Interview with the Iranian filmmaker Ayat Najafi
"Freedom starts in the mind"

In his two documentary films, Ayat Najafi has focused on women who are fighting for change in Iran. Marian Brehmer talked to him about his projects and the difficulties faced by Iranian filmmakers

How did you become a filmmaker?

Ayat Najafi: I was already an actor at the age of six and later attended theatre school. I started my career with various projects in Tehran's theatre scene.

One example is my play "Sleepy Noon", which was staged in 2001. It was the story of an old man who believed he was developing a nuclear weapon in his garden. The nuclear weapon is a symbol for Tehran, a city that destroys itself and its people. I wrote the play before the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West had become a big issue. The play contained political allusions and criticism aimed at the reformers around the then-president, Mohammad Khatami. Many of us felt they were lying to us.

With such political messages, did you come into conflict with the government?

Najafi: Many of my plays were cancelled, and I never received a penny of government funds. All this fuelled my decision to leave Iran. In 1999, for instance, I was assistant director for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". In the middle of the show, our performance was stopped by the Basij, in front of the whole audience.

This confrontation with the extremists in Iran gave me a different view on our society. There are so many different factions within Iranian society and they don't communicate with each other. During my work at the theatre, I got to travel through rural Iran. I spent wonderful days in the villages and found its people to be religious, but very open-minded and tolerant. There is a lot of simplicity, depth and honesty in these places. I don't like the distinction often made in the West between so-called open-minded cities like Tehran and a backward and closed-minded countryside. The reality is very different. This is when my interest in documentary filmmaking started. 

Your first documentary film "Football Undercover" is about Iran's national women's football team. How did you become interested in this subject?

Najafi: When I first heard about Iran's female football team, I immediately wanted to make a documentary on this topic. First I shot a short film about Banafsheh, a female Iranian football player. She impressed me with her strength and optimism. Later, I had the idea of organising a match between the Iranian women's team and a German football team. With "Football Undercover", I wanted to introduce these strong women to the Iranian audience and show them how much they fight for change.

Since I left Iran, I have become more optimistic. Once you leave the pressure to which artists in Iran are subjected, you get another perspective. At the same time, I wanted to depict Iran beyond the usual media stereotypes. The film was a big success in Europe.

Your new movie "No Land's Song" once again puts women in the spotlight. It shows your sister Sara's struggle to organise a concert with female solo singers in Tehran. Where did this idea come from?

Najafi: The idea to make a documentary on music started with my fascination for the Iranian singer Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri. She was the first woman to sing in public in 1924. Qamar really fought for her career and became famous in all kinds of genres. Her influence on the Iranian music scene was huge, and yet she died in poverty. Inspired by Qamar, Sara and I decided to organise the first concert since the Islamic Revolution for female solo voices and make a film about the entire process. We knew that this wouldn't be easy, but we wanted to challenge a fundamental taboo of the Iranian government.

What kind of difficulties did you encounter while making the film?

Najafi: Sara and I wrote the concept together. It wasn't until we started shooting that Sara turned out to become the main character of the film. She showed a remarkable fighting spirit while taking on the Iranian authorities.

The main question for me was how to narrate the story. What would we do if the concert was cancelled by the government? We invited female singers from France who sang along with the Iranian singers. It not only created a bridge of cultures, but with their help, we were able to stage the concert despite the authorities' plan to cancel it. After all, they didn't want the foreigners to leave with a bad impression of Iran. At the concert, there were long solo parts for female voices, despite the fact that the authorities had warned us before. 

In this sense, the concert was a historic event. How did people in Iran respond?

Najafi: There was huge excitement in the audience. Government officials were also among the concert-goers. But with the French ambassador sitting in the hall and foreigners performing on stage, they could not intervene.

There was no coverage of the concert in the Iranian media. Until "No Land's Song" premiered at the Montreal Film Festival in August 2014, nobody even knew that we made a movie about the concert. I plan to show the movie in German and French cinemas this autumn. For me, "No Land's Song" is an optimistic film, although the situation it deals with is a very difficult one.

Whenever anyone speaks about the freedom of the arts in Iran, Iranian filmmaking is often highlighted. What is your view of the state of Iranian filmmaking at the moment?

Najafi: It feels unfair to me to talk about the situation of Iranian filmmakers when I live abroad. However, I believe in change from within. It is usually ignored in the West that Iran has one of the biggest film industries in the world.

In the year when Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" was released, it had the second highest audience in Iranian cinemas – an arthouse film! Of course, working under censorship is hard, but it is not impossible.

What really bothers me is the way Iranian cinema is often framed in the West. They like to portray things worse than they are. For me, this is also censorship. Iranian cinema today is dynamic and it is not in decline. Even in hard times, Iranian filmmakers made excellent movies. "A Separation", for instance, was produced during the presidency of Ahmadinejad.

Do you believe that filmmakers become more creative in hard times?

Najafi: I don't want to say that censorship makes artists more creative, because in doing that, I would be legitimising censorship. Censorship is a crime. But I also believe that freedom starts in the mind. You can live in Germany and be totally closed-minded and you can live in Iran and be totally open-minded. If you have no problem at all, you become lazy. We can see this in northern and western European filmmaking. But Iranian cinema, just like eastern European cinema, is exploding with creativity.

Interview conducted by Marian Brehmer

© 2015

More on this topic