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Interview with Mahmoud Kalari
Godfrey Cheshire's Interview with
Mahmoud Kalari

By Godfrey Cheshire,  Film Comment
on September 12, 2018

The following interview was conducted mainly in Farsi and translated by Tania Ahmadi.

When Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation became the first Iranian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film of 2012, it gave the world a look at the work not only of one of Iran’s most acclaimed writer-directors but also of an Iranian cinematographer whose skills have contributed to dozens of important films of Iran’s post-Revolutionary cinema.

Born in 1951, Mahmoud Kalari started in the 1970s studying photography, and later became a renowned news photographer whose images of Ayatollah Khomeini and other figures of Iran’s Revolutionary era appeared in magazines around the world.

After turning to cinematography during the mid-’80s revival of Iranian cinema, he collaborated with many of Iran’s leading auteurs, including Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui, Jafar Panahi, and Farhadi.

He is also known for encouraging and working with younger directors such as Mani Haghighi (Pig) and Shahram Mokri (Fish & Cat, 2013). In addition to acting in a Mehrjui film, he wrote and directed 1997’s The Cloud and the Rising Sun. His cinematography has won numerous awards at festivals around the world.

A Separation

From September 14 to 30, the Museum of Modern Art saluted his work with “The Eye of Iran: Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari,” a 12-film retrospective. The following interview was conducted mainly in Farsi and translated by Tania Ahmadi.

Where in Iran did you grow up, and what was your family like?

I was born in Tehran in a very old house in which my father was also born. I was surrounded by a very traditional and religious family. During my childhood, no one I knew had a camera, so I had never seen any sort of camera or other art medium in my house. We led a very simple life. My father sold tea at the bazaar. We lived in that same house until I was seven years old, and then we moved into another house in Tehran. The good thing about the new house was that there was a great movie theater next to it. It was located on Rey Street and called Cinema Ramsar. This cinema was later demolished. At the age of 15, I got my first photography camera. As I told you earlier, I have no clue how I became interested in photography. Perhaps it was during that very first encounter with the camera, when I went to the photography studio with my uncle. After I got the camera, I spent all my time taking photos. There was no specific subject or theme in the photos I was taking. However, when I later looked through all the photos, I realized that there actually was a theme I had not noticed. People who were alone captured my interest the most. Later, I had my first photo exhibition under the title, “The Story of a Man in Solitude.”


During that period, cinema became more important to me as well. I started to read reviews and articles about cinema. Some film critics, such as Jamsheed Akrami and Parviz Davaie, whom I now know very well, shaped my understanding of cinema. I really liked cinema, but I never thought of becoming a cinematographer. When I was 20 years old, I participated in an experimental cinema institution, where they made 8mm films. I made two 8mm films and, surprisingly, I did not shoot any of them myself. It was Ahmad Amini, a good friend of mine who is now a film director, who shot my films.

How did you begin your career as a photographer?

I started getting into photography when I was 15 or 16 years old. I loved it so much and I printed all the photos myself. There was this small room in our house that I changed into a darkroom where I could print. The process of printing those photos in that light seemed like magic to me. When I was 20 years old, our neighbor Kambiz Derambakhsh introduced me to Kaveh Golestan. At that time, Golestan was the head of the photography section of a newspaper. When he saw my photos, he edited them and selected a few. Then, he explained why those selected photos were more interesting than the rest. Just like that, he introduced me to the meaning of “concept” and “thought” in the art of photography. Two years before the Revolution of 1979, Golestan had a photo exhibition at Tehran’s university. He arranged an exhibition for me right after his own, and there I made my first significant mark on the world of photography. Of course, after that I started to think about my themes and subjects more deeply. I knew that I had to say something with my pictures. I was introduced to the concept of photo-essay and I started to work in that field. The aesthetics of visual creativity became the core of my concerns and later of my works. I started to closely study the portfolio of famous photographers around the world, including the works of Golestan. The subject of revolution played a great role in my career. I took many photos in the midst of the Revolution, and at that time I started to work for a photography agency. As a photojournalist, I worked for Sigma Agency for four years. My photos were published in many magazines around the world.

