected in the Western media became extremely negative. They only showed Iranian people who practiced Sangsar (Stoning), or those who were hanged in Iran. They only showed women with black chadors, and showed the conflicts, and the executions of those who sought freedom and etc. All of this painted an extremely negative picture of Iran and it was really difficult to take an Iranian film to a movie theatre in Paris and say “this is a great Iranian film”. Nobody was willing to come near these films. After a while, especially with the release of The Runner, some of the intellectuals and critics in France got interested to know what Iranians think about themselves. So they were curious. The second point was that the films we showed had no signs of blood and war and propaganda. They were films about the everyday life in Iran, like Where is My Friend’s House?, Bashu, the Little Stranger, The Runner and etc. Films that talked about friendship and kindness and helping one another. There was a kind of indirect poetic expression in this type of films. So curiosity about what Iranians say about their own daily lives, and the films being different were the reasons for the westerners showing interest to approach these films. There is also another important factor; most films that received wide critical acclaim here were the ones in which children played important roles. Children have an innocent expression and seeing them in these films were interesting for moviegoers of all types. Those movies were completely different from cinema in the west which was filled with action, blood and sex. All of this led Iranian films to be considered unique and different. From 1990 onwards, a few critics and presidents of film festivals, Europeans and then Asians and Americans, got interested to go to Iran and start discovering this cinema, and the Fajr Film Festival would invite them. These were the reasons for the popularity of Iranian films in the west.

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