In the Darkness of the Cinema, Far from Public View
I think I was ten or twelve years old when I saw Ben Hur. At that age, the scenes of chariot-racing and the valley of lepers in the film created emotions that I’d never experienced before. In those days, I must have had a rather different outlook on film, without any artistic or political pre-judgment and devoid of theoretical or intellectual bias. I was lucky to have this miracle repeated. I could have bought another ticket, gone in and seen once again, the power of this miracle. Such miracles had taken place before - the parting of the sea in The Ten Commandments…this story began with the American cinema.
Sometimes, I wish I could face the world with the heart and soul of my childhood. A time that had to pass one way or another, and I had to grow up. Eventually, the days of waiting for my elder brother to take me to the cinema, came to an end. So without father’s permission and away from his concerned gaze, since he didn’t approve of my going to the cinema alone-or watching mindless films- I would watch anything at hand. I would buy a 15 Rials ticket, and though I loved sitting close to the screen, I’d get a strange sense of pleasure from tricking the adults and sneaking into the 25 Rials section-more away from the screen-. It was during all this that I realized there is some distinction between the films of Shahreh Ghesseh Cinema or Takhteh Jamshid and the other movie theaters on Shah Reza Street.
I was now 15 or 16 – and with some James Dean”ian” attitudes - skipping class to see 3 or 4 films a week - a time when Alain Delon and Charles Bronson were at the top and…I finally left home and my last two years of high school were spent trying to conjure up excuses for the supervisors and teachers in order to get permission and make it to the Tehran Film Festival, since it always coincided with the first term exams. Preparing for the algebra exam while in line for Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women, got me a 3 (out of 20) on the exam. In the process of becoming independent and growing taller, that transitional event -or the event arising from a transition- took place: smoking. I was still wet behind the ears and the people on the street couldn’t stand my smoking (or maybe I couldn’t stand their gaze) and the cinema with its darkness gave me the gift of freedom. It was then that I discovered that there are two categories of films: films with predictable subject and form and films that are unpredictable. And I also discovered that most of the films in the latter category were European.
One cold winter day, I had to wake up at 6:30 a.m., get on three buses, get off, get myself to the Boulevard Cinema somewhere around 8:00 a.m. to get a ticket for the film with a single matinee show at 9:00 a.m.* …to discover Blow Up. With the experience of American epic films, mysteries, westerns, crime movies…, I had a feeling that characters in these kinds of films are not really found in reality. It was with Blow Up that I felt: “This is the real world.” And even if it weren’t, I knew that world better and I liked it better, and I still do. I saved up some money and bought a photographic camera, but no matter how much I looked around in parks, I wasn’t able to find any dead bodies. I tried hard to imagine the neighborhood kids’ soccer game without a ball. What had started out with American cinema, preceded with European Cinema.
I got my high school certificate (only to loose it two years later) and I was looking forward to the days the Tehran Film Festival would not coincide with the first term exams. My school was over but the festival did not take place. There was a revolution. The movie theaters burned down. The Iranian cinema, which was struggling to survive, finally collapsed. My hopes of working in the field of cinema were shattered. I became a photographer. Sometimes I would take my photos to Amir Naderi, asking for his opinion. He wanted to make The Runner. I pressed him to give me the script, and I read it. “Could this actually be made into a good film?…A bunch of kids who are constantly running!” But I did not let my feelings be known to him and with some persistence; I finally became his stills photographer.
The fire and ice scene, which takes up a little more than half a page in the script, took a week to film and another week to edit. When I saw the film, once again, I felt that ‘Ben Hurian/ Blown Up feeling. But this time, having been involved behind the scene, the world on the screen had become more comprehensible, more valuable and even dearer to me. Through The Runner, I came to know the difference between film and script and then… Water Wind Dust came along and took me to its own stormy territory. This time I could experience the whole process of filmmaking, from researching and location scouting, all the way to editing. I lived in and with Water Wind Dust for 8 months. During the editing, while working on the last seven or eight minutes of the film, I noticed that sometimes by adding or cutting-only- two frames, the problem was fixed. That’s when I realized the difference between edited and unedited materials.
Four years ago, I left Zabol for Sydney. What I’d read about cinema in magazines like Movie Star, Film and Art, Cinema ‘73-’79 and Film Monthly, were before my eyes. I came to know who my favorite mentors are, who my friends are - Wenders, Ozu, Bresson, Bunuel, Antonioni and Tarkovsky. And new names: Jim Jarmusch, Henry Jaglom, Denys Arcand, Aki Kaurismaki… Filmmakers whose films don’t intend to sell T-shirts, cigarettes, beverages, cars, and glasses. Their main concerns are the questions of humanity… And this is the quality that has made Iranian cinema interesting and attractive today. Western audience is tired of big-budget films, violent scenes, and car crashes and with Iranian cinema; they are able to arrive at a certain serenity, which their own films deprive them of…
…Now, at 30, I know that if I have a child of my own, like my father, I will not allow him/her to watch Hollywood style films. And since I won’t be able to stop him- which most likely will be the case- I will accompany him/her to the cinema and endure the misery of sitting through such films and explain why they are not real cinema and why they deceive…and if through some event, (s)he should want to smoke, though I myself have quit, I shall buy him a pack of cigarettes and smoke one with her/him - far from public view, in the liberating darkness of the cinema. **
*Cinema Boulevard was rather small, almost rundown theater which during the Shah’s time used to screen old artistic, political and cult films, only for one session at 9.00 am on Fridays-which is like Iranian Sunday morning-
** Those days one could smoke inside the theaters in Iran.