What led you to transition from a still photographer to a film cinematographer?

I entered into the world of cinematography in 1984. Masoud Jafari-Jozani was well educated in cinema, and he had just travelled from the U.S. to Iran. I had my fourth photo exhibition and he came to see my works. At that time, he was making a short film called Talk to Me [1984] for the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Adolescents. Touraj Mansouri was shooting that film and he asked me to come to the set to take pictures. I did the photography for the film and that was how we got to know each other. When Jozani decided to make Frosty Roads[1985], he invited me to collaborate as a cinematographer. I was a bit hesitant, as I had never shot any films before, but Jozani convinced me that I would be able to shoot the film with a 35-milimeter camera. The shooting took place in the winter and we were shooting in the snow. That was actually one of the most difficult projects I have worked on in my entire life. I also took the camera home for one week and carefully studied everything about it. And so, I started to learn the techniques of cinematography while I was shooting my first film. It was a unique beginning for me, as I did not begin my career in cinematography as an assistant, but as the main cinematographer. The film was screened at the 4th Fajr Film Festival and I won the prize for the best cinematographer. This was how I became a cinematographer. [Laughs] Then well-known directors such as Mehrjui and [Masoud] Kimiai started to call me, inviting me to collaborate on their films. That was a fantastic beginning!

I have seen the film, and it is beautifully shot. Did you have any difficulties while shooting Frosty Roads?

Oh yes. That was a difficult film to shoot. We had to shoot in the snow with limited equipment. You know, when you shoot in the snow it is hard to get all the shots right. The quality of the shots worsened and often became blurry, so you couldn’t even get a good shot of a face. We tried to find something in Tehran to avoid those problems. We were lent some cameras that an American had brought to Iran to film something. Those big cameras had adequate equipment for shooting our scenes in the snow.

The first auteur film director you worked with was Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and you made four films with him. How did you end up working with him? Also, Makhmalbaf did not have a very good reputation within the film industry early in his career. So what was your opinion about his reputation at that time?

Makhmalbaf had two important periods in his early career. In the first period, he made films that were not significant. In the second period, he made The Cyclist [1989] and The Marriage of the Blessed [1989], which became huge hits in Iranian cinema. They had specific visual structures. He was a really interesting director in my opinion. He changed a lot in the time between his first and second phases. He wrote a short novel called Time to Love (or Time of Love) [1990], and he wanted to make it into a film. It was a strange story and somehow it showed that his way of thinking was changing. We made that film in Turkey because it was impossible to shoot in Iran. It was eventually banned in Iran forever. At that time, it was easy to make films in Turkey. The cast was Turkish and the crew was Iranian. We shot the film in 17 days. They never screened that film in Iran. I liked and enjoyed the way he changed both as a person and as a filmmaker over the course of the years, and that was the reason I wanted to work with him. I realized that he was completely aware of what he was doing, and that also helped me in my decision to continue collaborating with him.

Gabbeh [1996] is a beautiful and unusual film that you had to go to the remote central highlands of Iran to shoot. It was supposed to be a film about nomadic people who were making gabbehs (primitive carpets), but then it ended up being something else. Please tell me about the shooting of that film.

Let me tell you the story. Yes, Gabbeh was supposed to be a documentary. When we went to the Cannes Film Festival with Salaam Cinema [1995] and Time to Love, we had just finished shooting Gabbeh. We just needed to edit the film. When we presented those two films at Cannes, Makhmalbaf realized that, although he wanted to send Gabbeh to Cannes the following year, he could not do so, because Cannes did not accept documentaries. Therefore, he decided to change that documentary into a fiction film. On our way back to Iran, on the airplane, he started to craft the story on a napkin. In Tehran, he told us that he had come up with the story and that he could change the documentary into a fiction film.

