As part of our preparation for the film series “10 Days of Iranian Cinema”, we asked filmmaker Mohammadreza Farzad for an interview. We talked about his film “Falgoosh (Blames and Flames)”, the effects and after-effects of archival images and the relationship between society, cinema and television in Iran.

Mohammadreza Farzad © Maryam Saeedpour

Dear Mohammadreza Farzad, your film “Falgoosh” (2011) tells the Iranian revolution of 1978 of cinema and TV, and last but not least a story of the liberation of the film camera for the purpose of political activism. Please tell us about your approach in making the film.

Unfortunately, nowadays most documentary cinema invests more in peoples sensations, follows the steps of fiction films with character-driven, suspenseful storytelling, through a process of identification, chasing laughter and crying. But for me, documentary film enjoys the humanistic tradition of addressing the minds of people. In short, I dont like to be limited to documentation and sensation, and would like to make a film which elevates and transcends reality into the metaphoric and interpretative level. I dont like mere objectivism. To achieve this, I find nonfiction cinema a broader field for being visionary and contemplative, and I think that we should use any filmic device to provoke thinking. My film was characterised as an essay film, which is welcome and not out of context. Currently, I am interested in filmic expressions of essayistic, hybrid, art-house films more than anything else.

Filmstill: “Falgoosh” © Mohammadreza Farzad

Where did the idea derive from?

I had always heard about movie halls being burned down during the revolution of 1978, but there was no comprehensive study about it. So I just started to read and research and then I found that the concept was very close to me and my interest in reading images. From the beginning, I knew that, like in my film Into Thin Air” (2010), I really didn’t want to be investigative. I wanted to be factual, but not dig into finding the people behind the actions politically. Again, I wanted to tell the story of ordinary people. 

I Iove archival footage and again I secluded myself with huge amounts of archival material. While watching, I identified my own questions and like always, developed the idea by asking the pictures themselves. 

Excerpt: “Falgoosh” © Mohammadreza Farzad

Is it just a coincidence that you were born in the same year (1978)? 

I guess so. My first film started with this simple question: What happened in the month of my birth? And as you may know, September 1978 is one of the most significant dates of political history of Iran. Now, years later, I always ask my film students to write or make such pieces about their own year of birth. It is sad that we cannot make such films about the date of our death.

Filmstill: “Falgoosh” © Mohammadreza Farzad

You work with found footage film and photo material as well as excerpts from popular films and TV news. How did you come across the material? Did you search for it or did you discover it by accident?

Thanks to my producer, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the TV film archive. I got some material from the national archive as well. For photos, I went to the Ettelaat Newspaper, which is one of the biggest and most treacherous photo archives in my country. I got some materials from my friends. List of materials came out of my massive library and field research and it was highly targeted. However, miraculously I also found some unique things along the way. When I finalised my selection, I threw a great deal of it away. My criteria behind the selection of material is not just about being factual or relevant, I chose them based on aesthetic considerations too: textures, graphics, colour, tonalities, camera movements. I mostly like to have moody pictures.

This type of assembly very much deals with the effect and after-effect of cinematic images. What did you learn about the material while working on the film?

I found out that we dont have many social documentary films of those times that we could use to trace roots of any possible upcoming movements back then. There is no information about it. Most of them were propaganda films, archaeological and ethnographic films, which dont show the reality of Iranian society. So I decided to turn to feature films, to see how society was represented there. It was very tough, but I found some traces. Now I believe more in home films and videos of ordinary people. I mean I believe more in unofficial archival materials, they are more immediate and honest. And documentary films have a greater chance of surviving with them. There is a lot of clouding and confusion in films made by professional filmmakers.

Filmstill: “Falgoosh” © Mohammadreza Farzad

How much does the state of cinema say about a country? Is the story about the destruction of Iranian cinemas in 1978 an isolated case or can you find evidence of a strong connection between cinema and social and political change in other countries, too? How would you describe the relationship between society and cinema or television in Iran today?

