What is your award winning film, “Women Without Men,” particularly and generally about?
Women Without Men, is an adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s magical realist novel. The story follows the intertwining lives of four Iranian women during the summer of 1953, a cataclysmic moment in Iranian history when an American-led, British-backed coup d’état brought down the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstalled the Shah to power. Over the course of several days four women from disparate factions of Iranian society are brought together against the backdrop of political and social turmoil. Fakhri, a middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage must contend with her feelings for an old flame who has just returned from America and entered back into her life. Zarin, a young prostitute, tries to escape the devastating realization that she can no longer see the faces of men. Munis, a politically-awakened young woman, must resist the seclusion imposed on her by her brother, while her friend Faezeh remains oblivious to the turmoil in the streets and longs only to marry Munis’s domineering brother.
As the political turmoil swells in the streets of Tehran, each woman is liberated from her predicament. Munis becomes an active part of the political struggle by plunging to her death. Fakhri frees herself from the chains of her stagnant marriage by leaving her husband and purchasing a mystical orchard in the outskirts of the city. Faezeh is taken to the orchard by Munis to face her own awakened self where Zarin has found solace in her communion with the land. But it is only a matter of time before the world outside the walls of the orchard seep into the lives of these four women as their country’s history takes a tragic turn. The film draws parallels between the individual women and their country as they seek of freedom, independence, and democracy.
The images are simply ravishing. Who was the cinematographer and how did you work with him/her to achieve this visual poetry in your film? I consider the language of this film from beginning to end as visual poetry.
The director of photography was Martin Gschlacht, a rising star in Europe in the field of cinematography. We were brought to work together at the suggestion of the producers who were also European. I was at first a bit hesitant, since I was not familiar with Martin’s work, and in the past I had worked exclusively with Iranian cinematographers. I was doubtful that a non-Iranian cinematographer could capture the cultural intricacy of my country, particularly within a historical nature. To my surprise, Martin not only satisfied that cultural specificity of the narrative, he also brought his gift of extraordinary cinematography. Together with Martin we were able to align our artistic and aesthetic signatures into one strikingly visual form. Each frame of the film was carefully discussed and planned. Martin was meticulous perfectionist with the issues of composition and lighting. During the post-production stages in Berlin, we worked very closely together again, in color correction to achieve a certain drained, and antique look. Ultimately, I think Martin Gschlacht represents the younger generation of cinematographers who are willing to experiment with non-traditional films both in terms of script and the visual language of the film. We knew from the start that Women Without Men would be a film that its story is expressed primarily through visual imagery over other components. Martin later received several awards and nominations for his work on this film.
I consider the language of this film from beginning to end as visual poetry.
The lighting, the atmosphere, the composition are all exquisitely and meticulously appointed. What informed this poetic component in the movie?
I have to say that the credit for lighting goes entirely to Martin. One exquisite moment in the film was in the scene in the hammam (bathhouse) that was extremely difficult to light. Many have commented on how all of the various shots in this scene resembled the famous orientalist paintings of Jean-Leon Gerome.
I have to also mention that the production designers (an Iranian and an Austrian) were great assets as they were totally involved in the composition and visual look of the film. The challenge for these designers was to pay careful attention to the historical accuracy of the narrative; they were also making sets that were incredibly artistic and visual.
One of the production designers, Shahram Karimi, originally a painter, often mentions how he treated this film as he would a canvas: he simply painted it. If you recall the images from the brothel, Shahram personally himself hand-painted the walls to achieve a certain texture and also created every single each tableau or picture that was used in the background. Together with the choice of color, these elements represented spaces that were at once sensual and beautiful but also terribly melancholic.
When you mention ‘poetry,’ I consider the language of this film from beginning to end as visual poetry. Like a poet we essentially depended on the use of allegory and metaphor to tell our story. There were numerous concepts and scenes that were formulated on that basis: the simple road that connected the ‘city of Tehran’ to the ‘orchard;’ or the scene when Fakhri discovers Zarin’s body floating on the pond. This image was reminiscent of Ophelia: beautiful and serene but also terribly tragic.
Did you come prepared for the shoots or did you allow for unforeseen elements of surprises that you loved and kept as part of the movie?
Indeed making a long feature film is far more complex and it requires a lot more planning than making a short video. Any film production is generally an expensive undertaking, so every single shot has to be carefully calculated and timed. We faced many constraints and pressures of not being allowed to improvise on the spot, however, there were several times that we broke the rules and with a very willing cinematographer, I added some unanticipated shots and re-worked certain scenes.
Who do you owe the most debt to in the making of “Women without Men?”
I could not have made this film without my collaboration with Shoja Azari, who was involved in every step of the way from writing the script, to helping me direct, working with actors and finally in the post-production stages. Shoja comes from cinema background; therefore he had a lot more experience, but also there was an added advantage of having collaborated for many years. He had a good grasp of my conceptual and aesthetic style. Other than that, I owe the film to all people who worked tirelessly and to myself, for my endurance and surviving the endless list of obstacles and crisis that came our way.
Who are your favorite directors?
I admire many directors; some are masters such as: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Kiarostami, Carl Dryer, Orsen Wells, Kubric; then there are a few of more contemporary directors such as: Roy Anderson, Lars Van Trier, Wong Kar Wei, Elia Suleiman, Paul Thomas Anderson and many others.
Who are your top five actresses?
I thought the performance of Maggie Cheung in “In The Mood for Love” was extraordinary, I like very much Marion Cotillard, Vanessa Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini and of course her amazing mother, Ingrid Bergman.
Who is the one actor/actress you would love the most to work with and why?
Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill Murray, Colin Firth, Tony Leung, are among the strongest on my list, but I would be very interested in working with someone like Andrew Garfield, who is a rising talent from England and an extraordinary actor.
Is there something that they all share in common in terms of their practice?
I find that there are many actors who, no matter what role they play, you sense the same performance, but in the list I mentioned, I believe these actors transform and develop into new dimensions with each performance, never letting you feel they are simply used as typecasts.
How long did it take you to finish the movie and in retrospect, would you do it exactly the same way again?
I started writing the script in 2003. We shot the short part of the film, the story of one of the female characters, “Zarin,” in 2005. Finally we finished the script and shot the entire film in the spring of 2007. However, we took until the summer of 2009 to finish the film that was then presented in the Venice Film Festival last year. I think that for my first feature film, this length of preparation and process of questioning the script and the editing was important. In addition to the fact that the novel was extremely difficult to re-adapt into a film, I must say this was an ambitious first film and the length of its production was justified. I had to educate myself on the language of cinema, learn how to handle the many pressures and expectations, and finally put out a film in the world in which I believed. So as painful as the process was, I could not have done it any faster, but for the future, I think two years is more realistic than six years to make a film!!
How do you occupy yourself these days, now that the movie is finished and released?
I’ve just optioned another book to re-adapt into a film, called “The Palace of Dreams” by the Albanian author, Ismail Kadare. This is also a beautiful surrealistic novel. At the same time, I’ve been researching a lot about the amazing Egyptian singer, Umm Kolthum. I would very much love to make her biography. Both projects would be a leap into filmmaking for me, as none of them originate in Iran and could be made in English. Meanwhile, I shot some new photographs so I’m working on developing the series.