It was like a journey. Makhmalbaf had just met a man named Abbas Sayahi, who then became the lead actor of the film. His main occupation was coloring carpet threads using plant dyes. He extracted colors from plants and, with those organic colors, he colored the threads used to make carpets. Gabbeh’s main plot was based on how he carried out this process of coloring the threads. Thus, the main themes of the film were plants, colors, threads, and, of course, carpets. For me, color was the most important. We only had two cars, limited equipment, and a very small crew. Today, if we want to make a film in which color plays a dominant role, we can easily achieve our vision in the post-production process. We can easily add color to any film using digital technology. But at that time we did not have that technology, so I had to color the negatives by hand myself. For instance, for long shots, or landscape shots, I added green gel color, and for the sky I added blue gel color to enhance the shot. I colored all of them in front of the camera lens. In cinema’s early days, they used to do the tinting on glass shots. I did the exact same thing, but with filters. It took us near forty days to finish filming.

Let me tell you another story about the people on set. We were shooting a scene in the film near a small lake. At one point, we saw the moon’s reflection in the lake and we really liked the effect it gave. We were not ready to shoot, so we decided to go back a month later to capture that moment again. We needed our camera to be positioned higher than ground level, so we managed to make it three meters high, and with a ladder and tripod it went even higher. Eventually the camera was five meters above the ground. I arranged the frame, and we were just waiting for the moon to reach the perfect point in the sky. There was also a pregnant woman who was supposed to pass by in the shot. I was busy managing the light with my light meter. Makhmalbaf announced that we could shoot, and then we heard him say, “Sound, camera, go.” Suddenly, a man came onto the scene completely out of the blue, holding the pregnant woman’s hands and dragging her forcefully off the scene. We were shocked. Mohsen was shouting, “Stop him! Stop him!” but there was no one down there to stop him. Mohsen jumped off the ladder behind the five-meter high camera and ran after him. I was sure he had broken his leg, but he did not even realized how badly he jumped. I was shouting that I had captured the moment and that there was no need to run after the man, but Makhmalbaf paid me no attention. Later, we found out that the man was the woman’s husband and that he did not want her to be in our film. Makhmalbaf then became very sad. He wanted to go to their house to apologize. He asked us what the point of filmmaking was when we had just made someone upset. We all thought he was overthinking it, but he did not let it go. He was crying, begging us to take him to the man’s house. I was thinking how strange Mohsen was. He had jumped from that great height to stop the man and now he wanted to see him to say how regretful he was. You know, he had very unique characteristics. [Laughs]

Before you shot Gabbeh, you and Makhmalbaf set out to make another drama. But first came Salaam Cinema, a totally impromptu film that resulted when he published an ad for a casting and thousands of people came. Did that really happen?


Were you surprised as well?

Very much so. At that time, we did not really know what to do. We just looked at each other in amazement. Makhmalbaf could not believe it. Four to five thousand people came for the audition that morning, at around 8:30 a.m.

The Fish Fall in Love

Can you tell me how that casting evolved into a feature?

It was one of the most unique experiences of my entire life, and I have had many throughout my career. We intended to make the film that we made afterwards, A Moment of Innocence [1996], but before shooting it, we decided to call for an audition for the first scene of the film, meaning that we would use that audition as the first scene of the film. So we really did not intend to make Salaam Cinema. When we saw the huge crowed at the audition, we were very surprised, and then we started to film the crowd. It was such a chaotic situation and we tried so hard to organize it well, but some people attacked the door in order to get inside and they actually broke it. This event is also in the film. We did not expect such a thing. Another issue was time. We really did not want to spend that much time on the audition, but that very day we could not do anything else but test those who had come out to audition. Later, Makhmalbaf decided to spend a few more days on the audition and to film the attendees, because no one would leave unless they auditioned. After a few days, Makhmalbaf thought that this footage could become its own documentary. We actually had to rent another camera because we wanted to film these people as quickly as possible. At that time we used 400-foot reels, as there was no 1000-foot film in Iran, so we had to change the reel every four minutes. When my assistant changed the reel I went to film with the other camera. On day six, two girls came for the audition. They were both very good, so they had to compete against one another. Then, something came to Makhmalbaf’s mind. He decided that one of the girls would test the other. So he brought one of the girls behind the camera and let the audition continue. He then realized how differently people behaved when their positions changed. At that time, Makhmalbaf asserted that we had our story and that this audition could be used in the film!