One might say that art and cinema are mirrors of reality, but it would be better to say that they are mirrors of the subjective minds of their creators. These minds get their content from where they are living. We can say that at least some elements of cinema have a more direct and objective connection with reality and claim to be a mirror to society. Surely any kind of representation of society can tell (and maybe not tell) something about society. When we talk about cinema, first we should decide which kind of cinema we mean, Hollywood, indies, mainstream, arthouse, etc…

At any rate, I believe that in most cases, films tell us about people living in a society, no matter whether it is fiction or documentary. And surely, documentary cinema can tell us a lot. However, just see if you cant trace the recent violent killing of George Floyd in Hollywood cinema, or just consider our panic with the Covid-19 pandemic: Isn’t it very familiar, doesn’t it remind us of films we have seen? Cinema gives form to our fantasies, dreams and nightmares. It shapes our unconscious and our unconscious is activated when it is faced with an unknown situation. It is not just about my country: Cinema can convey signs and symptoms of lots of things, not just revolutions. I guess TV and cinema are now losing their monopoly and hegemony, since people cant find their true images there, now that the gap between them is widening. And in such moments, previously unseen people come to the stage to inject their image in films and TV; they will take their revenge on the official images. I think, like in most other countries, you can find more truth about them in social media and documentary films. Unfortunately, however, they must survive the fight against mainstream films and TV channels.

Let’s take a closer look at the chronology of the events again. Why were the first cinemas burned down just a few days after the general strike by the cinema operators, which also opened a broader debate about cinema in the country?

At the time, cinema operators announced a general strike in protest against the situation of cinemas. They wanted to increase the ticket price of national films and they were very angry about the large number of foreign films that were released in Iran, while our national cinema was in danger of bankruptcy. That is why they called a general strike. 

On the other hand, there was a lot of criticism about screening bad, soapy foreign films with lots of nudity, which went against the values of traditional society. Film critics, the general public and Islamist political movements, all of them criticised such films because of their content. Imam Khomeini also issued a harsh ban against watching such films. Leftists believed that such films promoted capitalistic values and they were against them for these reasons, but at the end of the day, it was the Islamists who invaded the cinemas and set them on fire, they were the aggressors. It was many years until they admitted this in their official interviews.

Filmstill: “Falgoosh” © Mohammadreza Farzad

In your film, it is said that Iranian cinema lost its innocence. What does this sentence mean to you?

Since many innocent people were killed in the Cinema Rex movie hall I just wanted to refer to the point that cinema might have been in a state of stricken conscience. 

The way out of cinema literally led to the streets and the protests suddenly started. Military law was enforced, massacres occurred. Meanwhile, TV stations showed “Laurel and Hardy”. Television failed its very mission. What went wrong?

It is a familiar story, we can see this even now. Many people are killed in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, in Africa – and no one cares, the entertainment industry and most TV channels just ignore it. Government powers suffocate their people with false or biased news, inflated information and entertainment. They just want to cloud the issues and keep the people in the dark, not let them see the truth. They just want to keep us “Comfortably numb” with entertainment.

Filmstill: “Falgoosh” © Mohammadreza Farzad

Isn’t it surprising that the fall of Iranian cinema made the journalistic weapon of the film camera possible in the first place? 

When films dont represent and show the people, people will not wait for films but rather make their own picture. You can see this in all the recent revolutions and social movements. Nowadays, cellphone cameras are doing it.

Can you describe the reactions to “Falgoosh”?

I never imagined its outreach. After many years, it is still being seen and curated by programmers; it is surely my most-seen films, particularly on international platforms. It has had more institutional and academic screenings than any other, and since it deals with cinema as a topic, film critics and festivals are still interested in showing it in their special programmes or Iranian cinema retrospectives.

What are you currently working on?

I am revising the first draft of a script for my debut feature film. It has a hybrid texture since there is a little archival footage, too. And Im developing the idea for a documentary film which is a tribute to archival footage; a German producer is also interested in getting involved in this project. I have made a new experimental documentary film, not released yet, and I am deciding when it should be premiered.

Thank you, Mohammadreza Farzad.

The film series “10 Days of Iranian Cinema” is available as part of our online programme “Berliner Festspiele on Demand” from 12 June, 14:00 – 21 June 2020, 13:59.