Eventually I realized that Makhmalbaf had bothered and assaulted people on-set. It was hard for me to witness this behavior, so I took several breaks to go out and smoke. Mohsen noticed this and came after me. Outside, he told me how unhappy he was and how stressed out he was about his own behavior toward people, but he said it was all for the sake of the film. Makhmalbaf wanted to expose the harsh and unpleasant nature of cinema. He wanted to show how far people would go when they were exceedingly fond of something. In many cases, despite the fact that people were humiliated, they embraced his contempt. Mohsen softened my uneasiness with his words. This is how Salaam Cinema came into being. It was a film that was made during the audition process and its details were added piece by piece. Its ideas came to us while we were shooting the film.

So how long did it take to shoot the entire film?

Seven to eight days!

You talked about the power relationship, and it seems that this is what the film is about, with Makhmalbaf playing the film director as tyrant. Did he actually say, “I am not being myself, I am playing a character”?

Yes, as I have said, that was all a show for our film. He is such a sensitive person. And when I became upset about his behavior, he came to me and explained everything, that he was just acting. Let me tell you something interesting. Once a girl who was wearing chador came to the audition. Makhmalbaf asked what she would do if she was offered the role of a girl who was not supposed to wear chador. She panicked. She hesitated because she was married to a man who happened to be religious, and he liked that she was wearing a chador. So she said, “I do not know.” Then Mohsen told her that she was not obliged to answer straightaway, and she was given some time to think. Mohsen moved on to the others at the audition, but I did not move the camera. I recorded the girl while she was thinking. It was such a precious moment. I could not make myself cut, and I followed her with my camera. Then she came back to the set. Makhmalbaf asked her if she was ready to answer and she said, “If my husband does not let me play the role, I will leave him.” Mohsen was so shocked. So he came to me, asking if I had heard her response, and I told him that I had recorded everything from the beginning. He was very happy and excited about it. He could not believe it. [Laughs] There I relied on my background in photography. The relationship between my feelings and the object, the sensation I felt when something was going to happen in that shot. When I was following her, I was thinking about the concept of photo-essay.

In Gabbeh, color is the main character. In Moment of Innocence, light is a main character. How did you and Mohsen come up with this idea?

In Gabbeh, Mohsen was working with Abbas Sayahi very closely. Sayahi’s profession was making colors for carpets. Mohsen wanted to make a film based on colors. Thus, time was very important for us. That is, we had to think about when to film those colors in order to capture the essence of real colors, like those in the sunset and sunrise. For Moment of Innocence, the atmosphere and architecture of the set was important to him. Because of this he tried very hard to find a place like the bazaar that you see in the film. That bazaar was not in Tehran. It was in Naeen, a very small town near Isfahan. It was an old bazaar that they kept open for tourists, so the bazaar at that time had no shops or any other businesses. The architecture of that bazaar was very important to Makhmalbaf. So the difference between these two films is that one of them was based on color and light, whereas the other was based on architecture. After the Revolution, no one touched the architecture of that bazaar. Some parts of it, such as the main doors, were renovated, but the bazaar was and still is very beautiful and popular with tourists. When we were shooting the film, all the stores were closed. There was a sense of silence and peace that Makhmalbaf loved so much, because his intention was to only showcase characters. He wanted to shoot the film in a quiet place so that the center of attention would remain on these three characters only: the woman and two men.

Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow [1969] launched the Iranian New Wave of the 1970s, then he returned to prominence after the Revolution. You worked on three films with him, all significant because of their actors’ performances. Leila Hatami in Leila [1997], Niki Karimi in Sara [1993], and Golshifteh Farahani in The Pear Tree [1998] all began their acting careers with Mehrjui. Can you tell me about working with Mehrjui and actresses, particularly when you worked with a new actress?

For me, Mehrjui was the first director who was familiar with the language of professional cinema, and he himself worked very professionally. Every new idea was always unique. He had all the details in his mind. It was very strange for me to imagine how a director could picture an entire film in his mind, but Mehrjui was like that. Let me tell you a story. We were shooting Sara, the first film that we worked on together. There was a scene in the hospital in which the main actress [Niki Karimi] had to go up the stairs. There was a shot of her foot, followed by a shot of her hand. I wanted to take a shot of her face when she turned around and changed her direction on the stairs. Mehrjui wanted to see only the face and nothing else. So she turned toward the camera and we shot the stairs in a wider shot separately, but the space was very small. It was only one meter. Mehrjui did not like it. Therefore I asked my assistant to change the lens to 50mm. We were so close to the actress that when she came up the stairs, there was only a tiny space between her and the lens, like the smallest space imaginable. [Laughs] We needed a minimum of a 50- to 55cm distance from the actress. The camera and lens, or the objective, did not accept less than that. Because the actress was more than 55cm from us, and her image was neither focused nor sharp. I told Mehrjui that it was impossible, and if he wanted we could change the lens to 35-40mm. I told him that we needed the wider lens in order to capture her image properly. He said that it did not really matter. I told him again that the image of the actress was not in focus and he said, “It is not important, Mahmoud.” He said that we had more frames of that scene and that no one would notice it in the editing process. What mattered was that he wanted to have a shot of the actress’s face on the screen. My assistant was surprised, but at the same time he agreed to do as he was told because we all believed that Mehrjui had everything set in his mind. So we did not change anything and that shot is actually in the film. So at that time, I realized that Mehrjui was someone really exceptional in cinema.

He had a special way of working with actors. I think this was not because of any special method but because of his intelligence. It was not about his directorial skills but rather his comprehension and wisdom in understating the characters and the significance of the actors’ expressions. For instance, in The Cow, the main character was played by Ezzatolah Entezami. All of his subsequent roles were very close to his character in The Cow: the way he talked, the way he expressed emotions, and so on. Later, Mehrjui directed Mr. Haloo. The main character was played by Ali Nassirian, who was a professional theater actor. All of Nassirian’s later roles were influenced by the way he performed his role in Mr. Haloo [or Mr. Gullible, 1970]. He repeated the same method of acting. The same thing applies to Khosrow Shakibai and his unforgettable role in Hamoun [1990]. All the roles Shakibai played after Hamoun were deeply influenced by his role in that film. He carried Hamoun’s traits within himself at all times: the voice, the motions, the expression, and so on. Mehrjui did not do anything magical, but he had an invaluable skill in choosing actors. He chose someone whose own character was nearly eighty percent identical to the character they played. If Shakibai did not have Hamoun’s traits, he definitely would not have been chosen for that role. The same thing applied to Leila Hatami, Niki Karimi, and Golshifteh Farahani, who was then 15 years old.

I also acted in one of his films. [Laughs] I played the role of the doctor in The Lady [1992]. At that time, I knew nothing about acting. One day, while I was shooting something elsewhere, he called me and invited me to play a role. I asked him hesitantly, “Really? Why do you think that I am able to act”? He said that he was sure about it. I did not give him any response and I told him that I was in the midst of shooting something. I was afraid to act, and I also knew that acting in Mehrjui’s film, where everyone would act very well, would be even more challenging. I was trying to find excuses not to go to the set. Then one day, Mr. Entezami called me saying that they were shooting the film for a month and that Mehrjui had simply skipped the parts that I was supposed to act in. Despite the fact that they had a contract with a professional actor to play my role, in the end Mehrjui insisted that he wanted me to play the role of the doctor. Mr. Entezami then convinced me to go to the set and assured Mehrjui that I was not able to play the role. With that purpose, I did actually go. I ended up playing the role of the doctor who was in love with the main actress in his youth and, when her husband abandoned her, was the one to take care of her. We shot most of my parts without rehearsals. I was really stunned that he did not want to have any rehearsals. In the first take, my mind went blank and I literally forgot everything. But in the end, I managed to play my part well and he was very satisfied with my performance.

In Sara and Leila, the visual language is distinctive. There is a fading out and fading in of colors. How did that work? What did Mehrjui think about that?

Yes, Mehrjui thought a lot about those colors and the fading ins and fading outs. He was thinking about the colors red and yellow for those films. He had something particular in mind for the atmosphere of those films. He gave me a book that consisted of pictures, but I do not remember the name of the photographer. He was very much influenced by those pictures. The colors and details of that book stayed with him and affected him very profoundly. What I am trying to say is that he always had something in his mind. Sometimes, it came from a photo, sometimes it came from a book, sometimes from a painting, and so on.

You first worked with Abbas Kiarostami in The Wind Will Carry Us [1999]. How did you get that job?

We knew each other for more than 10 years. We were friends before making films together. I believe we both hesitated to work with each other for whatever reason. I hesitated because I wanted to maintain our friendship, but I do not know his reasons. [Laughs] Working with Kiarostami was difficult. In many cases, you had to completely fall under his spell. We went on lots of journeys together and collaborated on a lot of photography together. For instance, before he made And Life Goes On [or Life, and Nothing More…, 1992]  we went on a trip and took lots of photos. So we had a good relationship. Before making The Wind Will Carry Us, he visited the location of The Pear Tree, which I was shooting. He liked our gaffer, my assistant Behzad Dorani. He told me that he wanted to test Dorani, because he believed he was suitable to play a role in his film. And that was how Behzad Dorani got the main role in The Wind Will Carry Us. Kiarostami did not want Dorani to feel like he was an actor in the film. Hence, he asked me to go to the set, since Dorani used to work with me all the time as a part of my cinematography crew, so in this way, he would think that he was a part of the cinematography group and not an actor. Kiarostami never had many people in his crew. He always believed that the entire crew had to fit in two cars. [Laughs] Sometimes I think it was because of Behzad Dorani that I actually worked on that film as a cinematographer. Abbas was very strange and funny. I read somewhere that he said he found Dorani on the street. [Laughing]

Another funny story was that he was always taking lots of videos and photos of Behzad, and the night before shooting the film he called me, saying that he thought Behzad was not a good fit for the film. I was very shocked, and I told him that he had to calm himself down because we had no time to bring in another actor. But he insisted that he wanted to test two other guys. I went to his place and he told me to call Behzad, because he wanted to take more videos of him. I said no, because it was very late and we had to be on set early the next morning. But I could not dissuade him, so in the end I called Behzad and asked him to come. Two other guys came as well. One of them was actually Parviz Shahbazi, who is now a well-known director. Kiarostami pointed to Shahbazi and told me that he thought Shahbazi was better that Dorani. I asked him if he was sure about that and he said yes. We spent another three hours shooting videos of Shahbazi, Dorani and the other man, whose name I do not remember. After a couple of hours they left. Then we looked over the videos together and he was not sure which one of them to choose. I was worried, because the shoot was at 8 a.m. and by then it was 3 a.m. In the end, he came to the conclusion that Behzad Dorani was the best fit for the role. Sometimes, I think maybe he wanted to work with me, and that was the reason he chose Dorani. The film contained lots of shots of landscapes and I think he liked my work in Gabbeh, which I shot before his film, and that film had lots of landscape scenes.

The Wind Will Carry Us

What was your experience making that film with him in Kurdistan?

It was exactly like making a documentary, because we were working in a school. It was summer and the school was closed. The location was between Kermanshah and Sanandaj. The place that we stayed was far from the shooting location, and every day we drove around two hours to get there. Bahman Ghobadi was our assistant and production manager. He did lots of things for us because he was the only one among us who spoke Kurdish fluently. He prepared almost everything for us. We started early in the morning, let’s say at around 4:00, 4:30 a.m., when it was completely dark. We went to the location and worked eight to nine hours every day, and then we went back to the camp.

Was it Bahman Ghobadi who decided the schedule or was it Kiarostami himself?

It was Kiarostami of course! At the time Bahman Ghobadi could not say anything. [Laughs] Everything was decided by Kiarostami. Ghobadi was only an assistant. Kiarostami never let anyone say anything. He was self-assertive. That is why I am saying that it was very difficult to work with him. He never listened to anyone or to any ideas. Sometimes, he got mad when we suggested other methods or other ways. He constantly asked us to let him do whatever he had in mind. I know that sometimes people stopped working with him because of this very thing. For instance, in the case of Where Is the Friend’s House [or Where Is the Friend’s Home?, 1987], they changed the cinematographer because he and Kiarostami could not work together. That was Kiarostami. No one could intervene in his work. It was very funny, but there were some problems between Ghobadi and Kiarostami, and Kiarostami at some point wanted to fire him. But we convinced him that we really needed Ghobadi to translate for us and without him we could not finish the film. It was difficult to work with him, but it was also really fantastic. He had some uniqueness, and because of that it was worth working with him.

Let me tell you something fantastic. We were all sitting in the car. We always carried our equipment just in case Kiarostami suddenly wanted to film something. We always had to be ready to shoot. On our route, there were of course people wandering around the villages or walking along the side of the road. Once, he saw someone and he stopped the car, and then he asked us if we were ready. He then called out to the person on the road and asked them to come over. It did not really matter if that person was a man or a woman, or even a child. He just wanted to start a simple conversation. He asked random questions and we filmed the whole conversation. But we did not know what the point of those questions was. One of the questions that he asked repeatedly was, “Where is Siyahdareh?” It was the name of a random village that came to his mind. Then he would ask, “Where is Goldareh?” Goldareh was the name of the village where we actually were. Then, the person would say that we were in Goldareh. Surprisingly, Kiarostami asked that person how he knew where Goldareh was, as the name was not mentioned on the map nor was there any sign of its name in the village. He was curious as to how people could find the village. People answered this very wonderful question so differently. Some replied that they knew it by heart, while others replied and pointed out some signs, and so on. But Kiarostami was not satisfied with their answers until one day a man replied thusly: “We never leave the village, so we do not really need to look for it.” Kiarostami did not say cut at that moment. He loved it so much. That was what he wanted. He always wanted to investigate, to explore. This is what I mean about his uniqueness. He came up with those magnificent questions and he was very eager to find the best answer.

Kiarostami was a photographer himself. I was wondering, when you made a film like this, did you choose the camera or did he decide on the camera? How did you make those decisions?

Honestly, those decisions were made by both of us. As I have said, we did photography together. Sometimes we had different visions. But he knew exactly what he wanted. He always chose the perfect location. He knew the lighting and everything else so well. In many cases, we waited three to four hours to get the best lighting for a picture. He had a fantastic vision and a wonderful visual mind. As you know, he was a great painter as well.

Let’s talk about Shirin [2008]. I know it was shot without the actresses knowing what film they were supposed to be watching. They were just looking into the camera. What did Kiarostami tell you about the film?

At first he wanted to put on a film and record the actresses’ reactions to the film. But the evening of the shooting day, he changed his mind and decided to use voice only. At first he was thinking of using the narrative and music of Romeo and Juliet, which he later changed to the well-known Iranian tragic romance Shirin and Farhad [1970]. He wanted to see the actresses’ reactions. He told the performers to imagine the film or anything that would arouse some sort of emotion such as grief, sadness, or melancholy. Each performer reacted differently, and he decided if the reaction went well with the performer’s face. I honestly did not know what he had in mind. He asked some older Iranian actresses, such as Poori Banaei and Iren, who used to be stars and acted in films before the Revolution of 1979, to be in the film. Those actresses were very excited to perform in front of the camera one more time. They had not appeared in front of the camera for more than twenty years. Being on set after so many years and seeing Kiarostami as a director made them exceedingly happy and joyful.

A Separation is a very distinctive-looking film for various reasons. You used a lot of barriers. How did that visual language come about for the film?

Farhadi had experiences working with hand-held cameras in some of his films, such as About Elly [2009] and Fireworks Wednesday [2006]. In Separation, he wanted to do the same thing but with more narrow lenses and compositions formed and created with people. What I mean is that if in About Elly we saw two shots, three shots, or even some long shots that characters moved in those spaces, in Separation we moved along with the characters. We basically followed the characters. Sometimes, we started with an over-the-shoulder shot and then moved on to a two-shot and sometimes a three-shot, and once again we went back to more closed and limited spaces. It was an exceptional experience, especially in filming those shot-reverse shots, which I believed to be exemplary models that could be taught at universities. Those shots were very accurate, perfect, sincere and sensitive, and sometimes it made everyone believe that those shots were taken with two cameras. I even heard from a world-famous cinematographer that he thought we had filmed those shots with two cameras, and I told him that we shot all of those shots with only one camera. All the shots were taken with one hand-held camera, which weighted seven kilos. Farhadi never believed in making a film with two cameras. He always wanted to control each shot very attentively. Even if we were given five cameras, he only used one. Separation was the most accomplished and perfect version of hand-held camera work that I have ever worked on in cinema.

Did you rehearse a lot?

Yes. Too much! Sometimes, we rehearsed a scene more than 12 times.

Did you shoot a lot of takes?

No. We could not shoot many takes because we did not have many negatives. That was the problem in Iran. Normally we were given 100 to 120 rolls and we had to finish with those limited rolls. That was the main reason we had many rehearsals before shooting the film.

How did the actors do in that situation? Was it hard for them?

It was very difficult for the actors. Farhadi started the rehearsals 45 days before shooting the film. That was the main reason why actors came to the first day of shooting well-prepared. Farhadi had a background in theater, so in the rehearsal process he trained actors to work on their emotions. He wanted to work with Marion Cotillard in The Past [2013], but Cotillard was unable to come to rehearsals 40 days before shooting. She could come one week before shooting, and Farhadi did not accept that. He collaborated with Bérénice Bejo instead. Honestly, I do not know any directors who would spend that much time on practicing, and that was his key to success.

What about those things that you were looking through? Those windows? Those barriers?

During the rehearsal process, we tried to find the location. Normally in Iran, we go to people’s houses to shoot, so all the locations are real. We never use sets. That is the reason it was very hard for Farhadi to make The Past in Paris, because all the locations were made for him. French producers told him that it was impossible for Farhadi to search for locations in people’s houses. [Laughing] Back to Separation, after searching lots of houses, we eventually found the apartment. He asked the art director to take out the doors, and so on. He built the doors again. For the old man’s room, he ordered a door with stained glass. He changed all the colors. He decided to make some changes to the walls. He made some spaces in colliders. He changed everything in the apartment completely. He went back to the location late at night, like at 2:00 am, and thought about the shots and pictured them all. He would then call me at that time, consulting me about his new ideas. He did the rehearsals somewhere else with the actors, but every day he would go back to the location to check, change, and practice. He practiced everything himself, found the best way, and then asked people to do it.

So he figured out all the composition on his own?

Yes. Exactly!

By Godfrey Cheshire on September 12, 2018 for Film Comment

Night Train To Lisbon
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